As I write this, CEO (Chief Encouragement Officer) Elisha Cho is in South Korea working with the publisher to make the first 500 copies a reality. Soon we hope to have it converted to e-book and available for most common formats. We’re excited for what big things God may do through this little book!
They made quite an impression when they walked into church that Sunday morning. The patriarch of this motley family had untamed hair barely held hostage behind his head by a rubber band, a beard like an Old Testament prophet, his pant legs rolled up above his bare ankles and feet and his tie-dyed t-shirt exploded in color. He was followed by his wife, two sons and two daughters, all with hair rarely acquainted with brush or comb. The entire family was barefoot, the boys in patched pants and the girls in faded sundresses.
Had they walked into a church in their native upstate New York, they would have turned heads, but this was Appalachian Tennessee in 1979, where one dressed in his or her finest to attend church, even if that meant a dress shirt under overalls never worn for work. To be barefoot and unbathed was scandalous.
They arrived at this small country church located at the end of two tire tracks between hickory woods and farmland, not by accident, but by invitation. The pastor of this century-old clapboard church had a 1960 Volkswagen Beetle, and the only person in that part of the country who knew anything about VW’s happened to be a “hippie” from New York state. A relationship began over engine repairs and grew to a friendship between the pastor’s family–themselves transplants from Oregon–and this family of “misfits.” As a result of this friendship, the above scene of turned heads and raised eyebrows was made possible. And the church was better for it.
Even though I was only six when they came into my life, I have many fond memories of playing with the three older kids and staying at their house. They taught me volumes about hospitality and kindness. They taught me that no matter how poor you are, you are wealthy in the eyes of someone else. My brother and I attended school with the older kids and they became our best friends. Through their connection to the church and the acceptance that eventually blossomed there, they came to know Jesus. None of this would have happened if my dad had not been willing to make his congregation uncomfortable by inviting his VW mechanic and his family to church.
I would like to think that my childhood friends wouldn’t turn heads if they showed up in one of our churches today looking like they did in 1979. I like to think they would be instantly embraced and folded into the fellowship, but I don’t think that would be the case. Smudged faces, dirty nails, and the smell of patchouli and sweat would make many of our folks uncomfortable. The temptation would be to lead with judgment instead of love, to build walls instead of bridges. My prayer is that we will get comfortable with the uncomfortable so that no one feels like they don’t belong.
Following Jesus is no joke. There’s a reason He tells those who would follow after Him to count the cost. Because there is a cost. (If discipleship costs you nothing, you’re not doing it right). Recently, I’ve hit a wall. Between the church I pastor and the homeless shelter I manage, I have two 24/7 jobs. Somewhere in there my wife expects to have a husband that is more than a charred cinder. This isn’t the life Jesus has called me to, but it’s the season He has me going through. And I’m tired—wicked tired, as we say in New England.
Sometimes we have to be brought to the end of our ropes to realize our great need for God’s sustaining strength and grace. Every day as my feet hit the cool morning floor and my eyes crack open, the emptiness of my tank reminds me that I need Him desperately. There’s no other way to survive the day. And this is true even when the demands of life and ministry aren’t kicking me in the teeth.
On our last trip to Ireland, I picked up a tiny replica of a stone hut used by early monks. It sits at the base of my computer reminding me not to forget the monastic elements of my spiritual life in the busyness of the missional. For those of us that do, it can be really hard to just be. The inflow has to power the outflow. We have to be poured into in order to pour into the lives of others. As much as Jesus engaged the multitudes, He was also ducking the crowds to get a little one-on-one time with His heavenly Father. We need to stop feeling guilty about being still before God as if our personal spiritual health is a selfish endeavor. Without the be, there’s little quality do.
As you go about the business of Jesus’ mission, beware the wall. Don’t forget where your strength and stamina come from. Pray for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit to empower you. Finally, take to heart this quote from Martin Luther: It is a good thing to let prayer be the first business in the morning and the last in the evening. Guard yourself against such false and deceitful thoughts that keep whispering, “Wait a while. In an hour or so I will pray. I must first finish this or that.” Thinking such thoughts we get away from prayer into other things that will hold us and involve us till the prayer of the day comes to naught.
An ugly church can meet in a cathedral, a multi-million dollar facility, in a ‘60s era church building resembling an upside-down ark, a storefront, or under a highway overpass. It is not defined by where it meets, nor the size of its building or bank account. They can be found in the grittiest urban core, the remotest Native American village, the wealthiest beach-side community and the most common suburb. It is not defined by its appearance or its location. It is defined by its adherence to the mission and message of Christ. It is defined by closely following the steps of its scandalous Savior. In short, the Church should be found where one would expect to find Jesus if He were walking the earth here and now, and filled with the people for whom His heart broke.
An ugly church is both welcoming to the outsider and outcast, and also present in the margins and fringes. It’s hard for a church to get truly and honestly ugly while keeping a clubhouse mentality. It’s the rare church, in my experience, that would overtly shun the smelliest, dirtiest, hopeless “sinner” that darkens the door, but just as rare are those seeking them out. The ugly church is one that is not only sent but goes. As Christ’s body, it goes into the world, to the dark and desperate places where we would expect to find Jesus. And it does so, not in condescension and pity, but in humility and compassion. An ugly church is full of people who know where they came from and from what they were saved.
As I look at my own congregation, I ask myself, “Would Jesus come to this church? Would He fit in here, or would He–and His unwieldy and reckless love–feel out of place?” What I’m really asking is, “Are we an active part of His church? Do we love others in the neighborhood and community around us in the same unwieldy and reckless way He loves us?”
The more I look around, the more I see Jesus in places the pretty church is too reluctant to go. I see Jesus driving a young man to the free clinic, praying with a heroin addict on a street corner, and kneeling with an immigrant on a sidewalk. Most often these days, I see Him hanging out on the corner across from a boarded up convenience store where the addicted, broke, and broken congregate. Occasionally, His Church shows up to offer a meal or a word of encouragement. Too rarely does it stay to find out about Patty’s sister who overdosed (and Patty’s own losing battle with alcohol), or listen to Raymond’s rambling stories, or how Kyle is dealing with his cystic fibrosis while living on the street. Too few stick around to celebrate Rinaldo’s green card and new job, or Jannatil’s GED diploma. Too few are willing to engage for the long haul, to befriend and live in relationship with them, to not say a single prayer in passing but to prayerfully and purposefully love them on an ongoing basis.
The ugly church doesn’t just engage in “drive by” missions or evangelism. It doesn’t swoop into low-income communities with turkeys on Thanksgiving or backpacks at the beginning of a new school year, only to return to its comfortable cloister elsewhere. It doesn’t just collect food for the hungry, but intentionally breaks bread with them. The ugly church chooses to “live by” those that others would rather “drive by.” My friend, Kurt Gerrold, who is best described as a street pastor, sums up the ethic of the ugly church: “to go where no one wants to go, to be with people no one wants to be with.” It’s especially the “be with” that sets the ugly church apart.
Even though I’ve been talking about poorer communities, “ugliness” and brokenness exist even in well-heeled neighborhoods. There are families going through divorce, disability, and bankruptcy. There are families with teenagers addicted to pills and pornography. There are families struggling through chronic illness or trying to figure out how to parent a child with special needs. When debts and doubts mount, or it becomes unbearable to lie and respond to every “how are you” with “fine, thanks”–is the Church the first place to find solace? Or is it a place to avoid until things get better? Being human is messy business and we’re compelled to keep our messiness to ourselves and avoid that of others. An ugly church, in contrast, wades into the mess with love, humility, and understanding. After all, it’s what Jesus would do.
It all started with a few conversations about struggling churches and struggling communities. One had lost touch and the other had lost hope. Increasingly, it seemed that the only churches that weren’t struggling were the ones not in struggling neighborhoods. Church plants popped up in the more comfortable suburbs and exurbs, targeting the middle and upper-middle classes. Resources funneled into attractive buildings and high-tech programs. Struggling churches and communities continued to struggle. The needle, on that score, didn’t seem to flinch. So, it became a topic of conversation that turned into a point of conviction: the Church needs to change.
First, I think we need to be clear on what the Church is. The Church is the body of Christ, the physical presence of Christ on earth. It’s composed of believers called out of the world, transformed by grace, and thrust back into the world to work and witness for Christ and the Kingdom of God. Even though the Church is often confused with its property and programs, it’s the people of God that makes the Church.
I love the Church. I love the mish-mash diversity of its members, the redemptive promise of broken people being restored and recreated into something new and beautiful. I love that the Church is God’s chosen instrument through which to engage the world, even with her warts and wrinkles. Sometimes I think it’s ridiculous that God would choose to use something as ungainly and awkward as the Church to represent Him and His mission. However, God chooses to use the foolish to shame the wise.
I’ve had the privilege of experiencing varied expressions of the Church from rural Appalachia to urban Portland, Oregon, small town Washington State to metro Boston. My observations, obviously, are my own; I don’t pretend to know every situation in every context. The stories shared here are primarily from personal experience or from first-person accounts. My hope is that through these stories and snapshots, a conversation will be sparked about the disconnect between the Church and those most desperately in need of Christ. And out of those conversations, changes will come.