God’s Ugly, Ordinary Church

By Joel A. Hess

The American dollar is the ugliest of all currencies. As a kid I was always infatuated with the different paper monies I would come across on my travels and would wonder why ours is so blah. Then I learned how paper money works. It’s just paper! In and of itself, it’s absolutely worthless. Yet despite the American currency’s unattractiveness, it is regularly the strongest of them all. Why? Because it’s so beautiful? Not at all. The flimsy greenish paper is backed by the most powerful government in the world! Its value is based upon the promise of the U.S. government. By itself it’s worthless. Humorously, the more beautiful the currency, the more worthless its value!

The Corinthian church loved fancy currency, powerful and slick sellers of religion, winners not losers. They thought they were something else. Theologians of glory. If you believe, you shall receive anything your heart desires.

In both letters that we have, Paul repeatedly reminded them they weren’t nothing before God found them. In his first letter, he even makes fun of their nouveau riche attitude, saying, “We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored!” ( 1 Corinthians 4:10).

In 2 Corinthians chapter 4, he writes the famous phrase, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” God particularly likes when His church does not look shiny and awesome so that the true treasure, the promises of forgiveness and eternal life in Jesus, can take center stage! That is, after all, the source of our peace, joy, and hope! His promise makes this dull, even ugly, U.S. dollar worth so much.

It’s tempting today to want our local parishes and the global church to look a lot better on the outside. I’m so tired of pastors bemoaning the good ole days when the Church was revered by the culture. Others spend too much time on the perfect worship service, whether it’s a high church performance or a tight praise band with a good looking motivational speaker. Wash those tombs.

Our websites and brochures desperately try to dress our Motley Crue of sinners into a perfect Truman show neighborhood. Don’t look behind the cardboard cutout, pastor.

Yet the power of Christ’s church today is no different than Paul’s time. It will not win converts due to its attractive and expensive sanctuary, pipe organ, or light show. It will not change lives by means of its perfectly executed seven step assimilation programs. The church will thrive in the future. It will make disciples of the most unlikely converts. It will continue to collect the weirdest freaks from the widest range of society just like it always has. Why? Because of the promises of Jesus Christ, preached from the pulpit, shared in the streets, whispered between neighbors. That’s the treasure, and it is seen best in the hands of broken, leaky, fragile, weak jars of clay bought at the Walmart clearance.

If you don’t think so, come with me to the nursing home and listen to one of my frail, dying members recite the Lord’s prayer, listen intently to Jesus telling Mary, “I am the resurrection and the life,” and say “Amen” to Psalm 23. She knows the treasure. She shows me the treasure better than a Billy Graham crusade. The treasure is the words of Jesus.

Those words have been put on me too, a plain ole, ripped, torn, stained piece of paper. But I got value! Jesus made some promises to me too!