The smell of the place is what I remember most. That nearly universal odor of old church buildings that simultaneously brings to mind old books and the polish on pews.
Anyone who has spent time in church — and especially old church buildings — knows what I’m talking about. For me, the odor is connected to a network of memories: Miss Ann teaching Bible stories as she played the autoharp. Doodling during the sermon as my legs dangled from the pews. These are good memories. Church memories.
The eyes of a child have the innate capacity to look past brokenness, perhaps because children haven’t yet been exposed to the cynical harshness of sin, their purity calling back the lost world of innocence. Or perhaps they simply don’t know what to see. My eyes certainly missed the problems of that church — which I later found out were legion. As a child, church was a place only of positive associations. Now that I’m an adult, I long for that lost ability to see with purer eyes — to love the church the way I did as a child.
Much modern writing exposes and excoriates the problems of the church. But I want to remind you why she is beautiful, even in her brokenness. Criticism can be darkly enjoyable to write and often darkly delicious to read. But here I offer none. Instead, I offer the sadly less-familiar language of praise for the church. And I pray God gives you a momentary dispensation of grace to silence your inner cynic, critic, and skeptic long enough to join me in praise of the church that Jesus loves so much.
People of the Living God
The author of Hebrews wrote that our Lord endured his cross and all its shame “for the joy that was set before him” (Hebrews 12:2). But joy in what, exactly? Joy in his Father? Joy in obedience? Joy in defeating the works of his enemy? No doubt all of those things. But there is another joy too: the joy of rescuing his broken but still beautiful bride (Revelation 19:7–8).
The church — the seemingly ordinary, weak, and foolish church (1 Corinthians 1:26–28) — is the gathering of God’s elect on the earth (Romans 8:33). And if Jesus so loved her, and in joy died to rescue her, we also should love and honor her.
This gathering houses the very presence of God on earth (1 Corinthians 3:16–17). No longer does he dwell in a temple complex administrated by layers of priests and Levites. Now we — the people of God, the bride of Christ — are individually and corporately the temple of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19), a truth profoundly better than we can yet imagine.
Living redeemed, Spirit-infused lives, together we stand as a new humanity (2 Corinthians 5:17). We are a holy priesthood and a newly formed body politic (1 Peter 2:9) who act as God’s ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20), chosen for a missionary exile (1 Peter 1:1) in a world that is under renovation until the Bridegroom comes to claim his bride (Revelation 19:6–9).
What’s more, the church has a purpose beyond housing God’s presence and participating in the life of the Spirit. We have a mission to bring his name to our neighborhoods and the nations (Acts 1:8). These fellowships of Christ-followers surprisingly reveal God’s wisdom to powerful spiritual authorities (Ephesians 3:10) and become Christ’s means of destroying the works of the devil (1 John 3:8). They humbly wash the feet of the weary and faithfully witness to the hope of the gospel (1 Peter 3:15) in a world that sets its hopes in counterfeit gods, like wealth and entertainment.
For some members of Christ’s bride, the church’s mission will cost them their lives (Revelation 6:9–11). For others, it will mean a long life of faithfulness (Revelation 2:10). For all, it will mean presenting our bodies as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1) — seeking to grow more alive to God and more dead to self and sin each day. What kind of God would be so good to give us not only the forgiveness of sin and new life, but a new family, a new purpose, and a whole new identity? The kind of God who gave birth to the church.
Just as Mary pushed the baby Jesus into the world, the church midwifes spiritual sons and daughters into a new world, the kingdom of God, which is already here (Luke 17:21) and yet still to come (Ephesians 1:21). In this overlapping time of old and new ages, the church, and the church alone, stands between these two worlds with the message of gospel hope, the mystery into which even the “angels long to look” (1 Peter 1:12).
This faithful witness to the good news ends up building hospitals and schools, dismantling the scourge of structural racism, encouraging the adoption of orphans, sending missionaries overseas, standing up for the powerless, and, of course, starting new local expressions of the universal bride of Christ. Birthing praise from pain, the Father is using the imperfect and broken stones of his saints (1 Peter 2:5) to build a beautiful edifice upon the perfect cornerstone of his Son (Ephesians 2:19–22). It is an unspeakably gracious and glorious work God is doing.
No Greater Privilege
I’m older now. No matter how I might wish it, my childlike eyes aren’t coming back. And neither are yours. I see the people more clearly now. My inside view as a pastor to all their complexities, problems, failures, struggles, and tragedies has sobered me. The church is not old books, polished pews, and autoharps. It’s people, in all their weakness and frailties.
But if it’s true that God’s power is perfected in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9), what power we can see among his people! He has chosen me — chosen us (Colossians 3:12) — to be and become the beautiful bride that moved his Son for joy to endure the cross. If there is a greater privilege, I don’t know it. And this privilege means we can move beyond the smells and sounds of glossy memory to the hope and wholeness of our blood-bought destiny.
We are the church. We get to be the church. And the glory of our collective story is sufficient to cause us to love Jesus’s bride, however broken she may yet be. Because, by God’s grace, he is making her beautiful.