For years I sat a few pews back from Mrs. Maggie every Sunday morning. I would walk into the auditorium, and she’d already be in the front row with a smile on her face and her portable breathing machine next to her. I’d lean over her walker to hug her while she said in her soft, raspy voice, “Hey Pastor.” She would tell me she loved me and that she prayed for me often, and I have no doubt she did.
Mrs. Maggie faced several challenges with her health. But, no matter how much her physical health waned over the years, her spiritual life grew ever more vibrant. When the service began, Mrs. Maggie tuned in, ready to worship. I could see her eyes looking directly toward me when giving the announcements, I heard her heartfelt “amen” as I prayed. When the worship song moved her, even though she was in the front row of an otherwise sitting Baptist congregation, she stood and raised her hands while singing to nobody but the Lord.
Her faith had been purified through many fiery trials. I remember visiting her after finding out her daughter died suddenly and unexpectedly. I approached her with a broken heart and a nervous mind. What could I possibly say to this woman facing her worst-case scenario? How could I minister to this mother whose heart has been ripped out by the loss of a child? Adult daughters typically bury their elderly mothers, not the other way around. Only six years prior, Mrs. Maggie had lost her husband, and now grief piled on more grief. As I hugged her, I heard her soft voice, laced with grief and hope, whisper, “God is good.”
A few years later, Mrs. Maggie finished her race and was able to worship the Lord face-to-face with the same zeal and passion, reunited with her husband and daughter. I miss seeing her each week. Ours was an unlikely friendship that defied generational and racial barriers. Worldly speaking, there would be little reason for our paths to cross and our relationship to grow. But, our paths did cross in the beautiful design of God who binds brothers and sisters into a body of believers that we call the church.
GOD’S PLAN AND DESIGN FOR HIS PEOPLE
Knowing Mrs. Maggie is just one of many examples that highlight the beauty of the church. Thus, it grieves my heart when I hear people say things like: “I love Jesus, but I don’t go to church. I’m just not into man-made, organized religion.”
We too often think of the church as an organizational structure set up merely by man. Sometimes this is even done for more sinister reasons, in ways that benefit the pursuit of power and money. While it’s undoubtedly true that snakes have crept in and used the church for such ill purposes, it is also true these slimy serpents did not design the church.
The church is his plan. It’s a visual display of his glory, a gathering of people created in his image and born again into fellowship with him. The closer one examines the church, the more one can see such beauty beyond any man’s imagination to create. I see it every Sunday morning as I look across the crowd and see the Designer’s creativity on display. Males, females, teenagers, senior adults, type-A personalities, type-B personalities, blue-collar workers, white-collar workers, people who work ahead, procrastinators, white, black, and everywhere in between. Each person has a different personality and their own unique viewpoints, but we all come to this place with a common bond in Christ. Some folks who, outside of the church, would never be friends gather each week to worship the Lord, together.
The church isn’t the outworking of some side-show huckster, it’s a canvas filled with the brilliant brushstrokes of the Master Creator bringing to life a masterpiece. To call the church man-made is like giving a worm credit for the Mona Lisa or saying a fly painted the Sistine Chapel.
In Ephesians 4:11–16, God provides a snapshot of his design for the church and how she should function. God has provided his Word for the church through the foundational ministries of the apostles and prophets. Evangelists, shepherds, and teachers build on this foundation by faithfully proclaiming the Word. As this happens, God equips the saints for the work of the ministry and builds up the body of Christ into maturity. This cannot happen in isolation, as we need other parts of the body for each individual member to grow.
If one refrains from meeting regularly with God’s people, then this process of growth, designed by God, will be stunted. Instead of growing into “mature manhood” they will be like “children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph. 4:14). Or, like the author of Hebrews warns, instead of feasting on solid food, they remain on milk (Heb. 5:12).
Nobody can deny the extreme level of cuteness that occurs when a baby drinks a bottle. They hold the bottle with their tiny fingers, their cheeks bounce with each gulp of milk, and their eyes sometimes dart in your direction with a “I don’t care what you think, I’m eating” kind of attitude. Prior to receiving this dose of delightful dairy, the baby was belting out high-pitched screams with a red face and cheeks covered in tears. Now, they display perfect bliss.
However, it’s not nearly as cute to see twenty-five-year-olds drink from a bottle. Should we see such a thing, instead of goo-gooing in cuteness overload, we instead wonder what has caused such a developmental delay.
Many who call themselves believers are bottle-drinking adults who have robbed themselves the opportunity to mature because they declared God’s design “organized, man-made religion.” They’ve delayed childhood and called it cute. They’ve given the worm credit for the Mona Lisa while calling scribbling and stick figures works of art.
A BEAUTIFUL KINGDOM
God is advancing his kingdom and filling it with his people. God does not paint a drab picture like some amateur artist with limited colors. Instead, he takes people who are different, intertwines their lives, and makes a masterpiece. People with different stories, different struggles, and different views from different parts of this globe. Revelation 5:9–10 sums it up well, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God.”
The local church gathering provides a visual expression of God’s unique kingdom. Mrs. Maggie and I weren’t friends because we looked alike, were the same age, or had experienced similar circumstances. It was our mutal love for the Lord and desire to serve him that drew our hearts together. The same Holy Spirit at work in her life and leading her through the ups and downs of life was also in me. We were siblings in Christ, and one day I’ll see her again.
My heart breaks for those who can’t see the beauty of the local church, or the ones who only focus on her flaws. Look at anyone long enough and you will find problems, especially if that’s your goal. No masterpiece is flawless, even God’s church bears the effects of sin . . . for now. One day he will present her without blemish as a radiant bride (Eph. 5:27).
In the meantime, may God’s people display the beauty of the church. Keep gathering each week and worship with those who are otherwise different. Use your gifts, talents, presence, and love to equip the saints and make disciples. I can tell people the Mona Lisa is a work of art, but perhaps it’s far more effective to show them. May the beauty of the church continue to shine until Christ returns and calls her home!
This article was originally published at Gospel-Centered Discipleship.