Is the Church a Hospital, a Museum, or Both?

hospital sign“Church is not a museum for saints, but a hospital for sinners.”  Morton Kelsey

Brennan Manning cites this familiar quotation in The Ragamuffin Gospel, where he expounds on the need for humility in order to receive the amazing grace offered by Jesus. The self-righteous Pharisees and Sadducees thought they were museum ready, but Jesus provided triage to the prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners who knew they weren’t and left the religious leaders to treat themselves.  Kelsey’s assertion holds in this application, but it doesn’t hold true across the board.

Kelsey likens the church to a hospital for sinners, so what exactly is a hospital? It’s a building where most who walk in the revolving doors know there is something wrong.  Whether they‘re headed to radiology, cardiac imaging or the operating room, they come with fears and hopes to those trained to help. Maybe it’s a pounding headache, a swollen leg, heart palpitations, an unexplained lump, a vehicle crash, mood swings, infertility, a broken wrist, a swollen thyroid gland, a piercing abdominal pain or double vision, but all is not as it should be.

The hardship of living in a human body prone to breakdowns and subject to aging is why hospitals exist.  Even my great-grandmother Emma who didn’t darken a hospital door until she broke her hip at age 99 spent a few days there, much to her chagrin. The slick world portrayed in Madison Avenue advertising campaigns likes to pretend the inevitable “outward wasting away” can be prevented, stopped and reversed, but a few hours in a surgical waiting room or the emergency room reveals the falsehood in those promises.

Similarly, what are museums? They are places where the most beautiful collections of humankind’s creativity and God’s creation are on view to enjoy and study. The shattered Greek vases unearthed in an archaeological dig have been glued together and sit in Plexiglas cases. The Renoir masterpiece discovered at a flea market hangs in a climate-controlled gallery. Examples of the fine medieval tapestries hang in darkened rooms to preserve the fabrics and colors.

Museums are places for items restored as best as possible to their original glory. The church can be likened Museum Signto a museum for it is there that the beauty of God’s redemptive work is on view. Not in vases safe behind glass with explanatory labels or static like insects with pins stuck through them, but in the living, breathing people seated beside us. These fellow members of Christ’s body are examples of God’s handiwork.

Kelsey’s point is well-taken.  A saint doesn’t walk into the sanctuary a saint, just as a person with a broken leg won’t wait until she can walk before entering the emergency room. Churches are for the mangled and broken, yet the restoration of God’s masterpieces also occurs. Those with broken legs are given a cast, handed crutches and started down the road to healing.  Within the church are the saints who came to the hospital for help, found healing in a person and their original glory is shining through.

Rather than an either/or situation, I see the church as a hospital with a museum within. All who enter must admit there is something wrong and they need restoration. Then they can begin the process of inner renewal and watch the slow restoration of the masterpiece beneath the grime.


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