Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Kingdom of God: Changing the Way We Share the Gospel

Most of my readers know that for the past three years we have been involved in a grand experiment to plant a church in a secular environment. It's been a very humbling experience. It's also been a great learning experience. The basic conclusion that we've come to is that if Christians hope to make an impact in an increasingly secular Western culture, we're going to have to do a few things differently. And one change that must happen is the recovery of the message of the Kingdom of God.

If you read through the gospels, you can't help but notice that Jesus is constantly talking about the Kingdom of God (synonymous in Matthew with the Kingdom of Heaven). It is the central unifying point in all of Jesus' teachings. Most of his parables begin or end with something like "...and this is how it is in the Kingdom of God." At the end of his time on earth, it is clear that Jesus expected that his disciples would carry on this message of the Kingdom - he specifically commanded them to go out into the world and spread his teachings. Given that, it is strange how little you hear Christians speak about the Kingdom of God. It seems we have lost a key scriptural emphasis. There are some historical reasons for this loss - particularly the blending of Christianity and European civilization into a single socio-religious system that we call Christendom. But that's another post for another time. Right now I'm not so concerned about why this has happened, but what the effects are.

With the loss of the emphasis on the Kingdom of God, there is the obscuring of the meaning of much of Jesus and the apostles' teachings. Without an emphasis on the Kingdom of God we often overlook many key features in the New Testament writings in particular, and the general trajectory of much of the Old Testament. This can lead to a partial, or sometimes complete, loss of meaning to many scriptural texts. But perhaps the most devastating effect of not having a Kingdom emphasis is the loss of a clear call to action. The Kingdom of God encapsulates not only an understanding of who God is and what he is doing in the world, but also a call to action for those who call themselves his children. 

Below I have a six point introduction to the Kingdom of God that I've been sharing with my secular friends. I've given it formally in a talk, but I've also been working it informally into conversations about Christianity, spirituality, social justice, or any other subject to which it pertains. My goal with these six points is to both make clear what I'm about, what my hopes are, and what I'm working for in my life, and also to clear up common misconceptions my secular friends have about Christianity. I'm especially concerned about making the distinction between the church as an institution and the church as those who are committed to following the life and teachings of Jesus and the apostles - there are far too many negative things about "Christian" institutions in the news these days not to make that distinction. 

For those familiar with Christian theology, you'll probably notice a few points (even some important ones) that are missing from my six points. This is because my goal is not to give some sort of abbreviated systematic theology, but rather an outline of my belief system that flows from ideas to actions. If you enrolled in a freshman level class at your local university, you wouldn't be expected to complete PhD level homework, and we shouldn't expect people that have little or no familiarity with our beliefs to take in every aspect immediately. I'm hoping that this is a good start. If you have any thoughts on my points, I'd love to hear them. This is a work in progress that I'm tweaking as I go.

This is a call to action.

1. The Kingdom of God is not an institution, a religion, or a culture.

It’s not Protestant or Catholic, it doesn't belong to any particular church, or for that matter, any particular religion. It is God’s will being done on Earth as it is in heaven, just as we hear Jesus pray in the Lord’s Prayer. Whenever and wherever we see God’s will being done, we see people participating, at least in part, in that coming kingdom. That can happen within institutions, but it is not bound to them, and can certainly happen outside of their confines. The Kingdom of God was the message of Jesus, so we tend to associate it with Christianity, but those two things are not synonymous. Neither Christianity nor Western culture which is associated with it, is synonymous with being a disciple of Jesus. Sometimes people will actually have to go against Christianity or Western culture to stay true to the message of Jesus. This is true whether talking about the Crusades of the medieval era, or the out of control consumerism of our modern culture.

2. The Kingdom of God is a movement. Its purpose is to rescue humanity (from ourselves) and heal all of creation.

It’s aim is to spread peace and justice (e.g. Isaiah 2:2-4, Matt. 5:43-48). It also is a movement of morality. Everybody wants justice and peace these days (or at least they talk like they do), but no one wants morality. No one wants to change their personal behavior, no one wants to be corrected when they've done something wrong, or to be held to higher standards. But without personal morality, there can never be peace and justice in society. A society is simply the character of the individuals that make up that society writ large. You can’t have a healthy society if it’s made up of unhealthy individuals. They’re just two sides of the same coin. When Jesus teaches on peace and justice, in the same breath he teaches on self-control, in areas like sexual desire, or anger, or pride. There’s a recognition in the life and teachings of Jesus that you can’t transform the world if you don’t transform the individual. That transformation must start with the self - myself and yourself.

3. The Kingdom of God starts small, looks insignificant, and often moves and develops in unseen ways.

Jesus once told a parable that said that his kingdom was like a tiny seed that would eventually grow into a great tree. He said his kingdom would spread silently and invisibly the way that a small clump of yeast can work its way through a huge batch of dough. He lived this. Many of Jesus' followers hoped that he would defeat the Roman empire's occupation of Israel, but Jesus never raised an army or sought political power. He did however spread a message and way of life that would eventually chip away at the very foundations of that empire. The changes that the Kingdom of God brings happen one person, one family, and one community at a time. It does not require political, economic, or military power. It is more powerful than all of those things combined. Given time, it will subvert the abuse in such systems and break them the way the roots of a tree will gradually split open even the largest of rocks.

4. The Kingdom of God requires commitment.

The Kingdom of God is about changing the world. And to be a part of that change, even in a small way, requires a steadfast commitment. No one ever accomplished anything worth accomplishing, without committing to it first. You can’t scale Mount Everest on a whim. If you want to accomplish something beyond mere existence, if you want to make an impact in the world, it will only come through the giving of time, and energy, and blood, sweat, and tears. And you will not be up to the challenge unless you first commit to "hanging in there" through the tough times that will surely come. I've been trying to participate in this movement for several years now, and I have to constantly shake off fear, discouragement, weariness, and apathy, and recommit myself again and again to doing the hard work of changing – starting with myself (with God’s help), so that I can help those around me change themselves (with God’s help), so that, together, we can join with God in changing the world.

5. The Kingdom of God is under the leadership of Christ.

A movement can’t survive without a leader. Those that knew him best, came to see Jesus as the most remarkable person to ever walk the earth. But not just that, they saw him as more than a person. In him they found the very wisdom of God breathed into flesh and blood. Jesus is the only one qualified to lead a movement of this magnitude. While he may not walk among us as he did those early disciples, his teachings live on in the scriptures, and his Spirit lives on in those communities of people who have decided to take up his challenge to follow him with their lives. To follow Jesus is to become his disciple. Disciple just means “learner;" Jesus calls us to learn from him what it truly means to be human - to be what God created us to be.

6. Those who want to join the Kingdom of God movement should pledge allegiance to Christ.

The way the earliest followers of Jesus did this was through the ancient ceremony of baptism. In baptism a person would be dunked under water and then pulled back up. The Apostle Paul symbolically compared baptism to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. In a sense, that’s what happens to you when you become a follower of Christ. You commit to dying to your old selfish, self-centered life, and you begin a new life devoted to spreading the Kingdom of God under the leadership of Jesus Christ. When you commit to following Jesus, it means you follow him unto death, even if it leads to persecution from those powers in this world who have a vested interest in the keeping the status quo.

If this sounds like something you want to be a part of then you should seriously consider taking the plunge and accepting the challenge. I can tell you personally, that it was the best decision I ever made.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Kingdom of God

Update, Oct. 25: I haven't forgotten about the blog, we've just been without reliable internet the past few weeks. Hopefully the problem will be corrected in the next couple of days.

I'm sorry I haven't had more time to devote to the blog lately. It's been very busy the past couple of weeks. Hopefully I'll have some time next week to sit down and type up a proper post. On Sunday, I discussed the nature of the Kingdom of God in a six point manifesto. Here's my six points - I plan to write up a post fleshing out these ideas soon:

The Nature of the Kingdom of God

  1. The KOG is not an institution, a religion, or a culture.
  2. The KOG is a movement. Its purpose is to rescue humanity (from ourselves) and heal all of creation.
  3. The KOG starts small, looks insignificant, and often moves and develops in unseen ways.
  4. The KOG requires commitment.
  5. The KOG is under the leadership of Christ.
  6. Those who want to join the KOG movement should pledge allegiance to Christ.