Does your congregation exhibit kingdom of God characteristics?
An oft-repeated television commercial captured my attention the other day. I watched people use a ribbon to see how far their money would stretch into retirement. Finally, one lady, surprised by how quickly her funds disappear, says, “I’m gonna have to rethink this thing!”
I wonder how many of us in local congregations think about the state of the church and mutter, “We’re gonna have to rethink this thing.” Thinking “outside the box” when you live “inside the box” is difficult. Standard operating procedures are comfortable. Doing church in patterned ways helps people know what to expect. Asking hard questions and challenging current practices and cultural expectations require serious, time-consuming reflection.
I’m reading a thoughtful book Dirty Word—The Vulgar, Offensive Language of the Kingdom of God by Presbyterian pastor Jim Walker. Throughout the book Walker shows great capacity to rethink this whole church thing. Walker affirms three kingdom of God characteristics: authenticity, intimacy, and tightly-knit relationships. Unfortunately, Walker’s congregational experience reveals churches often display the opposite—superficiality, isolation, and individualism—much like our culture does.
To expand upon his understanding that kingdom of God and church are not the same, Walker provides this insightful chart:
Kingdom of God “Church”
Tightly-knit relationships Individualism
Communion with God Religion
Sharing in community Advancing politics
Heart for the suffering/poor The idol of “big, bigger, biggest”
The Word of God Cultural values of beauty, fame, and wealth
Walker’s list prompts me to ask: Is the “kingdom of God” list accurate for God’s expectations of Christ-followers? Is the “church” list a fair representation of what is happening in congregational life today?
Many are confused about the meaning of the kingdom of God. According to the Gospel writers, “kingdom of God” was the central theme of Jesus’ ministry and teaching, so it is important for us to understand the concept. Literally, the “kingdom of God” means God is king.
N.T. Wright in How God Became King provides additional insight. He says the story of Jesus is told in a way that reveals the tension between God’s kingdom and Caesar’s kingdom. Jesus knew this competition for loyalty would play out in the life and witness of his followers. Wright says, “Caesar’s kingdom will do what Caesar’s kingdom always does, but this time [in Jesus] God’s kingdom will win the decisive victory…Jesus explains that his kingdom is not the sort that grows in this world. His kingdom is certainly for this world, but it isn’t from it. It comes from God…The difference between the kingdoms is striking. Caesar’s kingdom (and all other kingdoms that originate in this world) make their way by fighting. But Jesus’ kingdom—God’s kingdom enacted through Jesus—makes its way with quite a different weapon: telling the truth (see John 18:37-38).” Wright also notes, “All is to be done within the bounds of God’s kingdom. It cannot be otherwise. That kingdom is universal, all-present, and all-powerful.” Earthly power will vie for our loyalty and attention, but the kingdom of God is the ideal toward which Christ-followers strive.
A thorough study of Jesus’ life and ministry reveals Christ embodied the “kingdom of God” list. Jesus was known for the quality and quantity of time he spent with the disciples, his compassion for the needy and oppressed, his challenge of the corrupt religious establishment, and his focus on what is ultimately important in life. In fact, Jesus said, “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33 NRSV). I think Walker’s list accurately reflects Jesus’ expectations.
Is the “church” list an accurate description of current reality in congregations today? My experience as a staff minister and congregational coach confirms many of the words under “Church” ring true. I love the church, am a student of the church and have committed my life to service through the church, but honest, often difficult, reflection reveals expectations for God’s kingdom can be hijacked by what is culturally acceptable. The prophetic demands of God’s kingdom are suppressed or outrightly ignored because they collide with prevailing thought in our politically charged world. Here are quotes I’ve heard:
- “The people at this church are an inch deep and a mile wide—shallow and superficial.”
- “They teach and preach fear and hate at that church instead of love, grace, and trust.”
- “I tried to fit into a Sunday School class at that church but the people were already content in their little groups—no room for me.”
- “All we hear about at this church is commitment and service. What’s in it for me?”
- “We will always have poor people. Let them work if they want to eat.”
- “If I heard your political persuasion is different from mine I would have great difficulty trusting you as my minister.”
- “We must have the biggest steeple and biggest organ in town. Perceptions are important, you know.”
- “At that church good looking people with money are treated differently than those who don’t own a suit or dress.”
These words help us recognize the huge gap between theory (belief) and practice as revealed by the chart. How do we know if our “church” is more congruent with the “kingdom of God” or the “church” list? An illustration may help you evaluate your context.
Many churches overtly welcome everyone. The words are used in promotional materials and often on church signs. One place where “truth in advertising” gets put to the test is Wednesday night suppers. Churches frequently offer free dinner for first-time guests to encourage them to participate. However, when new folks show up, they bump into the “church” list: they are excluded from table fellowship, sometimes they are shunned or ignored, members failed to go out of their way to make a place at their table. Many times only staff ministers extended hospitality to the guests. A safe place for guests failed to deliver because of “fear of the stranger” or “isolation within pre-set groupings of people.”
The gap between the “kingdom of God” and “church” list is real, and as followers of Jesus, we cannot ignore the discrepancy between God’s expectation and congregational practice. This disconnect keeps the church from building authentic community, expressing spiritual vitality, and achieving desired kingdom impact.
As a congregational coach, my objective is not to provide prescriptive answers for your congregation. Your church must take its own journey to discover what it means to be faithful to God’s call. Holy Spirit uses myriad experiences to awaken the consciousness of Christ-followers and congregations. My hope and prayer is Holy Spirit will supply the courage needed to initiate honest conversation and the commitment required to bridge the gap between “kingdom of God” expectations and “church” expectations. How that happens will look different in each congregation.
I end with these reflection questions: What will lead members of your congregation to rethink current practices in light of kingdom expectations? What can you do to awaken consciousness about kingdom priorities—authenticity, intimacy, and tight-knit relationships? Aren’t those the exact qualities of community the “nones” (those who claim no religious affiliation) and “dones” (once dedicated congregants who have given up on church) seek and often fail to find at church? Wrestling with these questions is not easy but can lead to personal and congregational transformation. Don’t you think it is time to rethink this church thing?