Over the past year I've gone through some tremendously difficult redefinitions. In the midst of some major life crises, I found myself, among other things, redefining my understanding of and my participation in the church. In the midst of months and months of heart-wracking challenge, one of the bright spots for me last summer was an email conversation in which I had the opportunity to try to clarify much of what I was thinking and learning about a biblical vision of the church's calling, identity, and vocation. In short, the conversation focused on what it means, biblically, to be a Christ-centered community. Below is one lengthy excerpt, slightly edited, from one of my contributions to that life-giving exchange:
As I read scripture, the kingdom of God is a whole-life participation in God's rule over his creation. So in a broken world, those who live under God's rule are like yeast, like salt, and all the other pictures Jesus uses. They are scattered throughout creation as both signs and agents of the kingdom. And the kingdom itself is a matter for all of creation's participation, probably best exemplified in scripture by a) the garden of Eden in Genesis 1-2 and b) the new Jerusalem in Revelation 21-22. The piece that is not laid out in detail in those two accounts but is so critical to the kingdom, and makes up so much of Jesus' kingdom teaching in word and action in the gospels and especially the Sermon on the Mount, is the dynamic of interpersonal relationships that are so kingdom-key. In this broken creation, all of this kingdom talk and action is only possible because of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
If it's about the kingdom, then what is the church's job? To proclaim Jesus and the kingdom, first of all. It's about proclamation, but that proclamation is both word and action. So the church is called to live like salt and light, kingdom participants and agents in the world. And the church is called to speak clearly about "why" -- N.T. Wright has written and spoken about how the church needs to be doing things that make the world ask, "Why?" Then we can answer as Jesus answered, in parables and stories that point toward God's rule in the world.
Sadly, so much of what the church has done doesn't make the world ask "Why?" at all. Working to increase membership? The Kiwanis and every other organization does that. Fundraising? The March of Dimes does that. Helping the poor? All kinds of NGO's and others do that. Condemning sin? The courts do that. Holding up standards of morality and membership? Country clubs do that. Strategy and vision-casting? Every corporation in the world does that. The world doesn't really ask why about any of those things.
Where the church lives out this kingdom the best usually happens like this: A group of people spend time together immersed in the story of Jesus in some way, shape or form. As they focus on Jesus they begin to reshape their relationships to mimic what they see in him, however imperfectly. Then, when tragedy strikes or trials come, they react in a Jesus-way, and it is often surprising. That is when the world sees and asks, "Why?" So the Amish forgiving the man who shot up their school, or a group of believers when my mom died in 1994 taking care of my responsibilities so I could take a month off, and a non-Christian friend asked, "Where do you find friends like that?"
What is harder for the church, I think, is to find proactive ways to work for the kingdom when tragedy and trial are not dominating our lives. There's something very vulture-like in some churches, sitting around in Bible study groups waiting for bad things to happen so they can be loving and good. The church hasn't done a good job of looking around and seeing injustice, seeing brokenness, and really moving to work for that. Occasionally, but not often.
Partly that's because those things are such this-world solutions. It feels like a social gospel, like we're trying to save ourselves. But we need to keep in mind that we are only imperfectly agents of this kingdom and our primary call is to be proclaimers and signposts of the kingdom. So a farm couple I know manage their 40 acres as best they can, trying to make the land better and trying to tend their little cow herd well and trying to be a force for good among their neighbors in that little valley, and doing it all because they have a sense that God has been so generous to them and they need to make the most of it in grateful response.
How does the church come alongside people like them?
Too often it says, "Come to our Bible study. Be in worship every Sunday. Give more money. Teach Sunday School. Go on a mission trip." Those are all good things, but they are church-centric, not necessarily kingdom-centric, though the kingdom may be woven through those activities as well. The danger is that each of those things has the potential to be self-serving. What does a church look like that is modeled on Jesus and his self-giving love, Jesus who Bonhoeffer described as "the man for others"? That I think is the question that drives so many "nones" toward cynicism, and we need to fight that drift. This also gets at what Bonhoeffer talked about, a phrase that echoes in my heart and moves me to want to write books to spur the church on, "religionless Christianity." There's so much of this content packed into that phrase.
So many churches wring their hands about how to come alongside young adults without ever finding a good way to do it. There's a desperate need, of course. Where is a young adult to find community? College friendships are fading or transformed. Stresses of careers and changes of identity are destabilizing. Changing relationships, marriage and parenthood and the morass of the expectations of mature adulthood are intimidating. There's a huge need for community, for conversation, for role models, for wisdom and grace and laughter in the midst of what can feel like such a heavy life at this stage. It's a hard thing to live into adulting at this level when the confusion of being 20-something seems like it should have gone away by now, but people don't have a good sense of their own competence to navigate life at this level. And sometimes life throws a tremendous curve ball at you that threatens to either transform or destroy everything. That need never really goes away -- that need for a community that is the repository of both grace and wisdom.
Second, there has to be something other than the roundabout of repeated studies. Either within the group, or tacitly in the lives of those who participate, there has to be an outward, self-giving focus or it's not really mimicking Jesus, is it? This is where so many "Bible studies" have fallen short over the years. They have a sense of community and solid content, but they don't have a mission beyond themselves, and they don't really see the need for it. They're self-serving. So they deliver great content, but little transformation.
One of the things that young farm couple has talked about in their implicit way is wanting a church that affirms and reinforces the mission they're already living out. This is where so many study groups could do so much good -- helping their participants understand their lives in terms of the kingdom, see the discipleship value of what they're doing for work, or in their neighborhood, or in their parenting or other relationships. These vocational calls are so often undervalued by both society and by the church. Rather than telling them that their stewardship of the land and the cattle and their families and their neighbors is a valuable, kingdom thing that glorifies God and imitates Jesus, the church says, "Go with us to Mexico where you can help with their stewardship and their relationships and build the kingdom" -- because we like to assume the kingdom is already here since we have clean water and good sanitation and floor heat and new cars.