Longing for the unshakable kingdom

crossOn the morning of November 9, 2016 – barring any recounts – roughly half the population of the United States will be disillusioned. Why? After an election where emotions have run higher than any election in recent memory, their candidate for President will have lost.

Let me prescribe a remedy for post-election malaise. Carefully read Hebrews 12:18-29. It’s a reminder to God’s people that nations are temporary. When all the shaking stops, only one thing is unshakable. Only one thing remains, and that is the kingdom of God:

 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our ‘God is a consuming fire’ (vv. 28-29, NIV).

“When you pray,” Jesus advised, avoid “empty words.” Instead, we should pray to our heavenly Father: “Bring in your kingdom” (Matthew 6:10, CEB). When we seek God’s kingdom first, everything else falls into place (Matthew 6:33).

History is littered with nations and empires that were never supposed to end. The Roman Empire – though it continued hundreds of years – eventually crumbled. Hitler’s Third Reich was to have lasted a thousand years. Instead, it collapsed after a mere twelve (1933-1945), a single brush stroke on history’s broad canvas. The United States was born 240 years ago and is showing signs of old age. Yet whether she lasts another 200 years or only another 20, I will not despair. As a follower of Christ, my hope is not in the governmental structures of this world. Rather, my hope is in Christ and in his unshakable kingdom. His is a rock-solid promise that one day post-resurrection we will look back and celebrate that the “kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever” (Revelation 11:15, NIV). When Presidents and the countries they preside have come and gone, we have an eternal King!

Christian, where is your hope? Look beyond the fleeting structures of this world. Instead, let us join hands, working in love and unity for the only kingdom that endures.

From Church to Kingdom: A God-sized mission for the people of God

24 lion lambSome time ago, I sat in a meeting and heard a colleague say: “I’m a company man.”

On one level, I understood the sentiment. He was expressing loyalty to his denomination. Yet at another level, it made me wonder: Is that all there is? Is this all just about expanding the membership of a particular ecclesiastical grouping?

No matter what denomination or congregation we call home, one thing is certain:

We signed on not merely to build an organization, but to build the Kingdom.

“Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10) is the pithiest Scriptural expression of this longing. We see the lifeless corpses of Syrian victims of chemical weapons, and we pray: “Your Kingdom come!” The cries of a child with an empty stomach, suffering from the ravages of drought-induced famine move us to cry: “Your Kingdom come!” A hundred preventable heartaches evoke a spontaneous: “Your Kingdom come!”

The genius of the Christian message is that – properly understood – it never sees a conflict between calling people to reconciliation with God through Christ and calling people to active involvement in bettering our world. Renewal in the “image of God” – to use John Wesley’s term – is a renewal both for the individual and for society. To pursue one and neglect the other is like detaching one wing from a plane. Just like planes need two wings to fly, so does the Christian message.

As we speak about the mission of God in the world, our “plane” must have two wings, both “Church” and “Kingdom.”

Church – Ours is not a solitary faith. The Church is the people of God, the gathered community of belief. We affirm the old truths, that we are born estranged from God, but that in Jesus, we can draw near! Forgiveness of sins and cleansing are possible because of the atoning death of Jesus. We have hope for the next life because of the resurrection. Many tragedies in this world are not because people who are inherently good acted badly. Rather, Scripture teaches that each of us are inherently evil until we allow the grace of God to change us. Church is the arena where together we celebrate the transforming grace of God that makes saints out of unworthy sinners. And yet there is more…

Kingdom – The objective is not Church; the objective is building the Kingdom of God. My own denomination speaks of “making Christlike disciples in the nations.” This is good as far as it goes, yet something is missing. As God transforms our lives through the community of faith, God wants to deploy us for a Cause that goes beyond adding more disciples. The Great Commission of Matthew 28 cannot be divorced from the Kingdom themes that appear again and again in Matthew 1-27, and those Kingdom themes direct the Church to a Cause bigger than itself.

Transformed by God, the Church moves out to transform the world.

There has been a lot written about the growing exodus from churches in North America. As my wife and I have visited in many churches, we have been struck by the self-centeredness of some of the worship choruses, such as this:

“I am a friend of God, I am a friend of God, I am a friend of God, He calls me friend.”

Narcissistic lyrics like these will never fire the human imagination. Yes, a relationship with God through Christ is essential, and it is amazing to know that God has a plan for my life (Jeremiah 29:11). But if that’s all that we have to say, then we have provided no Cause bigger than ourselves. We have only reinforced what the culture is telling us in a thousand ways, that we are the center of the universe, and by the way, there is a God who revolves around you. Someone testified:  “I couldn’t find a parking space, so I prayed, and God gave me one!” Yet what kind of a puny God exists only to serve the whims of even punier creatures?

But what if instead of God existing to serve us, we exist to serve God? What if the purpose of our lives is not us, but something bigger? What if we as the Church are about not only “making Christlike disciples in the nations” but about “making Christlike disciples who will change the world”?

Now that’s the kind of Cause for which people will give their lives. People aren’t responding to other-worldly evangelism plans that sound like a no-risk offer to join “Club Heaven.” They  want to worship in a church absolutely convinced that the same God who can powerfully change individuals can powerfully change  the world. 

Planes need two wings. How many “wings” does our message have? Are we about Church and Kingdom? We need both. Let’s make sure we are promoting a God-sized mission for the people of God.

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Image: Chippep

From “over there” to everywhere

It was a contest I just had to enter. Mrs. Vera McKim, our Upstate New York District missions president, announced the children’s essay topic: “The work of a missionary.” My 11-year-old imagination kicked into gear, as I thought of stories I’d heard about missionary heroes like lifelong missionary to Swaziland Fairy Chism, Scottish surgeon David Hynd, and pioneer missionary to Peru Esther Carson Winans.

At the top of my paper, I carefully wrote: “S.A. on missionaries by Greg Crofford.”

“A missionary,” I began, “is a person God calls to leave the United States and go to the mission field. They are gone for many years, and preach about God. Sometimes they start schools or hospitals. When the church is strong, they say goodbye and go somewhere else to begin all over again.”

That was 1974. Much has changed in the intervening 37 years. The NWMS (Nazarene World Missions Society) is now Nazarene Missions International, but much more than a name change has occurred. Let us consider three shifts in thinking and methodology applied in carrying out Christ’s Great Commission to go and His Great Commandment to love.

The mission field: From “over there” to everywhere

Missionary work by definition is cross-cultural. In Acts 1:8, Jesus called his disciples to begin spreading the news about new life in Christ in Jerusalem, continuing to all Judea, going on to Samaria and to the rest of the world.

As Jews, the disciples first preached to fellow Jews in their own city and country. Next, they went to the Samaritans, distant cousins with some key cultural and historical differences. Finally, the disciples became apostles (“sent ones”), evangelizing cities with peoples radically different from themselves.

Though the Roman Empire had laid a thin veneer of Hellenistic (Greek) culture all around the Mediterranean basin, this masked divergent and enduring local cultures. The Church sent out Paul, Barnabas, Silas, John Mark, Luke and the other Jews to proclaim Christ crucified, risen and coming again in places drastically different than their homeland.

Ralph Winter

The founder of the U.S. Center for World Mission Ralph Winter (Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: a Reader, 3rd edition, p. 341) has labeled these three gradations – from a shared culture between messenger and listener, to a somewhat different setting, to a radically different culture – as E-1, E-2 and E-3. The second and third levels usually involve learning the language of the host culture, and always include learning new customs and norms.

As a denomination born in the United States, the Church of the Nazarene began primarily with E-1 evangelism accomplished through revival services and camp meetings. Yet from the beginning, there was a concern for E-3 efforts.

The Church sent missionaries to far away places like Cape Verde, Papua New Guinea, Swaziland and Peru. The “mission field” in the popular imagination was “over there,” a place far from home where American Nazarenes – and sometimes Canadians and British – went to plant the church and spread the message of holiness.

But as the denomination matured around the world, the vision for cross-cultural ministry captured the imagination of Nazarenes globally. The “mission field” is now to everywhere, from everywhere. Missionary work happens everywhere E-2 and E-3 evangelism transpires. A Congolese pastor teaches theology at a Bible college in Malawi and learns the local language, Chechewa. He is engaging in E-3 cross-cultural ministry regardless of whether he bears the title “missionary.” Indeed, most missionary work on the African continent is carried out not by official Western missionaries but by Africans who cross cultural and linguistic barriers.

In the same way, the diaspora of South Korean Christians means the gospel can penetrate places off-limits to traditional missionaries from North America or Europe. Missionary endeavors are no longer unidirectional but multidirectional. In the words of Thomas Friedman, the “world is flat.”

Continue reading “From “over there” to everywhere”

Does God have all the power?

I like a catchy tune as much as the next person. It’s the lyrics that sometimes bog me down. The chorus to Twila Paris’ “God is in Control” affirms:

God is in control

We believe that His children will not be forsaken.

God is in control

We will choose to remember and never be shaken.

There is no power above or beside Him we know, oh oh oh

God is in control, oh oh oh

God is in control.

There’s much to commend here. Like Daniel in the lion’s den, we believe in a God who is able to rescue the faithful. So the line reminding us that God’s “children will not be forsaken” certainly rings true with the witness of Scripture, at least if we add in the final vindication of the righteous at the resurrection, as the book of Daniel itself does (see 12:1-3). The idea that we should “choose to remember and never be shaken” is likewise on-target. Thankful remembrance of the mighty acts of God is wrapped up with the celebration of Jewish Passover and Holy Week/Easter.

Where I start to question is the next line. It starts well, claiming that there is no power “above” God.  That’s an important affirmation for the Christian. To say that a power greater than God’s exists would de facto mean that this new power is the rightful God and that who we have called “God” until now is merely an imposter. But the Twila Paris lyric continues, veering into dubious territory. It claims that there is no power “beside” God. In other words, God’s is the only power.

Is that true?

Continue reading “Does God have all the power?”

Howard Snyder on the kingdom

A group of theologians was discussing the Gospels. After a long exchange, one lamented: “Jesus promised us the kingdom, and instead all we got was the church!”

Many of us can identify with the frustration of our sister. She looked at the church with its divisions and failings and she desperately longed for something better.

If we ache for the full in-breaking of the kingdom of God in human history, there’s a reason. Jesus was the one who taught us to pray: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10, NIV). The word “kingdom” appears 54 times in Matthew’s gospel alone. By comparison, the word “church” appears a mere three times. For this reason, some have called Matthew the “Gospel of the kingdom.”

For an idea so important to Christian theology, one would think that there would be unanimity about is meaning. If only life were so simple. In Models of the Kingdom: Gospel, Culture, and Mission in Biblical and Historical Perspective (Wipf and Stock, 2001), Howard Snyder investigates eight distinct ways that Christians across the centuries have interpreted the kingdom concept:

1. The kingdom as future hope;

2. The kingdom as inner spiritual experience;

3. The kingdom as mystical communion;

4. The kingdom as institutional church

5. The kingdom as countersystem;

6. The kingdom as political state;

7. The kingdom as Christianized culture;

8. The kingdom as earthly utopia.

The models evaluated

The first option only sees God’s kingdom in terms of Revelation 21, the New Jerusalem descending at God’s command. The kingdom is none of our concern; God will bring it about only as the final curtain descending on the stage of history. The second and third options allow for a present experience of the kingdom but spiritualize it. Jesus said: ” The kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21, KJV). Howard Snyder (p. 41) calls this “Inner Kingdom” of the second option the most individualistic of all eight, whereas the “mystical communion” model at least has the merit of including a communal aspect. While John Wesley had some room in his thinking for other models, it is here where he placed his accent by underscoring the necessity first to save one’s own soul before turning to other tasks, such as helping others work out their own salvation or overturning the kingdom of Satan to set up the kingdom of Christ (Snyder, 62). Continue reading “Howard Snyder on the kingdom”