Posted in discipleship

Discipleship vs. the Kingdom of God: The Detrimental Divorce

“What God has joined together, let no one put asunder.”

This somber warning from the traditional wedding ceremony calls us to respect the permanence of marriage. But the warning could also be applied to two key concepts from Matthew’s Gospel that belong together, namely, discipleship and the Kingdom of God. So when did we divorce them, to the detriment of the Gospel?

Discipleship is Christ’s call for us to follow him. To Simon and Andrew he said, “Come, follow me…and I will send you out to fish for people” (Matthew 4:19, NIV). Disciples make disciples, but is spiritual reproduction our sole end or only a means to a greater end? Is the disciple’s only mission to make more disciples? How does the Kingdom of God fit into the picture?

What we got right

To answer this question, let’s begin by looking at the mission statement of The Church of the Nazarene. It reads:

“Making Christlike Disciples in the Nations.”

Much in our mission statement is spot-on. First, it’s relational rather than transactional. It asks not “Are you saved?” but rather “Are you following Jesus?” Scott, a missionary from another denomination, was church planting in Mozambique. He confided: “I don’t talk about ‘getting saved’ anymore. I talk about being a disciple.” He had learned the hard way that too many thought they had arrived once they’d prayed a “sinner’s prayer.” That approach encouraged them to depend upon a past moment rather than cultivating a living and growing faith in the present. Though he didn’t use the term, Scott realized that the language of discipleship dovetails with God’s work of sanctification.

Secondly, the word “Christlike” evokes holiness, our foundational emphasis. Peter was not content to leave holiness language buried in Leviticus 11:44. Speaking of God’s holiness, Peter reiterates the Old Testament command: “Be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16, NIV). If Jesus is the picture of what God is like, then to be like Jesus is to fulfill the command to be holy.

Finally, our statement lays out the scope of our mission. We are to make Christlike disciples “in the nations.” Perhaps a day will come when we find intelligent life on other planets. At that time, we’ll need to review the scope of our mission, but for now, the Great Commission from Jesus is for Earth (Matthew 28:16-20).

The missing Kingdom

But let us return to Matthew’s Gospel and broaden the perspective. It contains more than the Great Commission with its talk about making disciples. It also includes the Lord’s Prayer, which holds this crucial line:

“Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10, NIV).

Jesus introduces the eight so-called “Kingdom parables” of Matthew 13 with the formula: “The Kingdom of heaven is like…” But Matthew is not alone in using Kingdom language. In Acts, Luke does so as well, ending the book with a portrait of Paul under house arrest in Rome yet still busy with Kingdom work:

“For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!” (Acts 28:30-31, NIV).

In Jesus’ ministry and in Paul’s, there’s a happy marriage between discipleship and the Kingdom of heaven (or Kingdom of God). There is an all-consuming mission for disciples to fulfill that is larger that just enlisting more disciples. Disciples – as we make them – are to be deployed in helping to establish the Kingdom of God on earth. This is the implication in the Sermon on the Mount of images like “salt” and “light” (Matthew 5:13-16).

I’ve been in the Church of the Nazarene since birth. On the rare occasions that we talk about the Kingdom of God, we tend to use it interchangeably with the church. As for “Making Christlike disciples,” for all practical purposes, this has meant adding members by profession of faith to our church membership rolls. At the annual District Assembly, pastors report on how many new members were added. If we have more members to report, then we are fulfilling the mission. But is this sufficient?

During the American Civil War (1861-65), General George McClellan built up an impressive Army, the Army of the Potomac. He excelled at organizing the men, drilling them, and marching them in rank-and-file. What he never seemed to get around to doing very much was fighting. President Lincoln – tired of waiting for the army to attack the enemy – quipped:

“If General McClellan does not want to use the Army, I would like to borrow it for a time, provided I could see how it could be made to do something.”

Like McClellan, our mission statement builds up a fine “army” and even talks about how to enlarge it, but where it is silent is clarifying any objective larger than growing its own numbers. But how might our mission statement read if we took into account the grander purpose for which we make Christlike disciples? What if that purpose was tied to the second great theme in Matthew’s Gospel, that of the Kingdom, in answer to Jesus’ prayer for God’s kingdom to come “on earth, as it is in heaven”? What would it take to join together again disciple-making and Kingdom building?

A better mission statement?

A mission statement should be grand in scope and audacious in aspiration. Thankfully, we already have an excellent start by emphasizing discipleship, but it needs more. With the “army” of disciples in-place, what’s the army to do?

Here’s a change that would re-unite discipleship and the kingdom of God:

“Making Christlike Disciples Who Change the World”

Matthew’s Gospel pictures disciples as agents of change. We are the light that disperses darkness (Matt. 5:16); we are the yeast that works its quiet change throughout the batch of dough (Matt. 13:33). Likewise, we are those who water a mustard seed that grows into a tree, allowing a place for the birds to nest (Matt. 13:31-32). Jesus portrays the Kingdom of God as the direction history is headed, an outcome inaugurated by his coming into the world but carried forward by his disciples, empowered by the Holy Spirit. Make Disciples? Absolutely, but as we make them, let’s head into the battle, the Kingdom work that is our calling. It’s not a call to build the Church so much as it is to use the Spirit-anointed Church to bring in the Kingdom.

Somewhere along the line, the two ideas that Matthew’s Gospel joins together – discipleship and the Kingdom of God – got a divorce, to the detriment of the Gospel. Isn’t it high time for a reconciliation?

Posted in reflections

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.

Posted in ecclesiology & sacraments

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.


Image: Chippep

Posted in missions & evangelism

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”

Posted in reflections

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?”

Posted in book reviews

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”