[This post is part of a series of reflections on Disbelieving Church. If you have not already done so, please check out the Introduction for a little background and a few disclaimers.]
As a Minister-in-training, I was involved in a church that was having extended talks with another local church about amalgamation, joining up, sharing resources, forming a new church. The conversations seemed endless and unfocused as we, all non-experts, tried to sort through a number of concerns and issues we didn’t fully understand.
As with all such things, we were a mixed band of people, some 100% for the merger, others 100% against, both impatient with the others, and most in the middle not quite committed to anything. Eventually it seemed that the most important thing to settle was a joint vision for going forward.
When the conversations had begun, both congregations had been aging and dwindling, but as they continued one church began to grow under a new ministry. The power imbalance was a stress on amalgamation conversations, and slowly, but surely, those in the smaller church began to feel we were discussing a take-over rather than a merger.
While some passionately objected to the idea on the grounds of individual identity, centred primary around the building (see Disbelieving Church: Buildings), others were more passionate that whatever form of church we created would be active and effective in reaching the lost. The church that was then growing was mostly by membership transfer, and concerns were expressed that such moving around of the local sheep did nothing to build the kingdom or save souls. Even the regular ministries run by the two churches – soup kitchen, mother and toddler group, café, etc. were deemed inadequate as not enough people entered the mainstream congregation through these channels.
Those who believed strongly in these social forms of mission and the call of Jesus to love and to serve were mortified by the assessment of their work as basically useless if they weren’t saving people from hell. I was livid, but afraid to speak out, as I knew my voice would be in the minority and my position and livelihood could potentially be at stake.
These were genuine concerns – for those who believe the message of Jesus is solely about being saved from the fires of hell, it is logical to conclude that any function of the church community must be aimed at this goal – and they are found in many corners of the Christian church. They often expressed using the language of “evangelism” or “mission” or “kingdom building.” While I acknowledge that, for some, this is a logical and largely unselfish out-working of their understanding of Christian faith, I believe it cloaks something far more sinister. The language of evangelism and mission and particularly “kingdom building” makes me cringe.
While Jesus talked about the “kingdom of God” and the “kingdom of heaven,” he didn’t talk about kingdom building. He spoke of seeking the kingdom, sacrificing for the kingdom, perhaps even growing the kingdom, but not building the kingdom. The kingdom of God is within. The kingdom of God is hard to enter. The kingdom of God is costly. The kingdom of God is not of this world.
It is with increasing discomfort that I have become aware of the use of the language of “kingdom building”in the contemporary church, focusing on numerical and financial success as markers of God’s favour. The kingdom that Jesus talked about was most often hidden, costly and unpredictable, yet Kingdom Building in our time seems to be about gaining a louder voice and a larger influence for the institution of church – power, prestige, respect, money and numbers.
Too often, kingdom building is about “my” church, “my” building, “my” fellow believers, and notching up saved souls for the same. Thus, people give passionate speeches in church meetings about how we should be “out there” saving people from hell. We seek power, prestige, respect, money and numbers for the Kingdom, not for ourselves, because these are the things we appear to believe God’s kingdom needs in order to survive. Without them the church will die! So we must build the kingdom, get out there, be heard, influence people, save souls, etc. We must find a way to force our society to be more holy. We must protest the misrepresentation of our faith in the media. We must grow our churches so that we can save the world!
Even if there is a need to save people from hell, it is Jesus who saves them, not any kingdom, not any building, not any church, not any human being. Yes, Jesus may use you or me to reach people, but God is not dependant upon humanity to act or impotent if we do not.
But there is an even greater concern here for me. If we are followers of Jesus, if we seek first his kingdom, if we desire to grow in his garden and bear his fruit, surely our central longing must be to be like Jesus, and it seems to me, that imitation of Jesus would cause God’s people eschew power, ignore prestige, demand no respect, give away their money, and never bother to count who’s in or who’s out.
This is, after all, the Jesus who said that the one who wants to save his or her life will lose it, but the one who gives up life for his sake will find it again. What if, instead of “Kingdom Building” the truly faithful thing do to is destroy our little imitation kingdoms – give up all we have and seek the truth of the kingdom of heaven within us, hidden in a field, rising in the dough, or growing in our own gardens?