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DISCIPLESHIP SERIES: The Kingdom is Revealed through We not Me

February 5, 2011
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Last week, an insightful reader shared some relevant and sobering insight into the state of our culture and the church here in America. She wrote:

I have never been more discouraged with both the church and with the state of man. I am overwhelmed with a sense of hopelessness and the feeling that the tidal wave of cultural deception is ready to break over the landscape in a way that we have never seen before. Then I go to church and see how inept the body of Christ has become and leave feeling alone and hopeless about the state of God's Kingdom on earth.

There is no question that such is the state of things. Even the most cursory examination of our culture reveals the fact that critical milestones on the road to every civilization’s decline have come and gone. Our civilization appears to be racing toward self-destruction and the church—in almost every measurable category—appears indistinguishable and either ill-equipped or indifferent to arresting the demise of the very civilization it helped create. Whether or not this will be the case, only God knows.

What I am prepared to suggest is that a century or more of Christians being conditioned and committed to nothing more than proclaiming a truncated gospel, rather than making disciples joined in the body of Christ and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, has accommodated this decline at best and at worst contributed to it. In other words, the reductionist gospel produced private decisions for Jesus but failed to fulfill the Great Commission, build up the church, render the invisible kingdom visible, or fully convey the message of Christ to a lost and broken world. It is an overarching reason for the despairing sentiment expressed above. As such, it is also a key to changing these conditions.  

So, how do we express the gospel of the kingdom beyond its modern reductionist version? You know, the detached consumer-oriented, drive-by evangelism that often relies on tracts and rote presentations—often between strangers. First and foremost, Christians must demonstrate what life looks like under the reign of God within a distinct community: the church. Because as one writer puts it, “Before the church is called to do or say anything, it is called and sent to be a unique community of those who live under the reign of God” (Darrell L. Guder, Ed., Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America, [Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI, 1998]). In a radically individualistic America, this may be the church’s greatest obstacle to carrying out the missio Dei.

Jesus’ invitation is to “enter the kingdom of God.” Practically, this means that we are saved out of our isolation and alienation and into the community of God’s people. As C. S. Lewis points out in his classic work Mere Christianity, when Christians are “united together in a body, loving one another, helping one another…” their life together becomes “the one really adequate instrument for learning about God….” The apostle Paul stresses that the Gentiles who were once alienated from “the commonwealth of Israel” have been brought near “by the blood of Christ” that “he might create in himself one new man [or humanity] in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross” (Eph. 2:12–16 ESV). There is a profoundly corporate sense to God’s redemptive plan that carries forward from national Israel to form a new covenant people (the church) out of both the Jew and Gentile into the new Israel.

In Ephesians 5:30 Paul writes we are “members of His body.” However, in our individualized culture, we hear Paul’s teaching about our being members of Christ in precisely the wrong way. For us a member is a person who merely belongs to something like a club or group.  The member in this sense is an individual who voluntarily joins the organization. Therefore, we naturally assume that we posses the rights to our memberships, including the church. Rather than assuming the biblical idea that we exist for the church and the church exists for Christ, we tend to believe that the church exists for us. The American idea of the church, which is reinforced by the privatized “gospel,” is more about serving the individual attendee rather than the  kingdom of God. This might explain why we are nation of church-shoppers and -hoppers! In contrast, Paul uses member in an organic sense. We are members of Christ in the same way that the eye, ear, hand, and foot are members of the body.

At the conclusion of Ephesians chapter two Paul writes, “Built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:20–22 ESV, emphasis mine). Again, the emphasis is on the corporate nature of God’s redemptive plan. We together are the temple of the Holy Spirit, not “I’m a temple” and “you’re a temple” and so on. The Christian life to which we are called is far more centered on being we than me.

Also, this community is not merely the social gathering of a people with common values—but rather a people who display proof of God’s redemptive work in the world. In other words, we are intended to bear witness to Christ’s kingdom come into the world. And this proof or witness flows forth from converted individuals whose transformation is formed and authenticated through their interactions with each other. This community, the church, is intended to bear testimony to the restoration of fellowship with God and each other—a community of self-sacrificing love and support that stands in contrast to the fallen world.

Jesus himself established this one principle as the authenticating fact of our faith when he said “By this all people will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35, emphasis mine). In Jesus’ priestly prayer in John 17, he reiterates that our relational unity serves as the essential evidence that God the Father has sent the Son. This relational unity was the preeminent witness of the early church in which “they had all things in common.” Their love for one another is what drew would-be disciples into their community and established the authority of their proclamation: that Jesus Christ is both Lord and Savior.

The lament expressed by the reader above over both the church and culture is not without warrant and it is reminiscent of the prophets. Like the Israelites in Babylon, the church in America today—the Israel of God—finds itself carried away into captivity: cultural captivity. This is the bad news. However, the good news lies in the possibility that the church, in our generation, will by God’s grace recover the full scope of its message and mission as revealed in the gospel of the kingdom. The first step will no doubt involve repentance of our individualism that separates us into voluntary members, followed by submission to Christ, the church, and each other.

© 2011 by S. Michael Craven

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Response from : Bob Geiger  

February 7, 2011 11:01 AM

Michael, once again you've hit the nail on the head. Rather than helping Christ cast "fire on the earth" our churches are casting mostly dead wood.
Of course, dead wood is exactly what is needed to build a fire!
Lining our lives up to match the truth of Christ is the key - another way of saying "conversion". Keep up the good work Michael!
Your Catholic admirer, Bob Geiger

Response from : Flo Wheeler  

February 7, 2011 12:50 PM

Right on! As my heart was resonating to your message on the importance of discipleship and Kingdom Living, I realized that that idea has been the core message of Koinonia and its sister Cursillo movements for over 50 years. How wonderful to hear it from other sources now! I do believe that the time has come for wide understanding of this and that the Lord is moving to implement it in spite of our stubborn individualism!

Response from : Matt Edwards  

February 7, 2011 1:37 PM

Once again, awesome stuff, Michael. I agree that the church and its impact for Christ in America has waned significantly in the last 50 years, and I agree with you, Michael, about the reasons for its decline. We are not living our lives like Jesus lived His life on earth. However I don't think that we need to have a fatalistic perspective on the impact that Christ's Kingdom is having worldwide. The church is growing by leaps and bounds in China (some estimates suggest that there are 50-80 million Chinese Christians now), Korea (where more than 70% of the population considers themselves Christians), South America, Africa, and others. Jesus told a parable in Matthew 13:24-29 about the wheat and the tares (or weeds). In that parable, the influence of evil (the tares) grows more and more. But the impact of Christ's Kingdom (the wheat) grows right along side of it. Rather than a sinking ship mentality (as you mentioned was the perspective of D.L. Moody), we need to see this, as you also point out, as a fixable world. There are places where the Holy Spirit is blazing through the land. And there are place like America where His impact seems to be dying out like embers at the end of a fire. Our job is to stoke those embers and get the blaze started again. I'm grateful that leaders such as yourself are standing up for the true and whole gospel, and I am hopeful that the true impact of Christ and His Kingdom will burn anew in our nation. God bless you, my brother!

Response from : Beth Tuttle  

February 7, 2011 10:00 PM

One more reason for me to thank God that He placed me in a church where we are a family celebrating our corporate-ness, our interdependence, our "membership". There is hope in the New Testament description of the local church. Small and engaged in the Great Commission of equipping the saints for the ministry that is preaching the Gospel in thought, word and deed - 24/7/365. Answerable to each other, teaching, training, uplifting, supporting, comforting, convicting and rejoicing together. Always studying the Word in an open transparent environment, forgiving one another and bearing each other's burdens. Thankful for ALL things, in ALL circumstances. God is AWESOME! His will be done and IS BEING done. No spirit of despair can dampen my enthusiasm and certainty GOD IS IN CONTROL! His will WILL be done, IS being done, IS DONE!! AMEN.

Response from : S. Michael Craven  

February 7, 2011 11:13 PM

Let me be clear. Nowhere in my article do I descend into pessimism about the future of the church or the kingdom. Despite the prevailing weakness within the American church, this condition has manifested throughout history and God has always proven faithful to chasten and renew his church to accomplish his redemptive purposes.

Response from : Diane Wilhelm  

February 8, 2011 5:42 AM

I totally agree with this article. I am not the woman who wrote the words cited, but I could have been.

We have so many who "become Christians" never to return to church or any form of growth toward becoming like Christ. The churches need to be much more responsive and responsible toward growing Christians to be more like Christ.

Response from : Russell Thompson  

February 12, 2011 3:10 PM

There seem to be two distinctions made in this article that appear to exclude important aspects of the Church: 1.The indvidual who is saved as an individual, & must live unto Christ as an individual who must be a part of the Church as a unit and 2. We are called to be fishers of men where we can,& to whomever we can. This does not exclude so called "drive by evangelism". I believe 2 biblical examples of "drive by evangelism" would be with the rich young ruler,& the Ethiopian eunich. Since 98% of the Church doesn't share their faith at all, it might be best not to discourage any of the 2% who do. Note, one young man who found a tract on the ground who accepted Jesus as his Lord later began a ministry that you might be familiar with called Jews For Jesus. Are you saying that we shouldn't whitness to anyone that we may never see again?


Response from : Jae Charles  

February 14, 2011 9:28 AM

My heart goes out to the reader who initiated Michael's comment, to be alone and with a feeling of hopeless is truly a most heart breaking state. Michael points out the good news of the possibility that God shall recover His message of grace and love and that the church, the body and all of those who passionately seek what Paul wrote in Eph 5:30 about being members of the body and truly being united together in love. This love, conveyed by our actions, is much more evident and can speak volumes and much louder than any of our tracts and conversion tactics. I love the saying, "Proclaim the Gospel and occasionally, use words". Oh that our pure, humble, obedient, disciplined actions will indeed bear testimony of God's restored fellowship with mankind.


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