My lovely wife and I met while doing theological training. I’ve recently had some email contact about a group of us getting together for a reunion and to my shock realised it was 25 years ago when we began.
Why mention this? Because some people we know in our year-class have drifted away from ‘ministry’ and regular church life.
Some have lost their faith, but with one friend it is not so much disbelief in God as a weariness and rejection of church. Specifically, a perceived disconnect between the radical and attractive kingdom-life call of Jesus compared to the rather boring, institutional and often superficial nature of her church experience.
For example, for generations, Irish Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic, has been dominated by a complex fusion between faith, politics and identity.
Now I’m not at all saying there wasn’t plenty of real, vibrant, Jesus’ centred, sacrificially loving and grace-filled Christianity around. But I am suggesting that ‘Cultural Christianity’ had centre stage; nominalism remains deeply entrenched – ‘going to church’ for an hour on a Sunday, sitting on a hard seat, listening to a monologue, and maybe smiling at the person near you before going home to get on with ‘real life’.
In the past there were strong social pressures to ‘buy into’ this sort of behaviour. Today, people ask Why Bother With Church? (a book written by a guy in our class btw) and do other stuff on Sunday morning – (like staying in bed, going for a cycle or doing DIY if the town where I live is anything to go by).
The apparent success of ‘Christendom Christianity’ meant that questions were rarely asked, such as:
‘Does what we are doing bear any resemblance to what it means to follow Jesus and life lived within the kingdom of God?’
Indeed, I suggest that if people ‘at church’ in Ireland today were asked what the kingdom of God is all about, not many would be able to hazard a guess.
And even for many Christians who are committed to Jesus, ‘church’ is seen as an ‘optional extra’ or a ‘burden to be borne’ within the Christian life. The local church is seen more as an obstacle to following Jesus rather than an intrinsic part of discipleship.
A wedge has been driven between kingdom and community; Jesus and the church.
The irony is that, all too often, it is the church of Jesus Christ which has marginalised its Lord.
All this is to say that McKnight’s big point in this chapter is that there is no division between kingdom and church in Jesus’ teaching. Kingdom life cannot be detached from Pentecost and the church. The Gospels lead into Acts. The story of the New Testament leads from Jesus’ kingdom vision to God’s Spirit-created church community.
And that church community is empowered to live the kingdom life only in and through the presence of the Spirit of God. It is the Spirit who creates, sustains and empowers the community. Without the Spirit there is no community.
For the church is at the heart of the kingdom vision of Jesus – but a community of people empowered by the Spirit to love and serve, show compassion, forgive and do justice.
So the idea that ‘church’ is a meeting by a group of largely disconnected people for an hour on a Sunday, has nothing much to do with Jesus’ kingdom vision. As Scot says, ‘somewhere along the line’ church became a Sunday service, community became personal spirituality.’
Authentic church.life, for McKnight, is fellowship that looks something like this: [he doesn’t unpack the Greek word koinonia for fellowship here – thought he might have given its richness and relevance]
– Teaching the faith
– Common meals
– Holistic care for one another
The challenge is for each follower of Jesus to participate and commit to their local community of Christians, not because it will be perfect or that we are, but
because the only way for Jesus’ dream to take root is when local people commit to one another to strive with one another for a just, loving, peaceful and wise society beginning at home with friends and at their local community of faith.
Is this a little bit like your home church? I hope so.
I’m glad to say it does capture quite a bit of mine; a community I love being part of. It ain’t perfect (hey I’m a member as is this guy, ‘nough said); it fails and won’t ever ‘arrive’ – but it is an authentic community of people who are trying love one another and others.
Final thoughts here:
I can sympathise with you if you struggle with involvement with a local church. Maybe you struggle with inwardness or poor teaching or lack of community; maybe you are disappointed in others; maybe you feel burnt-out with responsibilities; maybe you’ve been hurt by division …
But I’m with Scot, it is not an option for a follower of Jesus to detach ‘kingdom life’ from ‘church life’.
At the very core of the kingdom dream of Jesus there is a focus on God’s society, the church. The dream of Jesus never lets anyone dwell in solitude, the dream of Jesus never creates individualism. The dream of Jesus always creates kingdom community (101).
Local churches reflect the realities of real humans who participate in kingdom living in a world broken by sin and systemic evil. Kingdom life is designed to take root in local communities, and it is the vision of Jesus for you and me to make your local community of faith our primary launching place for kingdom-dream living (107-8).