The Gospel of the Kingdom

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Last Sunday, my pastor started his sermon by asking a question:

“Why do you come to church?”

He asked the question in the context of a decrease in Sunday morning attendance, and the answer that came to my mind was:

We don’t come to church, we are the church. That’s what God made us for.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how we explain the gospel. The evangelical church preaches personal reconciliation by the death and resurrection of Jesus, and a personal relationship with God. This is true and important, but I wonder if the western individualist worldview has overshadowed a biblical understanding of the gospel. Is it possible that one of the reasons our churches are losing members is that these members think of the church in terms of what they receive from it? Faced with superstar preachers on YouTube, Hillsong worship albums, and other options that present themselves Sunday morning, like the kids’ soccer games, it’s pretty clear that what most of us receive at church isn’t terribly impressive.

I recently read a sentence that has stuck with me :

I am implicitly being taught that Jesus is one more commodity available to make me happy.1

This is an insightful diagnosis of our situation. The church is there for me, and I’ll go if there aren’t any better options.

But the New Testament doesn’t speak of the church as something optional, nor the place I go to be served. When Jesus preached, he often spoke in much more collective terms :

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” - Marc 1:15

A kingdom is not just me and my relationship with God. It is a whole. A people who live together. The metaphors the New Testament uses for the church – the body of Christ, a vine with many branches, a spiritual house made of many stones – speak in collective terms. They are individuals brought together to make something bigger.

That isn’t to say that a personal relationship with God, and personal salvation, are false or bad. Not at all – the house is made of individual stones. But we are so used to thinking individualistically that this part of the message is obvious for us. But the collective side is foreign to our way of thinking. As Tim Keller says, the gospel confronts and completes the culture. In this case, individual salvation completes the narrative of individual quest for purpose, significance, and satisfaction. But belonging to a kingdom, a community, a house without which the individual members are nothing special deeply confronts our western way of understanding ourselves: we won’t find the good life if we’re looking for it all alone with God.

Taken together with Jesus’ promises that our interactions with each other are what will convince the world of his veracity, it seems to me that we need to change the way we explain the gospel. Yes, we need to keep talking about personal salvation, but should we put as much, or maybe even more, emphasis on the community for which God saves us?

Often in Quebec we answer the question, “what is the difference between Evangelical faith and the Catholic church?” We tend to answer that Evangelical faith is based only on the Bible but the Catholics add a bunch of other things. Or that we are talking about a relationship, they are talking about a religion. But another answer has been haunting my mind lately : that in the Catholic church, they think a lot more about the relationship of a communal relationship with God, and we think almost exclusively of an individual relationship with Him. And we have a lot to learn from our Catholic brothers and sisters on this subject.

If we can both present and live out a compelling community, which finds the balance between a personal and a collective relationship with God – and also the relationship of the individual to the community – maybe we’ll have less troubles with commitment among the faithful.

1: James K A Smith, You Are What You Love, Brazos Press, 2016, p 76

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