Everyone wants the fruit of the kingdom of God. Any brief conversation with someone, anyone, not yet a follower of Jesus, around who they want to be will reveal elements of this reality.
Sarah, desperate for love, but working with such an individualised definition and focus, I’m left sensing this is her barrier. Colin, in tune with the latest buzz words around mental wellbeing, but seemingly lacking any place of contentment in his life.
Pop into any bookshop and you’ll see book after book on Wellbeing, Mindfulness, Sustainability, Green spaces, etc. but as yet I’ve found no mention of the kingdom of God. If you want any evidence post-Christianity ‘intuitively yearns for the justice and shalom of the kingdom, whilst defending the reign of the individual will’, as Mark Sayers put it, I suggest a book shop is a good place to start. Those who know me will realise, my love for gardening and plants, bird-watching and wild spaces, means I’m well into all of the above, which is why I’m often browsing the shelves. To be honest it would be naive for me to expect anything else.
However, when it comes to the church, I do expect more. A lot more. What is more I believe Jesus expects more. When it comes to church; I expect not simply a signpost pointing to the ultimate answer to our human condition, but an embodiment of the values and practices of the kingdom of God within and amongst a group of people. Talk about the kingdom of God yes, but alongside living it out. Talk about Jesus yes, but spoken from a life attempting to live under his rule and reign. This is where our biggest barrier appears to be erected. The individual will, as Mark Sayers puts it, is where my biggest problem surfaces: me.
I cannot say discipleship is the biggest issue facing the church across the western world unless I recognise two things:
- I’m part of the problem
- I want to be part of the solution
What’s true for me is true for you. I have let people down if I have encouraged them to live under the allusion ‘belonging’ to the church (on whatever terms they choose) implies they have no need to become those who are ‘believing’ and ‘behaving’ aligned with the life of Jesus Christ. Grace Davie did us a great favour when she wrote ‘Religion in Britain since 1945’ back in 1994. It was subtitled ‘believing without belonging’ and we would do well to remember Grace Davie, an eminent sociologist of religion, was describing something and not advocating it as an answer.
There’s little doubt Davie’s book caught the imagination of Christian leaders across the UK, but I’d be interested to know how many actually read it? Another beneficial spin-off from Davie’s work was a host of other articles and books, which explored the interplay between the three B’s: belonging, believing and behaving. My concern is the extent to which we have separated what God joined together.
In my experience we don’t need to raise the bar very high to make an impact when it comes to being a loving community. In spite of the plethora of messaging around love and relationships and community; in spite of the anxiety highlighted by the pandemic around the loss of physical contact and the value of human in-person relationships; to discover a group of people who welcome people who are different to them still has a massive impact.
For some people it’s more shock than surprise. For someone who’s never felt they belonged anywhere it’s massive. So is the idea of me becoming like these wonderfully, loving people, as a result of believing in God. So is the idea of elements of what I love to encounter in someone else’s life (let’s take the ‘fruit of the spirit’ list in Paul’s letter to the Galatians as helpful short-hand) being reflected in my life.
As a Christian church leader, therefore, I have some choices to make:
When it comes to belonging: recognise people’s felt need to belong has gone viral and nurture the culture of the kingdom of God within the church. This is hugely attractional even today. At the same time, recognise someone feeling they belong is just that, so don’t sell them short by colluding with their thinking that’s all there is to it.
When it comes to believing: recognise this is alien to the vast majority of people I will encounter today. What most people believe in, as Christians understand the word, is not faith, but does reveal where their faith is placed. Invariably this boils down to themselves, there’s little substance to it and they know it.
When it comes to behaving: recognise your church may well be the first group of people who have embodied and lived out consistently enough (never perfectly) the life of Jesus for them to get a glimpse of. Every glimpse of the kingdom of God is powerful and yet it is but a glimpse. Every glimpse of the kingdom of God is powerful, because it’s a reflection of the King of that kingdom.