“If we communicate only that part of the gospel which corresponds to people’s “felt needs” and “personal problems” (‘Are you lonely? Do you feel that you have failed? Do you need a friend? Then come to Jesus!’), while remaining silent on their relationship to their fellow men, on racism, exploitation and blatant injustice, we do not proclaim the gospel. This is the quintessence of what Bonhoeffer has called ‘cheap grace’. After all, ‘(God) is especially moved to wrath when his own people engage in such practices. It makes them disgusting in His sight, an offence to His nostrils; and in the face of this evil-doing He cannot stand their religious posturing. He cannot bear to hear their prayers; hates their festivals; is weary of their hypocritical sacrificings; views their faithful attendance at His house with loathing, as nothing more than an uncouth trampling of its precincts: “I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly”‘
I think it is fair to suggest that whatever your view of the end of this age and beginning of the next age (eschatology is the fancy word for this doctrine) is will determine how you both live and engage in mission in this age.
If for instance, you believe that the goal of mission is to “save souls for heaven” – then your primary and over-riding concern will mostly likely be proclamation. Telling people what they need to know in order to get them ready for heaven. This life will have one primary purpose to keep yourself for heaven and to tell others about it. Your church will probably have a sharp distinction between word ministry/ proclamation and social works. If you are really organised you might have a social work programme or two but you will spend large amounts of time making sure people know that you do not believe in the social gospel. But, at the end of the day, what really matters is getting people into heaven through hearing the gospel and making a decision for Jesus. You might even say this is all that matters.
If, on the other hand, you hold to an in-breaking Kingdom of God paradigm, then you will see the Kingdom as not only, or even primarily, a future reality but crucially as a very real present dynamic. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus God’s end time kingdom has now broken into this world in the middle of history. The Kingdom of God was not only announced in the gospel proclamation it was initiated in the life and mission of God’s people, the church. One day we will see the Kingdom come in all its fullness and glory when our King Jesus returns but now the Kingdom grow largely unseen, through weakness and on the margins of society.
Life among God’s people will be a small and incomplete foretaste of what that Kingdom will be like when Jesus returns. The people of God ought to be actively and intentionally living lives that embody that coming Kingdom. Lives of justice, mercy, grace, peace, beauty, restoration and joy. The old discussion of social justice versus gospel proclamation goes out the window within a Kingdom “initiated and yet not complete” paradigm. We are both to proclaim the arrival of the Kingdom (with the cross at the centre of that proclamation!) and live within the in-breaking Kingdom as those who experience the foretaste of the life of the kingdom and who long for the full wedding feast of the lamb.
I don’t know why but Tuesday just feels like the kind of day that you need some hip-hop to get you through.
Here is some more Propaganda with some challenging words on injustice, social inequality, gentrification and the Saviour who moved in.
Every culture, organisation and church has a prevailing myth that tells the story of who we are and what we value. And every myth is held up and carried along by its heroes. These are the human vessels that carry our ideals, our dreams, our aspirations. These are the men and women who put flesh onto our values. They are the ones who have succeeded in living the ideals and the dreams we hold to in some significant way.
What is the prevailing myth in your church? Who are the prevailing heroes in your church? Meditate on this for a while. The question is not what should be the prevailing myth in your church or who should be the heroes in your church. The question is; what IS the myth and who ARE the heroes?
We say mission drives our church but yet we spend most of our energy and time on maintaining our existing structures and programmes. We say we want to see our community reached for Christ but yet we employ numerous staff members whose primary responsibility is to care for us and our needs through teaching, youth work or kids programmes. We say we serve Jesus and not money and yet we create an elaborate system of church which requires a large amount of money to keep it going. We create a system that actually hinders us from mission rather than propels us forward into mission. We speak about what we think ought to be the prevailing myth but yet so often our lives are driven by a darker, less obvious shadow myth.
Who are the heroes in our church communities? The dashing youth leader? The talented musician? The eloquent preacher? The brilliant exegete? The successful business man? Any defining myth we create is carried forward by its heroes. If you truly want to know what the defining myth of your community is then ask yourself who are your heroes?
The bible teacher as hero betrays the myth that knowledge about God is our functional salvation story. Bible college is seen as the ultimate experience for young Christians. The worship leader as hero betrays the myth that the high that shared experiences bring is our functional Saviour. The successful business man as hero betrays the myth that we will find happiness or significance through money and success. The family man or stay at home mom or home-school parent as hero betrays the myth that family is the most important thing in the world. All these heroes and myths contains some truth but as is the case with all great lies, the object of truth has been stretched to breaking point, beyond it’s ability to hold the disproportionate value we have placed upon it.
What if the myth that defined our church really was the gospel. The gospel of Him who left all the security, the pleasure and the comfort of heaven to lay down His rights, his preferences, His desires in order to serve us. To become one of us. To die for us. What if the myth that defined our values, dreams and aspirations was this gospel story? What if our goal was sacrifice and not comfort? Risk and not security? Service and not pleasure?
What if our lives were defined not by our rights or our pleasures but instead were marked as those who joined their story with the great Story, who laid down their lives for the True Myth, who become heroes in the Ultimate Adventure and who risked it all for a share in the Kingdom of our Great King. What if we really were known as the friend of sinners, the defender of the vulnerable, the light in the darkness, the peacemakers, the kind and the just?
What if we really did believe that a man’s life did not consist in the abundance of his possessions? What if we really did believe that it is more blessed to give than to receive? What if we really did believe that our Father in heaven will clothe and feed us as he does the flowers of the field and the birds of the air? What if we really did believe that our God is a good God and that his Kingdom is better than all the pleasures and joys the kingdom of this world has to offer? What if we really did believe that the gospel is true?
I am not reaching for some utopian ideal of church. I know that anything we touch this side of Jesus’ return will be marked by our brokenness and sin. What we need though is honesty, an honesty robust enough to admit that our defining myths are too small. We have shrunk the kingdom vision into easily containable chunks that we can use to control our lives. Our heroes have become too small and our dreams are too reasonable.
We have shrunk the Kingdom to a coke lite, kid friendly version of the world, without the sex, drugs and swearing. We need an honesty that leads us not to self-inflicted lynchings of guilt but an honesty that admits that we have been living for the wrong myth and inspired by the wrong heroes. Our myth is sadly most often the coke-lite version of the world, without the sex, drugs and swearing.
We need an honesty that inspires us to join our story with the Great Story, to give up our small ambitions and our small dreams. We need heroes that inspire us not to greater church attendance but who lead us to far wilder, less safe and more beautiful places where only our faith and our hope in the Great King can ever hope to sustain us. For it there that we will win glory for His Name and find the life we so desperately crave. “ For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:35)
The other night a few of us in our gospel community got together to listen to this talk by Steve Timmis entitled Being Neighbours: A Gospel Strategy.
What was apparent to us as a community was that we need each other to help us intentionally “go down the hill.” The hub for our community at the moment appears to be our house. Our house’ it seems, is rather strategically situated at a confluence of at least two vastly different worlds. If you go up the hill, broadly speaking, you encounter the cool, funky, hip (hipster actually) community. The food is good, the beer is crafty, the people are nice (which is to say remarkably like us). The vibe is creative, quirky and just a little bit grungy. This is the fun and exciting part of our community. All of us enjoy hanging out there. We don’t need help going “up the hill.” It’s going to happen. Whenever we feel like grabbing a pizza or watching some sport, it’s natural and easy to take a walk up the hill. This is also, perhaps it goes without saying, a community that deeply needs Jesus.
But down the hill a simple five-minute walk away from the hip side of town’ life is completely different. Poor, drug ravaged, high unemployment, little or few role-models. Kids wander the streets, sometimes till late at night. Family breakdown, crime, drug addiction and jail sentences are fairly common aspects of many families lives “down the hill”. These are not “our people” (and our community is fairly mixed racially). It is not comfortable, fun or safe by our usual standards. This is the kind of place we have to intentionally choose to be. It will not just happen, naturally or organically. It will take sacrifice, effort and a grab me by the neck kind of reminder these are exactly the kind of places where the light must shine brightest in the midst of the greater darkness. And sadly these are also the places where traditionally churches have been at their least effective.
I don’t need my community to help me go up the hill. I like them when we go up the hill. But I need to get me to go down the hill. Perhaps we don’t fully understand the mutual necessity that Jesus builds into the church as body image simply because we simply do not go down the hill enough. We like each other when we go up the hill but we need each other when we go down the hill.
What if my calling is to be insignificant? Not in the I have self-esteem issues guest on Oprah manner. Nor in the I feel my life slipping away mid-life crisis type manner. Ok, perhaps a little bit of the latter… but that is not the point here so no need to harp on touchy subjects.
Hi my name is John and I am a significance junkie! Junkie in the sense of what Tim Keller (and others before him!) call heart idols. What is that thing or activity or person that I functionally worship. If God does not do that for me or deliver results in this area then I flip out, lose sleep, lose faith, doubt God or worse play God. That thing, says Keller, is what you actually worship.
For me that is significance – not in the sense of fame or riches or usual measures of success. It burns within me that what I do with my life must count for something! It must somehow be known or seen, at least by me, and it would be nice if others did too. Lives must be different because I was here. A communities (or communities or city or cities…) must be better because of what I did. I think it might be ok if my role was even just to influence someone who would be a somebody.
But what if all that God has for me to do on earth is to influence one other person? Would I be ok with that? I could write a theological paper on why that would be fine and how much I believe in the goodness and majesty of God’s sovereignty but in my heart, in the desires that daily capture my heart and mind – that is not ok!
But when I spout my good theology about God’s sovereignty as the Almighty King, when I tell others that I have forsaken all else to follow him, do I actually mean that I recognise Him as having the right to do whatever he deems best with my life – for his glory and his honour? Because I believe God is both sovereign and good I ought to be able to trust him to do what is most worthy with my life. Because I believe that God alone is worthy of all the glory and the honour and nothing else has the right to compete with him for that glory. It is idolatry, it’s stupidity, it’s faithless to search out my meaning in anything else.
But yet daily my heart betrays my theology. I long for significance. I struggle to conceive that perhaps my calling is insignificance. I crave recognition whilst simultaneously dreading it. I despise being a number in the system, I dread being fodder for the celebrity machine. But silently I seek it, I creep round the corners of words – hoping there to find my elusive significance. I peer into the darkness of anonymity desperate to emerge significant, worthy, alive.
The truth be told I am insignificant! I have written little of great importance. I have done little to change my city, my neighbourhood, my street. And the little I have tried has had little impact. I am fragile, weak, mortal. I will stumble along for the few years of my life, then I will grow frail in mind and body, and then I will die. Maybe I will impact a few lives for good on the way – my wife and children hopefully – but purely in a statistical sense – I will be a nobody. I will not write the great literary work of my time. I will not solve the poverty, economic injustice or racism in my beloved city. I will hope my life has brought more life, joy and hope than hurt, guilt and despair to those who walk it with me but honestly there is no guarantee.
But my soul longing for significance can never be satisfied by anything I do. The gospel is for me the beautiful story of significant insignificance. It does not offer me the junk food, fake high of self-improvement hype. No the gospel reckons truly and honestly with my insignificance. In fact it compounds my insignificance – I am not simply an insignificant speck in the cosmos – I am self-deluded, I reckon I am God, I shake my self-deluded fist in the face of the All-Powerful, Majestic God of the Universe and declare my own significance, my own right to be God! I am not only condemned by my arrogant rebellion I am humiliated. He knows every fibre of my body, every arrogant, self-centred hair on my head. The Bible tells me he knitted this grasping, malcontent together in my mother’s womb.
And yet, I am loved. I am more loved than I ever dreamed possible. I am given significance not by grasping and striving but by his mercy. I am profoundly unlovely but he has claimed me and redeemed me and made me lovely. In him and only because of Him I have worth, I have honour and I have dignity.
I am a number, a nameless face, an insignificant speck in the vast cosmos but He has breathed life into me. He knows the hairs on my head. He knows my name. He died for me. I no longer have to prove myself because through his death on my behalf he has proved me righteous and lovely already. I no longer have to search for love because he has already loved me. I no longer have to search for my purpose because my life has been caught up in his far greater, and more wonderful story.
In one sense, nothing has changed, my insignificant remains… but the wonderful truth that the High King, of all Creation would love me and lay down his life for me, shouts all the louder because of my insignificance
Great stories have great endings. In fact I think it is the ending that defines the story…
In the urban spirituality of the city there is a somewhat accepted spiritual epithet that “it is not the destination that matters but the journey.” This sounds really spiritual but in reality it is, quite simply, a load of cobblers (always wanted to write that, it just sounds so Dickensian). The ending is that which gives shape and substance to the entire the story.
If the ending is tragic then the story is a tragedy, despite the moments of joy and laughter that may be found in the journey. If the ending is happy then the story is a comedy (as defined by Buechner) despite the moments of sadness and tears which it may take to bring the story to the required happy ending. The ending is not simply that which ends the story, it is that which gives shape, substance and even meaning to the entire story.
This is equally true for the Bible story as for any other story.
The biblical ending defines, shapes and gives meaning and significance to the biblical story. If the ending is rubbish or trite then the story is a waste of time. Certainly not something to base your life on.
To use some big words for a minute our ESCHATOLOGY defines our MISSIOLOGY which defines our ECCLESIOLOGY (HT to Alan Hirsch whom I ripped off slightly). To translate our doctrine of the end must defines our mission which must shape our doctrine of church.
I have been reading, teaching and meditating recently on the end of the Bible story (Revelation 21-22). A few things stood out for me:
1) God does it
This chapter is full of God’s work. This glorious picture of the new heavens and the new earth- it is all God’s doing. Only He can do. Only He will do it. And as a result all the glory can only go to Him (21:2-5).
And the Lamb is at the centre of all that he does (21:9, 22, 23, 27; 22:1, 3). Who is this Lamb? It is the the Lamb who was slain (5:6, 9). At the centre of the New Creation is Jesus who died, for our sins (the Lamb who was slain). The New Creation will forever be shaped by the king who died for his people.
What particularly struck me is that in Revelation 19 we have just had this picture of Jesus on the white horse, with eyes like blazing fire. A sword coming out of his mouth, He is crowned with many crowns, and the name King of Kings is written on his robe and on his thigh. He comes to judge the nations and to rule them an iron sceptre. It is a great and terrifying picture of a powerful and mighty king come in judgement
I think I have always assumed that it is this King who will be the centre of our worship in the new creation. But when we come to Revelation 21-22 who is at the centre of the new creation, the Lamb who was slain! Without reading too much into the picture language of Revelation, it is the pattern of the Lamb which is will shape the pattern of life in the new creation.
photo credit: Olivander