One striking feature of the story of our faith in scripture is that there is never lacking a redeeming presence. I am not just speaking of the Spirit that hovers over the waters of creation, but the flesh and blood remnants of salvation, at times beleaguered, at times scattered, but always there by the persevering of the Father. So, in that way, I am not worried about “the church.” She will continue to play her part in the reconciliation of all things as long as Christ rules, and until he does so without conflict.
However, as one deeply enmeshed in the church here and now, I have noticed, and been a willful contributor to, an unsettling trend. Some years ago Christians in my part of the world, a region that had for several centuries been built upon the ideals and principles of a Judeo-Christian ideals, began to notice that the foundational vision of a good world remained but the explicit nature of that vision’s connection to the One who “saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” was dissipating. The “West” was then, and now, a “mission field” for the first time in nearly 1,500 years.
Rightly so, the church, albeit in a piecemeal and sputtering fashion, began to adopt a missional approach to our neighbors and to our culture. We would strategize and evangelize as if the story of scripture and the person of Jesus were foreign ideas entering into a rather 1st century-like society marked by pluralistic, or varied, belief systems. How does one approach such a culture? Well, like Paul in the book of Acts and among the Corinthians, finding parallels to build bridges, using language of the locals, becoming to “those under the law…as one under the law…and those outside the law…as one outside the law…that by all means [we] might save some.”
While the intention was and is honorable, we missed something in our re-evangelizing of the West. The fact is, that our culture did not revert to a 1st-century pluralism marked by a myriad of gods and cults and superstitions in clear contrast to the monotheistic vision of the Jewish God; rather we retained our monotheism, but “self” became our singular deity. While a multiplicity of “selves” appears as diverse systems of belief, in practice, there is but one god that exercises sovereignty: me.
And, here is perhaps where we have missed it the most. The kingdom that the modern god reigns over is built on the vision of the kingdom of heaven our faith has espoused for centuries…a good world, a better world in which what divides is healed, what destroys is overcome, and in which humanity flourishes. The prayer we were taught to pray, “Let your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” is still the prayer of our day, only it is not voiced vertically but horizontally. Social commentator and pastor, Mark Sayers, points that our society desires the kingdom but without its King.
The problem the church is facing, to which, again, I am an offender, is that in our method for contextualizing our faith, making it relevant to the ears and eyes, tastes and appetites of our culture, we have been unwittingly nurturing the supremacy of the god of our age.
Ironically, our message of the kingdom has resonated, but our missional acculturation has seldom required submission of our allegiance to the slain and risen King. “Worship Jesus as you want, in the way that best fits you,” “Participate in this thing called ‘church’ and ‘faith’ in whatever manner works for your convictions,” or “Join in where and when you feel best,” we have said, explicitly or pragmatically; all for the sake of saving some, yet unintentionally losing many.
When we look at the story of God through Jesus, the person and ministry of Jesus, his teachings, his death and his resurrection; do we hear the same invitation that we extend our neighbors? Where do Jesus’ own invitations fit into our practices of faith when He says, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” or “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself [a blasphemous statement today] and take up his cross and follow me.”?
The amazing thing about the gospel stories we have of Jesus is that they, like our scriptures as a whole, tell the story of patient persistence, of a persevering salvation. Three years of daily misunderstandings, fumbled aspirations, unfulfilled commitments, misguided actions, and even departures and betrayals; and yet Jesus remains steadfast in the proclamation of the kingdom he was sent to inaugurate while never dismissing those looking for him. He corrects, rebukes, reshapes, models, confronts and invites them into a vision of the kingdom that is not merely parallel in some way but realized and, eventually, into a vision of him as their long-awaited King.
Perhaps we, now more than at any time in recent history, need a reclamation of the patient persistence of Jesus. Not only a persistent patience in relation to our neighbors and culture, but a persistent patience in the very stories of Jesus himself, allowing our visions to be corrected, rebuked, reshaped, confronted and enlivened to his now and forever reign.
Photo by Jason Betz