What is the central message of the church (and your class)? Part 3
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I work full time promoting church growth in a world where church growth is a multi-million dollar industry and the church is not growing.
But, I can't help but contrast this world with the world of the early church where, best I can tell, there was no church growth industry. They didn't have any church growth seminars or church growth books or church growth consultants, and the church was growing and growing rapidly.
I believe the reason this is true is that the central message of the church as we preach it is different from the central message that the early church preached. It is not that the things we are saying are not true; it is just not what occupied the constant agenda of Christ and his early followers. We talk about, "How to go to heaven when you die." They talked about the kingdom of God.
What is the kingdom of God? It is everywhere where God is acknowledged as king. It is the range of God's effective will (Dallas Willard). From early in life we are obsessed with question: who is king? Who is in charge? We want to be in charge.
The question, then, is, what is it like when God is in charge, and what is it like when we are in charge?
What is it like when we are in charge?
Well, that is easy enough to figure out. Read the newspaper. What do you find?
You get the picture. When people are in charge, it is not a pretty picture.
I was eating lunch today at a local dive when our conversation was interrupted by someone screaming and hollering and cussing. I couldn't quite make out what they were mad about, but it was pretty clear they were mad.
I had been talking to my friend, Chris, about these things. It is on my mind and I could help but talk about it. We both looked over at the man screaming and cussing, "I don't think he is living life in the kingdom, do you?"
What is life is the kingdom of God like?
Paul said, "For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, Romans 14:17 (NIV)
"Not about eating and drinking," that was huge to his original Jewish listeners. For them, the kingdom was ALL about eating this drinking that, and, more importantly, NOT eating this and NOT drinking that. It was about observing certain days, certain rituals. It was about jumping through so many hoops and doing so many things and checking off this and that. From their perspective, it was all about that kind of thing.
Paul says, "No, no, no. Its not about that. It is not about that at all. It is about righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit." I don't take this to be an exact list. Paul seems to be expanding on this same list in Galatians 5.22 and 23."But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law." (NIV)
This is life in the kingdom:
- Love. I receive God's love. I accept the fact that He accepts me. His love gives me confidence. There is nothing like the feeling of knowing you are loved. Out of the overflow of a heart of love, I become more loving. I love more. All my relationships are different and better because of love. That is life in the kingdom: a life of love.
- Joy. Not the deep undercurrent of joy that some people talk about but no one can really know if it is there or not. A joy that is felt. A joy that makes you smile and laugh and appreciate the sunset and a cold glass of water. Not the light and fluffy stuff of amusement. Joy is what we all long for. Joy is what we live for. It is available for you in the kingdom. When God is in charge, there is joy.
- Peace. As it says in another place, "the peace that passes all understanding." The peace that doesn't make any sense, but is real none-the-less. The peace that allows me to rest in knowing that the King of the universe is in my corner. As Revelation has it, "there is a throne in heaven and Someone is sitting on it." Not pacing the floor. Not wringing His hands. Sitting. Quite relaxed. Quite in charge. Do you long for a life of peace? You can have it. It is part of life in the kingdom.
- Kindness. In the kingdom, people say, "Please" and "Thank-you" more often.
We could go on, but you get the idea. This is the offer of the kingdom: a life where God is king and where there is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Imagine you could take a pill that made you feel thoroughly loved. It made you significantly more loving. It made you joyful. It put your soul at peace. What would you pay for that pill?
That is the offer of the kingdom, and that is the message that fueled the incredible growth of the early church. It was not a message about how to go to heaven when you die. It was about how to live a life that is a little more joyful, a little more loved, a little more loving, a little more at peace and I ask you, does anyone reading want that life?
The early church did not throw their bodies to lions for a message about how to go to heaven when you die. They laid down their lives because their Lord said, "I have come that you might have life; life to the full."
Everyone wants that life, and if you teach that life, your group will grow. Teach them to live life in the kingdom. Teach them to get up every morning basking in God's love. Teach them to experience the peace that passes all understanding. Teach them to have a joy that makes them smile more, hug more, love more.
As I write my lessons each week, I often ask questions like:
- [Topic: forgiving others] How will learning to forgive help us to live the John 10.10 abundant Christian life that Jesus promised?
- [Topic: getting out of debt] How does debt keep us from experiencing the second fruit of the Spirit: joy?
- [Topic: second coming] How does cultivating a longing for the blessed hope that is the return of Christ affect our day to day lives? How does it help us to live a John 10.10 abundant Christian life today?
We will look next week about how the kingdom grew "all by itself." The Greek word is automate. We get our word automatically from that word. The kingdom grows automatically.
And why wouldn't it? If you teach people to live lives that are a little more joyful, a little more kind, a little less worried, a little less anxious, a little more loved, a little more loving, people will want to come. You wouldn't be able to keep them away.