What is a Kingdom-shaped Church?
Our Gospel mandate is nothing less than the present (and increasing) Kingdom of God manifest on earth. Too often we’ve settled for false finish-lines captured most notably in phrases like, “The gospel of salvation” or “The gospel of the church”. As incredible as the miracle of salvation and God’s design for the ecclesia is, when we make either of these the goal we miss the bigger picture. On the one hand, we settle for an individualistic me-centred gospel; on the other, we build our own empire and call it “church”. We, however, are contending for nothing less than a Kingdom-shaped church.
The Kingdom of God is the primary context – the foundation, the big picture, the backdrop, the reference point – from which we are to understand salvation and embrace our purpose as His church. For this reason, we refer to a “Kingdom-shaped church” to describe the all-embracing, eternal purpose of God manifest in and through the King and His Kingdom come.
Tweaking a well-known saying, it is next to impossible to teach old dogma new tricks. Embracing the Gospel of the Kingdom requires more than just making cosmetic adjustments; it requires a radical overhaul of thought, attitude and perspective.
Continue reading as we look at how we’ve been duped into settling for false finish-lines and outline the shift required to embrace the Gospel of the Kingdom. Can there be a more important issue than this?
So, what is a Kingdom-shaped church?
In my opinion, this is the most critical, foundational issue at hand. In our seminars and workshops, we refer to this as the first mega-shift required in embracing our God-intended future. Overstated? Perhaps, but I’m fully convinced it is the core issue.
Right up front I acknowledge the limitations of this blog-article. Please consider re-reading the synoptic Gospels highlighting the word “kingdom” – Jesus’ most frequent phrase1. John and Paul used synonymous expressions to capture the Kingdom message2: re-read John’s Gospel underlying the word “life” and Paul’s writings noting the phrase “in Christ”. Re-engaging with the Scriptures with a Kingdom context will achieve so much more than what I can in any article.
Let me begin then by asking this question: What is the Gospel?
So what is the Good News? Many answer this question with something like: “Jesus died for us”, or “We’re forgiven”, or “Now we can go to heaven”. But if all that matters is getting people saved and then going to heaven:
- Why bother trying to relieve poverty and injustice? Why not leave it up to secular charities to fret over!
- Why should we be concerned with looking after the earth? Why not just leave it up to Green Peace to sweat over!
- Why trust for godly change in politics, business and education? Who cares if the point is just salvation and heaven?
- And a more theologically disturbing question: Why doesn’t God just miraculously reveal Himself to everyone like He did to Saul on Damascus road and take us all to heaven at salvation?
Without question, the greatest miracle occurs when someone lost finds saving grace in Jesus Christ. But if we believe that the Gospel is just about salvation and going to heaven we miss the whole point and may default on our God-given destiny! For example, statistics would have us believe that the continent of Africa is close to being evangelized. Does anyone believe those stats? We need more crusades for sure, but Africa needs much more than that. Islam has aimed at making disciples rather than just converts … and they are conquering Africa left, right and centre in the name of Allah.
Think too of the famous Universities in our world today. Most of them started as Christ-centred institutions with the sole objective of teaching God’s ways and preparing students to reveal the glory of God. Today, although their original mission statements continue to proclaim their God-glorifying mandate, they teach the theory of evolution as fact-without-question, proudly promote humanism (and every other “ism”) and many harbour clear anti-God agendas.
The church has retreated into the four walls of the sanctuary and lost its influence in every mind-moulding area of society. Not just have we given education up to the humanists (who will gladly educate our children to think like Scrooge) but we have handed over our influence in every other arena too … science, for example, began when followers of Christ began to study the design of their Creator; now scientists often attempt to disprove His very existence! We have also retreated from politics, business and the arts and sports world … and lost our saltiness. We have placed our “lamp … under a basket” (Matthew 5:15) and blamed the devil for turning out the lights!
So how did Jesus define the Gospel?
Mark tells us that Jesus came “preaching the gospel of the Kingdom of God” and then records that He declared: “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14, 15).
The Gospel is the Kingdom of God.
The Good News is that the King has come to rule and reign. The Good News is that the King has come to establish His Kingdom government on earth (Isaiah 9:6, 7)! While this certainly includes salvation, saving grace is the starting point not the end goal. Jesus revealed that He is both the “Door” (John 10:7) and the “Way” (John 14:6). We must grasp both realities. We cannot know forgiveness without finding saving grace in Jesus the Door but we cannot understand our dominion destiny without following Jesus the Way. The early believers were called those “of the Way” (Acts 9:2) because they had found a whole new way to live centred on Jesus Christ.
Too many believers have made their bed at the Door waiting for heaven when the point is to follow the Way of the King! Now … here … on this earth! Jesus taught us to “seek first His Kingdom” (Matthew 6:33) and to pray His “Kingdom come … on earth” (Matthew 6:9, 10); the focus was not on attempting to secure eternal fire insurance in the hereafter while expecting God to bless my every whim in the here-and-now.
You see it when someone’s asked to share their salvation testimony; they spend 95% of the time sharing about what a dirty rotten scoundrel they were, and 5% of the time explaining how they came to put their faith in Jesus. Very little is often said about what Christ and His Kingdom demands now mean for them going forward. They may know what they’ve come out of, but often have no clue what they’ve come into.
I remember the day it dawned on me that I was wearing the “helmet of salvation” but had no clue about the “whole armour of God” (Ephesians 6:11, 17). Like a spiritual streaker, I did more harm than good!
As a young youth pastor/evangelist – nearly two decades ago – I realised that much of our ministry efforts were geared (and satisfied) in making converts; “decisions made” at the end of an altar-call (usually after a high-voltage, adrenalin-driven, emotion-jabbing event). Noting that so much of this “fruit” did not remain and resulted only in “high-maintenance, low-impact” converts, I conceded that I had settled for a false finish-line.
Thus, I had to understand, the Kingdom of God is far more than just the gospel of personal salvation. Yes, it certainly includes salvation – which is, without question, the most remarkable demonstration of God’s love – but the Gospel is nothing less than the Kingdom of God.
However, a second false finish-line dawned as I bought the party-line that I must be a “pastor” in “church world” if I really wanted to do something substantial for God. Subconsciously and unintentionally, it eventually became all about getting “more bums in the seats and more bucks in the basket” – in fact, “more” was the word: more events, more meetings, more sermons, more counselling, more programs, more courses, more activity, more more more.
At some point, in the grace and mercy of God, I realised I was preaching the gospel of the church. Yes, the “Kingdom of God” was a topic we regularly preached but it was always to serve the vision of the church. And what was the vision? Although we concocted some cleverly worded statement, the uncomfortable truth was it amounted to this: to attract more people to “our church”; to make more church members. Eventually serving as a senior pastor at the time, I’m pointing all fingers at my own heart.
In a subtle but chronic (and completely subconscious) adventure in missing the point, I was guilty of reducing the Gospel into a religious “schedule of meetings” – rather than the King’s “way of life”.
It’s not too far off, but I found myself often spouting this counsel to new believers:
“Now that you’re a follower of Christ, you should attend the worship celebration on Sunday morning and a small group meeting on Wednesday evening … oh, you’ll also enjoy the evening worship celebration on Sunday night … and then it is important to do the foundations class on Tuesday night (which of course, begins you on a training track every Tuesday for the rest of your life) … and if you’re really committed you should come to the prayer meeting early Friday morning. … and oh, I hear you play the guitar? … It would be good to join the worship team on Thursday evening. It’s important that you start using your gifts …”
Numbed by meeting-fatigue, I forgot that Jesus said, “I have come that you may life, and that you may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10), not “I have come to give you meetings and meetings until life is mere redundancy”.
I desperately needed a crash course in Gospel 101. I had to understand that the Kingdom of God is far more than just the gospel of building church. In fact, Jesus said His job was to build the church if we got about our job: the Kingdom of God (Matthew 16:18, 19). Yes, it certainly includes the ecclesia3 – which is, without question, God’s chosen means to usher His Kingdom come – but the Gospel is nothing less than the Kingdom of God.
When the King, and His Kingdom, is correctly the focus and the goal; the “church” is the organ or means through which God releases His Kingdom purposes. We’re dreaming of a Kingdom-shaped church not a church-shrunk kingdom.
Jesus taught us to pray His “Kingdom come” (Matthew 6:10); to restore His will and heal our broken world, not to pray for His church to flee this sick planet. He taught us to “seek first” His Kingdom (Matthew 6:33), not to seek first our church vision. The Master called us to “preach the gospel of the Kingdom” (Matthew 24:14), not make promoting our church events and programs our core objective.
Think about the implications of the Biblical metaphors of “church”. A family, a body, a building, an army, a bride … are not ends in themselves; they all exist for a purpose above and beyond themselves. The church is clearly the means or organ to usher in the Kingdom; the King and His Kingdom ought to be our underlying context and unwavering goal.
This is not to bag or dismiss the church. There are a growing number of people who, burnt by their experience of church, say things like: “I have a heart for the Kingdom but I can’t stand church. It’s all about the Kingdom; I don’t need the church”. But that is like saying, “Life is all about breathing, we don’t need lungs. Lungs complicate things. Lungs can pack up you know; they get old and restrictive, life is all about breathing!” In the same way that we cannot breathe without lungs, we cannot grasp the Kingdom without embracing the church. The church is to the Kingdom what lungs are to breathing. Yes, it is all about the Kingdom but the church is God’s chosen “organ” to establish His Kingdom.
The Good News, then, is that the King has come to rule and reign on earth and through us, His family, to establish His Kingdom in every arena of society. The Gospel is that, in Him, we are restored to our God-given destiny as custodians of this earth. God’s original plan is still His eternal plan and is now His fully restored plan4. And this is great news! But you’re not convinced … so let us take a closer look.
The word “gospel” (Greek: evangelion) was a political word used by the Roman Caesars. When Augustus Caesar ascended to the throne, he presented his “gospel of the kingdom” – his dream of a utopian society – declaring that his reign would bring favour upon the world and its inhabitants. Of course, his citizens – many of them slaves – were forced to applause even though they knew another bout of tyranny was sure to come.
In the first century the word “kingdom” referred to a king’s domain [king + domain = kingdom]; the sphere in which he ruled and reigned. The Greek word for “kingdom” (basileia) – used of the Roman Caesar’s kingdom – then meant, “to rule and reign”; to “rule” referred to the authority the Caesar wielded and “reign” referred to his act of ruling as sovereign of his domain. The phrase “Caesar is Lord” was required by all Roman citizens to affirm their complete submission to Caesar’s kingdom and will. To claim, “Jesus is Lord” in the first century was seen as high treason.
Jesus used these highly charged political words to announce His arrival: “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).
One cannot overstate the full weight of what He was saying. We read these words with religious stuffiness and yawn. But this was Jesus’ statement of revolution. He was declaring a new regime, a new order … a complete new way of life.
Jesus called mankind to “repent” – to completely overhaul their previous thinking, to defect from every system of this world (both secular and religious) – because a new Kingdom, the likes of which we had never experienced, was upon us. The phrase “at hand” literally means, “has drawn near”. The Kingdom had drawn near because the King was here and everything was about to change!
Let me spotlight that again. We are to repent – not just from sin – but to defect, renounce, resign, unplug from every system of man, to become fully dependent, wholly reliant, on His Presence in our hearts and our collective midst.
For me, having faltered at both the false finish line of the gospel of salvation and the gospel of the church, I realised I had a lot of unlearning to do. In fact, I realised I had a lot more in common with Nicodemus than I could ever have imagined.
You know the story. When this Pharisee arrived in the dark and private hours of the morning to soften up the “competition” with flattery, he was in for a rude awakening. Jesus cut through the facade and said: “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
Today we use the word “born again” incorrectly as an adjective to define a “real Christian”. Another “church world” label. Jesus used this metaphor of child-birth to say to this so-called expert of religion, “You don’t know anything. You will need to go back to the beginning and re-learn all that you know if you are going to even begin to grasp what the Kingdom of God is”. You simply cannot teach old dogma new tricks. Like Nicodemus I realised I had a lot of unlearning to do if I was going to fully grasp the Gospel of the Kingdom of God.
Ten Comparison Points: Discerning the Shift Required
Let me suggest ten areas that we, as a community, needed to unlearn and relearn; where we needed a mega-shift in our thinking from the gospel of the church to the Gospel of the Kingdom.
We needed to shift from “we go to church” to understanding “we are the church”.
Rather than defining ourselves by a ‘holy’ meeting or a ‘holy’ building we attend on a ‘holy’ day; as a community, we understand that we are “a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9) – as God’s people, we the church, ought to manifest His Kingdom Presence wherever we go.
We needed to shift from praying, “Bless what we are doing?” to asking “Father, what are You blessing?”
Rather than asking God to bless the clever plans we have spent hours concocting; as a community, we look to discern what the Father is doing and cooperate with His revealed will. Jesus explained that He only did what He saw the Father doing (John 5:19, 30). Our task involves listening and obeying.
We needed to shift from wondering, “How do we get people to come to us?” to exploring “How do we go to serve people?”
Rather than defining our impact by how we get people to leave their comfort zone to come to ‘our world’; as a community, we resolve to leave our comfort zone to serve people in ‘their world’; where they are at. Jesus said: “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you” (John 20:21).
We needed to shift from focusing on individual need in order to grasp our corporate destiny.
Rather than focusing on our personal needs with a ‘me-centred gospel’; as a community, we focus on maturing as a Christ-filled family, confident that as we “seek first His kingdom” Father God is faithful to look after our needs (Matthew 6:33).
We needed to shift our priority from meetings to relationships.
Rather than embarking on a religious ‘schedule of meetings’; as a community, we engage in a communal lifestyle, prizing our relationships – meeting in ways that strengthen these relationships. Jesus came to give “life abundantly” (John 10:10) not meetings redundantly.
We needed to shift from performance and results to valuing God’s shaping process and cherishing the journey we are on.
Rather than measuring our effectiveness by our perceived ‘performance’ and canned ‘results’; as a community, we value the process we’re on and the people we’re becoming as we journey together – knowing that as we plant and water, it is God who gives the increase (1 Corinthians 3:6).
We needed to shift from being earthly and short-ranged in our thinking and instead embrace an eternal, long-ranged perspective of hope.
Rather than earthly and short-ranged decision-making; as a community, we live with an eternal, long-ranged perspective, knowing that we are ‘training for reigning’ in “the life that now is and of that which is to come” (1 Timothy 4:8 c. 1 Corinthians 6:2, 3).
We needed to repent of our tight-fisted and controlling tendencies and become open-handed and equipping.
Rather than holding things tightly and micro-managing the church as if we own it; as leaders in a community, we hold things lightly – not loosely – that is, as responsible stewards we selflessly serve and release others knowing the “government rests upon His shoulder” not ours (Isaiah 9:6).
We needed to shift from structuring to contain and maintain and build from relationship to structure in order to release and send.
Rather than prioritising structure over relationships that restricts and limits people; as a community, we build from relationship to structure instead so that we serve and release one another into our God-given ministry and destiny: “in honour giving preference to one another” (Romans 12:10).
We needed to shift from superficial appearances – the ABCs – to value wisdom: faith, hope and love.
Rather than gauging our effectiveness on skin-deep appearances such as “Attendance, Buildings and Cash Flow”; as a community, we seek “the wisdom from above” (James 3:17) to excel in our “work of faith”, “labour of love” and “patience of hope” (1 Thessalonians 1:2-8).
Please take the time to reflect on how you view the Gospel; it really does affect everything we do.
We are all familiar with Jesus’ words: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). These words can so easily become another string of clichés we generally consent to but give scant attention. But Jesus expected us to take this very seriously. He exhorted us to, in a bombshell, submit our lives to His rule and then to rightly align our lives with His rule. This is serious stuff!
The first phrase, to “seek first,” refers to our essential, primary commitment: a Foundation on which all else is built, the Source from which all else flows. It does not refer to the first in a list of many priorities. The disciples did not expect Jesus to follow-up, “seek first…” with “…and then secondly…”. Again, the word “first” here refers to what is essential; to what is primary. It is likewise used in Revelation 2:5, “you have left your first love”. Jesus was not rebuking the church in Ephesus for confusing their priorities; He was charging them with having lost their essential, primary love. This church had not just misplaced her priorities; she had lost her heart!
The Bible never teaches us to establish a list of priorities and then to juggle this list for maximum living satisfaction. Rather the Bible teaches that we have one and only one priority – the King and His Kingdom – everything else is obedience to this Divine Centre. For example, the man who neglects his wife and children for his work does not have a priority-problem but a sin-problem; he is not rightly aligned to God’s rule. Some time management lessons may help but until he repents of his unrighteousness he will not change and embrace the Kingdom.
The second phrase, to “seek … His righteousness,” means to then rightly align our lives to His governmental rule. We cannot treat this as merely a theory or philosophy. This is not just a good suggestion or hip new thought. I am to submit my life to His rule and then to rightly align my life with His rule.
I am to allow God to revisit my entire thinking system, allowing Him to yank out every un-renewed thought process and squash every selfish attitude. In the same way that a missionary to Japan would have to completely re-learn the ways of his new country, we have to re-learn the ways of this new Kingdom. If we fail to make God our central focus, our life will be consistently out of focus. If God is not the centre of our universe, if He is not the sun around which we revolve, we will consistently be out of orbit.
Isaiah declared: “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end” (Isaiah 9:6, 7).
Let us always remember that the “government rests upon His shoulder” not ours! Jesus is the “Head of the church,” “The Lord of the Harvest” and the “King of His Kingdom”. And as long as we remember this, we will always enjoy being a part of the “increase of His government” that knows no end!
1 Jesus referred to the “Kingdom” nearly 120 times; He mentioned the “church” just twice. The “Kingdom” was His most used phrase. His most used word to describe God was “Father”. God is a Father and we, His family, are entrusted with His Kingdom affairs. Jesus said: “Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom” (Luke 12:32).
2 Please consider purchasing Living at the Edge of Time? in which I look at the Kingdom of God in detail; where I consider, among other things, Biblical synonyms for the Kingdom of God. The book subtitle says it all: “An ancient retelling of the popular end-times tale and its critical Kingdom implications today”.
3 Please see the article entitled, “What does ecclesia mean?” <Lost n Translation>
4 Think about all the words in the Bible that begin with the prefix “re,” which means, “to go back”. Revive, restore, redeem, repent, regenerate, renew, refresh, refine, reconcile, rebuild, repair and resurrect. They all refer to God taking us and His creation back to something original.