This is a tale of two kingdoms.
But they don’t occupy different territories, nor do patrolled borders lay between them. They are infused but in theory they’re immiscible, incapable of being mixed, retaining their distinct flavours while freely coexisting in the heavily mixed world today.
Two kingdoms. One is the kingdom we’re told Jesus told us to build – the culture of Church and religion. And the other is the kingdom He really intended for us to build.
Today, so many of us are so preoccupied with maintaining a pure, orthodox version of the faith when we don’t even know what that is.
We’re historically quick to purge the impurity from our midst while pronouncing anathema on those who question our unquestionable creeds, culture and leaders. We don’t care if they’re genuinely curious or struggling.
Out of fear, we assume they’re rebellious, selfish and troublesome. Some claim to worship the Bible but then refuse to seek Jesus directly (John 5:39-40).
Today we’re fighting over who can really speak tongues (actual languages, or some angelic utterance?), how to dress to “not stumble” (can you wear shorts to cell group?), or prescribing specific models of family (remember, Paul said singlehood was preferable!).
The tragedy is I’m only half-joking. We idolise what is good and make it our god.
But although our world is spiritually more hungry than ever, the church often turns them away.
We turn them away with our politics, or our claim to absolute truth and morality, without bothering to defend or explain it.
We turn them away when we conduct censuses of our victories, or expect larger society to feel a moral compulsion to live by standards of ancient Judaism we ourselves fail and are indifferent to.
We turn them away when we don’t even know our own Gospel, or smash them with creeds and traditional cultural norms before inviting them to “come and see” Jesus for themselves.
In the modern world, Christianity as a worldview has lost the cultural war.
That’s the first kingdom – the established culture and vocabulary of this religion. I’m not sure it’s the kingdom we were meant to build; the church I hold dear needs to hold much more tightly to what matters, and much more loosely to everything else.
And it’s dawned on me, the kingdom that is losing – the which we’re desperately trying to hold up amidst a wave of wider lawlessness – isn’t the one Jesus spoke of.
When Jesus walked among humanity, His harshest words weren’t to those who sinned, but those who spent great time and energy calling out the sin of others. The whitewashed tombs of Matthew 23:27.
I apologise if this causes offence – the church taught me to speak the truth in love, so I must try. I don’t question the need for unity or submission to authority, but I think we need to step back to see how Christianity has lost its appeal.
Because in the modern world, Christianity as a worldview has lost the cultural war. I know Jesus said we would always face persecution – but it should not be for what we stand for (ill-reasoned arguments, unsympathetic positions), but for who we stand for.
Among the scientifically inclined, philosophical naturalism is dominant. A growing proportion of thinkers unthinkingly echo Nietzsche’s famous post-Enlightenment declaration of “God is dead” without understanding his larger philosophy.
I’ll try not to be crudely reductionist here – the serious atheists would object – but nihilism logically follows naturalism. (The issue is not with science, but with most people rejecting everything except science.)
And the truth is that that deep down, naturalist or not, many are walking the road to nihilism: When eternity is taken out of the equation, nothing actually matters.
So how can we make Christianity relevant again?
To speak life into a world trending toward meaninglessness, we Christians must first be present, respect the human condition and empathise with the struggles of others – not bluntly push a worldview that is unrealistic and onerous to others.
We need to help the deep thinkers to consider the Gospel along the path of nihilism, rather than denying the flow of modern thought altogether and calling it “ungodly”. Such thought isn’t inherently sin; we are merely ploughing the familiar paths the Teacher did in Ecclesiastes.
Bring God in and let Him guide you to truth.
When eternity is taken out of the equation, nothing actually matters.
Perhaps it’s time to embrace the concept of “God is dead”. I don’t mean to suggest for a second that He doesn’t exist.
What I mean is, maybe it’s time to put aside that first kingdom, of pre-established notions of religion, and really look to establish that second kingdom: Bringing Jesus, and not merely shadows of Him, into the world.
If we must stand up for one thing, let it not be the minor differences inevitably tied to our human condition, cultural norms or barricading ourselves up in fear of impurity. Yes, faith is highly political but if others must stumble, let them personally stumble over the person of Christ – not our politics or cultural idiosyncrasies.
We should stand unashamedly for the saving grace of He who, from the Cross of Calvary, looked at the world in all its grave folly and prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Truth be told, we rarely know what we’re doing. We’re here only by the grace of God. May we have the grace to consider others in the same light.