Holistic Ministry for the 21st Century (Part 1): The Kingdom Message
As you read this, our nation will be preparing to inaugurate a new president. Half the country will be thrilled; the other half will be outraged. I find myself thoroughly convinced that Christians need to turn their attention now to a recovery of biblical theology, ecclesiological clarity, and missional self-discipline. David Kuo was not far wrong—we do need at least a kind of sabbatical from politics. At least, those who are Christian leaders need to lead Christians instead of trying to lead America.
In this and in part 2 of this article, I will be laying forth the core biblical and theological themes undergirding a healthier evangelical Christianity in the United States. I begin with the kingdom of God.
I join N.T. Wright, Greg Boyd, Brian McLaren, and a growing host of other theologians, biblical scholars, pastors, and ethicists who are reclaiming the kingdom of God as preached and inaugurated by Jesus as the central organizing framework for Christian mission and proclamation. Ever since 1995, when Glen Stassen and I began our collaboration on Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, this focus on Jesus and the kingdom has anchored my work as a teacher and churchman. I have been pleased to see this theme spread over much of the Christian landscape, both because it is richly biblical and because it has salutary results theologically and ethically. I think it is big enough to encompass other subsidiary themes while placing them in proper perspective. Its implications, still being discovered and worked out, are quite far-reaching.
This recovery of the kingdom of God means moving this central biblical (Jewish and Christian) concept to the center of Christian theology and church life in a way it hasn't been since the Social Gospel movement. I hope we can do so without the theological errors that sometimes emerged in that otherwise laudable movement. It feels more like a 1st-century moment than an early 20th-century moment, which helps us read Jesus rightly and avoid earlier mistakes. This is an apocalyptic era with a minority remnant of committed disciples, not a sunny era with a syncretistic Americanized Christian vision.
The good news Jesus came to preach is the same that we are to preach: that our sovereign Creator God was and is in Christ comprehensively reclaiming his rebellious, suffering world.
I really do believe that the good news Jesus came to preach is the same that we are to preach: that our sovereign Creator God was and is in Christ comprehensively reclaiming his rebellious, suffering world. God created everything, everything has been damaged by human rebellion, and everything is to be reclaimed under God's reign. Jesus advanced this reclamation effort in his incarnation, ministry, suffering, death, and resurrection.
Specifically, the kingdom was advanced as Jesus went about:
- teaching and preaching the nature of God's eternal moral will for human beings, the ways our sinful habits and patterns block its practice in our lives with such tragic results, and the transformative initiatives that we can take by God's grace that lead us toward an obedience that liberates and transforms;
- incarnating the kingdom in all of its dimensions: offering deliverance/salvation of people from their various distresses, advancing justice, teaching peacemaking, healing the sick, creating a new kind of covenant community, embodying and evoking joy, and incarnating God's presence in vivid and obvious ways;
- doing battle with Satan and all other forces (the "principalities and powers") that oppose the doing of God's will on earth as in heaven and gaining victory over those forces, but not without great struggle, suffering, and his own death;
- forming a community of followers/disciples/co-workers who live to participate in the advance of God's reign and are willing to die in the name of our King and his reign.
In all of this, Jesus exemplified trust in God the Father, celebrating and proclaiming the good news that God could be counted on to reclaim his world and to empower those involved in the effort.
Therefore the mission of the church is to continue and participate in the mission of the kingdom. Empowered now by the Holy Spirit, the church is called to
- evangelism—telling others what God is doing to reclaim his world in and through Christ;
- disciple-making—inviting others not just to believe this story but to enter into it;
- church-making—forming radically boundary-crossing communities of kingdom belief and action;
- incarnating—doing the works of Christ as his incarnated body: preaching, teaching, healing, loving, exorcising, transforming, peace-making, justice-making, forgiving, welcoming, confronting;
- worshiping—adoring God and celebrating God's redemptive goodness to humanity; trusting—believing God for the consummation of the kingdom even as we work for it now and gain hope from mustard-seed victories.
A kingdom reframing of Christian proclamation leads inexorably to a holistic vision of Christian mission and a holistic practice of Christian ministry. It is the path we need to follow.
David P. Gushee is a distinguished university professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta, Ga.