This week I’ve been re-reading ‘The Provocative Church’ by Graham Tomlin. I read this some years ago, but on this second reading its really come alive to me particularly with reference to much of the thinking I’ve been doing about the Kingdom of God and how our understanding and grasp of the Kingdom affects our understanding of mission, evangelism, social action, social justice, the shape of church and all the rest.
I came across something of a definition that is really helpful, especially in the conversation about where our priorities lie in our task in these days. I was in discussion with a cadet on facebook, I think possibly from the US, who was advocating the importance of evangelism over social action. Now in the past, I have said that evangelism is a priority and that social action, whilst admirable and a response to the call of God, is different as it doesn’t quite have the same eternal consequences. To some extent, I still hold that position but I think that I, as well as the cadet, was perhaps coming at it from the wrong angle.
I think its wrong to polarise these issues. I also think its wrong to ‘de-spiritualise’ much of our social work and divorce it from our corps operations, but thats a differnet arguement….and its one that derives from this polarised position.
Now, if our starting point is neither evangelism or social work/action or social justice, but the Kingdom of God, we start to see things in their proper perspective.
Graham Tomlin gives something of a helpful definition. He says something like this:
mission is everything that demonstrates or recalls (read brings into the present) the Kingdom of God – this includes a whole raft of stuff…feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, standing up for those whose voice has been silenced, working for kingdom peace, kingdom economics, kingdom justice, everything that is an expression of making ‘the standards of the Kingdom of God the standard of our lives (Articles of War).
evangelism is the words that explain those things and invite people into the Kingdom of God.
You will know that St Francis of Assisi is often credited as saying something like ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel, using words if you have to.’ Now, it must be the most misused quote around. St Francis was, in essence, an open-air intinerant evangelist but also someone who cared passionately about the poor, and embraced poverty for their sakes.
So what is going on? St Francis got the idea that words weren’t enough. Evangelism is never enough, and it certainly shouldn’t be happening outside the context of the expression of the Kingdom. The apostle James picks this up in his epistle when he says that we should just say ‘God bless’ to the hungry man, but we should feed him.
As I’ve said so many times in this blog, proclamation and demonstration go hand in hand whether, in the case of the New Testament, those are ‘supernatural’ demonstrations (like healings or miracles etc) or practical demonstrations like making sure the widows are cared for. You see, its all a demonstration of the Kingdom.
Jesus central message, all the scholars are agreed, is simply this “Repent, the Kingdom of God is at hand.” We need that message in its fulness. We need the Kingdom of God to be tangible in peoples lives, for them to see what it means to live under the rule of God, the rule of King Jesus, inviting people to enter under that rule through repentance.
Lots of people have problems with evangelism today. But Evangelism is nothing more and nothing less than inviting people to change loyalities and nationality. Like any person who moves to a country not their own, it involves understanding the laws, language and culture, history and customs of that place…it also means recognising and confessing my failure in recognising that God has rightful rule in both my life and in the world…and it involves believing that Jesus provided the way to be set free from the consequences of that rebellion.
The early church held closely to ‘Jesus is Lord’ not just as a nice theological statement, but as a pure expression of living in the Kingdom, under Kingdom rule.
However, the one thing we must recognise and learn is that the church is NOT the Kingdom of God. This is a problematic area. The church is certainly supposed to be small expressions of Kingdom community, how life should really be. Now, I’ll leave you to your own conclusions as to how successful we are at doing that, and as to how successful it is on your front. Reality is that in the Christendom mode, we’ve often been very highly duped into believing that the Kingdom is the church and the church is the Kingdom. There are huge implications in getting this right or wrong. It has huge questions to ask of the church.
Let me just conclude with what I’m saying. If we are not showing the world ‘the Kingdoms of this world becoming the Kingdom of our Lord and Christ'(Rev 11:15) then our evangelistic invitation something akin to asking a person to walk into a dark room with you…they are simply going to be very very wary in doing that with you…and I don’t blame them!
Having said that, lets stop making ‘building authentic Kingdom communities’ an excuse for downplaying the call of the gospels to evangelise. The greek word used for evangelism can’t possibly be understood outside the context of the spoken invitation, the spoken exhortation. Lets not fall into the trap our culture is trying to tell us here.
Our message: “repent, the Kingdom of God is at hand”. Good enough for Jesus, good enough for me.