His new book, Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church argues for a view of the Kingdom similar to that taken by Scot McKnight in Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church and James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World.
It’s a an easy read and very persuasive. Nugent makes some arguments I made in the Mission of the Church series, but also adds some new ones — which I mostly agree with. I think in a few places he over-argues his case, but his overall premise is sound. And it happens to be a question I’ve been wrestling with and looking for some additional guidance on, and I find Nugent very helpful, especially in his presentation of the purposes of the “powers” (which we’ll get to, Lord willing).
I’m not going to follow Nugent’s book very closely. But I do want to pass along his thinking, but I’m going to try to translate into Church of Christ terms.
Nugent calls for a very dramatic paradigm shift — one so radical in how we perceive church that is, the local congregation, that it’s really hard to know how to start. So I’m going to try to summarize the idea without proving the case, and then I’ll consider some of the arguments from scripture.
Here’s the idea: The Kingdom is a gift from God to his chosen people — Christians — and it’s not our job to change the world to become like the Kingdom. It’s our job to be the Kingdom, to live as Kingdom people, and to draw the world into the Kingdom. Let’s call this view the “Kingdom Church.”
By way of contrast, most evangelical churches today are Heaven Churches. That is, their focus is on making sure they go to heaven when they die and converting others so that also go to heaven when they die. The church is the Kingdom even today, but heaven is the goal, not the Kingdom.
Heaven Churches aren’t real big on social justice, benevolence, digging wells, or that sort of thing. Rather, if they do these things, it’s image advertising to be attractive to the lost in hopes that they find Jesus and so can go to heaven when they die.
This describes many progressive Churches of Christ. More conservative Churches of Christ are built on the same foundation, but they see salvation as being not only in Jesus but also in adherence to the Five Acts of Worship and other matters of worship and organization (technically: ecclesiology). That is, they see the path to salvation in pattern keeping as well as faith in Jesus, and so social justice is a low priority.
Progressive Churches of Christ put much less emphasis on ecclesiology — and most would not consider ecclesiology a salvation issue — and so they are more in the evangelical mainstream, meaning they see acts of good works seeking to make the world a better place as part of their mission, not as central as the gospel itself, but much more than a box to be checked to have the right pattern. Many have become very passionate in this kind of work.
Another approach to church is the World Church. These are evangelicals who disdain the local church — the attractional church — and see “missional” as getting out of the churches and into the community to serve broken people in a broken society.
Unlike the Heaven Churches, the World Churches often see acts of charity as Kingdom work. Anything that heals the brokenness of the world is Kingdom work, even if Jesus is not preached and no one is converted.
This is, of course, exactly what happened 100 years to the social justice movement within the American church. Many in the mainline congregations ultimately decided that their job as Christians is to improve the world, and evangelism began to take a very distant back seat. In fact, today, the former Christian social justice movement has become largely secular — so that the mainline denominations find evangelism somewhat distasteful, making their work nearly indistinguishable from progressive American politics.
But even among evangelical churches, we’re now seeing many young ministers sneer at the local church and attractional models of evangelism — preferring to get involved in community good works — sometimes in the name of Jesus and sometimes not.
These are, of course, not black and white, binary classifications. Churches might be at either extreme or at some point in between. But there’s a definite trend away from Heaven to the World, from evangelism to benevolence, from inviting friends to church to joining with secular organizations to do Kingdom work without any need to mention Jesus.
Nugent proposes that we should be neither of the above. We should be a Kingdom Church. We should not seek to change the world at all. Rather we should seek to be the Kingdom that God has called us to be. The goal is not heaven but the Kingdom, which is the New Heavens and New Earth (NHNE) today — not fully realized but already among us. The goal isn’t to earn salvation but to live today under the reign of King Jesus as Kingdom people.
We should, of course, be engaged in evangelistic efforts, church plantings, and missions, but the goal is to establish churches and build the Kingdom — not the make the world like the Kingdom.
The kingdom-centered approach is quite different. If the church’s primary vocation is to be the better place God has made through Christ, then most of this work can only take place in the common life of the church. We proclaim the good news beyond the assembly of believers, but we can’t forget the substance of that proclamation: the kingdom isn’t work believers do but a work that God has done on our behalf. It is a gift that God has given us to embrace and display in our love-filled life together.
Nugent, John C.. Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church (Kindle Locations 3077-3081). . Kindle Edition.
Now, it would be easy to satirize Nugent’s position by claiming he is against evangelism or serving those in need outside the church, and that is not at all his point. Rather, he wants to put evangelism and benevolence in their proper places — as the natural result of churches being what they were called to be.
Notice that in the Heaven Church conception, the assembly is all about drawing the lost to Jesus — not celebrating what God has done for the saved. The point of evangelism is to get people to heaven, not into the local church. The only real measure of success is the number of conversions, shortly followed by church attendance. No one counts lives changed.
In the World Church conception, the real measure of success is good works done, wells dug, houses painted, and such. Lives are to be changed, but the lives we want to change are the lives lived by those outside the church who are benefited by the church’s charity.
In the Kingdom Church conception, the goal is to be faithful by living according to Kingdom principles. That is, the goal is changed lives that are formed into a local church. That is, it’s individual and corporate spiritual formation. Now people truly formed into the image of Jesus will share the gospel with the lost and help non-Christians in need, because love compels them to do so. But the measure of success is changed lives and a changed shared life of the church.
That is, the Jesus is found, not in heaven and not among the unsaved masses but in his churches, his body on earth.
And, personally, I find this a very appealing approach because I think we’re doing a dreadful job of spiritual formation. In fact, I recently asked a classroom filled with elders from a dozen states who the most self-centered, most entitled , most selfish members of their churches are. And to a man, they said it was their long-term members!
So the longer we have people in our churches, the less like Jesus they become. Think about that one. We’re doing something terribly wrong.