At the core of Jesus' earthly mission was the kingdom of God. The Son became human, not just to draw alongside and identify with men and women, but to launch the kingdom – God's rule that will eventually transform the world.
Jesus identified with the vision of the kingdom in the book of Isaiah
(Luke 4.17-19) The vision included peace for the entire earth (Isaiah 2.4), light where there has been darkness (9.2) and harmony in the whole of creation (11.6).
Isaiah 65.17-24 envisages that children will not die, old people will live in dignity, those who build houses will live in them and people who plant vineyards will eat the fruit. This is a world of health, justice and abundance.
Jesus proclaimed the kingdom
He taught its values to his disciples and demonstrated its power through his miracles. Kingdom values transformed individuals' lives and challenged society to change radically too. Jesus urged his contemporaries to be more welcoming to social outcasts, for example, and to abandon violence ('turn the other cheek'). Both were revolutionary in the context of the day, as was so much of Jesus' teaching.
The kingdom can be seen today wherever the Spirit is active in the world – in an act of kindness, in a costly piece of honesty, in a refusal to accept injustice, in a campaign for peace, in the care of nature, in a beautiful painting and in countless other ways that increase human flourishing and the well-being of creation.
The goal of mission is the kingdom, which is the Godly transformation of the whole of life. As the saying goes: 'Mission is finding out what God is doing and joining in.'
How do church and the kingdom fit together?
There has been much debate about this in some quarters of the church. There are dangers in two polarised positions.
One view stresses the church without emphasising the kingdom.
Priority is given to building up the church, with the result that believers' horizons shrink to the church away from the kingdom.
Lip service is paid to the kingdom, but in practice more attention is paid to encouraging new people into the church than to the purpose for which the church exists. Many churches that are not growing put most of their effort into 'keeping the show on the road'.
Yet this view ignores swathes of Scripture. Jesus used 'kingdom of God' as shorthand for a huge Old Testament theme, which he fulfilled. Psalm 72 for instance is all about 'the king' bringing justice, defending the afflicted, ruling over the whole earth and blessing all the nations. As we've noted, Jesus identified with the kingdom theme in Isaiah.
As a result of this church-without-the-kingdom view, believers' vision of God shrinks. God is confined to the boundaries of the church.
In the words of Bill Hybels, founding pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois, the Christian life is reduced to praying more, coming to church more, giving more to church and doing more things in church.
At the other extreme is an emphasis on the kingdom at the expense of church.
The priority is to help build the kingdom of God, but not enough time is spent nurturing the church. It is pointed out that while Jesus frequently spoke about the 'kingdom of God' (or the 'kingdom of heaven'), he rarely used the term 'ecclesia', the church.
However, Jesus did spend a lot of time building up the twelve disciples. That he selected twelve was no accident. They represented the new Israel, the people of God who had their roots in Israel but who became the church.
The time Jesus spent teaching and nurturing these disciples reflected his strong commitment to the church: it was to be built on firm foundations. The church emerged after his resurrection because that is what his followers thought Jesus wanted.
The danger with this kingdom-without-the-church view is that if you do not build up and sustain the church, it will eventually decline. There will be no means of passing on the Christian witness to the next generation.
We should embrace both church and kingdom
The church should be built within the horizon of the kingdom. Alongside a big vision of the coming kingdom should be a rich vision of the church as the body of Christ, growing in likeness to Christ and being a Spirit-filled agent of the kingdom.
This will mean holding together:
- the future and the present. The kingdom will be fully realised at the end of history - that's the future. But what we do in the present can help shape the kingdom. So we need to live in the light of the future.
Perhaps it is rather like an artist, who has some idea of what the finished canvas will be like and is spurred on by that vision. As the artist paints, the vision becomes more concrete. Christians have been given the outline of the kingdom and are called, in the power of the Spirit, to fill in the detail.
God-in-the-church and God-in-the-world. God is active in both spheres. The church is certainly meant to be an agent of the kingdom in the world, but that does not mean the Spirit is absent from the rest of society. Indeed, in some respects the kingdom may advance more rapidly in the world, with the church lagging behind.
Recently in Britain, for example, the institutional church has had to catch up with society in good employment practice, in making provision for disabled people and in the equal treatment of women. In these areas, the world has been more just than the church.
hope and despair. The shortcomings of the church, as part of a fallen world, may lead us to despair. But we must balance these feelings with hope in the God who forgives, redeems situations and is able to renew the church. We should not be surprised if church is a bitter-sweet experience.
Fresh expressions offer new ways for the church to contribute to God's mission
At their best, fresh expressions build Christian communities that are both culturally sensitive and counter-cultural. These communities prayerfully advance the kingdom by being vehicles of transformation. Change comes to individuals and society.
We can picture the process as follows:
The arrows flow in both directions because the kingdom shapes mission and is influenced by the outcome of mission; mission helps shape the church and is partly shaped by the church; the church influences fresh expressions, while the latter also influence the church.
Kingdom is bigger than mission because it is the goal of mission. Mission is bigger than church because the Spirit is also active outside the church, while the outcome of God's mission depends ultimately not on the church, but on God.
The church as an agent of mission is bigger than fresh expressions because fresh expressions are still a tiny, emerging dimension of the church. Yet despite often being small and fragile, fresh expressions have the potential to advance the kingdom in novel ways.
A Methodist venture, The Terminus Café in Sheffield provides an example. Christians on the notorious Low Edges estate asked residents what they most needed and what they could do to help.
The neighbourhood churches have launched a café with a monthly worship event, an asylum seekers befriending service, a Credit Union and other activities that are benefiting the whole estate.
Fresh expressions are not about 'us' doing things so that 'we' can change other people.
Individuals who start a fresh expression are frequently changed themselves. As they listen to people they are called to serve, they see things with new eyes. They may do things they had not done before, with people they did not know before.
As they engage in mission and experience a new form of church, they may see God in a different way. They may experience a fresh conversion.
Are fresh expressions radical enough?
There is a danger that fresh expressions will fail to bring kingdom change to society because they have a defective view of their task. They will define their mission as getting people into church, and downplay the kingdom.
An alternative starting point might be to have a broader view of the church's mission
The church's task is to promote fairness, healthy relationships and other kingdom values in society.
But the gap between church and society makes it difficult to enthuse non-churchgoers about advancing these values in a Christian context. So new forms of church are required.
These new kinds of church would be designed to provide spiritual resources for people engaged in social action.
Culturally relevant expressions of Christian community would make the church more attractive. As newcomers were welcomed, they would encounter God in the context of pushing forward the kingdom, and be supported in their social concern.
This how-can-the-church-serve-the-world approach would put mission at the heart of fresh expressions. New Christian communities would form round acts of loving service.
Might a mission agency start a fresh expression?
Perhaps it organises gap year projects among the poor (in Britain or overseas). Three quarters of the participants in each project might be recruited from among people with little or no church background.
'We'll share spiritual resources to support your work with the poor' would be part of the deal. A church might briefly form around the project.
At the end, those who wanted to continue the journey might be put in touch with congregations back home. And/or they might keep in touch online, forming a net-based Christian community with a focus on poverty. Perhaps they would meet up physically from time to time.
It concentrates its worship on writing letters on behalf of pressure groups such as Amnesty International. 15 to 25 young adults attend, most of them new to church practice.
Will fresh expressions follow this and other examples to develop in a radical direction, or will they remain socially conservative?
(For more on socially conservative and radical approaches, see Kees de Groot, The Church in Liquid Modernity: A Sociological and Theological Exploration of a Liquid Church in International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church, 6, 2006, pp91-103).
A kingdom mindset will be open to radical ideas
Whenever the kingdom breaks into the world, something different happens. Jesus's launching the kingdom brought something new into history.
The church shows that it is part of the kingdom, part of God's rule over the cosmos, when it too brings something new into the world. Just as God is free to innovate, the church must expect to innovate as well.
Would-be pioneers sometimes have fixed ideas about what their fresh expression will be like - 'Let's start an evening congregation for young people'. They bring into the new situation assumptions they have inherited about church - it should meet on a Sunday, worship should be led by a band playing contemporary Christian songs, there should be a sermon and so on.
Kingdom thinking says that we don't have to be trapped by past ways of doing things. God's future will be different and novel. We are called to think out-of-the-box. As we do so, we open ourselves to the Spirit, to being led to a more radical engagement with the world and to starting a fresh expression in a socially more radical way.