The Church as we know it in the west is dying. The exodus of millennials from the pews is now often (but not always) accompanied by a more secular worldview. But whether they have embraced an agnostic, atheistic, or “spiritual but not religious” perspective in life, we should not be alarmed. This exodus is exactly the type of reformation that the Church needs.
What is the Kingdom of God?
When Jesus taught on the Kingdom of God, it was not to present a doctrinal structure or list of beliefs that would qualify anyone to enter. For Jesus, entry was not even the main focus. Time and again, Christ stated that the Kingdom of God was already here, near and within. It was, and is, all around us and within us, permeating all of creation. What was required was not entry, but engagement. The parables and lessons that he gave, the questions that he asked, were all designed to drive an inner desire for engagement with the Kingdom, and the world at large. If we fail to recognise Christ in even the least desirable of people, we have failed to enter into God’s Kingdom at work. Jesus was not concerned with what beliefs the “least of these” held in his parable of the sheep and the goats, he still recognised that he was present with and in all of them; and he called his followers to recognise the same.
Jesus’ teachings were about becoming more loving, more gracious, more generous people. They were about engaging with the spirit of the law, which is love; rejecting the letter of the law wherever its interpretation conflicted with this spirit. God’s Kingdom was, to Jesus, about humility, mercy, justice for the oppressed, loving enemies and being at peace with oneself and all creation.
The Church, in the eyes of millennials at least, has lost sight of this mandate. Instead of engaging with God’s Kingdom with humility and grace, the Church has been wildly grasping at the power it once had in the world. We’ve lost focus on God’s Kingdom and have been trying to preserve our own, even as it dies slowly in front of our eyes. It has become quite obvious with the increasingly greater focus on fear-based teachings, stronger language and the almost forceful coercion - to the point of excommunication from some branches of the Church - that our focus is on maintaining our earthly empire and status in society as a force to be reckoned with.
Any talk of mercy, love and grace is countered with the worn out platitude that yes, God is loving, but (He) is also just. And that justice is purposed by, and for, God’s holiness (and his people's by association). But the biblical nature of justice was never focused on this at all. Biblical justice is exactly what Jesus outlines in Isaiah during his first recorded sermon, and pre-empted by the Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise upon learning of the conception of her God within her. Justice is good news for the poor, freedom for the oppressed, bringing down the powerful and raising up the lowly and filling the needs of the hungry. The point being for us, as believers, to relinquish all power in our engagement with the Kingdom movement towards these ends. But too often we have sided with power and the current political empires in order to preserve our own.
But this is also why there is no cause for alarm when we see the move towards secular thinking in our world today. The secular world is largely waking up to the need to not only speak for oppressed minorities, but to empower them to speak for themselves. It is re-evaluating and redesigning the world in fairer, more equitable ways. It is providing clean drinking water, healthcare and sanitation to the third world and developing new technologies in order to improve the quality of life for even the poorest global citizens. The secular world is speaking up for refugees, people of colour, women and the LGBTQI+ community in positive, life-giving and affirming ways.
God’s Kingdom is being realised and engaged with by a large swath of people who no longer want anything to do with the Church. And the Church is being sent away empty - along with the rest of the powerful and political elites of the world - precisely because we have refused, largely, to recognise and engage with the Kingdom. It’s not perfect by any means, and of course, there are parts of the Church that do engage the world with the Kingdom values outlined above and more, but the truth remains that our focus has always been more on presenting what we have deemed to be the qualifying beliefs for a heavenly or hellish afterlife, over and above engaging with the Kingdom in this life.
Welcome to the table
The secular world has largely embraced a spirituality that they often don’t even realise, joining with God in the freedom and validation of all people, in acknowledgement of the fact that all people are loved and worthy of such grace. In as much as they do this, they are recognising their own value to, and union with, Christ and his Spirit at work in the world. Just as the faithful in Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats did not realise they were doing things for Christ and in his name (or for any kind of reward mind you), many in our secular world today go about Kingdom business, serving and loving Christ in others without any need for recognition from their creator. They may not use such Christian language to describe what they are doing, but it is plainly visible to all who have ears to hear and eyes to see the good fruit that is coming to life.
There is still a lot of benefit in the Christian message, and the Church still has an opportunity to engage with the Kingdom of God's movement in the world. Christ’s message and example of dying to self, of love in the face of even the deepest and most carnal and visceral rejection, is still the most powerfully transformative truth this world has ever known, and one that would benefit secular Kingdom engagement immensely. If we can follow Christ’s lead, dying to ourselves and our need for control over the beliefs of others, we still might just find ourselves sitting at God’s table with all of the world’s poor and lowly, sharing with everyone in the goodness of the reality of God’s Kingdom.
Russell has a heart for community and reaching out to the marginalised and forgotten. He is getting to know the God of infinite goodness and is living a joy-filled life with his wife Belinda and three children in South-East Queensland, Australia.
See all previous articles by Russell Croft