Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Kingdom or Clique?

In His sermon on the mount, Jesus said: "seek first the Kingdom of God." Most Christians, being familiar with this well-known verse, would likely agree that investing in God's Kingdom is an important aspect of Christian living. Indeed, many Christians invest their time and money in their local church, tithing their income, attending church services and events, participating in small groups, and serving in church ministries. But it's useful to pause and ask, what did Jesus really mean when He told us to seek first His Kingdom? And if this means spending a whole lot of time at church, how much do our churches actually represent God's Kingdom, anyway?

The problem is, nowadays, too many of our church communities are consumer-driven rather than servant-minded. In our commitment-phobic, consumeristic society, the problem of "convenience-store Christianity" in which our churches have become distributors of faith-based goods and services rather than manifestations of God's Kingdom, is on the rise. In this context, the focus is on what the church can do for us (good kids' programs, an accommodating facility, inspiring sermons, fun events, a social network), not what we can do for the church. When this happens, we're not thinking so much about serving and glorifying God as we are about Him meeting our own needs and desires. And when a particular church doesn't meet our expectations, we soon lose interest and go elsewhere.

This is not to say there's anything wrong with finding a church that's a good fit for us. When my family searched for a church in our new town, we were blessed to find one with solid teaching, a strong sense of community, and a great kids' ministry. As stewards of our childrens' spiritual lives, we felt it was our responsibility to make these things a priority. But if our commitment-level to God's Kingdom was contingent on these things being provided, we would have the wrong perspective.

The reality is, American Christians have it pretty good; in most parts of the country we're spoiled for choice when it comes to churchgoing. Many of us get to cherry-pick from a list of great churches with bells & whistles to offer. As a result, we can take our blessings for granted: air-conditioned sanctuaries with comfortable seating; Bible studies with childcare; hightech audiovisual presentations, etc. We can suffer from feelings of entitlement and be under the misconception that we deserve these things from our church. We can overlook the fact that Christians in other parts of the world risk their lives, and make enormous sacrifices, just to worship together secretly in dingy basements without any of the creature comforts we've come to expect.

And when we focus on what the church can do for us, we forget that, in fact, we are the Church.

As a result, many of our churches are now more akin to social clubs than they are to spiritual families, being devoid of faithful commitment, self-sacrificial love, mutual accountability, and Christ-centeredness. These social clubs often constitute somewhat shallow relationships inasmuch as they're based on expediency, personal comfort-levels, and quick-fix community. They usually promote organized fun and self-helpism over authentic fellowship and spiritual growth. And an overemphasis on common interest- or convenience-based community gives rise to the ever-pressing problem of church cliques, resulting in more of a self-centered environment that's sorely lacking in open-heartedness and outreach-mindedness.

But stepping out of our comfort zones, social circles, and interest-areas to encourage the lonely and the afflicted with the gospel was clearly modeled by Jesus during His earthly ministry. Jesus invested in the Kingdom by pouring His love into the lost, the outcast, the ostracized—not those from whom He would gain something or those with whom He had something in common. He didn't work His way up the social ladder or seek out politically expedient relationships. He didn't restrict His social life to an exclusive clique of like-minded companions. Instead, He made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant (Phil 2:7) and reached out to leapers, tax-collectors, and prostitutes (not exactly members of the "in" crowd...).

This is not to say we shouldn't socialize with our Christian friends!  Jesus certainly fellowshipped with His disciples. More than just that, He lived life in close relationship with them. Scripture clearly demonstrates that "it is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Even though Adam walked in the garden with God, and had many animals around him, he still yearned for companionship. God created for Adam a companion of his kind—someone with whom he had a shared commonality. And so, it is natural and good for people to gravitate towards those with whom they share things in common. It is beneficial, indeed vital, to have strong friendships like these within the Body of Christ.

But when we're investing in these relationships alone, we might find ourselves slipping away from God's Kingdom and into a church clique in which God has become sidelined and is no longer central. Here's the bottom line: enjoying shared interests with other believers is a good thing, but if it becomes the ultimate thing, then that's a bad thing. In other words, Christ must be the focal point. And if we are to be Christlike there needs to be a balance between enjoying the company of those with whom we have a lot in common and reaching out to people outside of our usual social circles—i.e. the lonely, ostracized, and afflicted people in our churches and communities. In this vein, it's useful to consider our own motivations for getting involved in our church community. Here are some questions we might ask ourselves:
  • Is my involvement in my church motivated by a desire to grow in my relationship with God and to encourage others to do so as well? Is it all about me, or all about God? 
  • Am I practicing favoritism by investing in my brothers and sisters selectively based on my personal preferences? Or am I making self-sacrificial choices in serving others? 
  • Am I finding a good balance between my fellowship time with those I love and my outreach to the lonely or unpopular people in my church? 
  • Am I making time for genuine relationships in my life, or am I seeking quick-fix community that requires little of me? 
  • Am I non-discriminatory in forming relationships within the Body of Christ, which transcends social, cultural, and racial boundaries?
Here are five ways to distinguish a church clique from God's Kingdom:

1. Church cliques tend to focus on earthly relationships using the church building as a meeting ground. Kingdom relationships, on the other hand, are focused on Christ. Stemming from Him, these relationships actually become His church.
The Apostle Paul wrote, "flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable." (1 Cor 5:50). Church cliques tend to be worldly, insular, and self-serving. But it's important to remember that God's Kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). And when Jesus told us to seek first His Kingdom, He did so in the context of teaching His followers not to worry about this temporal life and its physical needs, but instead to keep our eyes fixed on that which is eternal. Spreading the saving gospel of Christ, making disciples, and growing in our relationship with God and other believers, will be priorities for those living in light of eternitythese things hold everlasting value. Unlike mere earthly relationships, Kingdom relationships are bound up in the Body of Christ, which cannot be contained within the walls of any church building or social circle. The Body is made up of brothers and sisters across the world, from all walks of life, including those who are persecuted and in prison for their faith. It's easy to forget about them when we're caught up in a church clique because this can cause symptoms of "faith-myopia." But Paul urged us to remember those who are in prison, as though we are in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since we are all in the Body (Heb 13:3)—however far away they may be.
2. Church cliques tend to be insular, while Kingdom relationships are missional. 
Church cliques can develop when the focus of a group is restricted to the interests of that group alone. If prayer requests and acts of service revolve around the inwardly focused needs the group, its members are in danger of becoming self-absorbed and exclusionary. Church cliques can close themselves off so that sin gets trapped inside an airtight bubble and gradually begins to choke its members. Closed-off cliques can also shut out the sanctifying light of Christ. God's Kingdom, on the other hand, is welcoming, open, and flooded with the light of Christ. Sin is still present in the fallen natures of its members, but there is room to breath, to grow, and be purified—for darkness flees from God's light, which then shines out into the world. Kingdom relationships are missional; they are motivated by Jesus' commission to "go and make disciples" (Matt 28:19). Making disciples can mean evangelizing, but it can also mean teaching or encouraging other believers, building up the Body of Christ. Participating in the work of the Kingdom is not optional, but is required of every believer. For as John explains: "Whoever says “I know Him” but does not keep His commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him" (1 John 2:4). The truth is, if we are not making disciples as Jesus commanded, we are not seeking first His Kingdom.
3. Church cliques like believers to stay safely within their comfort zones, but Kingdom relationships require us to get out of our comfort-zones. 
Jesus called Peter to get out the boat and walk on water (Matt 14:29). Following Jesus clearly involves taking leaps of faith. It requires us to drop our nets and leave everything for Him (Matt 4:20), not cling to our former lives (Eph 4:22). A church clique, however, doesn't require anyone to drop their nets or get out of the boat...church cliques don't even want anyone to rock the boat! They like to keep things the "safe." They tend to stick to polite dinner conversation, not wanting to offend anyone, ruffle feathers, or get too deep. Why? Because potentially offending people by speaking truth in love can make things uncomfortable for everybody. And getting deep requires a level of commitment to one another that is costly to us. We're all way too busy. We have enough on our plates. And church cliques don't require anything too demanding of us; there's generally a tacit understanding that, sure—we'll send out a prayer request or two, but puh-lease spare us the grizzly details. This is because Church cliques aren't interested in authentic relationships, but in quick-fix community. They don't want to challenge anyone to grow in their faith. Instead, there's an unspoken desire to keep things superficial, to smooth things over, and make everyone feel better about themselves. Growing in our faith is often costly, however. It may require us to change in ways that aren't easy for us or to confront truths that are difficult to swallow. But Jesus said, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me." (Luke 9:23). Church cliques conveniently avoid cross-bearing, but Kingdom relationships gently urge one another to die to self, to stand in grace, and to embrace a new life in Christ.
4. Church cliques are based on expediency, while Kingdom relationships are self-sacrificial. 
Because they tend to over-emphasize shared interests or common ground, and de-emphasize Christ-likeness, church cliques are all about us—our needs, our preferences, our conveniences—rather than being all about God. Relationships within church cliques start out as being mutually beneficial, so they may involve loving behavior for a time, but because church cliques are contingent on shared interests, when inevitable differences do arise, they tend to cave in under their own weight. The needs of the group continue to grow, but the motivation to love and serve one another diminishes. Scripture is clear, however, that godly love never fails (1 Cor 13:8), despite changing winds of circumstance and emotion. And godly love is not self-seeking (1 Cor 13:5). When Jesus commanded us to love God, and our neighbor as ourselves (Luke 10:27), He used the word, agapaƍ, a form of agapeis or agape. The essence of agape-love is self-sacrifice. Christlike love, then, as modeled by Jesus, is selfless. Genuinely selfless love can only be achieved in the power of the Holy Spirit. It's easy enough to perform acts of kindness towards people we are fond of, or people who mean something to us, but Christ died for the ungodly. Scripture points out that "one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Romans 5:6-8). For a perfectly just and holy God, to become flesh and die for sinners, is a purely self-sacrificial act of love. This should be our inspiration for loving others, even when it is not personally beneficial or easy for us to do so. To walk alongside a suffering brother or sister can be in be time-consuming, inconvenient, and sometimes messy or painful. But this is to truly love our neighbor as ourselves.
5. Church cliques are usually homogeneous, Kingdom relationships unify people from diverse walks of life. 
The Body of Christ transcends socioeconomic, cultural, racial, and national boundaries. In Christ, all are equal and people from every tribe and tongue are united. Because church cliques are based on expediency, tend to be insular, and prefer to keep things "safe," they don't often unite people from diverse backgrounds. They tend, therefore, to be demographically homogeneous. But the Kingdom of Heaven is made up of a wonderful array of people from all walks of life. For this reason, Kingdom relationships can develop between people who would otherwise never cross paths. People from different cultural and class-backgrounds who may have never thought they'd have something in common become close when they realize they speak the same spiritual language and have a bond that runs far deeper than a shared love of cooking, or running, or music could ever generate. But church cliques usually bring together people from the same walks of life and those with shared interests or backgrounds. Again, there's nothing wrong with this, as long as the group stays outreach-minded and fosters spiritual growth in its members. It is when a group becomes insular and self-serving that problems arise.
Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the Kingdom of God.” (John 3:3). And so, it's vital that our church communities should encourage believers to die to self and walk in the light of Christ. For it is Christnot high-tech audiovisuals, pretty buildings, or feel-good sermonsthat will ultimately draw people to His Kingdom. Let's encourage each other, then, with the powerful words of Jesus:
"When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on his glorious throne. Before Him will be gathered all the nations, and He will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And He will place the sheep on His right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world." (Matt 25:31-34)

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