Radical Christian discipleship is simply a commitment to follow Jesus at the most fundamental level of life experience. It is the mark of a fully-functioning citizen of the kingdom of God. It understands that faith is not simply a veneer which we add to a life that is shaped and influenced by the culture more than the values of the Kingdom.
It is true that nobody but Jesus has ever been a perfect example of radical discipleship. Nobody but Jesus has ever lived according to kingdom values with absolute consistency. Despite that, our responsibility, and our great privilege, is to aspire to that kind of devotion and consistency.
None of us will ever, fully and completely, achieve our goal in this regard. That’s OK. That’s what the church is for. Since the church is composed of people at different places in their lives, at different levels of commitment, under different types of stress and challenge, when somebody is down, somebody else is up. And the one who is up helps to encourage the one who is down.
The church is the agent of the kingdom of God. It is where we learn what radical discipleship looks like. It is where we encourage one another to aspire to that goal. And it is where we experience love, from God and from each other, to sustain us in the tough times and to bring us joy at all times.
Before I die, I hope to be part of a church that identifies itself, deliberately and forthrightly, with the three-fold relationship of the church to the kingdom that Lesslie Newbigin described when he wrote, “The church is only true to its calling when it is a sign, an instrument, and a foretaste of the kingdom of God.”
The local church only functions in a way that is consistent with God’s purpose when it serves as a sign (pointing to the coming of the kingdom in its fullness, when Jesus returns), an instrument (serving the purposes and interests of the kingdom of God on earth), and a foretaste of the kingdom of God (where the principles and values of the kingdom to come are lived out in full view of the watching world).
I want to be part of a church like that.
A church that recognizes its role as the agent of the Kingdom will focus its energies in three areas: worship, discipleship, and community. Worship will be primary, because, at the most basic level, it is all about God. In worship, the church concentrates its attention on the triune God—Father/Creator, Son/Savior, and Spirit/Empowerer—and expresses its adoration and gratitude in word and song, in readings and homilies, in liturgy and sacrament and prayer.
Discipleship involves every aspect of the church’s service—from individual and corporate transformation into the likeness of Christ to sharing the good news of the kingdom with those who have not yet believed. It includes personal devotion and corporate compassion. It recognizes that the gospel of the Kingdom is both an invitation to personal faith as well as a call for societal justice. It encourages personal holiness and social responsibility. It is the means by which the values of the kingdom permeate the church and overflow onto the culture at large.
Faithfulness to kingdom values will inevitably lead to tension, no matter how lovingly we try to engage a culture which is mainly insensitive to spiritual reality. The church is the place where we embrace and comfort and bandage and console those who are battered and bruised from this kind of interaction. The church is the place where we encourage one another to hang tough, be consistent, don’t surrender, and don’t lose heart. The church is the place where we practice—and where we experience—genuine community.
I want to be part of a church like that.
What kind of music will be played in a church like this? What will be the style and format of its worship service? What kind of a building will it meet in? Will its ministers be paid? Will they wear robes?
I don’t know. I do know that people who are not involved in church are not sitting around waiting until a church with a worship band or a church with a pipe organ comes to their neighborhood. If they are waiting at all, it is for a church that will genuinely love them, accept them, and put their needs ahead of a prescribed institutional agenda.
If they are looking at all, it is for a church that reminds them of Jesus. One that is more loving than judging. More forgiving than condemning. More generous and grateful, less critical and hateful.
That is what I yearn to be part of—a church that understands its great privilege to serve the King and the culture as a sign, an instrument, and a foretaste of the kingdom of God. A church that evaluates every potential decision, every anticipated expenditure, every available avenue for ministry against the unchanging standards of the glory of God, the example of Jesus, and the values and principles of the Kingdom—the self-denying, cross-bearing values of the kingdom.
Before I die, I hope to be a part of a church like that.