An old joke I first heard while at seminary in the late 80s goes something like this— “Jesus came to earth in order to establish ‘the kingdom of God’… but all He got was the church.” The punch line can be self-deprecating humor for life-long church members but it also reflects a painful indictment. The history of the Church over 2,000 years is the record of an institution that has done some good (along with some evil) but overall has fallen far short of bringing to fruition Jesus’ mission proclamation to break-in “the kingdom of God” (Mark 1:15).
Perhaps someone might counter my statement with how large Christianity has become during that time. A simple Google search could further support that argument by quoting these excerpts from The Pew Research Center’s most recent study in 2011 on the size of global Christianity:
A comprehensive demographic study of more than 200 countries finds that there are 2.18 billion Christians of all ages around the world, representing nearly a third of the estimated 2010 global population of 6.9 billion…
The number of Christians around the world has nearly quadrupled in the last 100 years, from about 600 million in 1910 to more than 2 billion in 2010…
Christians are by far the world’s largest religious group.
Those are indeed impressive statements. But butts in seats is not the standard in which God is interested. God wants our faithfulness to accomplish what God desires, not successfulness in our own bottom-line numbers or endeavors. This is a major theme found woven throughout the Bible.
The story of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46) is one illustration of this. It is Jesus’ story of judgment on a people but with an interesting and oft overlooked element— both sides call Him “Lord.” The implication is that it is a story of judgment but only on all those who call themselves followers of God. The single group of followers is divided only by whether they did for others what God desired— feed the hungry and thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, take care of the sick, and visit those in prison. Those who did not were made to depart.
The Old Testament prophets also illustrate this principle time and again as they held the leaders and common folk alike accountable to the faithfulness God really desired from them amidst all their successful-based religious practice. Perhaps none stated it better that Micah:
“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:6-8)
I would illustrate Christianity’s shortfall to bring about God’s “kingdom” by contrasting it to the imaginary world in which comic book superheroes live. I have wished Superman, Green Lantern, Aquaman, and the rest of the Justice League of America were real since I bought their comic books as a child. But as an adult I know they are not for a very simple reason. If they were real today, we would hear reports from around the world of amazing feats by super-powered women and men that free oppressed people and rescue persons from the clutches of evil.
The Christian church’s missing of Jesus’ mark throughout its history is evidenced today in the absence of such stories. If there are over two billion Christians in the world today, shouldn’t the news be filled with stories of how the Church is leading the way on a global scale in amazing feats that free oppressed people and rescue persons from the clutches of evil? Today’s Church would have to start releasing its own comic books in order to tell those kind of tales. And all of us, including myself, who have focused our efforts on being successful for God via our own interests are to blame.
Well, there is a brighter path that the Church can walk. The Church must learn to constantly choose the fork in its path that looks outwardly by being faithful to God’s desires. And it must learn to resist the temptation to choose the other ever-appearing fork that keeps looking inwardly in order to claim its own successes and then put God’s name on them.
The Church today is being called out by Jesus for its current thinking so we can begin to see that brighter path. Jesus similarly called out Peter when He predicted that their current journey to Jerusalem would end in his death. Peter reacted by rebuking Jesus because his messiah would never be a king who willing and humiliatingly sacrificed himself, but a conqueror of all that stood in their way. Jesus in turn rebuked Peter, differentiating Peter’s desire for God from his true motivation— “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Mark 8:31-33).
When we realize that the literal meaning of the Hebrew word satan is adversary, it becomes very interesting that it’s not “sinners” who Jesus labels as opposing Him but one of his closest followers. Likewise, when the Church sets its mind to be successful for God according to its own human and cultural standards instead of faithful to God’s desires, we become Jesus’ adversary.
Jesus came to earth in order to establish “the kingdom of God”… but all He got was the church.
A brighter path is an eight-part essay series that builds on the series Walk just as He walked (posted on SFAV) which looked at the nature of personal discipleship through the complementary lenses of Jesus’ life and Mother Teresa’s spiritual maxim that “God doesn’t call me to be successful, but to be faithful.” A brighter path takes those same principles and applies them to the nature of the church. Specifically, this series will contrast churches that are successful-based with those that are faithful-based.
Reflection: How would you evaluate what the Church has done the past 2,000 years?
Next post: Successful churches and faithful churches