In my post titled “A Search for Kingdom Churches”, I share some of my frustrations with the institutional church along with a list of characteristics of what I call “Kingdom Churches.” As I shared in a post earlier this month, Eric Swanson, whose writing was instrumental in launching me on my journey from the suburbs to the inner city, graciously endorsed my book. So when I saw that Swanson just co-authored a new book with Rick Rusaw called “The Externally Focused Quest: Becoming the Best Church FOR the Community”, I could not wait to read it. Swanson gave me hope that that “kingdom churches” are out there.
Swanson writes, “The word kingdom is mentioned 152 times in the New Testament and 116 times in the Gospels. By contrast, the word church is mentioned just three times in the Gospels – all in the book of Matthew.” Swanson defines the Kingdom of God as, “any place over which God has operative dominion…Anytime we are involved in making this world more reflective of the place that God will ultimately make it in the coming kingdom, we are involved in kingdom work…The four echoes [of the kingdom] are the longing for justice, the quest for spirituality, the hunger for relationships, and the delight in beauty.” Swanson goes on to give many examples of churches that are doing this kind of kingdom work.
Swanson and Rusaw argue that this shift from “church focus” to “kingdom focus” has grown into a movement. They state, “All over the world, we meet pastors and Christian leaders who almost simultaneously have come to the conclusion that unless their church is engaged in the conversation, rhythms, needs and dreams of their communities, it’s not the church that Jesus wants them to be.”
Swanson and Rusaw acknowledge that people continue to leave the institutional church but recognize that our society has not lost its spiritual hunger. Instead they argue that it is the church that has lost its spiritual vibrancy. They quote Peter Neilson who says, “When Moses met God on the mountain – that was spirituality. When he came down and told the people what God said – that was the beginning of religion.” Swanson asks this thought provoking question, “Have we lost spirituality in our construction of religion?” Quoting Reggie McNeal, “A growing number of people are leaving the institutional church for a new reason. They are not leaving because they have lost faith. They are leaving the church to preserve their faith. They contend that the church no longer contributes to their spiritual development.”
Swanson also quotes George Barna who calls these folks “revolutionaries – confidently returning to a first century lifestyle based on faith, goodness, love, generosity, kindness, simplicity and other values deemed quaint by today’s frenetic and morally un-tethered standards.” He states, “Barna estimates there are twenty million such revolutionaries in the United States today.” Researcher Ed Stetzer supports this shift stating that, “About 6 million people meet weekly with a small group and never or rarely go to church…There is a significant movement happening.” Swanson then asks this very interesting question, “Is today a day of post-congregational Christianity?”
Some of you are probably asking, “So if people are not choosing the congregational church with its focus on bible study and worship, how can they grow in their faith?” Throughout the book Swanson and Rusaw make the argument that caring for those in need in the world is a far better discipleship tool than study and worship. They quote Pastor Bob Roberts who puts it this way, “I once believed that engaging the world of the poor was about helping them, but I’ve learned that serving humanity in the name of Jesus brings us far more than we give – it’s the number one tool of discipleship in the world. If you truly want your church to be missional, put down your books, logs, and conferences, and touch the neediest people closest to you; then pick one spot in the world and engage however you can. You’ll learn far more by doing than by reading.” They go on to support this idea stating, “It seems that we do these acts of mercy not to convert others but because we ourselves have been converted.”
Swanson borrows Jack Jazreel’s definition of spiritual formation stating, “Spiritual formation is about growing the size of our heart…moving from love of the preferential (friends and family; ours and mine) to the wide boundless agape love of the unconditional. What prevents us from engaging in greater depth and frequency is the size of our heart. It is our limited heart size that limits our capacity to selfishly serve others.” Swanson asks another intriguing question when he writes, “But what if God’s plan for the church was to build a community of big-hearted people?”
The formation of “mission shaped” small groups is not foreign to the institutional church according to Swanson. He points out that John Wesley established, “little gatherings of devout people who met weekly for prayer, reading of devotional books, distribution of food to the poor and discussion of personal religious experience.” Swanson notes that, “Wesley did not use small groups for personal Bible study. He felt that they got all the Bible they needed to act on during the weekly gathering of the church…and believed that personal and spiritual growth came through service to others rather than careful attention to and introspection of self.”
So what do you think of Swanson and Rusaw’s insights? Obviously they have a lot to say on this subject and give some great examples of how individuals and churches are responding to this shift to a Kingdom perspective. I encourage all of you who are interested in the future of the church to read “The Externally Focused Quest.”
How would you respond to Swanson’s questions?
Have we lost spirituality in our construction of religion?
Is today a day of post-congregational Christianity?
But what if God’s plan for the church was to build a community of big-hearted people?