By Glen Elliott
What does it mean to “be the church”? If we were meeting as a group and discussing this, our conversation would be all over the place.
The church is to make disciples. Yep.
The church is to reach the lost. Yes, for sure.
The church is to protect and care for its members. Check.
The church is to ensure that the values and morality of God are lived out and taught. Sure!
For 46 years I have loved the church. That will never change. But right now, I’m ticked at the church, in particular local expressions of the church that are right in my own community (and most likely yours too). Here’s why.
Our world is going to Hell. Literally! Our country is a mess and the world is a mess. Fewer and fewer people are attending church. In my city fewer than 10 percent attend any church on a weekend.
Our communities are in serious trouble. Mine, for example, is at the bottom of the list in terms of the quality of education. My metro area is listed as the sixth poorest in the nation. There’s a long list of kids wanting to be adopted. And where is the church in all this?
As I try to engage with leaders from local churches, there are so many who don’t even want to meet and discuss how they could join us to be the church and make a difference for now and for eternity. Far too many local churches are focused on themselves. This is a form of narcissism. Too many churches are absorbed in their own programs and needs. They see their members as theirs to own and use to keep their church operating. These churches care about only what goes on inside the buildings while ignoring their neighborhoods and communities.
To challenge these churches to look outside themselves is to hear a host of excuses. The churches don’t have “enough” to spare. They don’t have enough volunteers, money, energy, or time. There is nothing left for others. Does that sound like the church of Jesus? Does that sound like Jesus? Yet the church has more resources to solve more real problems than any other institution or group in any community.
The church all too often is . . . well, church-centric. It is narcissistic, inwardly focused, and selfish. The church is too often about just the church. Is that what Jesus created the church to be? What does it mean to be the church, according to Jesus?
Kingdom of God
I analyzed the concept of the “kingdom of God” (called the “kingdom of Heaven” in Matthew) a number of years ago. Wow, was I surprised! Jesus’ focus was all about the kingdom of God. You probably already knew that. I was late in the game, I guess. But I seldom hear church leaders speak about the kingdom. Sermons rarely address the kingdom. Yet, the kingdom for Jesus is a huge deal. Let’s take a look at Matthew’s Gospel, for example.
John the Baptist prepares the way and introduces Jesus. The summary of John’s message is: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 3:2).
After John baptizes Jesus and Jesus endures the temptations, Jesus begins his public ministry. Matthew 4:17 summarizes Jesus’ teaching and purpose with the exact same words John used: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” By the way, repent is a call, invitation, and demand that our whole way of life and thinking change and allow the kingdom of Heaven (kingdom of God) to orient, direct, and consume our entire life. The kingdom is to be our focus and the dominating factor in our lifestyle and decisions.
Then, in what we call the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7), Jesus teaches his disciples about how to live the kingdom of God life. In that sermon Jesus teaches us to pray this way: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10). That’s the model for how we are to pray. It is all about the kingdom coming into our world like it is Heaven. That should be core to what we pray about. Later in that same chapter, he tells us to “seek first his kingdom” (Matthew 6:33). The kingdom is to be first and foremost!
Then, in Matthew 10, Jesus sends out the disciples on their first short-term mission trip. He summarizes what they are to say. Any guesses? Yep, the same words again—“The kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 10:7).
Then, in Matthew 13, we find seven parables describing the kingdom—one that advances and can’t be stopped. Finally, in Matthew 24:14, Jesus says the “gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (italics added). Jesus will not return until the gospel of the kingdom is proclaimed to all nations. There is no better or clearer statement of the ultimate importance of the kingdom. The very end depends on the message of the kingdom getting out to all.
The Kingdom on Earth
The church, comprised of the followers of Jesus, was created by Jesus for one ultimate purpose. The church’s existence is to be the agent to bring the kingdom on earth as it is in Heaven. The church is essential to advancing the kingdom. The kingdom of God (this is my working definition) is anywhere God has influence—in me, around me, and through me. The church, the followers of Jesus, are to be influenced by the kingdom and seek to take God’s influence everywhere they go.
The kingdom is a huge deal. It is Jesus’ focus. It is why the church exists. Now, back to my frustration. How did the church become so church-centric and lose its essence as being kingdom-centric? As long as the church is church-centric the expansion of the kingdom of God or the influence of Heaven will be hindered in our world.
Core to the failure of the church being the church is the deficient mind-set and belief of church leaders that they don’t have enough to give away. That is driven by fear. Fear causes a church to be church-centric.
Yes, to give away people and resources will cost us. But fear and bad theology cause us to believe God can’t or won’t provide. For all we give away in kingdom mission, he will more than supply and resupply (see 2 Corinthians 9:8-11). Our fear and lack of trust serve to limit our abundant and generous God.
If the church wants to be kingdom-centric, then the key thing we must do is to become generous. A church that is generous to the lost and hurting world around her will reap the blessing of God to do and be the church God created her to be. Remember what Jesus said: “Freely you have received; freely give” (Matthew 10:8).
A Blessed Church, a Generous Church
I see it over and over. A blessed church is a generous church that never really lacks what it needs. Most of us have heard a preacher say, “You can’t out give God!” That is a selfish statement if it applies ONLY to church members giving to their churches. Is it not also true for churches giving to their community?
A church that is generous to its community is kingdom-centric. It encourages and finds ways to launch its people into serving the community.
Our church’s mission is this: “Loving people to Jesus, launching passionate people to make a difference.” That is what we do. We actively encourage all kinds of ways to launch our passionate, Jesus-
following people into their world.
When we plant a new church, we strongly encourage our folks to go and help start it. To date, we’ve sent more than 700 people—their money, service, everything!—to launch new life-giving churches in Southern Arizona.
We give away about 20 percent of our income. I could write an entire article on the numerous ways we’ve made a difference in our community and around the world. We urge our staff to use part of their time to serve our community.
So I challenge you to ask yourself these questions:
Are you being the church?
How is your church practicing a kingdom-centric life versus a church-centric existence?
Is your church generous to the community it is called to serve and save?
Does your church love your community so much that the community loves your church?
Is God’s influence or his kingdom growing in your town or area? Are you being the church?
It is time for the church to do what John the Baptist and Jesus invited us to do: “Repent!” Our churches must change the direction we are going. Our churches must become kingdom-centric to bring the influence of Heaven to earth.
Glen Elliott, a former missionary in Ukraine, serves as lead pastor at Pantano Christian Church in Tucson, Arizona.