Dr. Scot McKnight (bio) joined us on the Lipscomb campus last week for a collaborative event between Missio Alliance and the Hazelip School of Theology. Over 120 participants gathered in Stowe Hall over two days, all focused on the practical discussion of what it means to be the church in today’s world.
McKnight, a prolific author and acclaimed New Testament scholar, has much to offer on this topic. His recent book, Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church, works with two important words in the conversation: kingdom and church. For Dr. McKnight, the terms are the same, though not identical.
He also divides the dialogue into two camps: those of skinny jeans and those of pleated pants. Skinny jeans say “kingdom means good deeds done by good people, Christian or not, in the public sector for the common good” (pg 4). Pleated pants, in contrast, would say that kingdom is “specific redemptive moments, moments when God’s redemptive reign breaks in to save, to restore, to reconcile, to heal” (pg 15).
In one session McKnight encapsulated some of his thinking in the book with a “Jeff Foxworthy” kind of list, entitled “You May Be A Kingdom Church If. . . .” Here are the ten points he offered:
You may be a kingdom church if . . .
1. The character of Jesus shapes every dimension of who you are.
2. The church perceives itself as redeemed.
3. The church knows it is governed by Lord Jesus.
4. The church challenges the lordless lords of culture and country.
5. The church seeks to be a Kingdom kind of community.
6. The church is known above all for loving one another and neighbors.
7. The church establishes justice and peace in its local community and beyond.
8. The church cannot avoid being people of good works in the public sector.
9. The church becomes Kingdom space in its local community.
10. The church’s spiritual disciplines foster Kingdom themes.
I suppose one could push on the nuances in this list. McKnight is the kind of teacher who welcomes useful critique and thorough analysis. But beyond those kinds of exercises, I was encouraged to see our participants embrace the significant questions being asked in our short time together.
Simply being the church as we have always known it is not enough these days. I think we know this intuitively. Cultural shifts feel tectonic to many and the institutions we clung to for stability in times past seem to be shaking right along with everything else. How should disciples of Jesus respond to the tremors?
I suppose we could argue with one another, maybe even divide into our Kingdom and Church parties. There are plenty of skinny jeans and pleated pants to go around. Or maybe we should abandon difficult dialogues like this altogether and settle for an ameliorated indifference in our churches. Adding to McKnight’s clothing metaphors, this seems to be the sweat pants solution, comfortable for all involved but lacking the structures necessary to create honest speech in the pursuit of authentic community.
I am inclined towards a third option, one that resembles what I witnessed during this seminar. Maybe disciples of Jesus need to talk regularly about their word games with one another. Whenever our ways of speaking create harmful gaps in our congregations, it seems wise and healthy to come together regularly, place our dividing texts on the table of fellowship, and break anew the Word made flesh. Listening well to our patterns of speech and then speaking the truth of them to one another proclaims a radical social reality to the anchorless public rhetoric of our times..
In my experience, far too few faith communities do this. It is even rarer for this to be a regular practice of life together. I understand the resistance. It is easier to speak quickly than to listen thoroughly. Yet love compels us to act otherwise, does it not? As James notes, we do not serve a God of the shifting shadows. Our heavenly Father births us through the word of truth. We become those who are quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.
And I can’t help but think that, with this kind of diligence in our speaking and listening, we may discover something quite inspiring about life together in Christ. By practicing the Way and traveling it together, many of our greatest differences could very well turn out to be the same, though not quite identical. Love tends to lead God’s people to those places.