News flash for all preachers: “Constantine’s dead, get over it!” In his book, The Reality of the Gospel and the Unreality of the Churches, John Douglas Hall states that, “Today’s preachers have been formed by ‘the Constantinian assumption’ that the kingdom of God and the outward and visible church are identical.” Hall wrote this 1975! If Hall was right in 1975, how much truer is this today? Call it Emerging Ecclesiology, Radical Orthodoxy, Ancient-Future Faith, or simply being ‘missional” it’s hard not to see that we are swimming in an increasingly “post-Christian” pool these days, but how do we respond to it as preachers?
In the church’s first three centuries, Christians had ample reason to stay focused on the kingdom of God—it was their only hope (“church buildings” first appeared in the mid-third century). Struggling with the oppressive Roman Empire, Christians understood the importance of being kingdom focused. But then, somewhere around the year 311 the newly crowned Roman Emperor, Constantine, got religion—or, at least, some facsimile thereof. Suddenly, Christianity became acceptable and, as a result, everything changed for Christians. The church was easily visible and increasingly powerful and became the primary focus of the faith.
Jesus, however, to use George Buttrick’s phrase “came preaching,” and what he preached was the kingdom of God. A kingdom that was largely invisible, “leaven-like,” smaller than a mustard seed, etc. This kingdom was a lot harder to see than majestic basilicas, stately monasteries, and even handsome little chapels in pristine settings in the countryside. It still is, and that’s why, in large measure, we have tended to focus our preaching on the visible church rather than the kingdom. But there are signs that this is no longer a good strategy for the church in the 21st century.
What being “post-Constantinian” is really all about is to return to the emphases of a time when Christianity was not favored by the regnant culture. Today’s environment represents something of a return to the challenges of the “pre-Constantinian” church, hence the necessity of preaching the kingdom.
The kingdom of God is that realm where the will of God is done. Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth, as it is done in heaven.” It is clear, that the kingdom Jesus came to inaugurate, to proclaim, and to embody is what we, His followers, are also called to do (Church=body of CHRIST!). But what we’ve seen, historically and in our own day, is that the kingdom gets equated with the visible church, with all of its shortcomings, or else it becomes something “out there” in the future that we will “get” after we die. Both errors seriously impair the good news of the gospel.
To equate the kingdom only with the visible church fails to grasp the implications of God’s Spirit at work in the world, especially the world outside the “church.” This tendency to equate the kingdom with the visible church is the well-documented mistake of mainline liberalism in the 19th and 20th centuries. To see evangelicals repeating this miscalculation, has me scratching my head. Equally mystifying is the widespread assumption on the part of so many believers that “kingdom” refers to something “off in the future.” Let’s be clear. In the New Testament, the phrase “kingdom of God “( heaven in Matthew) is used no less than 125 times. And it NEVER means life after death, or the visible, institutional church or its activities. The kingdom, in these texts, describes an earthly realm where God reigns, rather than Herod, Caesar, or any other human head of state. This is foundational New Testament teaching.
But apparently, many modern Christians don’t know this.
Recently, I spoke at an Inter-Varsity Chapel at a nearby university. I preached from Matthew 5:38-47 about “loving our enemies.” Afterwards, a young woman came up and said, “I grew up in the church and never heard this kind of message before.” It was as if the Sermon on the Mount was completely new to her! Yet, this material in Matthew 5-7 is at the very heart of Jesus’ message to the world. The kingdom of God isn’t the place you go when you die. Nor is it a successful stewardship campaign. It is the redeeming activity of God in the world. Right here, right now.
This “Constantinian assumption” has significantly influenced preaching. Sermons have become practical essays on religious ideas or an interesting story with some moral point rather than a life-changing oral event that confronts its hearers with the crisis of God’s reign breaking into human history and demanding a response of faith and allegiance. The emphasis upon the visible church has led many preachers to understand the preaching task as one of finding ways to gain acceptance of the message. “How can I say this, so that people will keep coming back?” That’s almost completely counter to Jesus. Why do you think that Jesus taught His disciples how to deal with rejection? Preaching ought to be about finding the clearest way to proclaim the Kingdom of God that has come among us in Jesus Christ.
The focus on the institutional church has led to a steady diet of preaching where sermons are shaped by the needs of the church rather than by the demands of the kingdom. This too easily turns our sermons into one more consumer product to be purchased by the religious listener/shopper. If what we’re talking about in our pulpits on Sundays is something people can just as easily get from Oprah or Dr. Phil, we ought to seriously consider whether we are actually proclaiming the Kingdom of God. And, for that matter, why would people want to come and hear us say it, rather than Oprah or Dr. Phil? The good news of the Kingdom of God, come among us in Jesus, is radical, revolutionary, and transcends all of our local agendas. Karl Barth used to say that “God is more than man said in a loud voice.” In the same spirit, the church can’t just offer the New Deal with hymns. It must point to the work of a God who is more interested in the reconciliation of His world, than increased membership in any organization.
Many modern approaches to preaching are designed primarily to inform and persuade. No wonder we often feel like salespersons. Jesus never offered any “bargains” on eternal life. He said, “Narrow is the way, and few there be that find it.” Not exactly the “big-box store” approach to evangelism is it? Darryl Guder said that “the gospel is not about meeting our needs, it’s about helping us to see that we have needs beyond anything we’d ever imagined and how God has acted in Jesus Christ to meet these needs we never knew we had.” Jesus offered his hearers genuine alternatives to the coercive systems of his day. What are we offering? Financial advice? Ways to “get involved?” Please to participate in yet one more church activity? No wonder our youth are bored and leaving the church. We ask too little of them. Let’s offer something bigger! It’s called the kingdom of God.
What would the kingdom of God look like in your in your community? In your church’s life? What would be a sign of its presence? The answer to those questions not only helps you know how you might go about preaching the kingdom in your town, it’s also a key part to understanding your church’s mission
“Preach first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all the rest of that ministerial stuff will be added to you.” That’s my paraphrase and I’m sticking to it.
J. Michael Walters spent 17 years in pastoral ministry, in Georgia, Texas, Ohio and New York, four of which were in Youth Ministry. For the past 17 years, he has served as Professor of Christian Ministry and Director of Ministerial Education at Houghton College.