Thinking about the church as a sign of the kingdom goes against much of our religious culture. We can sometimes put our focus on catering to people who only see the church as a place to receive religious goods and services. They come to see if the music is nice, if their kids will have fun, if the preacher makes them think but also knows how to make them laugh. If everything suits them and wraps up in time so they can beat the crowd to the restaurant for lunch, they feel satisfied they've gotten what they paid for. If not, they'll go looking around somewhere else for better music, better preaching, better programs for the kids . . . a better all-around feeling.
And yet a church that spends most of its time cleaning the windows just so people will come and hopefully stay will only end up obscuring others' view of God's kingdom. When a church allows itself to become little more than a destination point, cluttering it up with lots of props and decorations, their window actually blocks people's view of the glory of God rather than vividly displaying it. People may come and see a show, but they won't see all that God is really doing (and is able to do) among those who call him King. They'll only get a small part of the much bigger and much better picture.
Churches are not peddlers of Christian goods and services; we are cells of subversion and transformation. We're not just opening our doors and hoping for a good turnout; we're opening our lives to show off the glory of our Savior by the way we live together, by the way we serve together, by the way we reach out in Jesus' name together.
To the extent that we keep the focus here--where it needs to be--our window stays clean and our impact significant. We perform the role we were intended to play. We shine like a lighthouse on a stormy night, beaming lifesaving shafts onto the rocky coastline below, where everybody can see it and follow it and be led to real safety. But if we keep ourselves huddled inside, more concerned with making budget than making a difference, we will reduce what others see of our King and his kingdom through us. Nice but not exactly noteworthy. Hinted at but not held out there with both hands so people can see what this is all about--and who it's all about-- by the way we interact with one another and interface with the culture. Unless we're serious about displaying the difference God makes in us and wants to make in them, they won't be captivated by the joys of daily kingdom living and the visible power of our King.
They'll miss the sign if it's not lit up.
When my daughter and I came out of a Broadway play on our trip back East, we emerged from the theater into nightfall on New York City. From there we took the subway back to our hotel, located not far from Times Square. Yes, we had seen that area during the daytime when we'd left several hours before. That was one way of looking at it. But to come up out of that subway station after dark, to see the city ablaze with light and glow and activity . . . my little girl just popped her hand to her mouth and slowly began spinning around and around, trying to take in the spectacle. Amazing.
That's how bright our light should be.
That's how bright our light can be.
Not just church--changed lives!
The subversive kingdom has come near, and the church has sprung up to carry out this kingdom mission. Jesus, "the true light, who gives light to everyone," has come to this planet (John 1:9) and has deposited little groupings of disciples on earth to be the "light of the world" (Matt. 5:14)--his church! But we don't do it by constructing fancier buildings or outdoing the programs offered by other congregations. We do it by just faithfully living out our callings together as representatives of God's kingdom. We do it--as Paul said, for example--by even the little things like dealing with internal differences "without grumbling and arguing" (Phil. 2:14).
By living out the Word in real life and real time, we engage the King's mission on a subversive level. We no longer come across as paid salesmen for God trying to build our own self-esteem and bank account by closing a deal (memorized presentation and all). Kingdom citizens come across as satisfied customers embracing all of life with the King. We are living with the benefits that should include better marriages, relationships, and overall approaches to life.
Kingdom citizens subvert by ascribing value to people who on the surface wouldn't seem to appeal to us. By sharing freely and generously so our brothers and sisters in Christ are cared for and ministered to shows the same kind of sacrificial compassion for all the others God leads us to serve, both in our community and around the globe.
This is what makes us "shine like stars in the world," showing ourselves changed by Christ Jesus into people who are "blameless and pure, children of God who are faultless in a crooked and perverted generation" (v. 15). Such offhand but on-purpose opportunities are how we represent something bigger and more eternal than ourselves to those around us. It's how God uses us to reveal his nature, character, and mercy powerfully enough to others that they fall on their faces and worship him, saying, "God is truly among you" (1 Cor. 14:25).
Then our light keeps pushing back the darkness and drawing people to the flame.
Adapted from Subversive Kingdom (2012, B&H Publishing Group)