John Nugent: We've not been called to make the world a better place, but to be the better place that God has made in this world through Christ.
Karl Vaters: Hi, I'm Karl and I'm a small church pastor, and welcome to this episode of Can This Work in a Small Church. My guest today is John C. Nugent. He's the author of several books, including the book we'll be talking about today, Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church. Yeah, that's a provocative title and it's an important subject. Dr. Nugent is also a professor of Old Testament Studies at Great Lakes Christian College, he's the cohost of the After Class Podcast, and he's a member of a vital and thriving small congregation.
In this episode, we'll be talking about the root of some of the biggest challenges pastors are facing today, starting with, Has the church been called to separate ourselves from the world, to change the world, to fix the world, or something else entirely. John's approach is biblically sound, it's practical, it's very engaging, and it's going to bring us a lot of help for the challenges that we're facing right now.
And don't forget to stick around when the interview is done. I'll come back with an overview of the content and an answer to the question, Can this work in a small church.
Welcome, John, to the podcast today. I sure appreciate your time with us today.
John Nugent: Yeah, thanks for inviting me.
Karl Vaters: You got it. I received your book, Endangered Gospel, from someone at a conference I was speaking at, and it's not unusual to go to a conference and have people hand me their books or books that a friend of theirs wrote. I always appreciate it, I always at least scan those books, but to be honest, I've stopped expecting too much from them. Because it's, Here's a book my friend wrote, and you look at it - and again, I always do, I always appreciate it and I always look through them. It took me a while… I got yours during a busy season so it went on the shelf and it took me a while, maybe a year or two, to finally open it up and crack it. But of course, pandemic and lockdowns gave me a lot of reading time. So when I did grab your book, Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church, it grabbed my attention immediately and it never let it go. I've got the thing here, it is tagged like crazy, and we'll be going to a bunch of those tags through this interview today, but I really appreciated what you had to say in there. So first of all, it's a provocative title, How Fixing the World is Killing the Church. So I thought, Okay, I want to at least hear what the title is about, and you get right to it.
So I'm gonna set the table for the book for everybody, cuz this is a book that we could speak for hours about and we're just not going to because we'll tease them and then they'll get to read the book for themselves.
But you start with talking about, there's a common perception out there, as you say, the ability to shape culture is concentrated in elite institutions, and that this overlap of elite institutions is where the power comes from, and when you take a look at it in the world, you go, That seems to be right. You actually use a particular author to outline those views, who I won't mention and you're free to mention, I just don't want… He's not the issue, and you in fact congratulate him that his book is good in many ways. But you look at it, you start it out with, Hey, that seems right. And then immediately you go, The problem is that doesn't sound biblical. And then you say this: If we're not careful, we may gain the world and lose the church, and then ultimately we'll lose the world too. When Christians begin substituting activism for discipleship, it's not the world that becomes endangered, but the gospel.
And then you flip the page and go to the first sentence of chapter two, where you say this: Let me be as straightforward and clear as possible. It's not the church's job to make this world a better place.
Now, you’ve got to explain yourself.
John Nugent: All right.
Karl Vaters: You drop a power bomb right there, right off the top. I profoundly agree, but I know a lot of people are gonna hear that and go, Wait a minute. So let's talk about that right to begin with. What is that all about?
John Nugent: Yeah. My passion is biblical studies, and especially as it pertains to the church's nature and mission. I fell in love with the church, with the study of the church, precisely by studying the Old Testament, and the more I studied the Old Testament and got my mind wrapped around the Bible story and what the Bible story is about, what God is doing through his people, what He has set them apart to do, the more and more I realized that there’s strikingly little evidence in the Old Testament and in the New Testament that God's people understood their role and their function as to be God's agents of going throughout the world, fixing what's broken about the world.
And you look at Torah, the center of Israel's scriptures. There's no passage about going to the Edomites and the Moabites and the Egyptians or Babylonians or Hittites or Syrians, and find out what's wrong with them, help them fix it. Rather, you have this intense focus on God's people ordering their lives according to God's vision for human thriving, and that God would use their reordered life to be a blessing to the nations, to draw all people to Himself. So it's the church's dynamic life, ordered according to God's original designs, which has this magnetic force that attracts people to God himself. And that seems to be the direction of things in the Old Testament. Just the entire absence of going out, fixing things, making things better, being God's stewards of the world, taking care of it because the world doesn't do a very good job, and we're going to show them how it's done.
Karl Vaters: Yeah. It's a challenging, multi-layered concept, and there's overlap in almost every statement between, That sounds good, that sounds right, but maybe it's not biblical, I’m trying to understand and sort out the wheat from the chaff, if you will, when they're so combined. Again, almost every statement you hear, it’s like, There's something about that feels right, looks right, but maybe it doesn't feel right, maybe it doesn't look right. And what you do so well is, I think, separate the wheat from the chaff really well.
You begin by saying that the church has approached making the world a better place in a whole lot of different ways, but you have designated four specific categories that give four basic, big picture ways that we have typically tried to make the world a better place. Can you, first of all, just tell us what those four categories are, one after another, and then let's take a look at them one at a time. Because this is really the essence of how your book is framed and how you separate the wheat from the chaff for us so well in the book.
John Nugent: Yeah. I really outlined four different approaches to a better place.
And the first one is the heaven-centered. And that's not actually a view that is connected to making this world a better place, it's really the notion that God's judgment is upon this world and the salvation He offers us is that to get right with Him through Jesus so that we can leave this world and go to a better place in heaven. And so that the world is left behind, the better place is not now, it's after you die, and it's not here, it's up in heaven. So that's the heaven-centered view. The human-centered view recognizes the theme that really spans the scriptures, that God's saving purposes for His creation include not just saving souls and people from sin, but also restoring His creation. And so there's lots of future hope about a new Jerusalem, and the lion with the lamb, and trees bearing multiple fruit, and from Romans 8, the creation is groaning for its restoration. And so the human-centered view says it's not just about getting people right with God for the afterlife, God cares about this world. Only the human-centered view believes that this world is going to become a better place because we make it that way. God's people will follow God's vision shared by Jesus, and we will use that vision to fix the world. And so our fundamental mission is to follow God's instructions given by Jesus to make the world a better place, and it's up to us basically to do it.
Karl Vaters: It sounds like the Nike. theology, Just do it. It's in our hands, we are empowered to make this change, we have the authority, kind of a thing.
John Nugent: Yeah. And there's a kind of optimism to this view, of the human ability to, like, through technology and advancements and philosophical development, that we're going to get better and better and better, and we're going to fix this. So that's the human-centered view.
Karl Vaters: So we have heaven-centered, human-centered, and then…?
John Nugent: The next one is the world-centered view, which is becoming, I would say, the most popular among evangelicals and mainline denominations. And it kind of agrees with the world-centered view [He said this, but I believe he intended to say human-centered view] that God cares for all creation, He's not just going to abandon the world and take us all to heaven, but He wants to remake this world, and they believe that Jesus has given us a kingdom vision of what that remade world looks like, and that we have a responsibility to start making the world into that vision. Kind of like the human-centered view, only they would emphasize that we're not good enough to pull that off. God's going to have to return with the second coming of Jesus and finish the work that we start. And so there's a little less optimism for the church or anyone else making this world the better place. God's going to finish it with Christ when Christ returns.
However, how we participate in that remaking is to start the process now, the best that we can. And so we're still like the human-centered, focused as much as we can on making the world a better place, but we're not confident that we're gonna finish it, that God's gonna have to do that. So that's the world-centered view.
Karl Vaters: And then the fourth one is?
John Nugent: And the fourth one is the one I recommend. And I don't come out right away with the fourth one. After setting those three out there, I say, Let's see which approach to the Bible story best fits with the whole narrative of scripture. And so I walk through the narrative of scripture from Old Testament to New, highlighting and really just paying attention to what is the role of God's people in God's plan, and what view jumps off the page.
And that journey led me to what I call a kingdom-centered approach. And that is, it's in agreement with the world-centered view that God wants to remake this world, and it's not going to happen until Christ returns. That's when the world will become perfect, that's when the resurrection happens, that's when His purposes for creation reach their climax and their fulfillment. However, where it differs is that it has the real conviction that in a real sense, the new world that God is making, that He promised through the prophets, has already begun through Jesus. Such that we live now in a time where there's the old world that is passing away, the old order and the old structures of oppression and dominance in this world are still very much in force, in action in world history, and yet with the kingdom announcement of Jesus and the beginning of the kingdom people, the messianic people of God, the pouring out of the Spirit, the new humanity that the church is called in Ephesians, the new creation that we're called in 2nd Corinthians, that the new world has already begun breaking in in the midst of the old world that is passing away. And ultimately, it's this new world that has begun with the kingdom community started by Jesus, that will eclipse the world that's passing away, and be the thing that God folds into the full kingdom, the full restored creation when Christ returns.
And so the big difference, really, in the kingdom-centered view - and this is why it's called Endangered Gospel - it's that we're not waiting for God to make the world a better place. The good news is that through Jesus, through His work, His life, death, resurrection, and ascension, a new world has already begun, and God invites us to participate in that new world now. And it's our current experience and witness to that new kingdom reality that is that magnet that God is using to draw all people to Himself.
Karl Vaters: Yeah. I love the categorizations that you use here because each of the four, if you just hear it isolated from the others, has big parts of it that you look at and go, Yeah, that's right. Like, heaven-centered. God's kingdom isn't here, not yet, we're gonna show them how to get to heaven. There's a part of that where I go, Yeah, that kind of feels right, I've been taught that. Yeah, we want to get people to go to heaven. And secondly, human-centered, we're good people and we live in a broken world and we want to help to heal the hurting and we want to fix things up. There's a part of that where we go, Yeah. And then the world-centered of, We really aren't strong enough to do that. And we need to be ready for God's kingdom to break through. You even call this a good view, but not the best view, but it's only when the four of them are really juxtaposed to each other that we see the elevation of the kingdom view, which is really the biblical pattern that is so important here, that it is not about us making things better, it's not just about us getting on a train and going to heaven and leaving everything else behind, it is a very different thing.
I love how - you've mentioned it already, but let’s lean into this a little bit - I love how you talk about how important it is that the entire Bible story, we need to understand everything in light of the entire Bible story.
Just a couple weeks ago, I preached a sermon at my church talking about the story arc of the Bible, and I walked everybody through, and I used the overly simplified inverse bell curve of, almost every story out there basically has this inverse bell curve of good, bad, better. Something starts well, something goes bad, it gets fixed up and it's made better. And we typically look at our own life story arc and we ask God to fit in to help make it better, but what I described to our congregation was, No, God's got this story arc that He is telling where He created a good world where it got bad and continues to get bad, and because of the arrival of Christ and His crucifixion and His resurrection, what we know as the gospel, that has made and continues to make all things better until ultimately the kingdom… God does His work of the kingdom in this world.
And our story, we get to play our part in God's overall meta story arc of what He is doing through the salvation of all of creation, starting with, most importantly, those of us made in His image, but your approach, which I believe is a biblical approach, is not human-centered, it's God-centered. And it doesn't start with trying to describe correct theology, but trying to understand the biblical story arc. Do I have that accurately? And if so, why is that understanding of the entire biblical story so essential to us breaking through to a more biblical understanding of this whole subject?
John Nugent: I think you have it exactly right. And I think why it's right is perhaps evident when you look at the biblical evidence for the other views. You can find passages in the New Testament about Jesus is going to prepare a place for us, and the kingdom of heaven is like, and I'm going to a place and I'm preparing it and you're gonna be with me later. And from a few verses, you can get the heaven-centered view Or you can get to a few passages in the prophets that are decrying social injustice and broken societal structures, and the prophets are railing for change, and to bring down the fallen power structures and replace them with more godly structures. And you can construct from those passages that are kind of like the human-centered view. Each of the positions, because they have some of the truth, have compelled many people to them.
And what makes them all fall short is that not all of them equally fit into the whole Bible story as a unit. The kingdom-centered approach, where God is creating a kingdom people whose life together is a foretaste of the kingdom to com, and that that's God's magnetic way of drawing all people to himself, that's exactly what He's doing in Torah with Israel. It's exactly what the prophets fault the Israelites for not doing, and it's exactly the shape of the hope of the prophets when they talk about Jerusalem being elevated and all nations streaming to Jerusalem, and getting ahold of a Jew and saying, Can I go with you. This attractional magnetic approach. And it's exactly what Jesus picks up with in the Sermon on the Mount: You're a city on the hill, you're a light of the world, and yet at the same time, you're like this scattered salt that I'm gonna send throughout the world. So there's an approach that you can see is in continuity with the whole Bible story.
And there's approaches that you can construct from bits and pieces of the Bible story, but that you really have to look hard to find something like the Bible stories about dying and going to heaven. It's really hard to find any evidence for that in the entire Old Testament. Or that it's our job to fix the world, it's really hard to find any evidence for that in the old Testament.
Karl Vaters: Yeah, you even mentioned that the Old Testament prophets, as many things as they criticized the ancient Hebrews for, they never criticized them for not making the world a better place.
John Nugent: Yes.
Karl Vaters: If we're supposed to be making the world a better place and there's all these books and all these pages of what you're doing wrong, shouldn't there be at least one mention of, Hey, and by the way, you're not making the world a better place.
John Nugent: Yes. And you can do the same thing with the New Testament letters.
Karl Vaters: Yes, exactly. Yeah.
John Nugent: What apostle has ever criticized a church for not cleaning up the streets of Rome?
Karl Vaters: Yeah, how did Paul and Peter forget that, if that was supposed to be it?
John Nugent: And so that silence is deafening, and it speaks loudly. And so an approach that can incorporate the full scope of the canon, I think will be stronger.
Karl Vaters: Yeah. You then say, and you say this multiple times, you come back and you say it and you rephrase it multiple times to reinforce it all the way throughout the book… The essence of it is this: We're not called to make the world better, we are called as the church to be the better place. What does that mean, and what does that look like for the church not to make the world better, but to be an example of the kingdom of God and be a better place?
John Nugent: Yeah. And let me clarify, when I say that statement, and that statement, it really does epitomize it, we've not been called to make the world a better place, but to be the better place that God has made in this world through Christ. That's the full phrase. It's not like anything we do to make the world better is bad or wrong. I don't want to discourage anyone who has a ministry of feeding the homeless, of providing stable housing for those who need… These are good and important ministries, and I believe they can be a part of God's kingdom mission, properly positioned within that mission.
What I push back in is making that the mission, like that's why we exist is to fix the broken structures of this world. As important as that work is, and as much as we can envelop that work in God's kingdom work in very strategic ways, the Bible story is about the work that God did in Jesus, that He came proclaiming the kingdom. He is the Messiah. He inaugurated the new age in world history that the prophets have been longing to, and this has created a new humanity, a new creation, a new kingdom reality that God invites us all to be a part of. And He invites us to join Him in welcoming the whole world to be a part of that kingdom reality.
And so people get really fired up about doing concrete things that fix things in the world, and I believe that those can be important contact points with culture. Serving them in very contact personal ways gives us a platform to tell them about this greater kingdom reality.
Karl Vaters: Jesus' life and ministry, of course, is a great example of that. He fed the hungry, He healed the broken. He did all of those acts of mercy, but he didn't come in order to set up a food distribution system. He didn't come in order to set up a healing system. He said, I came to seek and to save those who were lost.
John Nugent: Yes.
Karl Vaters: And a part of doing that necessarily involves when the kingdom of God breaks out through Jesus himself in the gospels and through the body of Christ his church today, that will of necessity involve lifting up the broken, elevating the hurting, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless. That will necessarily involve that, but it is a corollary to and the main principle of establishing and being example of Christ's kingdom on earth to seek and to save those who are lost. And again, if I am misphrasing any of your phrasing of that, please make a correction of that, or at least help me to go a little deeper on that. But that's what it feels like to me, is what you're saying sounds like Jesus.
John Nugent: Yeah. And His end goal is that this earth will be filled with kingdom communities that are bearing witness to His kingdom in every city on every corner of the globe. That's His goal. That's His mission, to fill the world with kingdom communities. Communities who embrace God's kingdom, display it in their life together, and proclaim God's offer to everyone because God's kingdom experience is for the whole world.
So the dangerous thing, how fixing the world is killing the church, is when we get addicted to, or attached to, or enamored with concrete ways of fixing the world that then become ends in and of themselves, disconnected from God's mission of filling this world with communities that bear witness to His kingdom.
And so you can do acts of public service, feed the poor, and house the homeless, and that can be a part of welcoming them into a Christian community that they can have relationship with and they can have fellowship with, and they can break bread with, as a part of the community. We don't exist just to do things for them. We are a kingdom community that wants to welcome them into our kingdom life together, which means that they're going to be fed, they're going to be provided for, they're going to be clothed. And so finding ways to bridge our acts of service in the community to the kingdom mission of filling this world with kingdom communities, that's the missing element that's killing the church. You have all sorts of missions that exist just to fix the concrete need. And they may even proclaim the gospel, even have classes, but there's no church involved, there's no church connection. There's no community that people are being enfolded into or welcomed into or invited into. The concrete service is provided and Jesus' name is talked about, but the kingdom community is not experienced firsthand.
I cited a book in my book from Reggie McNeal called Kingdom Come, where he just talks about, wherever a hungry person is fed, the kingdom of God is at hand, whenever someone naked is clothed, the kingdom of God is breaking in. And so he equates the fruit of service that makes the world better as the kingdom itself coming. And that's a deeply unbiblical connection. The kingdom project has always been the people of God ordering their life together in accordance with God's ultimate will for creation as an example for the rest of the world. That's where the kingdom is visible.
Karl Vaters: And now a short break to talk about something else. If you like the content you're hearing, here are two things you can do for us. First, forward this podcast to a friend. Second, consider becoming a financial supporter through Patreon, Venmo, or PayPal. Just go to Karlvaters.com/support. For as little as $3 a month, you can help us put these resources into the hands of the ministries that need them the most. Our support link is in the show notes.
All right, you're wading into areas that now are gonna be controversial, so I'm gonna pull out a couple other… Because there were a couple spots in your book when I went, Wow, he's going to some dangerous places here.
John Nugent: Yes.
Karl Vaters: Fairly early in the book, page 49, I believe it is, you talk about how the kingdom of God is intentionally set up - and I will try attempt to afraid it correctly, and you correct me if I don't do it right - that the whole church and state thing as a foundation for this argument, that you in fact, state that the kingdom of God is set up so that, yes, in fact, we are not just simply to have just the church doing all these things or just the state doing all these things, or whatever other power structures you want to bring into the mix, but that in fact God has designed it in a way where there's a multiplicity of powers that are designed altogether to meet a variety of needs that are at place in the world. I may have even misstated that simply because that is such an outside the box way of thinking about it. But as I read it through, I go, He's onto something here. Can you unpack that a little bit for us?
John Nugent: Sure, I'd be happy to. And here, when people talk about the kingdom, they often think of wherever God is at work, we join Him, and then that makes it kingdom work. And what people fail to distinguish, which to me is basic to the Bible story, is that God is at work in this world with more than just the church. God is at work in this world, using nations and powers and principalities, to keep order in His world. God is in charge of the whole world, and since Babel He's scattered people throughout the earth, and they've settled into these different nations, and God uses the rulers and authorities to keep peace in those various territories.
So you think of Romans 12 about the governing authority has power and is the servant of God to punish the evil and to reward the good. And so God is at work in this world using world powers that are unbelieving powers, that are fallen and broken. He's using them to keep chaos in check, to keep order and promote the peace so that there might be stability, so that nations are not constantly trampling over other nations, so that when one nation gets too big for its britches, other nations will clamp down on that nation, like the Hitlers of the world. And you might say the Putins of the world, right? God cares about what's going on in Ukraine right now. He cares what's going on in every country. And he has these different nations and their rulers that He uses to suppress dictators and to limit their reigns. And so this is God's work in the world. He's using nations to make the world a better place. And His other work in this world is what He uses His set apart, chosen people for, Israel and now the church, which is in a world where He uses nations to keep basic order, to make the fallen world as tolerable as possible. But those powers, those rulers can never bring about a new world order, a utopia. They can't bring about the kingdom of God. They can only keep evil at check. Yet the separate role of his set apart people, the church, is to not keep the current world stable, but to make the new world visible, to make the kingdom that God has brought through Jesus visible in a broken and fallen world. So He has His work of preservation for which He uses world powers, and He has His work of redemption and of new kingdom life and community through which He uses the church.
So it's not simply enough to say, Where is God at work, and join Him, if you want to be a good Christian. Well, if you've chosen to be a Christian it's, Where is God at work in His work of redemption, in making the kingdom visible, and how can I join it? Because God is also at work outside of that mission using the powers to keep basic order. And really, God can use anyone to keep the nations in order. He can only use transformed, regenerated, Spirit-empowered Christian communities to carry out his kingdom mandate.
Karl Vaters: Yeah. For those of you who are listening to this, and it's maybe confusing to the way you've heard about how the church, state and other authorities in the world relate to each other, what you do so well in the book is you go back and you show the biblical story arc. You mentioned already Babel, you go back to creation, you deal with… You talk about principalities and powers and what that means, and you lay it out in a way… You put bits and pieces together that I had never seen put together in a logical and biblical string that makes sense of all of this.
So that outside the biblical story arc, it's really hard to understand this sharing of powers, for lack of a better term, that you just talked about but was inside the principle of scripture, and you see it laid out over and over again in scripture. Simple things like pray for kings in their authority, and God has put these kings in his place. And we look around, what about a Hitler, what about a Putin? But when you see it according to the biblical story arc and according to the way you have, I think biblically, described a kingdom-centered orientation, only then does it really make sense. If you're gonna keep any of the other three orientations, none of these things make a whole lot of sense, they fall to pieces. It's only with the kingdom-centered orientation that really makes sense.
And so for those who are listening, I really do encourage you, if you want to do further reading on this, get Endangered Gospel. It is strong, it is biblically sound, it is academically rigorous, but it's easy to read. The first few chapters especially, laying out the stuff that we're really talking about now, and then you get into the ways that the church can actually be an example of the kingdom of God, that we can actually embody that within a church structure. How does a church actually begin to look that way, which is just too much to get into in a short thing like this.
But before we get into the last little bit, which is practical application in smaller congregations, you do at the end of the book talk about two pitfalls, the pitfalls of isolationism and utopianism. That is right now one of the big spark points for arguments that are happening within the body of Christ right now. You've got the isolationists on one side, you've got the utopians on the other side. They tend to be categorized in political terms within the conversations online and so on as left and right, but I think it's way outside of those categories, it's bigger than those categories. Can you walk us through, what are the pitfalls of isolationism, utopianism? How are they so dangerous and how do we overcome that?
John Nugent: Yeah. Once people realize that it's our job not necessarily to fix everything wrong with this world, that God's got other agents that He uses to do that, it's easy to get just, Okay, our role is all about the church and building up the kingdom community and enjoying the kingdom as a community. And the danger is that that itself becomes an end in and of itself. From beginning to end, God is creating this alternative community so that He might use them to draw all people to himself. The church exists from beginning to end for the world. We exist for the world. We don't exist for ourselves. Any experience of the kingdom and the Spirit and the new and abundant life that God opens up for us is so that we might overflow around us and impact our communities, our neighbors, our families, that God might use our witness to draw all people to Himself.
One of the paradigm shifts people have usually when they're done reading the book is, Man, I need to take my commitment to serving in the church and living out the kingdom together more seriously than I ever have. And praise the Lord that they realize that, but they cannot let go of, And the reason I do that is so that God might use us to reach our neighbors and the world. And so isolation would kill the whole thing. It would be to light a lamp and put it under a bushel. We exist for the world, everything we do is for the world, and we have to keep that for the world orientation and find creative ways to make our experience of the kingdom visible to unbelievers.
And that's really the challenge for churches of every size, but especially I think smaller churches, finding ways to serve each other and love each other in ways that our neighbors can see it and ask questions about it and be drawn to it, and experience something that they don't experience among their family or their friends or their workplaces. So isolation kills the whole thing. We're for the world or not at all.
Karl Vaters: Yeah, I think that for those of us who - mostly talking to church leaders who are aware, for instance, of Jesus’ confrontations with the Pharisees, that's really where they were. In some ways it's hard to fault them, because the last third of the Old Testament is God screaming at the people: Quit combining your beliefs with these unbiblical beliefs, with idolatry, quit all the synchronism that's going on. And they end up in Babylon because of that. And then by the time the New Testament opens, the Pharisees have established themselves basically to say, Okay, we're gonna do that now. We're gonna keep ourselves separate like the prophets told us we should have back then, and we didn't want to listen back then. And then Jesus comes along and goes, No, pendulum swing way too far over into isolationism. We got to be separate from the world for the world, we can't go into isolationism.
And then utopianism, of course, would be maybe those first two views that we looked at earlier, right? The human-centered view and the world-centered view. Would they be examples of utopianism, perhaps?
John Nugent: A different kind of utopianism. The heaven-centered just relocates utopia to another place at another time.
Karl Vaters: Yeah, world-centered and human-centered would be closer though, would it?
John Nugent: I think utopianism as I talk about it as a pitfall to avoid is a pitfall that the kingdom-centered approach must avoid. Once we realize that this new thing God is doing through us, the sins are being forgiven, the walls are being broken down between male and female, between young and old, between black and white, we can think that it's our job in the church community to engineer, not the world to be utopia, but to engineer our own life to be utopia. And then in such a way that doesn't take… It's kind of like the kingdom is now, but not yet. It's begun through Jesus, but it's not here fully. And if we don't take seriously the ongoing impact of sin even within the kingdom community, we can get into trouble. There's neither male nor female in the kingdom, but men and women in the church really need to have boundaries. The kingdom hasn't come yet, there's still sin, there's still lost. So I think people can take the ideal of the kingdom and latch onto it so much that they're not taking seriously the ongoing presence of sin that we need to be careful that we don't enter into kind of dangerous territory.
Karl Vaters: Gotcha. No, I love that. Before we get to the lightning round questions, let's talk to pastors, specifically pastors to smaller congregations.
Are there some ways that you would maybe talk to them or encourage them to start thinking about these principles within their local congregations in ways where we can become what we're talking about, more kingdom-centered within our congregations in some practical ways? Because you give a lot of practical help in this, are there a couple keys that you might highlight right now for our listeners?
John Nugent: I have a chart somewhere, maybe it's in the appendix, I may list it inside of a chapter, I forget. But I have a mark of 25 Marks of a Kingdom-Embodying Church. And what I've done is I've called from the teachings of Jesus about the kingdom and the example of the New Testament churches according to the letters, and this is what the kingdom is like. And I think the challenge for churches is, What can we do now so that our congregational experience is more like that kingdom vision. And I think one of the places that I think we have the most learning to do and growing to do in large and small churches alike is in notions of power and authority and leadership. And one of the things about the kingdom is that the Holy Spirit has been given to all members. They've all been blessed and empowered for ministry. And the Holy Spirit might say something through anyone in the church body, and the leaders who've been nominated and recognized by the church don't corner the market on God's will and ideas for the thriving of the community. And so I think one of the challenges is to make visible the voice and gift of every member. Not to do the work of ministry on behalf of the saints, but to equip the saints for the work of ministry. So I think finding ways to make the voice of each member heard where they feel like what they believe matters and that their views are being taken seriously.
There's so many aspects of the kingdom that are reflected when power is reframed in terms of Jesus and serving and prioritizing others and lifting them up. So that's just an example. In the kingdom, we don't acknowledge any kind of discrimination based on race, based on ethnicity and age, and things of that sort. But when it comes to people who are making decisions and are providing leadership and have a voice, they often tend to look like a very specific demographic. And where power is being hoarded in the hands of the few, the kingdom of the world is made more visible than the kingdom of God.
Karl Vaters: Would you have any practical advice for pastors who are… The last few years especially has been a season of real division in a lot of churches over politics and things that are easily secondary, if not even less than secondary, to the gospel. And so a lot of pastors, especially in smaller churches and in smaller towns, are dealing with real division in their congregations, and a lot of the division comes from a misunderstanding of the biblical mandates as you have outlined in this book. You've got isolationists, for instance, who are just, We've got to be completely separate from. Or you've got those who are human-centered or at least world-centered - the opening thing we talked about, we're gonna grab the power structures of this world in the hands of the church. We've got to get into the power structures, we've gotta be in the room where it happens, to quote Hamilton. And the church wants to be in the room where it happens. We want to be one of those power structures, which is how you start the book, which this sounds great, but it's not biblical. And a lot of pastors right now are struggling with a lot of congregation members who are coming from exactly that viewpoint. Is it even possible from your perspective at a little bit of removed from the local pastorate, although you are very involved in your local church, of course. How can pastors begin to address these kinds of hard divisions that are happening in our congregations right now?
John Nugent: Yeah. And the first thing, I think you've outlined that nicely, is to realize that the gathering of the believing community is the room where it's happening.
Karl Vaters: There we go.
John Nugent: We are the room where the future of world history is breaking forth. Washington is not that. City hall is not that. So the challenge then, I think, and we have people who they get worked up, they get fired up for social justice causes and issues because of social media, because of the news. I think some churches, respond to that by, Alright, we're gonna go join the March or join the protest, and we're gonna be the social justice, Twitter warriors, and be in the room where that is happening.
And others are like, No, that has nothing to do with Jesus, we're gonna totally stay away from that stuff. The kingdom is a place where social justice is being overcome. And so the question is, Why is it that people who have a heart for social justice don't feel like the church is a place where something's happening in that regard. And so the question is not, What is our town doing to deal with racial inequity, but what concrete ways is our church breaking down walls, racially. What ways are we showing support and care for those who've been chewed up and beaten up by the systems? There needs to be a sense in which the church without the political and financial incentives of the world, but simply because of our loyalty to God and our desire to be a witness to His kingdom, that we have concrete initiatives going on as the people of God where people can catch a glimpse of the kind of social equity that they're trying to make happen in the world, that they're seeing take place very visibly concretely among the church families, so that after riots and stuff break out, the church family is getting together and saying, Alright, how can we be a witness to the kingdom when everyone is at each other's throats in the world right now, how can we be a foretaste that this racial reconciliation they want to see is already taking place among us.
And so we need those people who are world-centered in the sense that they have a heart for the brokenness of the world. We need them in our body and we need the people who have a passion about God's word and the scriptures and salvation and the message of Jesus. We need them in our bodies coming together to realize both of those things come together in our embodied witness as a community and the way we treat one another.
Karl Vaters: Wonderful. So many different places we could go with this. I absolutely love your book, Endangered Gospel. I recommend it to anybody who wants further exploring on this, especially if you're in a congregation where these issues are really tearing the fabric of the church apart. And even if you're not, simply so we can do this better, we want to be a kingdom-focused ministry. I really recommend that. But I can't let you go without subjecting you to the lightning round questions that everybody has got to be subjected to.
So here's question number one: What are the biggest changes you've seen in your field of ministry in the last few years and how have you adapted to it?
John Nugent: I think one of the biggest changes is just there is this restlessness about the social ills that are tearing apart our society, and this desire, we need to do something about it. That is a change. There's a level of passion and intensity about that, that people are willing to walk out of churches if they don't see something there. And so how we are adapting to that and striving to is instead of letting people just talk into their books and their different silos, social media silos, we are bringing people together in the church family to talk about what they see, what they're concerned about, and what concrete steps can we take as a congregation to make visible we care about these things too because they're central to a kingdom vision, and we're listening to the voices and we're taking concrete steps, and we're learning from the world, we're listening to some of the good things that are going on there.
Karl Vaters: There's an increased conflict, but it comes out of an increased passion. So you wanna keep the passion while redirecting it in ways that are less angry, less likely to produce conflict and more likely to produce answers and some productive motion in the church, hopefully.
Second one, is there a free resource, like an app or website that has helped you lately, that you would recommend for those in small church ministry?
John Nugent: The resource I would recommend the most is the podcast I'm a part of, the After Class Podcast.
Karl Vaters: Yeah, we’lll put a link to that in the show notes.
John Nugent: We are three guys with PhDs, one in Old Testament, one in New Testament, one in theology, that are just making critical issues in the church and the scriptures available at an accessible level. Outside of me, the resource I found - outside the podcast - the resource I found most helpful is the works of Gerhard Lohfink, who is a German scholar and his works are translated into English, and a lot of them are being translated into English and made available. He's got his finger on the heart of radical Christian community, learning from the way of Jesus. And so he has books like No Irrelevant Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth. He's got a book on parables, a book on the Lord's Prayer. He's not a reader lots of people go to or even know exist.
Karl Vaters: Yeah, it's new to me too. You're referring to him in present tense. So is this a theologian currently writing now or is this a…
John Nugent: Yes.
Karl Vaters: All right. Great.
John Nugent: And he's a good German scholar, so it's a little more academically minded, but it's written very excessively. Good scholarship made available at a very popular level.
Karl Vaters: Oh, wonderful. Yeah, we will link to that as well. Awesome. Thirdly, what's the best piece of ministry advice you've ever received?
John Nugent: I think I got this from Stanley Hauerwas, who was one of my mentor professors at Duke.
Karl Vaters: And I believe co-author of one of your books, if I remember from your…
John Nugent: He wrote an introduction or a preface.
Karl Vaters: Oh, that's what it was. I knew I saw his name on the cover.
John Nugent: One of the things he impressed upon me that's really stuck with me and made a huge difference, is just that the gospel is a gift. All the way down, the gospel is a gift. And so this good news that we have isn't to bully people with, not to coerce people to accept. It's not something we can force upon another. It's always God's offer that people can either accept or reject. It's not our job to force them to accept. Our job is to make that gift available and to have the patience when people don't accept it. Not to recourse to coercion or bullying or verbal onslaughts to kind of make people come around. It's gotta stay a gift or else it's no longer gospel anymore.
Karl Vaters: You mention that in Endangered Gospel as well, and it is such a powerful point to make. Because the idea that the gospel is a gift isn't something Hauerwas made up, it is seriously New Testament. It's repeated regularly. And few of us have recognized the power and the importance of that, like you just described. That's a great one. I love it.
Last one. What's the funniest or weirdest thing you've ever seen in church?
John Nugent: Yeah, our church is really committed to… I'm a part of small church, about 80 members. We're really committed to serving one another in very practical ways. The funniest image in my head is a friend went with me all the way to Pennsylvania, from Lansing, Michigan, to Pennsylvania, to get a shed to haul it back, because it was such a great deal, made on this Amish farm. We called the shed making place and said, What kind of trailer do you need? And they said, An 18-foot trailer, and this kind of truck will do the job. And so we showed up with an 18-foot trailer and they set that shed on the back of the thing. In their mind, it's a trailer with two axles and plenty of wheels, and we just had one axle in the middle. And we set that shed on top of that trailer, and the whole thing went to the ground. And I see all these Amish wood makers, their jaws have dropped and they can't believe that we're actually going to try to carry this thing from Pennsylvania to Lansing. But we were a spectacle to behold, ended up being 24-hour drive with many unexpected adventures along the way. We had members of the church family come meet us halfway to literally escort us down the road to save us from other people. But it was such a spectacle to see the picture of this church family scrambling together to make possible this ridiculous mission. Just a way we tried to love each other and provide for each other very simple ways, doing crazy things, to try to serve each other in the Lord.
Karl Vaters: Come together as the body of Christ. Hey, if anybody wants to follow up on this or connect with you, how can they find you?
John Nugent: I have a website called Johnnugent.net, and that's one way, and After Class Podcast, you can search for that using any podcast provider, and you should be able to find us that way.
Karl Vaters: And we'll link all of that in the show notes as well. I sure appreciate your being with us today. I love your book, I highly recommend it to anybody who wants to do any further talk on this. I think it goes to the heart of issues. If we can get this issue right, if we can understand what Jesus meant when He talked about the kingdom of God, which was His main talking point that we often miss, if we can understand that it will help us to get all the other stuff right. So much else falls into place when we understand the kingdom of God. So thank you. Thank you so much for all of that and for your time today.
John Nugent: Thank you, Karl.
Karl Vaters: So can this work in a small church? Is there a way to help our congregations understand the principles of a kingdom-centered approach to ministry, both inside and outside the church walls? The answer of course is yes. We need to do a couple things though. It's yes, if we first of all understand where the common misunderstandings about these issues come from so that we can address them lovingly and biblically. Secondly, we need to frame these issues according to the entire story arc of scripture, rather than just proof texting things. And then finally, we need to see the church for what Jesus called us to be, not isolated from the world but as a representation of the kingdom of God within the world.
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This episode was produced by Veronica Beaver, edited by Phil Vaters. The original theme music was written and performed by Jack Wilkins of Jackwilkinsmusic.com. The podcast logo was created by Solomon Joy of joyetic.com. And me, I'm Karl Vaters and I'm a small church pastor.