What accounts for a church’s relevance? I have asked people this question many times. Interestingly, I rarely hear answers related to a church’s form or style. Contrary to popular assumptions, I do not find people commonly associating a church’s relevance with the type of jeans the pastors wear, or if the pastor places his Bible on a round table rather than a pulpit. Nor do I find many people fixating on a church’s style of music. In my conversations, relevance is rarely associated with appearances but is tied consistently to a church’s external ministry activities.
I find people describing relevant churches as kingdom-minded churches, which they seem to mean churches that engage in broadband cultural, social, and/or ecumenical concerns. According to some, a relevant, kingdom-minded church works to feed the hungry, help the homeless, prevent diseases, eradicate racism, end human trafficking, promote interdenominational unity, etc.
Relevant, kingdom-minded churches are often identified by what they do. An underlying faith assumption is that such efforts can actualize the presence of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven—which is, of course, something every disciple of Jesus desires. However, we need to reconsider that assumption because it does not appropriately convey the nature of kingdom growth throughout the world.
According to Jesus, God’s kingdom grows as a result of the ministry of the word. It is tied primarily to what a church declares rather than to what a church does. Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows, he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come” (Mk. 4:26-29). Previously, Jesus identified the seed as the word, that is—the gospel or “good news” of God’s redemptive reign (4:14).
Jesus says the ministry of the word is indispensable to the establishment and advancement of God’s kingdom throughout the world. Yet, when we talk about engaging in kingdom ministry, we tend to accent everything but the word. Far too frequently the ministry of the word is cast to the periphery of kingdom activity—that is, if it is not exiled altogether as irrelevant.
In his book, The Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God, George Eldon Ladd reminds disciples that “[People] cannot build the kingdom. They cannot erect it. The kingdom is the kingdom of God; it is God’s reign, God’s rule. God has entrusted the gospel of the kingdom to [us]. It is our responsibility to proclaim the good news about the kingdom. But the actual working of the kingdom is God’s working. The fruitage is produced not by human effort or skill but by the life of the kingdom itself. It is God’s deed.”
A head of grain never grows apart from the scattering of seed. Therefore, the ministry of the word is the one ministry a relevant, kingdom-minded church cannot do without.
This is true for at least two reasons.
One, the gospel is inherently powerful. Like a seed, the gospel contains power within itself to generate life (Rm. 1:16). If church leaders and disciples want to see the kingdom of God grow throughout the world, then we must sow the seed of the kingdom. Apart from the proclamation of the gospel, a church cannot participate in actualizing God’s redemptive reign in the world. A relevant, kingdom-minded church, then, gives herself humbly and confidently to the role of scattering the seed of the gospel. The word does the work.
My role as a church planter in the city of Seattle is a misnomer. A more appropriate label is that of a “gospel planter.” No one can actually plant a church, but anyone can plant the gospel. Apart from prayerfully articulating the story of Jesus’s life, death, resurrection, ascension and inevitable return, God’s kingdom will not come on earth as it is in heaven (Mt. 6:9-10).
Two, the gospel of God’s kingdom is eternally relevant. In the aforementioned parable, Jesus refers to a harvest (Mk. 4:29), which is an eschatological metaphor. Revelation 14:14-19 describes the end-time harvest of the earth that will occur when God’s kingdom is consummated. The future harvest is two-fold, representing salvation for some and judgment for others.
In the meantime, a person can “flee the wrath to come” (Lk. 3:7) by taking refuge in the person and work of Christ through faith. Such faith “comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rm. 10:17). “But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Rm. 10:14). Since the word does the work then the word must be spoken.
If we reduce relevant, kingdom-minded ministry to broadband cultural, social, and ecumenical concerns then we rupture the artery of our relevance.
But there is a beautiful irony woven into the fabric of God’s design for actualizing His kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. If we give ourselves to the ministry of the word–that is, proclaiming the gospel of God’s kingdom centering on the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and return of Christ–then the word will not allow us to do without anything else.
The inherent power and eternal relevance of the word will generate real-time kingdom living and sustain our subsequent engagement in broadband cultural, social, and ecumenical concerns. Grain will grow. We will find ourselves doing so do not despite the word but precisely because of the word.