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Spring 2002 · Vol. 31 No. 1 · pp. 35–45 

Thirsty for the Reign: A Kingdom Theology for Youth Ministry, Part One

Wendell Loewen

This was Angela’s third trip to the inner city in her metro area. She was wrestling with some hard questions. One afternoon Angela helped Brianna make a commitment to Christ at a Kid’s Club meeting. Two days later, Brianna, a free-spirited nine-year-old from a desperately poor family, brought her jaded, resentful mother, Clarice, to meet Angela. After some polite conversation and a brief prayer, Angela felt compelled to give them her Bible. Clarice’s face hardened. She threw the Bible to the ground and blurted, “We can’t eat your book!”

Teens need to be clear about the reality that the kingdom of this world and God’s reign are in tension.

Angela recalled Jesus’ words, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). 1 “What kind of an impact are we making?” she asked herself. “People come to Christ, but their miserable living conditions don’t seem to change. Aren’t Christians called to do more?”

With no good answers from her youth leaders, Angela went home overwhelmed with helplessness. Now, when she prays for God to somehow improve Brianna’s bleak situation, she is not really sure how that will happen.

Rising altruism has many young people sharing Angela’s frustration. But they are not getting much help from the church. Satisfied with their privatized faith, contemporary, western Christians largely ignore the very real social concerns in their world. Those who do desire to make a tangible difference feel ill-equipped to act. {36}

It is vital that contemporary youth ministries recapture a biblical understanding of the church: as an alternative social structure that is the primary agent of God’s reign. This discovery can move students beyond an individual and personal faith emphasis toward one that seeks to tangibly impact the world.

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

In an increasingly postmodern culture, today’s Christian young people are discovering the bankruptcy of a primarily self-focused faith. Over the years their youth leaders have taught them that salvation is, in essence, a one-time transaction with God to escape damnation. Christians simply have to read the Bible more, pray more, and occasionally save souls. Unable to express an authentic, real-life faith, many teens are testing other forms of spirituality. 2

How did we get here? Many point to two significant influences: Constantinianism and Modernism. These influences have molded the western church into one that is virtually indistinguishable from its surrounding culture; practices a primarily privatized faith; and demonstrates a radical disconnect between belief and lifestyle.

The Impact of Constantine

The first Constantinian influence evident today is the union of the church and culture. Emperor Constantine, who converted to Christianity after seeing a vision of a cross in the sky while riding into battle, declared that Christianity would be the religion of the Roman Empire (313 C.E., Edict of Milan). No longer dismissed as a “slave religion,” the church had access to power. With Constantine, the church “decided to derive its significance through association with the state.” 3 “The two visible realities of church and world were fused.” 4 Even the Reformation of the sixteenth century, which brought significant change, did not do enough to distinguish the two as the Reformers opted for political conservatism rather than to challenge the strong influence of Constantinianism. 5

Over time, this marriage between church and society has created a sort of mutual dependence. Culture—including everything from state, economy, and political power strategies to war—has sought the baptism of the church. And the church has utilized culture to help create a “surrounding ‘Christian’ culture to prop it up and mold its young.” 6

Seeing itself as quite compatible with the world, the church’s focus has shifted from challenging cultural values to adjusting the individual to the status quo. So, as Rodney Clapp observes, the Constantinian-influenced church has forgotten {37}

the church’s own culture-forming and sustaining capabilities. It denies any real tension between the church and the world; it overlooks the biblical awareness of Christians as nomads and resident aliens who will never be completely at home in a fallen world—even an affluent and exceedingly comfortable fallen world. 7

This is closely linked to a second Constantinian influence: privatized faith. Since the church has not been seen as a countercultural social structure, it has turned inward. The western church tends to see faith as the “opposite of the social and cultural, [and] very much as individualistic.” 8 Christianity, at least in the Anglo, western context, is something of a private affair and has become quite therapeutic. Some would say, “God brings me peace of mind and personal fulfillment.” Far too many Christian young people have been taught that Christian principles hold the key to success in a consumerist culture. 9 The church has become a therapeutic marketer peddling a gospel of self-validation.

Youth ministry, conforming to this model, has been guilty of “propagating an interpersonal buddy theology.” 10 Teens have learned that the gospel is also something one consumes. This is much the same as the consumptive mentality of secular culture. Mark Driscoll and Chris Seay make this observation:

[T]he church as a whole has become a business that exists to attract consumers by marketing a product. So the gospel is no longer something you participate in—it’s something you consume. . . . It’s all about goods and services. 11

Since too many Christians live an individualistic, privatized faith, the church has been rendered ineffective in terms of its impact on the world.

The Impact of Modernism

A significant influence of Modernism has been the de-emphasis of right living. The Enlightenment championed the notion that “to know anything you must begin by doubting everything.” Truth is primarily discovered with the principle of doubt not faith. Since it is difficult to come to an empirical, verifiable understanding of God, atheism emerged and, in response, the Christian apologetic.

Modern theologians have been consumed with the question, “How do we make the gospel credible to the modern world?” 12 But as Hauerwas and Willimon note, “modern interpreters of the faith have tended to {38} let the ‘modern world’ determine the questions and therefore limit the answers.” 13 The modern worldview of unbelief has had a greater influence on the church’s ideologies than we realize.

The apologists’ effort to communicate the gospel intelligibly to the rational orientation of modern people has moved the Christian faith toward being a set of ideas which are simply to be believed, rather than an ethic to be lived. The modern emphasis has been upon translating the gospel rather than upon transforming lifestyles.

The church’s enduring emphasis on the plausibility of a set of propositions has led many young people to conclude, “Believe the right doctrine and you are saved.” As a result many “Christian” young people have been identified as functional dualists unhooking belief from action. “If belief is all that matters,” they say, “what difference does my lifestyle make?”

But, as Hauerwas and Willimon conclude, “Right living is more the challenge than right thinking. The challenge is not the intellectual one but the political one—the creation of a new people who have aligned themselves with the seismic shift that has occurred in the world since Christ.” 14

THE OPPORTUNITY OF POSTMODERNISM

Until recently, the church’s bond with western culture has given Christianity supremacy. But now, in an increasingly postmodern context, “the engagement of the church with modern western culture has resulted in the marginalization of the Christian faith.” 15 So, the harsh reality is that, while we are “living in what might be the most ‘spiritual’ of all times, Christianity is (ironically) at the bottom of the totem pole.” 16 It could be said that Postmoderns have thrown out the church baby with the modern bath water.

This paradigm shift has exposed some of the theological and sociological flaws of the Constantinianized, modern church. Postmodern deconstructionism has denounced any form of social power wielding. With its access to power disintegrating, the western church has been left feeling impotent.

The postmodern value of altruism has exposed the privatized faith of so many as a self-focused form of personal therapy. The church has been accused of meeting the acute needs of a hurting world with religious rhetoric but nothing of substance.

Postmoderns, who value authenticity, deplore hypocrisy. The radical disconnect between belief and practice of the western church is being uncovered and denounced. The integrity of one’s faith is not found in what a person says he or she believes, but in a lifestyle that puts those convictions into action. {39}

Now reeling, the church needs to reexamine its current ministry practices. Some have said that “a second Reformation is at hand” 17 and youth leaders must be the ones to lead the way.

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

The time is right for contemporary youth ministries to grasp a biblical presentation of the church: the church as an alternative culture that invites others to participate in the reality of God’s reign. Understanding this can help move students beyond a privatized faith toward a strong desire to influence the world.

A helpful biblical image for us is the kingdom of God. If youth ministries can infuse their teaching and activities with a clear “reign of God” theology, teens will better be able to see their way out of their individualized, privatized faith bubbles. They will be able to wrestle with tangible ways in which they can impact their world. Youth ministries themselves, will be far more effective in being a visible influence in their immediate communities.

THE REIGN OF GOD

The Centrality of the Kingdom

Most New Testament scholars agree that the kingdom of God was at “the core, the very essences of [Jesus’] ministry.” 18 Jesus announced the good news of God’s kingdom (Mark 1:14), urged his followers to give it top priority (Matt. 6:33), and taught his disciples to pray for the inbreaking of God’s reign (Matt. 6:10; Luke 11:2). In Jesus’ future vision, God’s kingdom was pivotal. When asked about the coming of the end of the age, Jesus answered, “This good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come” (Matt. 24:14).

A Definition

The kingdom of God can best be defined as “the dynamic rule or reign of God. . . . [which] points us not to the place of God, but to God’s ruling activities.” 19 God’s kingdom is not limited to an inward experience of the “heart.” The “very term kingdom implies a collective order above and beyond the experience of any one person.” 20 It is a “new order in which God rules.” 21

Its Sociopolitical Dimension

Over the years Christians have depoliticized Jesus’ ministry. But the reign of God has very real social and political dimensions. Jesus {40} understood that he was conducting his ministry in a “politically charged context.” 22 Under the thumb of Rome, “the pressing needs of most Jews of the period had to do with liberation.” 23 Israel’s hope was for “a national liberation that would fulfill the expectations aroused by the memory, and regular celebration, of the exodus. . . . Hope focused on the coming of the kingdom of Israel’s God.” 24 So, Jesus’ announcement of the arrival of a radical new kingdom had to have been seen as a threat to the Romans and even to the Jewish religious elite.

Much of Jesus’ ministry can be understood as a “public career of kingdom-initiation.” 25 Jesus began his ministry with a struggle against three alternative kingdoms while being tempted in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13). 26 The struggle against prevailing social institutions was symbolized by the mountain (political), the temple (religious), and the bread (economic).

Jesus openly criticized kings and rulers (Mark 10:42). He called Herod a fox (Luke 13:32). Derisively hailing him as the “king of the Jews” (Luke 23:38), the Romans had Jesus crucified, a “form of execution reserved for persons found guilty of opposing the state.” 27

Jesus regularly defied Sabbath laws (Matt. 12:1-14; Mark 2:23-3:6; Luke 13:10-17; John 5:2-18) and provoked the Pharisees (Matt. 23). All four gospels record Jesus’ purging of the temple (Matt. 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-19; Luke 19:45-48; John 2:13-17). In one decisive act, Jesus struck at the nerve center of Jewish religion, challenging religious structures and signaling that “the new kingdom welcomed all regardless of race or nationality.” 28

In poverty-riddled Palestine Jesus preached against economic injustice. “Blessed are you who are poor . . . but woe to you who are rich” (Luke 6:20, 24). In his encounter with the rich young ruler, Jesus revealed that wealth was a barrier to entering the kingdom (Luke 18:18-30). But in his meeting with Zacchaeus, Jesus announced that emptying one’s bank account by giving to the poor is a sign that salvation has come (Luke 19:1-10). Finally, Jesus’ Jubilee proclamation (Luke 4:18-19) was a vision that would, in effect, upset the social order. Land would be redistributed, slaves would be set free, and debts would be erased.

The emphasis here is that the kingdom Jesus inaugurated was not apolitical. To fully understand the kingdom we must hold two dynamics in tension: the spiritual realities of God’s reign and its sociopolitical dimensions.

A Two-World Tension

The gospels reveal that God’s kingdom and the world are at odds. {41} Jesus declared, “My kingdom is not from this world” (John 18:36). In fact, Jesus announced an “inverted . . . way of life . . . that contrast[ed] with the prevailing social order.” 29 The kingdom lifestyle depicted by the gospels appears foolish to a “right-side-up” culture.

Jesus focused his ministry on the marginalized and oppressed (Matt. 5:3-6), he identified with outcasts, tax collectors, and “sinners” (Matt. 9:10-12), and elevated the status of women (John 4:1-42; Luke 8:1-3). Jesus called full-grown adults to become like little children (Matt. 18:3-5), taught that last will be first (Matt. 19:30), and that to be great one must be a servant (Mark 10:43). Jesus challenged his followers to love their enemies (Matt. 5:43-48; Luke 6:32-34) and to resist evil nonviolently (Matt. 5:38-42).

Jesus proclaimed a kingdom that challenged the pattern of social life taken for granted both in ancient Palestine and contemporary culture. It is important to understand, though, that Jesus never advocated for an isolated kingdom. His kingdom is not geographically or socially separate from the world. As Kraybill puts it,

Kingdom action takes place in the middle of the societal ballpark. But it’s a different game. Kingdom players follow new rules. They listen to another coach. 30

Kingdom-seekers model a radical lifestyle and culture that runs counter to that of the world. Participants in God’s reign do not isolate themselves from the larger society but invite others to join a community that accomplishes God’s purposes in the world.

Allegiance and Identity

A biblical understanding of the kingdom raises some fundamental questions. To what realm do I belong? With whom do I identify? Jesus’ call was to “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33). He also instructed, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21). Acknowledging God’s authority means that we offer God our primary allegiance. “We cannot recognize his sovereignty without at the same time placing all other loyalties at a secondary level.” 31 We must be clear about our loyalties and be prepared to make some hard choices if earthly kingdoms run counter to God’s reign.

The very term kingdom implies a relational realm occupied by citizens. The kingdom of God is a collectivity—a group of interdependent persons who “have yielded their hearts and relationships to the reign of {42} God.” 32 Yes, individuals do make choices about kingdoms, but participating in God’s reign means being engrafted into “a new community within the larger society. . . . a people who live under Christ’s headship and are members of God’s kingdom.” 33

Membership in the kingdom “spells out a citizen’s relationship to the king, to other citizens, and to other kingdoms.” 34 We identify ourselves primarily with a new order, knowing that the intimacy of community will carry us through life and that the synergy of community will increase our influence on the world.

The Church and the Kingdom

Now, how does God’s reign relate to the church? The church is not the kingdom, but it acts in society as a sign of God’s reign in the world. Christ brought the reality of the kingdom into the world, and “we, his people, are harbingers of the new order inaugurated by Christ.” 35

By modeling—a commitment to follow Jesus (Mark 8:34); selfless love for others (Mark 12:31); corporate unity (John 17:23); redemptive peace (Matt. 5:9); justice (Matt. 5:9); and service (John 13:1-17)—the church acts as a quiet and powerful change agent in the world (Matt. 5:14-16). Myron Augsburger expresses the essence of the church-kingdom relationship this way:

To be reconciled to God means that . . . God is our one imperial Authority, the eternal King; his rule is extended into “time” and made a reality for us through our faith response. As we pray, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we participate in the reality of his rule, his kingdom now; we do this even though God’s reign is to be completed and fulfilled with the return of Christ. 36

Today, Christians tend to reduce the reign of God into simplified categories diminishing its influence. Is it spiritual or social? Future or present? Individual or corporate? Personal or political? Earthly or heavenly? The kingdom is all of the above. We must hold these categories in tension to stay true to the heart of God’s kingdom.

We tend to examine the kingdom, but God calls us to enter it. We want to analyze God’s reign, but we are called to act as “the visible church, a place, clearly visible to the world, in which people are faithful to their promises, love their enemies, tell the truth, honor the poor, suffer for righteousness, and thereby testify to the amazing community-creating power of God.” 37 {43}

MEANWHILE BACK IN THE YOUTH ROOM

So, how does a kingdom perspective impact youth ministry? First, a solid understanding of God’s kingdom helps clarify allegiances. Ultimately, kingdom-seeking is a political act. Young people should be able to clearly identify themselves with God’s new realm that runs counter to the larger society. Teens need to be clear about the reality that the kingdom of this world and God’s reign are in tension. At times, loyalty choices will have to be made. If students call God their king, and they are sincere about it, they have invited God to rule their lives, God’s purposes to drive their lives. Teens are declaring that they are subject to God’s authority above anyone else’s.

Second, grasping the reality of God’s reign clarifies ethics. The upside-down ethics of God’s kingdom must not be compromised. God’s kingdom is not one of individualism, consumerism, power, bondage to sin, violence, and alienation, but one of healing, compassion, justice, equity, peace, and service.

The emerging postmodern culture is skeptical of the power games that are played in society, especially by Christians. Modeling lives of humility, service, and sacrifice in which power is shared can be a disarming witness to a cynical world.

Third, seeking the kingdom compels students to tangibly engage the world. Asking for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done (Matt. 6:10) is a prayer of action. Understanding the reality of God’s reign moves students beyond a private piety to a sense of social responsibility. They know that their spiritual experience is both personal and social. They become increasingly aware of the social dimensions of the gospel. 38 Teens may begin sharing their resources with those in need. They may help facilitate reconciliation between rival groups. Students may seek out the marginalized in their schools and make somebodies out of nobodies.

So, how can Angela make a kingdom difference in Brianna’s life? Obviously donating the Bible is a great start. But being the kingdom in the world means that she must also be a kingdom presence.

Angela might begin by raising funds in her youth group so she and Clarice could buy groceries together every week. She may contribute some of her savings so that Clarice could further her education or receive job training. Angela could also babysit Brianna to help reduce the cost of childcare. In time, Clarice and Brianna could be connected with a local church. Soon, the local body of believers could be both a spiritual and tangible support system to a once desperate family.

When God truly reigns in our hearts, kingdom values guide our {44} lives. Our personal faith in Jesus has a very practical expression. A kingdom perspective makes the radical connection between heart and hands, a link that is aptly expressed by the words of Menno Simons:

True evangelical faith . . . cannot lie dormant . . . ;

it clothes the naked;
it feeds the hungry;
it comforts the sorrowful;
it shelters the destitute; . . .
it serves those that harm it; . . .
it binds up that which is wounded; . . .
it has become all things to all people. 39

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NOTES

  1. Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.
  2. Knowing full well that many churches express a more biblical understanding of their identity and mission, this article critiques accommodated, acculturated North American Christendom. The values and ethos of the latter have significantly shaped the priorities and methods of youth ministry.
  3. Rodney Clapp, A Peculiar People (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996), 25.
  4. John Howard Yoder, “The Otherness of the Church,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 35 (October 1961): 288.
  5. Clapp, 27.
  6. Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1989), 18.
  7. Clapp, 39.
  8. Ibid., 33.
  9. The term “principles” is used here in a reductionistic sense. There is a popular tendency in North America to reduce the gospel to a set of guidelines, secrets, keys, or steps that provide personal success.
  10. Kenda Creasy Dean, “Youth Ministry in a Changed World,” Group 28 (January/February 2002): 44.
  11. Mark Driscoll and Chris Seay, “A Second Reformation Is at Hand,” Youthworker, January/February 2000, 36.
  12. Hauerwas and Willimon, 19.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid., 24.
  15. Wilbert R. Shenk, Write the Vision: The Church Renewed {45} (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity, 1995), 2.
  16. Tony Jones, Postmodern Youth Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 57.
  17. In “A Second Reformation Is at Hand,” Driscoll and Seay write a provocative article discussing both the challenges and opportunities of Postmodernity. They contend that youth ministry practices must be reevaluated to be effective in a new cultural context.
  18. Donald B. Kraybill, The Upside-Down Kingdom, rev. ed. (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1990), 19.
  19. Ibid., 20.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Myron S. Augsburger, The Robe of God (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 2000), 77.
  22. Clapp, 78.
  23. N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1992), 169.
  24. Ibid., 169-70.
  25. N. T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1999), 39.
  26. Kraybill treats this event at length in The Upside-Down Kingdom, pp. 35-88. This brief discussion is taken primarily from his work.
  27. Joel B. Green, The Way of the Cross (Nashville, TN: Discipleship Resources, 1991), 70.
  28. Kraybill, 162.
  29. Ibid., 19.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Augsburger, 88.
  32. Ibid.
  33. Ibid., 87.
  34. Kraybill, 21.
  35. Augsburger, 79.
  36. Ibid., 78-79.
  37. Hauerwas and Willimon, 46.
  38. Augsburger, 77.
  39. Menno Simons, The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, ed. J. C. Wenger (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1956), 307.
Wendell Loewen has served several congregations as youth pastor and since 1997 has been Assistant Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas. In addition, he is the Southern District Youth Minister of the (U.S.) Mennonite Brethren Church.