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Kingdom Syndrome and the Incredible Church

“Everyone can be super. And when everyone’s super, no one will be.” (cue maniacal laughter)

I love The Incredibles. Best animated movie. Ever. A mid-life crisis drama played out by a bloke named Robert Parr, aka Mr Incredible. Par. Average. Get it? A superhero, who one day fell into the easy chair of middle class suburbia, with an ex-super wife, a less than average job, and a brood of children who aren’t so much super, as super annoying. Never mind incredible, our hero struggles even to be credible these days.

Cue Syndrome - an evil villain with a rejection complex, who while not so super himself, has invented gadgets that will do the work for him. And he’ll get to the hero bit eventually when he’s wiped out all of the true superheroes. Syndrome’s gadgets are intended to lop off the tall poppies, not for the sake of everyone else, but for his own sake. If I can’t be super, then I’m going to make sure no one can be.

If one line sums up Scot McKnight’s latest, and by some accounts most controversial, book Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church, it would be this:

Everything can be kingdom. And when everything is kingdom, nothing will be. (cue outraged cries)

I warmed to this book quickly. McKnight rides to the rescue of that once-incredible damsel in distress, the western church, riven as she is by assaults from without and doubts from within and gives her credibility back. The church is assailed most of all, in McKnight’s view, by a theology of ‘kingdom’ that has less to do with the Bible and more to do with a socio-political position from the Christianised Left and Right to push an agenda that leaves the church behind, in the search for temporal influence and power.

Oh, and feeling good about what they are doing. How so? Because McKnight takes that word ‘kingdom’ and plants it squarely where he says - and where he shows the Bible says - it belongs, in the church and of the church. In a time of cultural squeeze and rejection of established church even by Christians, it’s a brave move. The book is controversial only if you think that kingdom can mean any good you do, anywhere you do it, with anyone you do it, and any under banner you choose to fly.

Okay - not so much controversial, as devastating. You mean all that good I am doing in the community isn’t kingdom work? Nope. You mean that clean water project I work at every summer in west Africa isn’t kingdom work? Not necessarily. What about that social justice project in the ’burbs run by the local Bahai group? Kingdom work, surely! Well, not according to McKnight. With a mix of incisive exegesis, cultural observation, and a robust constitution, he tackles head on a theology of kingdom that has included everything in its definition and is quickly heading towards meaning nothing.

Not that what you are doing on the streets, during that summer project or even at work is not good - it is, it is very good indeed. When you do those things you are doing good, but you need to know that you are not doing kingdom work. If you hold on I will explain why.

But first, all homage to a ripping read. McKnight’s writing is vivid, his phraseology zinging. In a world awash with Teflon, McKnight is Velcro. His description of two types in the evangelical world is a case in point: the Skinny Jeans crowd, and the Pleated Pants crowd. That is brilliant. I don’t even have to explain it to you, do I? If you’ve been observing the evangelical culture over the past two decades you know that’s how it is. McKnight has both in his sights.

But back to kingdom. Here’s McKnight describing the Skinny Jeans kingdom framework:

“Kingdom means good deeds done by good people (Christian or not) in the public sector for the common good.

Boiled down to its central elements, kingdom mission in the Skinny Jeans approach is working for social justice and peace, and the foundation for most of these efforts … is a selection of life-giving and important texts from the Bible."

McKnight accepts that the Skinny Jeans (SJ) crowd use the Bible, he just doesn’t think they use it very well. He goes on to show how the Bible never uses the term ‘kingdom’ to describe working for the common good. His most incisive comment points the arrow firmly at evangelism, or lack thereof in this definition:

“[w]hen people do kingdom ‘work’ in accordance with this understanding of kingdom, they fail to do kingdom ‘mission’.”

McKnight bells the cat with this one, because central to his problem with the SJ crowd is that evangelism, the call to repentance and faith in King Jesus, and the gathering of said people into an eschatological community called church, is either a side issue or a non-issue in its definition of mission. And he says that’s just not good enough, especially when his definition of kingdom (after a thorough exegesis that would make the eyes of the SJ crowd water even more than an extra skinny pair of skinny jeans) is as follows:

"The kingdom is the people who are redeemed and ruled by King Jesus in such a way that they live as a fellowship under King Jesus. That is there is a king (Jesus), a rule (by Jesus as Lord), a people (the church), a land (wherever Jesus’ kingdom people are present), and a law (following Jesus through the power of the Spirit)." (p99)

Awkward! At least it is if you are trying to work for the common good and call it kingdom. If, in order to get alongside others in the community to work on a social justice project, you have to leave out Jesus, church, rule, laws and the Trinity, then McKnight gives you no right to use the word ‘kingdom’ to describe that work.

McKnight ... goes on to show how the Bible never uses the term ‘kingdom’ to describe working for the common good.

Not that you are wasting your time. Not at all. And this is where McKnight takes fair aim at the Pleated Pants crowd, an altogether more sanguine - and generally larger - target. So if you are nodding your head in vigorous agreement so far, then watch out:

“Pleated Pants folks have delicate egos, so I want to put this issue about the timing of the kingdom into a theoretical epigram: to the degree that the kingdom has been inaugurated, it can be realised in our world today. The kingdom has invited this world in and through redemption in Christ, and to the degree that the kingdom has been inaugurated, it can make us new people.” (p11)

In other words, the kingdom definition held by the Pleated Pants (PP) crowd is skinnier than the jeans those SJ folks are wearing. McKnight pulls no punches. He accuses the PP crowd of having a thin ecclesiology which takes little interest in the role of the church as a powerful counter-cultural narrative. Much of his tone echoes that of Jamie Smith and his language of the church’s need for a thick liturgical experience.

McKnight lasers in on the PP crowd’s understanding of kingdom as rule (kingdom-inion) and realm (kingdom-ain) without ever landing anywhere. He states:

“Here we come to a rather amazing conclusion, and if I may, to a rather good case for ‘blowing bubbles’: the location of the kingdom for the Pleated Pants crowd is nowhere and everywhere at the same time!” (p13)

He goes on to state:

"Our brief thumbnail definition above, that kingdom refers to a ‘people governed by a king,’ is reduced by the Pleated Pants crowd to the word ‘governed’, and the word ‘governed’ has become the word ‘redeemed’ or ‘saved’. Because this way of defining kingdom is so pervasive and so abstract and so lacking in concrete realities, I turn to the words of Marilynne Robinson who said, ‘This is an instance in which a theory that explains everything really does explain nothing.’" (p15)

And with such a thin understanding of church, where are you going to park all that desire to change something - anything? At the door of the White House of course, or the US Supreme Court, or somewhere you think you can regain some of the cultural traction the church has lost these past three decades. Pleated Pants or Skinny Jeans, it’s all about doing something ‘out there’ to the lasting detriment of the one place that God’s kingdom is visibly expressing itself - among the King’s people as they gather for Word and sacrament.

Perhaps his most incisive comment about both groups is that too many contrast the church now with the kingdom then, a false dichotomy that leaves eschatological realities on the shelf. Better to compare apples with apples - kingdom now with church now, and kingdom then with church then. Obvious when you think of it, but the culture wars have made a habit of comparing the best of ours with the worst of theirs, and it’s catching.

Good works abound in a community where kingdom people live life deeply and richly together under the reign of King Jesus.

There’s much more to say of course, and McKnight says it. The exceptional last third of the book explores what a thick church experience could look like and how that thickness positively flows over, into the surrounding neighbourhoods, towns, villages and, yes, west African water projects. Good works abound in a community where kingdom people live life deeply and richly together under the reign of King Jesus. No doubt about it, McKnight thinks that the church is super and he is more than convinced that if the church is super it is because the resurrected Jesus is its Mr Incredible. If that is so, then the foretaste of the kingdom in the here and now is an exciting and tangible reality of the kingdom to come, when Syndrome is done away with forever.

Steve is approaching an age which would be a more than useful Test batting average. He is a pastor of Providence Church in WA, is married to Jill and together they have two children, Sophie and Declan. Steve grew up in Northern Ireland, but apart from rolling his “r’s”, and talking too fast, is a West Aussie through and through. He has degrees in journalism and theology and enjoys combining the two through writing and blogging, especially on matters of church planting and cultural negotiation for Christians in the increasingly complex West.

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