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Spring 2019 · Vol. 48 No. 1 · pp. 49–54 

Seeking the Kingdom of God as a Church in a Postmodern Age

Tim Dickau

Living in Vancouver for the past thirty-three years, I have witnessed a steady shift towards secularism and fragmented approaches to life. 1 While church attendance has decreased during those three decades, 2 the conditions of belief have also changed, as Charles Taylor has so well argued in his 2007 book, A Secular Age. Not only do many people live within what Taylor calls an “immanent frame” (a social imaginary without God as an active agent), this secularism has been shaped, or more often misshaped, by forces of autonomy and individualism, consumerism, and economic inequality. 3

Awareness of the agency and action of the God who is ushering in this alternative kingdom has given us hope, courage, and creativity.

Within this challenging milieu, some churches have given up. In the face of these powerful forces and the concomitant and pervasive marketing that promotes them, I feel that temptation myself at times. Other churches have been able to survive or even thrive by what I would call “giving in” to these powerful misshaping forces. Across North America, we have ended up creating plenty of churches that ask for {50} no more than two hours on a Sunday morning and a small portion of a person’s income in exchange for an entertaining worship style that appeals to consumerist and autonomous impulses but fails to call people to a sacrificial pursuit of, and participation in, God’s kingdom of peace and justice. I offer this critique aware that I also am tempted to default to this response, to a kind of leadership that gives in to these forces that misshape how we do church.

The biblical vision of “laying down our lives” for the king and seeking first God’s kingdom of restoration and reconciliation calls us to develop a very different kind of community, one that neither gives up nor gives in to these forces. The starting point for this alternative response is this reality that Jesus is the king, victorious over these powers, the One who is redeeming these powers for the kingdom come and coming.

For the past twenty-nine years I have had the privilege of being a pastor at Grandview Church in East Vancouver, where we have searched for this alternative path. In that time, we have sought to live into a vision of God’s kingdom that counters these misshaping forces and bears witness to God’s renewing action in Christ through the Spirit. The desire to bear witness to God’s restoring and reconciling kingdom has led us down at least four trajectories: (1) fostering a diverse community, (2) a more radical hospitality, (3) justice for the least, and (4) confession. 4

Seeking the kingdom in this context has also led us to develop a number of initiatives and organizations, including a free community meal, housing and support for refugee claimants, community houses, a social housing complex, social enterprises (including catering, pottery, and renovations businesses), a policy-developing organization around issues of human trafficking and the sex trade, an initiative to help churches implement recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 5 a support group for single moms, a social justice activist group, and an urban prayer and retreat space. All of these have grown organically out of the intersection of God’s vision for the kingdom, the gifts and passions of our church folk, and the needs of our neighborhood and city.

THEOLOGICAL VISION

While Grandview is a church of only 300 or so people with two congregations, we have and are developing a way of life in Christ and the power of the Spirit that continues to transform and sustain us and these initiatives. This way of life has been shaped by a holistic theological vision. While at seminary, I had the privilege of taking two courses with N.T. Wright. His courses on the kingdom of God in the Gospels and how that kingdom vision was worked out in Paul’s letter to the Romans grew my imagination for the kingdom of God. While {51} I didn’t know then how that vision could be worked out in a secular, post-Christian neighborhood, it gave me a vision of a church incarnated within a place, seeking to participate in God’s mission of making all things new. The hermeneutic that Wright articulated for working out the way of the kingdom—as Jesus to Israel, so the church to the world—became a lens for seeing how we could bear witness to the kingdom come in our neighborhood. In a North American culture where pragmatism and “getting bigger” can become idols, I believe that having this broad and biblical theological vision of the mission of the church is vital for renewing church life today.

RE-FORMING COMMUNITY

The first ten years of this journey at Grandview were about re-forming a community that had decided to quit but was willing to give it one last shot to see what could happen. When I arrived at Grandview, its experience of a shared life together was self-admittedly thin. Moving into the neighborhood (which made us three of only a handful of people who lived there), my wife Mary and I began a parents’ group, motivated in part by our desire to make some friends our own age to complement our friends with the seniors in our church. We also made connections with refugee agencies, making connections first with Latin American refugees and then with folks from other parts of the world. These initial forays into relationships with our neighbors, especially the poor and vulnerable, had a boomerang effect of renewing and reforming our shared life as a church. Becoming a welcoming community involved plenty of grieving over the past, learning to trust and love one another, discussing and disagreeing about how God was leading us, and moving towards hospitality with the stranger.

The move towards hospitality was one of the key moves we made that led to renewal. For a good number of folks, this included living next door to each other or within the same household. Our own family “fell into” this way of shared living as we welcomed folks to live with us for a weekend or week, morphing into a couple years of living together. Eventually, many in our congregation embraced this deeper shared life in community as one of the ways in which we can form a community empowered to bear witness to God’s kingdom. We now have over sixteen houses where people live together, as well as a newly opened housing project which features a floor of common space and a shared living room for every five suites. Community living is not a magic bullet for church renewal or transformation, but a deeper shared life is crucial to forming a community that resists the misshaping powers so that we might be transformed by Christ. 6 {52}

INHABITING A NEIGHBORHOOD

Church renewal and transformation is more likely if our communities inhabit a place. If we are to overcome the autonomy and fragmentation of contemporary life and contribute to the well-being of places in keeping with the kingdom’s promise of restoration, and if we are to live into this vision of restoration that extends to public buildings, trees, and sidewalks as well as people, we need people who will commit not only to each other but to a place—and learn to love it. Because more than half of our church family lives within walking distance of the church, we have come to care about this neighborhood as our home. When you inhabit and embrace a place over the long haul, the shalom that Jesus came to inaugurate—this culture in which humans flourish, relationships are restored, and creation moves towards completion—becomes more imaginable.

SHALOM TAKES TIME

But this takes time. This phrase—shalom takes time—comes from a book co-authored by Stanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier. 7 Our experience has proven it to be true. As we have persisted in understanding our neighbors, power dynamics, and institutions in our neighborhood, we have been able to make some headway in addressing systemic issues of injustice. Take housing for example. Not only have we found creative and prophetic ways to bear witness to a different view of property and home by sharing houses, cars, tools, and money and by developing affordable housing over top of our church parking lot, 8 we have also participated in many forums, discussions with politicians, and campaigns such as “raise the rates” to increase social assistance, all in an effort to promote a shift in how we view housing from being a commodity to being a basic need for all. Pursuing the kingdom requires us to move beyond only personal and corporate responses to address these systemic issues of injustice and decay. 9 And this takes time. This is one reason why we have called many folks to make commitments of stability instead of moving every five years as North Americans are prone to do. 10

If we are to stay longer term in pursuit of this wider vision, we will also be confronted with our own idolatries. I once preached a “Tony Campolo” sermon about how we cannot watch movies three evenings a week and seek the kingdom of God. My point was that seeking the kingdom in all these ways will confront our idolatry of entertainment and diversions. Instead, as we take up this costly way of the kingdom for the long haul, we will learn how much we need true solitude and empowering of the Spirit. In our own journey, the practices of confession and forgiveness—practices we foster in our weekly worship, in our pastoral meetings, and in inner healing prayer—have proven to be essential in {53} our own conflicted relationships and in our own transformation. If we are to recover monastic practices of stability, a practice that I believe is a precursor for churches seeking to recover a kingdom vision, we will need to recover these basic formational practices of confession, repentance, and forgiveness along the way.

HOLDING TOGETHER WHAT HAS BEEN TORN ASUNDER

I believe that living into a kingdom vision is what has led us to hold together elements of the mission of God that are often split apart. By seeking this vision over the long haul, we have been able to embrace both prayer and justice, personal and systemic transformation, holiness and prophetic witness, evangelism and formation, empowering leadership and relational accountability, and an emphasis on both our actions and the action of God.

Indeed, it is the recovering of our awareness of the agency and action of the God who is ushering in this alternative kingdom that has given us hope, courage, and creativity. The influx of people from many other countries and cultures has challenged the immanent frame that so many of us default to in the West and opened us up to see God’s transforming work in our midst. What our collective journey bears witness to is that the kingdom continues to take root today, even in secular Vancouver.

NOTES

  1. See Alistair McIntyre’s description of our ideological fragmentation in After Virtue, 3rd edition (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007).
  2. http://www.pewforum.org/2013/06/27/canadas-changing-religious-landscape/. Religious attendance has declined in Canada from 43 percent of all Canadians in 1986 to 27 percent in 2012.
  3. On autonomy and individualism, see Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1992) and Gord Carkner, The Great Escape from Nihilism (Rosshire, UK: InFocus Publishing, 2016); on consumerism, see especially William Cavanaugh, Being Consumed (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007); on economic inequality, see Zygmunt Baumann, Collateral Damage (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011) and the now influential study by Thomas Picketty, Capital in the 21st Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).
  4. See Tim Dickau, Plunging into the Kingdom Way: Practicing the Shared Strokes of Community, Hospitality, Justice and Confession (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2010).
  5. For information about the history of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, see the Government of Canada’s website at https://www.rcaanc-cirnac.gc.ca/eng/1450124405592/1529106060525. For further details, including the Commission’s reports and recommendations, see the National {54} Centre for Truth and Reconciliation website at https://nctr.ca/.—Editor.
  6. Hauerwas and Willimon’s book, Resident Aliens (Nashville: Abingdon, 1989) helped me understand why we needed to be re-formed in community in Christ if we were going to live out a kingdom vision and be salt and light.
  7. Stanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier, Living Gently in a World of Violence (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2018), 201.
  8. See http://salsburycs.ca/ for a description of the Co:Here project.
  9. One of my pleas to preachers is to keep all three levels of transformation in view. Too often we restrict preaching to personal transformation or perhaps church transformation but don’t get into how God wants to transform society. Preaching that also addresses the complex systemic issues of our day will have a greater kingdom vision and impact.
  10. See Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001) for evidence and statistics regarding our increasing transience and accompanying loss of social capital.
Tim Dickau received his DMin from Carey Theological College and MDiv from Regent College. He has been the pastor of Grandview Calvary Baptist church in Vancouver, Canada, for the last twenty-nine years. Tim’s recent book, Plunging into the Kingdom Way, tells the story of their journey as a community towards practices of radical hospitality, shared life among cultures, seeking justice for the least, and confession. He is passionate about widening our imagination for how we can be the church in a way that brings hope and transformation among people and societal structures.

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