“You can build a great church or you can build a great people. I’m not sure you can do both.” The older pastor looked at me steadily as his words settled into my thoughts. Hyperbole to make a point? Perhaps, but his point was well-taken.
Now, decades later, I recognize how easy it is for church leaders and pastors to become preoccupied with what they can do to make the church grow numerically. Don’t get me wrong: I am a cheerleader for churches that are attracting and reaching people with the gospel! Church gatherings should be well conceived and led with excellence. We should abhor mediocre, boring, and repetitive programming. However, stimulating small groups and stunning Sunday morning services may draw a crowd, but they also may have little or no effect on the heart. In a way that they can’t quite identify or describe, many church members sense something is missing.
Jesus is all about changing hearts — the core desires and dreams that bubble up and out into our words and actions. He is not satisfied that you should merely avoid committing sins like murder and adultery. He wants you to become a person who doesn’t hate or lust. He calls people “blessed” who ARE meek, merciful, and pure in heart. How can you change your heart? You can’t. But He can.
The central message Jesus preached was “repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” The kingdom of God is breaking into an unruly and chaotic realm of billions of individual fiefdoms – each one struggling for dominance over… something. The world you are living in is not the world God originally created.
The Bible credits the broken and dulled state of our universe to a single event at the inception of human history. It was a moment in time when a man and a woman abandoned the directional control of God in their lives, choosing instead to believe a lie promulgated by the ancient Adversary–that freedom involves living outside of God’s kingdom. It was sin… it was stupid. The lie-infected race continues to stumble along, either hailing scientific advance or hawking some religious, self-absorbed contemplation as evidence of enlightenment. With each succeeding generation, the corruption of the universe is a horrific reflection of the shredded remains of every human heart. Destructive. Diseased. Demented. Demonic. The “survival of the fittest” is not the driver of evolving and superior forms of life, but it is a constant reminder of the incessant, downward spiral of all creatures towards oblivion and anomie.
It will stop. It will change. That Day is coming. The diseased will be healed, the marred images will be wiped clean, the damaged will be restored, the rebels will be subdued, the evil one will be destroyed, and the darkness will give way to the light. The apostle Paul explains: “Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:24-26).
So Jesus didn’t die on the cross so we could go to a great church. The church is a vital and essential ingredient in your inner transformation, but it is not the ultimate end or the primary locus of God’s activity on the planet. Properly understood, the church is an expression of God’s kingdom, and His vehicle for calling others into the kingdom of God. But the church is not the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is the rule and activity of God Himself.
Jesus didn’t die so you could be a material or professional “success.” Your efforts to secure your life will never end and will never succeed. The most important thing you can do is find out what God is saying to you… and what He is prepared to do in you and through you. Jesus said, “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 6:31-33).
Jesus was sent on a rescue mission… for you and me. If God intends to eliminate rebellion, destroy evil, and recreate a brilliantly beautiful world, what do you imagine He wants to do in your heart? He wants to transform every motive, every decision, every desire, every thought — exposing and eliminating every hidden corner and dark space. You do not lose your will. You simply lose interest in broken ways of doing life. “Repent,” Jesus said… the kingdom is right here. Right now. The people who “get that” will be an active and vital part of the church, but their public life will be fueled by a wonderful and unseen inner journey with Him who is a King.