Millennials and the kingdom of God
There’s an expression that goes, “Jesus came to earth to build his kingdom, and all he got was this lousy Church.” I find this poignant because many of my Millennial friends are greatly drawn to the concept of the kingdom of God, but find little hope within the institutional Church.
During Christ’s three year ministry on earth, he talked more about the kingdom than any other topic. He began many of his teachings with the words, “The kingdom of God is like…” He compared the kingdom to a mustard seed, a farmer sowing grain, a treasure buried in a field, a pearl of great price, the yeast in a ball of dough, and a net thrown in a lake (and that is all just in Matthew 13!) He often spoke of the kingdom of God as a great wedding feast, but one where the rich and powerful were cast out and the lowly and downtrodden were given the places of honor (Matthew 22:1-14, Luke 14:7-14). Of course, the most famous of Jesus’ references to the kingdom of God is recorded in the prayer used by many churches around the world each Sunday: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). Obviously, the kingdom of God was pretty important to Jesus.
But Christ’s kingdom was completely different than those earthly kingdoms of his day and those kingdoms that persist even now. Instead of being a kingdom where the powerful reign and the rich make the rules, the kingdom of God is one in which the last are first, and the first will be last (Matthew 20:16). It is a kingdom where if you work to save your life, you will most definitely lose it, but if you lay down your life, you will keep it (Luke 17:33). To enter this kingdom, you must become like a little child (Matthew 18:2-4); the ones who gain this kingdom are the poor (Luke 7:20).
This kind of upside-down, inside-out kingdom that Christ came to establish is appealing to many in the Millennial generation. After all, we were the generation that helped launch movements such as Occupy Wall Street, a protest to bring light to income disparity and economic inequality in the US and throughout the world. We were the ones driving the ALS Ice Bucket challenge that permeated social media in the summer of 2014. And we are the ones who have embraced digital crowdfunding platforms such as GoFundMe, YouCaring, and Patreon. We love a good come-from-behind, underdog story. We care deeply for the needs of the world and we want to give to great causes. Even in our our own (often misguided) Social Justice Warrior ways, we long to see equality for all, the weak made strong, and the poor lifted up.
Unfortunately, many Millennials do not see this kind of kingdom being lived out in the institutional church. Instead of seeing the mighty brought low, they see televangelists getting rich through manipulation and fear tactics. Instead of seeing the hungry made full, they see highly programmatic church initiatives and large church buildings.
Granted, much of Millennial’s criticism of the church is undeserved, or at least misunderstood. Many churches are reaching out into their communities and beyond. They use their resources, buildings, volunteers, and finances to bless those around them and shine a light in a dark world. Not all (or even most) pastors are hypocrites who are getting rich off of their congregation’s coffers. The vast majority of Christians are simply doing their best to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. But perhaps one of the greatest ways to answer the Millennial criticisms is to start bringing the Church more in line with the kingdom of God that Christ so passionately described.
Take a look at your own church: When was the last time you threw opened the doors and had a feast for the local homeless of your city? Have you ever had a little child lead you into worship? How is your congregation doing in clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and those in prison, and welcoming the stranger? Are you more concerned with protecting your assets or laying them down for the sake of others? Do you give preference to long-time members who give large tithes, or to those newcomers who may not give at all? Are you taking care of the orphans, widows, refugees and immigrants in your midst? Do you trust God enough to sell all that you have in order to take kingdom-risks?
Pursuing the kingdom of God isn’t about starting a new ministry endeavor. (In fact, the last thing Millennials want in a church is a new program or initiative.) Building the kingdom should be the heartbeat of every Christian and the drive of every local church congregation. The Church may be all we have here on earth, but we can start by making it look a little bit more like Christ’s kingdom.