Special Conference Report: Making Visible God's Invisible Kingdom
What happens when over three hundred people from twenty-six states, Peru, and Canada come together in Atlanta, Georgia, with the Christian Education and Publications staff and people such as Chuck Colson, Anthony Bradley, Christian Smith, Allen Curry, and other excellent seminar leaders and speakers? It remains to be seen what God will do as a result of such a gathering.
Dr. Dennis Bennett, coordinator of training and resources for CEP presented the objectives of the 2008 Discipleship Conference, Making Visible God’s Invisible Kingdom, at the opening session:
1. To understand that discipleship is Christian education and vice versa.
2. To understand that God’s kingdom is bigger, more powerful, and more influential than politics.
3. To understand the relationship of the church and the kingdom and their respective missions to worship, disciple, and serve as God’s salt and light here and now.
The challenge will be to sharpen this concept of the kingdom perspective in disciple making and to mobilize the Christian community to serve the King.
CEP Coordinator Charles Dunahoo set the backdrop for the conference with comments regarding the present state of the church and the challenge to rethink its mission and role within the broader kingdom. His opening sermon challenged the participants to have a greater understanding and vision for the kingdom of God and then work together to help others have that same vision and understanding. He further stated that lacking a clear kingdom perspective, especially as it relates to the church’s mission of making kingdom disciples, has led many to not only be frustrated, but to actually withdraw from the visible church.
This conference centered on the mission of CEP in the Presbyterian Church in America, making kingdom disciples. When the CEP Committee and staff began to discuss the possibility of such a conference, it was realized that speakers, topics, seminar leaders, and worship leaders were crucial to the conference’s fulfillment. As Dunahoo stated in his introduction of Chuck Colson, it was essential that Colson be one of the plenary speakers. No one has a clearer kingdom world and life view perspective, not only of Christianity but the church’s assignment to make kingdom disciples. It was evident from his message, the question and answer time, his writings, and especially his latest book The Faith (see book review section) that Colson models such a commitment.
“The speakers, topics, and timing were fantastic! Well done!”
— Elder from Illinois
The conference came on the end of a long presidential election process. Many people had become weary of it, but Colson reminded those present that we had witnessed the election process in the context of a people who had been led to believe that nothing matters but politics. He further asserted that we need to remember that there is more to reality than the present economic meltdown crisis. He began by stating, as he has written so clearly in The Faith, that people have a low view of the church, which is mostly a result of having cheapened the great commission by emphasizing that it is all about “Jesus and me.”
To further summarize, Colson developed the idea that Christianity is a worldview religion, a religion requiring not only belief but understanding as well. It is a religion of the Book; therefore, we must have an intellectual understanding of that Book. He pointed out the obvious, that the average Christian does not understand the propositional truth set forth in the Scriptures and consequently tends to overlook the preeminence of Christ in all things.
“Conversion is not a decision to be a Christian; it is a process by which you take the old self to the cross and take on new life in Christ,” Colson said. “When 57% of professing evangelicals say that everybody’s truth is ok against Jesus’ words, [that] I am the truth, that is a further indication of the failure of the church to correctly disciple today... We must develop an apologetic for the truth.” To do this, the church has to see its mission not in the light of administering therapy for the individual but teaching the truth in a life-changing way.
“Your vision for making kingdom disciples was clarified and many left inspired, equipped, and motivated to go back to their homes and churches to make a difference.”
— Trainer of teachers
“The church cannot continue in its weakened condition or retreat in isolated defeat because the kingdom has landed,” said Colson. “Our role is to advance that kingdom. In response to those who say it is not about creeds but deeds, without the creeds the deeds will be empty.”
Later in the conference Dr. Christian Smith, a professor of sociology and religion at Notre Dame University who grew up the RECES/PCA, spoke about the rising generation by taking the participants into the study he developed, led, and wrote about in his book Soul Searching. The highlight of his session, and the consequent challenge that Smith set before the people, came when he explained why his study and research concluded that the average American teenager’s religion can best be described as “moralistic, therapeutic, deism.” “Where does this viewpoint come from?” he asked. “From their parents and other older adults.”
His data challenged the audience with the need to understand 13-17 year-olds and then know how to reach out and disciple them with the truth of the gospel. Smith further explained his present involvement in an in-depth study of young adults, 18-32, and how he is continuing to see the consequences of moralistic, therapeutic, deism at their level.
“What a great conference. The staff was amazing. Everyone was so gracious and helpful. They made it easy to be a part of this.”
— Pastor’s wife
Smith was followed on Friday evening by a hard-hitting challenge from Dr. Anthony Bradley, professor of theology and apologetics at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis. With his talk The Church, The Kingdom, The Mission, Bradley focused on the idols that have taken root in middle class American homes. He gave a perceptive analysis of how the adult and children and youth generations have been quarantined from each other and how the church has fed the process. “The average church keeps the adults and youth apart, thus making it hard to advance the discipling process,” he said.
Bradley also focused on the relationship between the church and the kingdom by reminding the audience that the church is not the kingdom though it is a vital part of the kingdom. He further spoke to the conference theme by saying the church and home need to be more involved in discipling the youth, not simply leaving it to a youth director. With his kingdom perspective, Bradley challenged the audience to understand the totality of the Christian life and how it connects with a kingdom perspective. He was particularly challenging as he contrasted the average American home and family with the kingdom’s home and family. Having the kingdom family involved in discipleship is a major key to building the godly character to do the kingdom’s mission, which is to do all to the glory of God. “It is all about personal transformation for kingdom mission,” he said.
Dr. Allen Curry, professor of Christian Education at Reformed Theological Seminary and regional trainer for CEP, gave a powerful and challenging closing message on Saturday morning. Using a passage from Revelation 11, Curry challenged the people to be willing to labor in making visible the kingdom of God but to do that in complete dependence on God. Part of that work, he underscored, is in the labor of discipleship. “The transcendent God in heaven has chosen to use us to make visible or manifest His kingdom that is His rule and reign over all,” said Curry.
“Kingdom thinking - the whole ‘world view’ mindset - was a very new concept to me when I first came on staff a few years ago. At first glance it doesn’t seem to be challenging. Oh, but it is. Thank you.”
— Church member from South Carolina.
Highlighting the church, home, and state, three major aspects of the kingdom, Curry reminded us that God has provided the church as the place where His present kingdom should have the greatest visibility. “The church is where we see the kingdom and where the church is called and equipped to serve in the kingdom.”
He challenged us to be more intentional in bringing Christ’s kingdom into our homes, thus turning us from the idols that plague us and providing a grid that helps us understand the place and role of the kingdom. “While it looks as though the kingdoms of the world have the upper hand at the present moment, Revelation reminds us, no, Jesus is the king and His kingdom is here, referring to His rule, reign, and domain.” Curry urged us to be committed to being kingdom people, which means that we are to be revolutionaries in this world.
“The church is the key to discipling people to look at the world through a kingdom of God grid. And while the New Testament wants us to center on King Jesus, the church has the role of discipling its people to keep that perspective before them in all things,” said Curry.
The conference seminars were designed to build on the plenary messages and help attendees to think practically about how the principles of discipleship can be implemented in the church, home, and marketplace. Both the plenary messages and the seminars are available in CD and DVD format from the CEP Bookstore.
While we have been encouraged by the feedback from participants and prayerfully hopeful that the conference served God’s purpose of encouraging a priority for kingdom thinking and living, only God knows what the final outcome will be as the participants process and implement the challenge to make visible the invisible kingdom.
It is not about us but about you, O Lord. You are the mighty God, the King of Kings and the Ruler of Your kingdom.
In obedience to the Lord and to observe all things whatsoever He has commanded, we desire to commit ourselves to worship and serve Him as we seek first His kingdom and His righteousness. Jesus confronted His disciples regarding who He was and what the kingdom is all about saying, “Do you not yet understand?” That challenge must be before us as we follow and obey His commands.
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