Identity Crisis of an Evangelical

Part 3: Kingdom of God Theology -- A New Outlook


    In part 1 of “Identity Crisis of an Evangelical,” I reviewed some experiences I’ve had over the years in evangelism itself that made me feel like an alien to the idea of evangelism as it is known in our culture.  I haven’t found any style of evangelism that I consider to be acceptable for me.

    In part 2, I first covered some aspects of the Born-Again Subculture that make me uncomfortable and make me want to distance myself from the subculture, but then got into the more serious issue of what focus I should pursue in my Christianity.  Clearly, my traditional evangelical view is no longer suitable for me.  So where do I go now?

    Here in part 3, I am going to explore what I think that answer is.  I’ve titled this “Kingdom of God Theology” but I’m not sure it’s exactly a theology, but rather just a focus.  But it might be a theology, because this focus has caused a major shift in my understanding of things.

    I’m not sure exactly what all the input was that I received on this that triggered my change of views, but I know one major force was reading the book The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard.  I read this as one of three books in the spring of 2006, when our church had a joint Lenten book study with St. Clare’s Episcopal Church.  The three books we read were The Divine Conspiracy, The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg, and A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren.  The first two books were quite influential on me; the third book didn’t say anything that I found particularly striking.

    While that book study was the beginning of my change of thought, that was merely the seed planting; the watering and growing of the ideas came through the general themes developing at my church, Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor, plus an influential conference that I went to sponsored by both St. Clare’s and Vineyard, and probably various other readings or conversations I came across throughout these last two years.

Present vs. Future Focus

    The change of focus is this: from a future mentality to a present mentality.  The Evangelical mould that I grew up in, and which dominates much of the Evangelical subculture today, is one that is completely future-focused.  You try to get someone saved so that on the upcoming Judgment Day, they will make it into heaven.  After you become saved, your whole focus is on heaven.  “I can’t wait to be with Jesus in heaven, praising him with other Christians from all time and with the angels!”  Life on Earth is something you must simply endure until that glorious time arrives.  “I’m a citizen of heaven; I don’t belong to Earth.  I’m just passing through.”  All that really matters while you’re on Earth is to get as many people as you can to get saved so they too can experience heaven, and to keep your relationship with Jesus vibrant so that you’re ready to meet him on Judgment Day (which includes staying out of sin).  The focus is all future, spiritual, other-worldly.

    The Kingdom of God focus is different.  In my current--though still developing--view, what matters is now.  The Kingdom of God was brought to Earth by Jesus:  “The Kingdom of God is at hand.”  His kingdom is one where there is love for your fellow human, where there is help for the poor, the sick, those in prison, those who are hurting in some way.  That help comes today, from those who are in God’s Kingdom, otherwise known as Christians.  Although, in Kingdom of God theology, at least as I am defining it, his Kingdom is not defined by the branding of the person (“Christian”) but rather by those who are following his teachings.  It’s a more open view of people, one that doesn’t set “us” against “them.”

Breaking Down The Wall Of “Us” vs. “Them”

    I am not suggesting here that one doesn’t need to be a Christian to be saved.  What I am saying is that God is doing his work in the world; God wants to see his good spread to the human race that he loves, and sometimes he does that through those who may not knowingly serve him, but they have a desire, which they don’t recognize, to do something of God’s heart.  A biblical example I can think of is when God laid it upon the Emperor’s heart to let the Jews go back and rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple.  There’s no indication that the Emperor was a disciple of Yahweh; it only indicates that God used him to accomplish his will.

    With this Kingdom of God theology I’m defining here, this breaking down of the “us” vs. “them” wall is an important change of view.  By breaking down this wall, then people aren’t put into two categories of “born-again” and “lost” (or whatever popular term arises-- “sinner,” “unsaved,” “non-Christian,” “seeker,” etc.).  When this wall is broken down, people are no longer “potential salvation objects.”  Those who don’t identify themselves as Christians are no longer “them,” “non-Christians,” some other type of human being that is a poor soul in need of rescue, and can’t be seriously listened to or interacted with until they have been rescued from their outsider status and brought into the club.

    In my current theology, we are all in this world together.  In Jesus’s explanation of the parable of the seed & and the weeds (Matthew 13:36-43), I noticed recently--due to my new outlook--that Jesus said, “The Son of Man will send out his angels to gather up out of his Kingdom all those who cause people to sin and all others who do evil things.”  I never caught those words before:  “gather up out of his Kingdom”!!  Today, on this Earth, in the present time, God’s Kingdom exists.  We are all in this together, sinner and saint.  We are all trying to find our way through life.  It’s not “us” vs. “them,” it’s all of us here on Earth, facing the same adversary, Satan, who wants to bring us down--who wants us to be those weeds that are plucked out and thrown into the fire.  We are all his target, and have the potential to yield to him and destroy our lives, both for now and the future.  We are also all the target of the Father’s love.  He puts within each of us some of his goodness, and calls us to discover him and ask him to put more of his goodness within us.


Pondering God & Church is a sub-website of J Lee Harshbarger’s personal website.  To visit other sub-websites, click the links below.

Two Different Goals   

The emphasis here is that we are all in this together.  If we understand life this way, it breaks down the wall of “us” vs. “them.”  And in understanding that the Kingdom of God is here and now, and that we are to be his ambassadors to those around us, it puts an entirely different emphasis on how we approach people.  We don’t approach people to try to “win them to Christ,” but rather to bring the Kingdom of God to them.  There is a fundamental difference in these two approaches.  The first one has a tactical goal; the second one is one of blessing and spreading God’s love to his human race (and to the rest of his creation), with no “prize” in mind.

    At my church (Vineyard), this results in activities such as meeting with the homeless on a regular basis, taking them food, talking with them, and praying for them; having monthly dinners for single moms, including free child care, and annually providing a special in-house spa treatment night; fixing cars for single moms; and other activities along these lines.  Some may dismiss these as social justice kinds of issues that don’t really introduce the plan of salvation to people, but when these are done not just to do “good works” but to bring God’s Kingdom to people, there is a different flavor to it.

    Keith Green pointed out in his description of the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46 that the only distinction in this parable between those who are sheep and those who are goats are those who do and do not feed the hungry, give the thirsty a drink, welcome strangers into their homes, care for the sick, and visit those in prison.  These are all actions; none of them include assent to theological beliefs, “accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Savior,” or preaching the Gospel.  This parable illustrates in specific terms how Christ’s ambassadors are to bring the Kingdom of God to people.

    I do not want to start a Battle Of The Bible Verses to prove a point; all commonly accepted Christian doctrines come from the Bible, even those that contradict each other.  I merely want to provide some illustrations of where I am at theologically these days.

    By merely showing up, you belong, as much as you want to, and wherever you are in your belief or unbelief, you’re with us as we try to figure it all out.  It is our hope as a church that as you hang around with us, you will be able to find your way to belief in God.  Then, as you develop your spiritual life in your walk with God, the Holy Spirit will bring to light the things in your life that need to be surrendered to him and changed.

    The leadership at our church has emphasized:  It is not your business to judge someone else’s servant.  Each of us are servants of JESUS, not of each other or the church.  This is not to say that we can never call someone out who is blatantly sinning, but it is rarely necessary:  Most people are well aware of their own sin and failing.  The approach is rather to pray with each other and offer gentle encouragement, rather than judge them.  After all, once again, we are all in the same boat in one way or another.


    The development of my topic here has not been in a simple, straightforward academic fashion, so let me try to put all these pieces together.

    First of all, what has been important to me is the change of focus from the future to the present.  When I understand that God’s Kingdom is here and now, and it is our task to bring his blessings and love to those around us, it is something I can relate to, compared to the task of bringing others to

Ken Wilson, senior pastor of Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor, writes a blog where he contemplates on various aspects of the church and society.  Read his thoughts at Ken Wilson Online.

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My Blog

J Lee’s Soapbox is my “official” blog, where I post my latest thoughts on various topics.

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The 3 B’s

    Throughout my time at Vineyard, I’ve noticed a heretofore unspoken focus that I have valued greatly.  This focus is that all of us at church are there because for some reason we are seeking to connect with God.  The issue is not where you are at the moment with God, but rather are you headed in the right direction--toward him?  Church is a place where all travelers in this life come together to share experiences and help each other along, wherever each of us is in our spiritual journey.

    This kind of focus breaks down that wall of “us” vs. “them.”  There is no talk of getting saved, there is no dividing line between the haves and have-nots (those who “have Christ in their lives” and those who don’t).  We just don’t think in those terms.  It’s all about how each of us can connect with the God of the Bible, and develop a deeper relationship with him.

    Recently in a sermon, the pastor put into specific words something that I had sensed intuitively all along.  He said that at many churches the sequence goes like this:

Believe, then Behave, then Belong

But at Vineyard, the sequence follows a different pattern.  At Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor, the sequence goes like this:

Belong, then Believe, then Behave

belief in Christ, which is something I cannot relate to.  I cannot relate to the latter because it has an objective with a prize, and any manner I have tried to fit into that objective has always come off to me as manipulative.  When my task is merely to bring the love of God to those around me, to spread his blessings so to speak, it frees me of some kind tactical goal and allows me to just enjoy blessing others, by bringing the love of God to them.

    Secondly, this kind of approach breaks down the “us” vs. “them” wall, because with no tactical goal of making someone who is not one of us into someone who is, there is no reason to even decide “are they one of us or not?”  It doesn’t matter.  We are all created by God, we are all desired by him and targeted for destruction by Satan.  We all have the goodness of God in us to some degree, and we all have sin lurking within us to some degree.  This realization changes the way we approach people around us in the general public, as well as the way we approach each other in the walls of the church.

    This Kingdom of God theology, as I have termed and defined it, is not mutually exclusive of evangelism.  The Vineyard denomination, including our congregation, considers itself to be an Evangelical denomination.  But for me personally, I am increasingly finding it difficult to call myself an Evangelical, because I feel alien to so much of what Evangelicalism is focused on.  And as I discussed in the first two parts of this section, it is not at all part of me to try to “win people for Christ.”  I have never been able to find an acceptable way to pursue that, and now finally realize that I don’t even like the idea of it, as far as my own action is concerned.  So while Vineyard may keep its Evangelical moniker and association, I don’t think I can fully and truthfully call myself an Evangelical any longer.

    In the future, I hope to write more on the idea of present vs. future, spiritual vs. physical, and other ideas related to a Kingdom of God focus compared to an Evangelical focus.

(All three parts of this essay were written in autumn 2008. This page was last updated February 13, 2011 with the Vineyard brochure page.)