What is “Subversive”? It’s a systematic overthrow of one system or power by those working from within.
Jesus came to announce that His Kingdom was coming, and even now is available to all who know Him. This was the Gospel message. Now we, the followers of Christ, are compelled to make a difference in the old order by working from within, changing one person at a time, advancing this new kingdom with every tool, talent and resource available.
Subversive will look at ministries around the world that are having an impact on the culture in creative and inspiring ways. We’ll talk with prominent leaders about the current state of Christianity and how we can have a greater impact on the world we live in. We’ll also meet with those on the ground level who are putting their hands to the plow every day for the advancement of God’s kingdom on Earth.
In our debut, we’ll talk with Todd Hunter in the first of a two-part interview dealing with American Christianity: where we’ve gone wrong, and how we can find our way back to the Gospel itself.
It’s my hope that this column will serve as a clarion call for those Christians who yearn to make a difference in this world by being different.
[ALLELON MINISTRIES’ TODD HUNTER ON THE AMERICAN CHURCH]
For those planting churches in today’s postmodern America, the challenges can sometimes be overwhelming. Allellon Ministries was created to provide encouragement and direction for those who dare to take up the calling. Todd Hunter is the co-director of Allelon (which is the Greek word for “one-another”), a foundation working toward planting “missional communities” across the United States. Hunter and Allelon are working to have an impact on this culture for the Gospel of Christ. RELEVANT spoke with Hunter about the state of Christianity in modern America and what the next revival might look like.
Hunter was formerly the national coordinator and director of the Association of Vineyard Churches in America for seven years, where he provided leadership and oversight to over 500 churches. “That meant that I was the overseer of all the Vineyard Churches,” Hunter said. You might wonder why, with a title and area of influence like this, Hunter would willingly step down and seek out a smaller, more grassroots venture. “I use the metaphor of being a university president who wasn’t interested in being a figurehead anymore,” Hunter shared, adding that there is no estrangement between himself and the Vineyard movement. He clarified that his motives for stepping down were more practical. “I just wanted to spend time with students again and do actual research rather than be the spokesperson for a large movement,” he said.
For the last three years, Hunter has been working with students, and that has meant a return to the basics. “(We’re) essentially, a network of churches that really are theologically-driven,” Hunter explained. “I act as a coach and a mentor to those who are planting churches interested in exploring questions such as, ‘What is life in the kingdom?’ ‘What does it really mean to be a Christian?’ ‘What does it really mean to be a church?’ and then on discovering the answers, we’re trying to create communities of faith that can really live out those new realities. We’re trying to really take serious a re-understanding of what the Gospel really is.”
While America seems to be slowly slipping in the lukewarm direction of Europe and the U.K., Hunter remains optimistic. “You know, that could all change in a heartbeat. I don’t know. No one really knows these things with any certainty. There could be a revival. But, I think America is largely inoculated against the Gospel now, against what it believes the Gospel is all about.”
For Hunter, the most serious issue facing the Church today is this total and complete misunderstanding of the Gospel itself. “I don’t believe the Gospel is about saying a prayer and then when you die you get to go to heaven. I think the true Gospel is about the in-breaking of the kingdom into your life today. So, yeah, I think that true revival can happen as people begin to realize what the real truth of the Gospel is all about. The Gospel is not, ‘Jesus paid the price for my sins so I go to heaven when I die,’ or at least it’s not the Gospel that Jesus announced. The Gospel that Jesus announced is the good news of the present availability of the kingdom through Him. When we only think of Jesus as an atoning sacrifice, then His life and teaching and modeling just totally go out the window. Discipleship then becomes optional,” Hunter argued. “But, if the Gospel is the good news that you can enter the kingdom and receive a different kind of life now, then you’ve got a basis for discipleship, or ‘follower-ship.’
“The average Christian thinks of eternal life in either spatial or chronological terms,” he continued. “It’s either out in the heavens somewhere (spatial) or it’s somewhere out there after we die (chronological); they have no imagination for living in the kingdom and living in eternal life now, where you’re actually, self-consciously an ambassador of the kingdom, seeking to live a life of constant creative goodness under the rule and reign of the Spirit. I mean, nobody has that imagination, and I just think that’s a far bigger issue than people being able to run programs better and cast vision and all that.
“When Jesus says, ‘If a man won’t take up his cross daily and follow me, he cannot be my disciple,’ that’s not an isolated, abstract moralism. It comes in the whole context of the Gospel of the kingdom. It’s more like, ‘You can’t come follow me without your cross because it won’t work.’” He went on, “Dallas Willard puts it like this, ‘Verily, verily I say to you, unless one can do fractions and decimals he cannot do algebra.’ It’s just a simple bit of logic. It’s simple logic; it’s not a moralism, and I think that goes very well with the parable of the pearl of great price also. In other words, if you see that following Jesus is worthy the way a pearl merchant sees the greatest pearl in the world, then you’ll do everything in your life to try to organize it to get that treasure. Most people don’t put those two ideas together (the cross and the parable of the pearl) but I think they really do go together. I mean, if you just sat down with a concordance one day and just looked up all of Jesus’ teachings on the kingdom, then all of this would just come together like a zipper.
“It all really begins to hang together upon locating salvation on the whole big map and taking it away from the ultimate consumer experience that buys you heaven when you die,” he concluded.
Of course, you can’t talk about taking up the cross daily without discussing the issue of spiritual disciplines, and Hunter is concerned that, here again, we’ve missed the point. “It’s very important to say that it’s not for meriting anything. The discipline of reordering your life is not a work of righteousness; it’s a work of wisdom,” he said. “This is what people do when they see a remarkable opportunity. The whole point of those parables was not that the people were sweating the cost; they were sweating the idea that they might miss the opportunity or the treasure, and that’s what contemporary people don’t see, that being a Christ-follower today, and in the age to come, is the greatest opportunity to ever come along. Now, if they could see it that way, then it would never seem like works; it would seem like simply cooperating with the Holy Spirit. I think the practical part of it is that God is up to something. There’s an ongoing story going on, and He invites us into it. The way into it is through Christ, and that is about repentance.”
As you might imagine, Hunter and others at Allelon face a serious challenge when trying to inspire Christians to reconsider the Gospel. “I would say one of my biggest theological burdens these days is to ‘put the Church in its place,’ not in a mean-spirited way at all, but how can we help people rethink the Church with reference to the kingdom and the Spirit? If we could find a way to put the agenda of the kingdom, the present rule and reign of God, if we could put that first, submit our own kingdoms to it, be apprentices of Jesus and live lives that are inspired and en-gifted by the Spirit, I think that’s far more interesting, and people would quit saying, ‘I don’t like the Church.’ I think what they mean is they don’t like the institutionalized, marketing-driven kinda thing that they’ve had the last 30 or 40 years,” Hunter said. “We give lip service to notions like, ‘Jesus is the head of the Church,’ ‘God is our Father,’ etc., and we could all pass those theological pop-quizzes, but I’m telling you, you can’t find more than one out of a thousand congregations in the world, whether it’s a house church, or a Catholic church, or a mega-church, that actually tries to work out the implications of what that means.”
But, living it out and communicating it to others has been an uphill battle. “It’s really hard, because these other things are deeply rooted in our imaginations, because you almost have to go through like a death,” he admitted. “You almost have to reinvent yourself and reinvent communities of faith, and it’s just really difficult.”
Perhaps the greatest crisis in the Church today isn’t a lack of strong ministries; it’s the lack of strong Christians. “The way my friend Dallas Willard puts it, ‘What would happen if we shifted our focus from building bigger churches to building bigger Christians?’ and he means that seriously. What would be the evangelistic and cultural implications of that?”
[Keith Giles is one of the world’s greatest enigmas. Ruggedly handsome, yet surprisingly gentle and compassionate with small animals, Keith actually has a very weak grasp of reality and often talks to himself in the bathroom mirror. He serves as a pastor at The River Church in Tustin, Calif. See one of his own subversive projects at www.parabolicjournal.com.]