We’re Stuck with Three Kingdoms

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By Greg Forster; part one of a series.

“The Three Kingdoms” can refer to the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms. It can refer to the tripartite division of China in the third century. But I’m using it to refer to three inadequate ways modern American churches approach the kingdom of God and its relationship to the kingdoms of human civilization – the dominance, accommodation and fortification paradigms outlined in Greg Thompson’s seminal paper “The Church in Our Time.

I have now spent substantial amounts of time in leadership roles in each of these three types of churches. The differences are striking, and I think they point to a new way forward for developing a better way for churches to understand the church’s relationship to culture and civilization.

A lot of people in the faith and work movement are busy trying to figure out what the right way for churches to approach the kingdom of God would be, given that the predominant models in our churches today are inadequate. I’ve done some of that myself.

This has produced a superabundance of purely theoretical ideal church models. Thompson talks about an “incarnational” church. Others prefer “exilic” churches, or “gospel centered” churches, or “the Benedict Option” – or the host of other “options” spawned in response to it (the Daniel Option, the Wilberforce Option, etc.). Earlier generations talked about “missional” or “emergent” churches.

Has any progress been made by this constant war of competing models? Or are we each just trying to build our own little kingdom around our pet option?

In this new blog series, I’m going to propose that instead of trying to articulate what “the right approach” would look like – in the absence of outstanding models of success and at this still-relatively-early stage of the church’s rediscovery of vocation and related issues – we should instead develop a keen sensitivity to which of the three inadequate approaches a given local church currently belongs to, and find ways to develop in that church the strengths of the other two inadequate approaches.

You can’t do faith and work without some underlying framework for understanding how discipleship to Christ relates to the structures of culture – from political and economic systems to arts and entertainment to more mundane daily norms of behavior. Thompson’s contribution, drawing on earlier work from James Davison Hunter, is to articulate:

  • How the current, inadequate approaches cluster in three groups;
  • How each local church tends to be strongly characterized by, and thus an incubator of, one of these three types of inadequate approaches; and thus
  • Why church leaders should make it a priority to become aware of which type their church is, and start “leaning against” the characteristic weaknesses of that type.

Like everyone else, Thompson attempts to lay out what “the right approach” would be, in contrast to these inadequate approaches.

Before he does that, though, he goes over the particular strengths and weaknesses of each of the three inadequate types. Each of these types exist because it is responding to a real and important theological impetus. For this reason, each type has strengths that are theologically and missionally important. However, because each type tends to pay attention to its own pet concern to the detriment of other concerns, each type develops characteristic weaknesses.

Doesn’t this point a way forward? What if, instead of running around in circles trying to build a perfect church in the sky, we focused on the concrete models of godliness we find in other kinds of churches around us?

What if a dominance-oriented church looked at the fortification church down the street and asked, “wow, they’re doing a great job calling people to holiness and discipling new believers out of their vices and spiritual enslavements. How can we look at what they’re doing and find a way to do something like it?”

What if that fortification church then looked up the street at the dominance church and said, “Wow, they’re glorifying God by taking a stand for justice in the public square, how can we find ways to do that?”

And what if they both compared notes with an accommodation church on how to serve the poor and contribute to the needs of the local community better?

Would they still think they needed a theoretical model of a perfect church? Or would they, in fact, build the model? Without even having a theory of it?

And isn’t that what we really want?

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