JUDAISM AND CHRISTIANITY urge followers to seek heavenly things, to model their lives on heavenly virtues, and to have hope in heaven. In the New Testament, heaven most often appears as the “kingdom of heaven,” God’s political and social vision for humanity, an idea that Jesus uses to criticize the Roman Empire’s oppressive domination system. Jesus’s own prayer, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10), seeks to align earthly ethics with the divine order of God’s own dwelling place. Heaven is an intrusive reality, the ever present realm of God hovering all around, sometimes even synonymous with God, as Marcus Borg writes. The Bible says the kingdom of heaven “has come near” (Matthew 4:17), and if heaven is nearby, so is God. Heaven is here-and-now, not there-and-then.
To speak of heaven, therefore, is another way to speak of the earth. But the vision for the earth that “heaven” presents is not in keeping with the world’s violence, oppression, and injustice; rather, it is an alternate vision of peace, blessing, and abundance, the world as God intended it to be. Heaven has been depicted as far away, unattainable in this life.
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Everyone who calls me to speak somewhere, it seems, wants me to address the issue of declining church membership, and particularly how to connect with younger adults. The problem is that sometimes the invitation is built on a false premise. It’s the hope of many churches that if they can find a way to connect with younger people in a relevant way, those young adults will join the church and save the institution for future generations.
And while this is possible in some situations, it’s really the wrong question to be asking.
The explicit question I get asked, time and again, is “How do we better serve younger people?” And if the question really ended there, we could have a pretty productive conversation. But there’s an implied subtext in most cases that we have to tease out, and often times, the church isn’t even willing to admit that this footnote is married to their question. So although the words above are what are spoken, here’s what they really want to know:
“How do we better serve younger people (so that they will come back to our institutions and save them)?”