By Tim Gillespie … Strange bedfellows. I’ve always been a bit amused at that idiom. What makes for strange bedfellows? Peanut butter and pickle sandwiches. Razzleberry pie and chocolate mint chip ice cream. Adventism and change. What these three things have in common is that they are strange bedfellows. They seem disparate, but when tried together, phenomenal things can and do happen.
The last one, Adventism and change, seems to be a sticky Gillespie wicket at times. Adventism has had a difficult time with change, which is strange, as we are products of significant changes, pivots, and even mistakes that informed our early church trajectory. For a group of people who believe so strongly that God still speaks and moves, who are known for our understanding of Present Truth, we are a strangely immovable group of believers. We seem to believe in the Grand Canyon kind of change—slow and slower—rather than an earthquake that can change whole landscapes at once.
Now, I know that people don’t like it when someone who is seen as a bit more progressive is discovered being critical of the church. There is a sense of disloyalty that is inferred, although not attributed to those who might be considered more “conservative.” However, if I may, I would pose a simple question: What are you trying to conserve? Trying to conserve the very heart of the Seventh-day Adventist church—Jesus—is the most conservative stand you can take.
But I digress—back to the task at hand. The strange bedfellows of Adventism and change is really a matter of us becoming disconnected with the elemental tendency of the early Adventist pioneers, who were willing to go where God was leading, regardless of the cost. As we re-engage those traditional muscles, we will see that change is something that we embrace, and not something that we fear. But it does beg the question, “What needs to change in Adventism?”
I would posit that there are a few things that need to change in any organization to keep it functioning in today’s world, and Adventism is no different.
Adventism is stuck with a collection of processes that are no longer efficient in today’s world. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that travel budgets for executives, the need for huge brick-and-mortar headquarters, and over-staffing are simply not needed. If we are looking for the world to change back to what it was before our Covid-imposed isolation and work-from-home practices, we will simply go back to processes that were expensive, inefficient, and ineffective. It is time for us to embrace a change toward minimalism in administration and bureaucracy in order to more profoundly fund and execute the local work of the gospel.
We have to take stock of what this word even means. “Evangelism” is nothing more than the orientation of the hearts of each our congregants. As we have handed over the work of evangelism to “professional” evangelists, we have taken away the blessing of sharing the gospel from our congregants. This is not only a tragedy, but has changed the nature of what our churches seek to be. A church that is interested in sharing the gospel will be more loving, caring, outreach oriented, and inclusive. As our churches have experienced mission drift, they have become more and more exclusive, catering to those already a part of the community, and unrecognizable as outposts for evangelism in our communities. We pay for “experts” to share the gospel with our friends and neighbors, and we diminish our own responsibility and joy at sharing the grace of Jesus Christ with them. This investment in our resources would be better spent with updating facilities, seeking younger and more vibrant ministers and their education, and allowing the local church to do the work for which it was incepted, be the Kingdom of God in a particular place for a particular people.
Over the years there seems to have been a lowering of the bar when it comes to how our churches do the work. We have become complacent and willing to accept “good enough.” This comes from a scarcity mentality that misunderstands that our resources are not simply handouts that come from the trickle-down economy of the world church, nor are they gifts we have to beg out of our congregations. They are the blessing of God’s abundance in the world and for His work through our communities and congregations. Psalm 50 tells us that God owns the cattle on a thousand hills. If this is true, why do we allow ourselves to work in human scarcity? While I do agree the church needs considerable reorganization, I also believe that even within our system, we can do great things with what God has in store for us from His storehouses, not from the storehouses we have built up. Case in point: Crosswalk, the church I am blessed to serve, had more than 500 new givers in this Covid year. We expected to not only run lean, but at a deficit. However, God provided. We all need to live in the reality of the abundance that God has continually created in the world; but this also means we have to work with a sense of excellence and hold our congregations up to this same standard.
Reimagining Our Identity
I know this is hard for some, but we need to do a deep dive on what Adventists truly are. We have been involved in an identity crisis for some time, allowing the most fringe elements within our faith to become normalized and be seen as reasonable. We have followed the world in that we allow those who can create the largest megaphone not only a seat at the table but to also order for us. Just because a ministry becomes popular does not mean it should influence policy and culture. I am saddened that our church has followed the world when it comes to popularity of certain pastors and ministries and has allowed them undue influence on the very identity we hold as Adventists. Every church member decides every day what an Adventist is. The way they express the gospel in their lives, homes, businesses, and churches defines Adventism for their circle of influence.
We could continue this list ad nauseam, or we could pick apart each and every aspect of our lives in Adventism. However, what I think we need more than anything is a hard look into what makes us us. What are those pillars that define who we are? This question goes far beyond simple fundamental statements. It speaks to the totality of who we are, how we experience life, and how we can rediscover the elemental impulse of Adventism, which has to be that clarion call of “God with us.” In its earliest inception, those early pioneers were fascinated and held captive to the idea that Jesus wanted to be with his people. While in their excitement, it led them down some paths that were not necessarily efficacious (i.e., The Great Disappointment.), it was the guiding principle they clung to.
Jesus with us.
This relational and high Christology has to be rediscovered, reimagined, and re-implemented in order for us to have a clear way forward. And this is not something that should or can happen from simply the right messaging or from a new program or motto. Rather, it comes from the conviction of every heart that identifies itself as Adventist and then goes about living in such a way that others know God is indeed with us. Jesus has to be both the center and circumference of our faith, the message and the messenger. Without an assent to this kind of expression of Adventism, I fear we will re-engage in the previous trajectory we had as a people of faith.
Now, perhaps where we were was where you were comfortable. It is possible that many don’t see any need for change at all. If that is the case, then the previous words of this article will cause you consternation. It will cause you anxiety that something you have become very comfortable with is being pulled from you. I can understand that sentiment, but I can’t retract what I have come to believe is the truth for our future. Now, I would much rather have Jesus come so that we don’t have to see who is right, but if He decides to delay a bit more, then what is the trajectory for our tradition? What is the hope of how we will continue to grow the kingdom of God?
If we are Christians, then we have nothing to fear from a deeper identity with Christ, a deeper expression of His love and grace for us, and a greater explanation of the gospel into the world. In fact, with Christ, we embrace the changes that are coming with joy and not fear, as the perfect love of Christ will always cast out any fear that we have. What have we got to lose by change? Perhaps everything we have built; but we can never lose what Christ has built, as that is everlasting.
Adventism and change? They shouldn’t be strange bedfellows; they should be best friends.
–Dr. Tim Gillespie is lead pastor of Crosswalk Church in Redlands, California. Email him at: [email protected]