28 Mar

SETTING THE STAKES OR REMAINING OPEN?

By Shawn Brace … One of the most heralded and influential theologians in nineteenth-century America was a man by the name of Charles Hodge. He taught at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, one of America’s most important schools of divinity, and was an architect of the so-called “Princeton theology.” An “Old School” Presbyterian who didn’t care for the revivalism that swept over America in the nineteenth century, Hodge was devoted to classic Calvinism and had a deep suspicion of and disdain for novel theology and religious expression.

Of all the things Hodge wrote and said, however, one passing statement, shared in 1872 at the fiftieth anniversary of his professorship at Princeton, has captivated my imagination the most. Looking back at his long tenure at the seminary, which began just a decade after its founding, Hodge boasted, without a hint of irony or embarrassment, that “Princeton had never been charged with originating a new idea.”

While perhaps given to a bit of hyperbole, Hodge viewed this as a badge of honor, of course. As a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, who believed it was his mission to preserve and defend the great verities that the Reformers had uncovered in the sixteenth century, Hodge looked with incredible suspicion at theological innovation.

I’d like to say that Adventism in the twenty-first century would not align with Charles Hodge. But I wonder.

Ironically, it was in this precise setting that Adventism arose. And their theological approach was diametrically opposed to Hodge’s. Just about every theological idea the small Advent movement recovered—from the sanctuary teaching to the state of the dead to the rejection of an ever-burning hell—was new and novel in the nine-teenth century. The early Adventist pioneers repeatedly went against the grain in their theological agenda, seeking to follow truth wherever it might lead, even if it was considered heretical to the mainstream.

They believed truth was ever advancing and that no idea should be rejected outright, but should be honestly evaluated in light of Scripture, come what may.

It was precisely for this reason that they committed themselves to “present truth” and strongly resisted the idea of setting their stakes in the doctrinal ground, zealously rejecting creeds and any move toward creedalism. Just 11 years before Hodge’s famous statement, the leaders of the fledging movement expressed that precise commitment.

Meeting together to decide if they wanted to organize, in what would ultimately become, perhaps ironically, the Michigan Conference, James White proposed that interested churches “associate together” under the name “Seventh-day Adventist,” covenanting merely to “keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus Christ.” That was literally the only thing a church had to affirm in order to come under the name “Seventh-day Adventist.”

And yet, despite this minimal requirement, James White sensed some resistance among those present, even as the motion passed. He therefore urged a “full and free discussion,” insisting that “the sisters” take “part in the vote” as well. In the ensuing discussion, various speakers expressed their support for the resolution, while James White himself played the devil’s advocate, noting that organizing might appear to some like they were “patterning” themselves after the churches of Babylon.

But then J. N. Loughborough came forward, proposing that it would not be like Babylon to organize by covenanting together, just as it wasn’t to set up “meeting-houses,” as they had done. The way a church could become like Babylon, he offered, was by setting up strict doctrinal parameters and carefully policing theology.

He then dropped this bomb, which has captured the Adventist imagination to varying degrees throughout our history: “The first step of apostasy,” he explained, “is to get up a creed, telling us what we shall believe. The second is to make that creed a test of fellowship. The third is to try members by that creed. The fourth, to denounce as heretics those who do not believe that creed. And fifth, to commence persecution against such.”

Loughborough was making it clear: Adventists believed in the continuing advancement of truth. They had no interest in shutting down doctrinal and theological discovery. God was still revealing more truth—“present truth”—to them, and they must be open to it, refusing to become settled in their views and making those views into a “creed” whereby they “denounce[d] as heretics” those who did “not believe that creed.” James White, for his part, fully affirmed Loughborough’s perspective. “Making a creed,” he said, “is setting the stakes, and barring up the way to all future advancement.”

It was clear for James White and J. N. Loughborough— and all Adventists of their day: foundational to the Adventist identity and mission was a belief that God was continuing to unfold the revelation of Himself. They must therefore be open to further truth, refusing to categorically close their ears and minds to diverging viewpoints, even if they challenged existing doctrine.

This was, of course, at odds with the program of Charles Hodge and others who constituted “Babylon” who believed the great task of the church was to simply bog down and guard orthodoxy at all costs.

Are we still open?

This historic openness to new light and disdain for creedalism has become a particularly intriguing topic for me. Soon after my local church started taking its missional calling more seriously, prioritizing incarnational living and personal discipleship, the history of anti creedalism within Adventism became more relevant and confrontational to me. What does it mean to be a part of a community? What are the parameters by which a person can belong? Do they have to check off all the doctrinal boxes that our church has insisted upon for the last 75 or so years? Are we truly open to “new light” and “present truth” anymore?

Such questions led to an intellectual crossroads for me, and I chose to make them the basis for doctoral research. I’ve been studying the history of anti-creedalism—not only in Adventism but other religious communities as well. And, as anyone who has ever pursued an advanced degree can tell you: it’s complicated.

Thus far, my research has led to more questions than answers. And it’s not as simple, it doesn’t seem to me, as just allowing an “anything goes” approach. I highly doubt, for example, that J. N. Loughborough or James White, as open as they were to varying perspectives, would have been enthusiastic about welcoming a dogmatic anti-Sabbatarian to preach from their pulpits Sabbath after Sabbath after Sabbath.

At the same time, even the most committed progressives in our day probably wouldn’t be excited about giving a platform to an anti-LGBT, pro-Trump, doomsday preacher. None of us, in the end, are so committed to anti-creedalism that we fully include anyone and everyone. There are, I think, some ideas worth protecting, and that’s where the rub comes.

But we need to at least acknowledge our history and recognize the tension. We need to get back to the doctrinal basics—being, perhaps, theological minimalists—and create a space where people can respectfully share their viewpoints, even if they seem novel, believing there is still more to discover (it seems to me that perhaps the attitude with which people hold and offer their perspective is more important than the perspective itself). Only then will we be truly Adventist.

–Shawn Brace is a pastor in Bangor, Maine, whose life, ministry, and writing focus on incarnational expressions of faith. The author of four books and a columnist for Adventist Review, he is also a DPhil student at the University of Oxford, focusing on nineteenth-century American Christianity. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @shawnbrace, and sign up for his weekly newsletter at:shawnbrace.substack.com

10 Jan

WHATSOEVER THINGS ARE TRUE

By Shawn Brace — Recently, while visiting the leader of a church plant that our church sponsors, a gentleman walked into the café that this church plant has started and struck up a conversation with the leader and myself. I’ve known this fellow for almost a decade now, and he’s always eager to talk about the latest conspiracy theory. He’s a nice guy, but one of these precious souls that doesn’t seem to pick up on social cues and remains stubbornly committed to strange ideas.

On this particular day, he wanted to talk about COVID, passionately pressing me on whether I knew that the US government has deliberately and intentionally prevented Americans from utilizing treatments that could cure the disease. “They don’t want us to have this stuff,” he insisted. “They are just trying to make as much money as they can on all of this.”

Of course, his perspective is, whether right or wrong, not all that unique these days. Though the giant social media outlets have, at least in theory, tried to curb the dissemination of such theories about COVID on their platforms, there is a lot of information swirling about that may or may not reflect reality. And it’s not just COVID: we are continuously bombarded with theories and ideas and messaging that offers all manner of perspectives on elections and religion and end-time scenarios. One can’t go on Facebook without reading long diatribes from self-styled experts on an infinite number of topics. The term #fakenews has become an influential force in our vocabulary and thinking.

What is one to do in response to such an onslaught of various theories and perspectives? How do we make sense of the diverse opinions that are all competing for our acceptance and allegiance? If the apostle Paul encourages us to think about those things which are “true” (see Philippians 4:8), how can we first know what things are true in order to think about them?

Philosophers use a big fancy term to describe such an exercise. It’s called epistemology. This is essentially the study of knowledge—of how we know what we know. It’s the process by which we make sense of the world around us, the filters through which we determine what makes sense and what doesn’t. It’s the sources of authority we judge ideas against to decide if those ideas are true or not.

When someone shares information with me, whether I accept that information or not is based largely on whether I trust the source of that information or not. That’s because I am a fallible human being who is limited in my ability to know things. My knowledge and expertise are not exhaustive and I therefore have to outsource my decisions to other trusted sources. I am but one person and I have to place my confidence in people other than myself—people who have proven themselves trustworthy in the past.

This is really the underlying dynamic in this age of disinformation and #fakenews. We so often get into arguments about the specifics of people’s claims when the divide is on a much more fundamental level relating to the sources of that information. In the case of COVID, when people try to engage me on various theories and ideas, I don’t even bother trying to rebut their ideas—whether good or bad. I just throw up my hands and admit that I am not a scientist or the son of a scientist. I am, therefore, in no position to break down the arguments of aYouTuber or an epidemiologist from Harvard. Thus, no matter how well-argued and seemingly scientific a person’s perspective might be, I’m simply unable to figure out the truth or falseness of it. I simply defer to others I trust on the topic, following their lead, trusting that God will honor my simple faith.

And yet there is an even more fundamental reality going on than epistemology. As I’ve said often over the past few years: when we find ourselves arguing with people, we are very rarely actually arguing with their ideas. We are much more often arguing with their trauma.

As much as we’re sometimes tempted to think otherwise, we’re not exclusively rational beings. None of us makes decisions based solely on intellectual grounds. We are creatures who not only think rationally; we also think emotionally, spiritually, socially, relationally. We are the sum total of our experiences and the degree to which an idea makes sense to us is largely determined by the sum total of those experiences.

Psychologists have thus understood that a person’s ability to succeed in life is much more dependent on their EQ than on their IQ—that is, their emotional intelligence, rather than their intellectual intelligence. Our ability to navigate relationships, to understand the fundamental principles of human behavior and emotion, is a lot more of a significant factor in how we travel through life than our level of education (this is partially why highly educated people can latch on to some extremely crazy ideas). If we are thus relatively emotionally well-adjusted people, we will be more likely to gravitate to and trust sources of information that more accurately reflect reality. On the other hand, if we have significant emotional deficits, we will have a harder time with reality, and making sense of reality—which is the sum total of all human experiences.

Put another way: emotionally unhealthy people will latch on to and believe unhealthy ideas. We have to further understand that it’s not the untruths or the conspiracy theories themselves that are necessarily attractive to people; it’s the sense of belonging and community they bring to people who have felt wounded by traditional sources of authority and society as a whole. When one has significant emotional wounds, they feel like an outsider and there is thus a certain sense of belonging that comes by accepting the views of and joining with other outsiders.

In other words, what a conspiracy theorist usually needs is not a good argument to rebut their views, but some good therapy to heal their souls. Christ, when He invited people to embrace the truth, invited them to embrace Him. When we accept Christ as the Truth, we are not simply accepting Him as a provable idea that does or doesn’t make intellectual sense. To be sure, there is intellectual content about Christ, but that is just one aspect of who He is. We are thus not simply invited to accept ideas about Christ, but to place our trust in Him. When we embrace Him in all His beauty and love, He heals us and sets us free.

But I would add this: embracing Christ isn’t a wand that magically causes our emotional deficits to automatically disappear. God has gifted other humans to help us with the hard work of identifying, processing, and healing our wounds. We are embodied creatures who need other embodied creatures to help us become whole. Just as Jesus doesn’t cause our hunger to go away when we pray to Him, but points us to physical food, so Jesus places other humans in our lives to help us heal from our wounds. So, as I say to all my church members quite frequently: everyone needs therapy.

The bottom line is this: when it comes to figuring out how to make sense of what is true and what isn’t true among the myriad of voices that are peddling me information at a hundred miles an hour, the most important thing for me is to pursue the healing heart of Jesus, often through the empathic and therapeutic ministry of others God has gifted. The more grounded I can become in the gospel, and the healthier I can become emotionally, the more easily I can sift through the various sources of information as I try to make sense of the world.

–Shawn Brace is a pastor and author in Bangor, Maine. His book, The Table I Long For (Signs Publishing), further expounds upon this vision for Adventism. He is also a DPhil student at the University of Oxford, researching nineteenth-century American Christianity. You can follow him on Instagram @shawnbrace, and sign up for his weekly newsletter at: shawnbrace.substack.com

29 Sep

Jesus THE FUTURE OF ADVENTISM

By Shawn Brace — A few years ago, when we were visioning to replant our church, one particular gentleman asked if he could meet with me privately to express some concerns about our direction. Over the course of our visit, he described what was troubling him, pointing to a few proposals we’d made about our reformatted worship gathering. In particular, he was bothered by our rhythmic-guitar playing, which was apparently a little too sensual for his scruples, as well as our proposal to serve refreshments at the beginning of the service (“After all,” he said, “Adventists don’t eat in between meals”). It all left him exasperated. “Is this even an Adventist church?” he wondered incredulously.

I want to make it clear: I know this man loves Jesus and was just trying to stay true to his conscience. I don’t want to make light of that—or him—at all. He is sincere and honest. But it left me concluding that we have two diverging visions of Adventism.

It’s not that I yearn for an Adventism that is characterized by snack-eating and guitar-playing, as though that is the height of denominational achievement. Perhaps snack-eating and guitar-playing are issues that need to be curbed. But the point is this: I’m not sure I want to be a part of an Adventism where these issues are the litmus test of a person’s or church’s fidelity to the denomination’s core principles and identity. Truly, do we want—or do we think—that only those who don’t eat in between meals are the true Adventists?

Instead, what I see for Adventism, what I see for its future, is a faith that is defined by one thing and one thing only: Jesus.

Going Back to the Future

The tension I describe above is nothing new, of course. Long ago, Ellen White saw this vision for Adventism as well, when she encountered and rejoiced over the preaching of two young preachers, Alonzo T. Jones and Ellet J. Waggoner. Culminating in the denomination’s 1888 General Conference session in Minneapolis, these two young men brought the Gospel to a dry and thirsty faith. “As a people,” Ellen White recounted two years after Minneapolis, “we have preached the law until we are as dry as the hills of Gilboa that had neither dew nor rain.” Many ministers, whom she referred to as “unconverted men,” were so zealous about the church’s recapturing of the seventh-day Sabbath teaching, as well its emphasis on other issues like diet and healthy living, that they had left out “Christ and His matchless love.” They instead presented “argumentative discourses.” But they needed “to have their eyes directed” to Christ’s “divine person, His merits, and His changeless love for the human family,” because “many had lost sight of Jesus.”

Jones and Waggoner brought exactly what the church was missing: Jesus, in all His beauty and love. When Ellen White heard them preach in Minneapolis, her whole heart leaped for joy, and “every fiber of my heart said, Amen,” she recounted. She called their presentations as a “most precious message” that God “in His great mercy” had sent. It was “the message that God commanded to be given to the world” so that “the world should no longer say, Seventh-day Adventists talk the law, the law, but do not preach or believe Christ.” What’s more, the message they proclaimed, according to White, was “the light that is to lighten the whole earth with its glory.”

But it was not to be. The old guard, believing they were protecting Adventism and the “old landmarks,” violently pushed back against this “new light” that Jones and Waggoner brought. The tragic irony is that the old guard thought they were just protecting the “old landmarks”—that is, they thought they were protecting true Adventism—when, according to Ellen White, “they knew not what the old landmarks were.”

The upshot of the whole Minneapolis episode was a great turning away from Jesus. “By exciting that opposition,” Ellen White later lamented, “Satan succeeded in shutting away from our people, in a great measure, the special power of the Holy Spirit that God longed to impart to them. . . . The light that is to lighten the whole earth with its glory was resisted, and by the action of our own brethren has been in a great degree kept away from the world.”

And we’ve been reaping the results ever since.

Reimagining Adventism

When I look at the Adventism of the future, I see Jesus. I see a Church that has fully embraced Him and fully embraced His Gospel. He is our only hope. Our future success won’t come because we’ve figured out the right evangelistic or missional formula; it won’t be the result of having nicer buildings or recapturing some sort of “historic Adventism.” It will happen because we’ve gone all in on Jesus.

This is not to create a false dichotomy or diminish the importance of missional innovation (of which I’m a big fan). When we go all in on Jesus—truly go all in on Jesus— creativity and innovation naturally follow in His train.

Neither does it mean that Jesus stands over-against Adventist theology and doctrine. Embracing Jesus does not come despite Adventist theology but results from a proper understanding of it.

Indeed, I’m not speaking of a vague and vacuous notion of Jesus. I’m talking about a full-orbed expression of Jesus that has definition and substance. I’m talking about a Jesus who literally experienced hell because He deemed our eternal existence more important than His own; a Jesus who died to prove that we are worthy and valuable; a Jesus who gives us rest, including a weekly reminder of it, so we can be liberated from our guilt, shame, fear, and constant hustling; a Jesus who looks at us with love, rather than condemnation; a Jesus who gives us principles by which to live, so we can experience optimal human flourishing; a Jesus who will one day finally vanquish all evil so we can live forever in peace and safety; a Jesus who has even put His reputation on the line, willingly being marred and maligned, believing that His love will ultimately win out and His character proven right.

That’s the Jesus I’m talking about.

And there is nothing or no one more beautiful. And there is nothing more worthy of our contemplation, nothing else around which we should organize our faith. If Adventism is to be about something, let it be Jesus. Everything else is pointless and a dead-end street.

Can Adventism get there in the future? I hope and trust and believe we can and we will. And I am committed to laboring to that end—through pen, voice, and, most importantly, action.

–Shawn Brace is a pastor and author in Bangor, Maine. His book, “There’s More to Jesus” (Signs Publishing), further expounds upon this vision for Adventism. He is also a D.Phil student at the University of Oxford, researching nineteenth-century American Christianity. You can follow him on Instagram @shawnbrace, and sign up for his weekly newsletter at shawnbrace. substack.com

23 Jun

CLOSING THE GAP BETWEEN TRUTH AND TRUTH

By Shawn Brace … A church member of mine, Emily, recently became friends with Jennifer (not their real names) when they both brought their daughters to a gymnastics class. While they sat there watching their little four-year-old girls do tumbles and somersaults, they got to talking and immediately hit it off, going very deep, very quickly.

Week after week, Jennifer would tell Emily a little more of her story, which often ended with both women in tears. Jennifer revealed that she had come from a very toxic, abusive, fundamentalist Christian home, where, among other things, girls had to wear long dresses, they couldn’t wear makeup or cut their hair, and they had to follow strict rules of entertainment. This is to say nothing of the shame-based messaging she constantly heard, leaving her with the gut-wrenching impression that her value and identity were based on her conformity to strict human standards.

Needless to say, and quite understandably, Jennifer came to the point of rejecting the whole thing altogether. If this is what organized religion was all about, why bother with it? There’s only so long a person can exist in such a traumatic environment. Powerfully, Emily, ever mindful of the mission of God, would week after week sit with Jennifer in her pain, listening to her as she processed her grief. As a missionary for Christ, Emily understands that we are called to embody the gospel and provide space for others to tell their stories without judgment or condemnation or attempting to leverage their story for the purpose of “converting” them.

And yet not surprisingly, such a posture was attractive to Jennifer, and she started admitting to Emily that she still believed in God, and missed music and singing a great deal. She was just so skeptical about the church thing.

It was at that point that Emily started telling her about our church—about how our mission is to be a “safe, serving, and Jesus-centered” community that embraces people; that doesn’t use shame as a weapon to promote conformity; that invites people into the family of God, no matter where they are in their faith—or lack of faith—believing that every person has dignity and value. Emily even pulled her phone out and showed Jennifer the promotional video from our church, which beautifully articulates these very values. And then she very sensitively invited her into the circle sometime, while making it clear that it was okay if she never joined.

That’s where the story is for now. I don’t know what will become of Jennifer. I don’t know if she will someday show up at our building and worship with us. I don’t know if she will sit at Emily’s dining room table and enjoy spiritual fellowship with her. It’s a story that’s still being written.

But as Emily shared this story with me, a light suddenly turned on. I don’t know for sure, but I’d be willing to bet that as Jennifer went away from their conversation that day, with Emily’s invitation ringing in her ears, there was a question that she wasn’t asking herself and there was a question she was asking herself.

I’m willing to bet that she wasn’t asking herself, “I wonder if that church has ‘the truth’?”

Instead, I bet the most pressing question in her mind was, “I wonder if that church is ‘safe’?”

And those two questions are worlds apart—in fact, they’re centuries apart—but most of us Adventist Christians, still living in a different world and in a different century, don’t grasp the incredibly important significance in this shift.

Unfortunately, most of us are still asking and answering nineteenth-century questions, and our witness has suffered as a result.

Are We Just “Thinking Things”?

American Christianity, from which Adventism arose, came of age in the wake of the Enlightenment. Western society, in the eighteenth century, went through an intellectual revolution where reason and rationalism became king. Whereas prior to the Enlightenment, the world was an enchanted place, as philosopher Charles Taylor puts it, the Enlightenment disenchanted the world. Suddenly it wasn’t that God magically upheld the world; the world was governed by natural laws that could be observed, measured, and calculated.

While Christianity, for the most part, felt threatened by the Enlightenment, it soon realized it must embrace it if it was going to engage society on its terms. It thus adopted Enlightenment assumptions, with its heavy emphasis on scientific inquiry. Historians have noted that American Protestants, especially in the nineteenth century, utilized the scientific method of Francis Bacon to defend their religious views. Bacon was an English philosopher who had lived in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, serving as England’s Attorney General and Lord Chancellor. But he was most noted for his development of an inductive approach to science that resulted in him basically being heralded as the father of modern science.

This Baconian method, as it has been called, became the lens through which Protestants in the nineteenth century looked at the world and read the Bible. The Bible became primarily a book of objective facts that contained data points that must be mined to arrive at general conclusions. If one simply plugged in the right formulae, he or she could come up with the right answers, like the pharmacist does in filling his or her prescriptions. The primary concern of the biblical interpreter was thus to establish the propositional rightness of one’s conclusions, using scientific methods, and just as the scientist could rest in the certainty of his or her conclusions, using the right formulae, so too could the biblical interpreter. What’s more, they could also be certain that anyone who disagreed with their conclusions was being intentionally rebellious, since the Baconian method, rightly employed, always established objective theological “facts,” which no honest person could dispute.

It should be noted that this was all well and good and relevant to the time. Such a method, utilized by Adventists, gave us the raw materials—such as the Sabbath, the sanctuary, and the Second Coming, among others—that helped us form the most powerful and beautiful picture of God, rightly constructed, that I’ve ever encountered. These raw materials were likely only uncovered because we utilized this Baconian method. So, we praise God for such an approach.

The challenge is, not only is our current cultural moment asking different questions and looking at the world through different lenses, we are also not simply, in the words of James K. A. Smith, “thinking things.” We are feeling things, relational things, social things, physical things. We are whole beings. In other words, we want to encounter “truth” not only in its propositional form—as a list of propositional facts that one either mentally assents to or doesn’t—but in all its full-orbed beauty.

It just so happens, amazingly, that, according to Scripture, the idea of “truth” is much bigger than its narrow Enlightenment-definition. To be sure, it includes intellectual and propositional content; but it entails so much more. In Hebrew, the word “truth” doesn’t have much to do with the rightness of an intellectual idea, as though it was simply scientific fact; the word, ‘emet, denotes the idea of “firmness,” “faithfulness,” “reliability.” In other words, “truth” has not only intellectual dimensions, but relational, social, and emotional ones. It’s no wonder, then, that when Jesus defined truth, He said, “I am . . . the truth” (John 14:6). Truth is a Person, not just a proposition. This is what Ellen White means when she uses one of her favorite phrases to describe our quest: we want “the truth as it is in Jesus.”

We are thus people of Truth not simply because we happen to preach and proclaim propositionally-correct ideas. We are people of Truth when we are faithful, reliable, safe, and trustworthy people; when we live lives that consistently display the fruit of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:22-23). And a church that determinedly proclaims “present truth,” while neglecting, and sometimes even consciously downplaying, the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control—is in no intelligible or biblical way a church that loves, values, or proclaims the Truth.

Indeed, love is, always was, and always will be, “present truth.”

Perhaps there is no more sobering and confronting words than Ellen White’s on this. “Many take it for granted that they are Christians, simply because they subscribe to certain theological tenets,” she observes. “But they have not brought the truth into practical life. . . . Men may profess faith in the truth; but if it does not make them sincere, kind, patient, forbearing, heavenly-minded, it is a curse to its possessors, and through their influence it is a curse to the world” (The Desire of Ages, p. 309).

Talk about an eyeful!

But this is what it means to close the gap between truth and Truth. There are thousands of Jennifers in the world, burned out by religious communities that have settled for a Baconian version of truth, when God is calling us to continue down the path beyond Bacon to a far more beautiful, robust, and wholistic experience of Truth.

And whenever it is we finally and fully embrace it, I’m convinced we’ll set the world on fire.

–Shawn Brace pastors in Maine and, along with his wife Camille and three children, is seeking to learn how to live out the gospel in his neighborhood and city. You can listen to his podcast “Mission Lab” at https:// missionlab.podbean.com. Email him at: [email protected]

29 Mar

DYING TO CHANGE

By Shawn Brace … One of the big advantages we have in my conference, Northern New England Conference, is that we are dying—at a very rapid pace. It’s not simply that we’ve reached a plateau; we’re hemorrhaging at a pretty significant rate, with a decrease in membership the last five years.

And that’s a very, very good thing.

Some who have read these first few sentences may be fairly confused. After all, how is the fact that our conference is dying a good thing?

It’s simple: because of the dire situation we find ourselves in, we are primed for a massive paradigm-shift. Most conferences aren’t nearly as fortunate. Things are pretty good for them. Tithe is up, membership is modestly increasing, and their institutions are thriving. They are excelling at institutional, status-quo Adventism—running great church programs and events, providing religious services for the already-convinced, but hardly making an impact on their communities or keeping up with the birthrate across America (not to mention losing their own youth at alarming rates).

But not in my conference. And the administrators—blissfully, wonderfully—get this as well. They get that we must either change or go extinct. They get that in order to reach and have an impact on our region, which is the most secular and unchurched region of America, we can’t try to put new wine in old wine skins. They understand that our paradigm of what it means to be the church, and what it means to do evangelism, can’t just be tweaked; it needs to be massively-overhauled, not just to be more relevant to our surrounding communities, but to also align more faithfully with authentic, Scriptural Christianity.

Re-Imagining Church

Five years ago, my church paradigm came crashing down. We had set out to plant a new church in Bangor, which is the third largest city in Maine, but really had no idea what we were doing. We settled on the idea that in order to plant a successful church, we needed to have the “holy trinity” of church planting: good music, preaching, and children’s programming.

But something funny happened as our church planting team was plotting our course, preparing to launch: we fell in love with what church could really be—and it had nothing to do with putting on a good program. As we sat around in a cozy living room, reclining on overstuffed chairs, sipping hot drinks, praying, studying Scripture, and worshiping together, sharing life with one another, a thought seemed to formulate in our minds: why does church have to be more than this?

Instead of worrying about programs, forming committees to nominate other committees, dressing up in our “Sabbath best” each week to passively sit through worship services, sinking all this money into maintaining buildings, why couldn’t it be experiencing natural and organic community together?

And what about the real concerns and issues—such as the opiate epidemic—that is affecting my community, I wondered.

A couple of my church members were concerned about our church planting efforts, and they wanted to call a meeting to hash a few things out with me. As the meeting started, one gentleman, quite perturbed said, “Do you realize you’ve taken two out of our three piano players to start this new church? What happens if we come some Sabbath and there’s no piano player?” As I pondered his question, my mind suddenly shot back to a city council meeting I had attended a few days before that was addressing Maine’s opiate epidemic, and something sobering jolted me: in the church we were worried about losing piano players, while our community was worried about losing lives.

I had come to realize that for most of us, church is a program or event we show up to once or twice a week. We mostly sit as passive consumers as someone else performs ministry for us, “feeding us” week after week. If we’re inclined to participate in ministry, we mostly think serving God consists of helping to put on the programs, with aspirations “to someday ush with the best of them,” as Caesar Kalinowski humorously puts it. But such “ministry” essentially consists of putting on programs for the already-convinced.

What’s more, I’ve noticed that many of us seem to implicitly think that one of our primary tasks as Adventists is to be the great guardians of truth. We spend a lot of time arguing about theology and answering questions that no one else is asking. I love the beautiful picture of God that Adventism has come to understand. The world desperately needs to encounter it. And it’s precisely for that reason that I am depressed that we have buried it under a pile of man-made traditions, rules, and lifeless rituals, and turned “truth” into a checklist.

At the risk of creating a false dichotomy, we have thought our task was to put on programs and defend truth, when God has invited us live lives of other-centered love that reflect His glory to the world.

Three Cataclysmic Shifts

I would like to propose three things when it comes to the change the Seventh-day Adventist Church desperately needs. First, we need to recapture and sell out to the gospel. We have made Adventism about everything else. However, we need the gospel. Understanding, living, and proclaiming it is the key to all other change.

Secondly, we need to recognize that church is a family that shares life together, rather than a program we attend. Pursuing relational forms of church life is the natural outworking of understanding and embracing the gospel. The goal of evangelism is not that people would accept truth, but that they would accept truth so they can live in community with one another and be a blessing to the world.

In Acts 2, the early church shared life together every day–eating, praying, worshipping, and rehearsing the gospel. Thus, for us, as for them, church is happening as much at supper on a Tuesday night as it is when we’re hearing the Word proclaimed on a Sabbath morning.

At its foundation, church is the organic network of people filled with the life of the Spirit and compelled by the gospel. And the really awesome thing is that in our increasingly secular contexts, this resonates with post-Christian people. They are very unlikely to walk through the doors of our church buildings, but they will gladly sit at our tables and share a meal with us. People aren’t looking for a “church” anyway— at least as we’ve wrongly defined it—but they are looking for a family.

Thirdly, we need to understand that the primary posture of the family of God is that of being sent. We don’t wait for people to come to us to consume our programs in our buildings. We go to them. “As the Father sent Me so I am sending you” (John 20:21). The way Jesus came was in the flesh, when the “Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood,” John 1:14 (MSG). This is what we call the “incarnation,” the most fundamental truth of the gospel, and if Jesus says He sends us the same way the Father sent Him, this means we live incarnational lives, moving into neighborhoods and living out the gospel in the midst of peoples and cultures that don’t know Jesus and don’t know our beautifully unique understanding of Him as Adventists.

If we are going to truly be all that God wants us to be as Adventists, we must make this paradigm-shift to avoid extinction.

Since making this shift myself five years ago, my ministry and life have never been more exciting, adventurous, and fulfilling. I could tell you scores of stories, but perhaps Luke and Sarah’s story best illustrates both of these points most poignantly.

My wife, Camille—who, until only a few years before, had never had a non-Adventist friend—met Luke a few years back at a story time at one of our local libraries. Camille, seeking to live an incarnational life, brought our kids to story time each week, and met Luke, who was a stay-at-home dad. They hit it off and soon we all hit it off, as Luke introduced us to his wife Sarah. We began spending lots of time with them, going hiking together, eating together, sharing life with them, and blessing them as much as we could. And what became quickly apparent was that they knew absolutely nothing about God and the Bible.

Eventually, we introduced them to some other members of our missional community and then we invited them to join us for a special telling of what we call the “Story of God.” It’s essentially an eight-week telling of the big story of Scripture, tracing the major themes, in narrative form, that are woven throughout. We didn’t hold this in our church building, though; we held it at my in-laws’ house, sandwiched between a meal and our own stories.

At first, we couldn’t tell if they were getting anything out of it, or enjoying it. Then, finally, a couple weeks in, Sarah cleared her voice and spoke up. “You know, I was just telling Luke on the way over here,” she explained, “that this is the most loving group I’ve ever been around in my life.”

The gospel was working; being God’s family—the church—was working; living incarnationally was working.

Until Adventism makes this cataclysmic shift, we will struggle to impact the world to the degree God intends for us to impact it.

— Shawn Brace pastors in Maine and, along with his wife Camille and three children, is seeking to learn how to live out the gospel in his neighborhood and city. In 2018, he replanted his church to align more fully with God’s missional vision, focusing on the gospel, community, and discipleship. You can track his journey via his podcast, “Mission Lab” (https://missionlab. podbear.com/) and his forthcoming book on the topic. Email him at: [email protected]

05 Jan

A SIN OF RACIAL PREJUDICE

By Shawn Brace — Much to my chagrin, I don’t cry much. But this last summer I found myself sobbing after I decided to do what many other people around the world did in May: I pulled up YouTube on my phone and watched every second of an 8 minute and 46 second video. And I cried and cried and cried.

I cried as I watched a black man having his life literally asphyxiated out of him. No, he was not a sinless and perfect man. Who among us is? But George Floyd bore—a tragically past tense verb—the Imago Dei. He was a child of God just like all of us. And yet his life was taken from him in broad daylight by sinners who felt no remorse about casting stones.

As I re-watched the video a few times, another figure caught my eye and ear as well. A bystander on the sidewalk kept pleading with the police to stop murdering Floyd. At times, the bystander’s language turned entirely vulgar, utilizing four-letter words that the privileged are taught never to use.

And yet a strange thought came to me, perhaps too scandalous for the pious mind. I heard Jesus in that man’s voice, cuss-words and all. After all, if such a cold-blooded tragedy doesn’t raise the ire from the God who once cursed a figtree for not bearing fruit (see Mark 11:12-25), what does that say about this God who allegedly died for George Floyd?

The question is, does God have a church who will join Him and that man on the sidewalk, willing to shed traditional forms of polite piety for the sake of speaking up and advocating for the “least of these”?

Our History of Social Justice

It may come as a surprise to many, but Seventh-day Adventists used to be at the forefront of social activism, zealously fighting against slavery and the racism that justified it. Our early history is littered with pioneers who passionately argued that being an Adventist and being an abolitionist were not mutually exclusive. In fact, some perhaps would have said they were necessarily mutually inclusive.

Figures such as Joseph Bates, Uriah Smith, J. N. Andrews, and James White staunchly spoke out against slavery, expressing their views frequently in all the major church publications, including the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald. John Byington, who became the first president of the General Conference, participated in the Underground Railroad, even building small chapels to hide runaway slaves. In fact, Byington had left the Methodist Episcopal Church and joined the Adventist faith partly because the former was so soft on the slavery question while the latter wrote and spoke passionately about it.

Of course, perhaps none were more outspoken than the prophet herself. Ellen White was clear on the slavery question, maintaining that any person who had pro-slavery sympathies should not have fellowship with Adventists, and insisting that the Fugitive Slave Law, requiring northerners to return enslaved people who had escaped, was to be dis- obeyed. “We must abide the consequences of violating this law,” she wrote. “The slave is not the property of any man. God is his rightful master, and man has no right to take God’s workmanship into his hands, and claim him as his own.” What is so fascinating about the pioneers’ attitudes toward the slavery issue is that they apparently didn’t feel that speaking against it would undermine their evangelistic opportunity. They didn’t worry that it would distract from their gospel witness. In fact, they felt that to not speak against slavery would undermine their gospel and evangelistic credibility. This they did, even while understanding that being staunchly abolitionist would close evangelistic doors in the southern states. But it was the price they were willing to pay in order to maintain gospel integrity and consistency.

Indeed, they viewed abolition and anti-racism as a gospel work. They were intimately connected in their minds. They even thought it was “present truth,” identifying America as the “land beast” of Revelation 13 partly because of its practice of slavery.

Is It Still “Present Truth”?

As we look across the landscape of Adventism today, one wonders if we still think that the work of anti-racism is a gospel work that reflects “present truth.” Some argue, of course, that since slavery was abolished long ago, and that further still, since the Civil Rights act was passed in the 1960s, the work of anti-racism resulted in glorious victory for America long ago. Those battles have been fought and won, both within and without the church, and we must instead focus on issues that will unite us rather than divide us.

Some further argue that harping on questions of racism distracts from Adventism’s primary calling to proclaim the Three Angels’ Messages. Those who focus on social justice and equality are playing a political game, the thinking goes, manipulated as pawns by political actors. We are therefore to bury all such questions.

For many of our brothers and sisters of color, however, it is anything but a distraction and it is anything but a political question. It is a lived reality. It is their reality.

A few months ago, one of my black friends, who had organized the Black Lives Matter march in our city in the wake of George Floyd’s death, which I gratefully marched in, offered this poignant perspective on such an attitude. “As a Black child, man, father,” he wrote, “no media outlet, politician, or organization has tricked me into thinking any- one is racist. Every single opinion I have about racism has come from my own experiences in school, in my community, and in the workplace as a Black American. Saying people of color are being tricked is essentially saying we are too stupid to interpret facts.”

In 1 Corinthians 12, the apostle Paul, in explaining how the church of Christ is like a body, noted that “if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26, NKJV). For those of us who are white, who were raised in a context in which our skin color and race were never used against us as a liability, we may have a hard time understanding how racism could still be a problem.

But we are all a part of the body. And we need to learn how to trust our brothers and sisters of color and feel their pain with them. When they say they are frightened when they get pulled over by the police, we should take their word for it rather than trying to explain their anxiety away. When they say that the words we speak come across as insensitive and uncaring, we should honor their vulnerability and authenticity. No one ever changes their views by having someone invalidate them anyway. We bring healing to the suffering in our midst by suffering with them, not by telling them they have no reason to feel like they’re suffering. And we bring healing by speaking out, like that bystander on the sidewalk, against the ways in which our brothers and sisters of color are still being marginalized and excluded.

A few months ago, I got an unexpected message on Facebook from a young black man I didn’t know. He had attended one of our Adventist universities but struggled because of the climate of racism that he constantly felt on campus. A mutual friend of ours had sent him a number of posts I had written on Facebook in the weeks before that highlighted the important need for Christians to pursue the work of anti-racism.

Many of the posts had raised the ire of some of my white friends on Facebook, but connected deeply with my friends of color. When this young man reached out to me, he indicated that my posts had caused him to weep. He had never heard a white man, much less a white Adventist pastor, speak so powerfully to his experience. He had been tempted to give up on the Adventist church, but my posts had given him hope.

I don’t say this to imply any sort of moral superiority. I am far from perfect and have a lot to learn. But there are many people of color who are still wondering if they belong in our church. They wonder if it is safe for them.

We must learn to suffer with those who suffer, weep with those who weep, and curse with those who curse.

–Shawn Brace pastors in Maine and, along with his wife Camille and three children, is seeking to learn how to live out the gospel in his neighborhood and city. In 2018, he replanted his church to align more fully with God’s missional vision, focusing on the gospel, community, and discipleship. You can track his journey via his podcast, “Mission Lab,” [https://missionlab. podbean.com/] and his forthcoming book on the topic. Email him at: [email protected]