29 Mar

STANDING ON ONE’S HEAD

By Rajmund Dabrowski … I liked standing on my head because it made me see old things in a new way. I liked it because it made life seem exciting and unpredictable. —Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine, p. 159

It was just about the end of February 2004 when my cardiologist strongly recommended that I should change my lifestyle. If you are to live with no hiccups, you need to slow down and apply breaks to the speed you are living.

I thought I knew what he was saying. Among my initial thoughts was a strange notion—for a person who was engaged in a “healthy religion,” could this mean becoming less religious? How can this be when my church promotes healthy living, yet my heart was not working according to its required tempo? What had to change?

What happened next may not be the prescription for everyone. I, however, needed a radical change.

I went home straight to a filing cabinet. On the way, I grabbed a black Husky drawstring trash bag, the “nothing’s tougher” sort and began emptying sermon files, some of them dating back to 1972. I looked (with nostalgia, I suppose) at the early dates and yellowing sheets of notes, most typewritten, and said goodbye!

I was responding to my need for a radical change, inspired by a haunting admonition: “I am after mercy, not religion.” I needed newness even in the way I approached being a Christian. I reclaimed my Bible study by joining a “discipleship class” with a group of fellow believers from Sligo Church (thank you, Dave Brillhart!). This simple decision was instrumental to reform my thinking and understanding of what it means to walk the talk.

The biblical-times prophets are a group of God’s communicators. They had two challenges—understand the message and know how to deliver it. Take Jonah. He was sent to a city to deliver the message of a needed repentance, but in his view, it was a useless exercise. He was even angry at God, but as it usually happens, the Source of messaging did not budge. God did not mind Jonah’s anger. It was Jonah who was “greatly displeased and became angry” (4:1) and opted to see Ninevah’s destruction rather than its salvation. But God was not the one who gave up. It was Jonah who was ready to die and win the duel with his “Employer.” However, God had a better plan and helped him to see that His missionary had a job to do, by hook or by crook.

Message delivery was a challenge for another prophet, Isaiah. Abraham Joshua Heschel comments about Isaiah’s challenge: He [Isaiah] is told to face his people while standing on his head. Did he not question his own faculties of seeing, hearing, and understanding when perceiving such a message? (Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets, p. 89)

Isaiah’s dilemma was in dealing with the message he is to communicate by framing it by a method of delivery— hearing, but not listening, seeing, but not perceiving. We are continually challenged to tell the truth in a new way.

Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? (Isaiah 43:19, NIV).

We are also challenged to turn the world upside down, seeing the people but flipping the script, seeing the people but from a different perspective. We are challenged to not do church the same way we have been doing, on and on and on. It forces us to see our mission differently.

Jesus constantly reminded His audience that if you have eyes, look, and if you have ears, listen.

Are you listening to me? Really listening? “How can I account for this generation? The people have been like spoiled children whining to their parents, ‘We wanted to skip rope, and you were always too tired; we wanted to talk, but you were always too busy.’ John came fasting and they called him crazy. I came feasting and they called me a lush, a friend of the riffraff. Opinion polls don’t count for much, do they? The proof of the pudding is in the eating” (Matthew 11:15-19, MSG).

Change. Could we consider the option of seeing our Christian mission by looking at the world upside down? The world looks funny upside down, but maybe that is just how it looks when you have got your feet planted in heaven,” writes Barbara Brown Taylor. “Jesus did it all the time and seemed to think we could do it too. So blessed are those who stand on their heads, for they shall see the world as God sees it. They shall find themselves in good company, turned upside down by the only one who really knows which way is up (Gospel Medicine, p.163).

It’s worth risking standing on our heads. It’s also radical, and it may just bring the needed change. That’s God’s way forward.

–Rajmund Dabrowski is RMC communication director. Email him at: [email protected]

29 Mar

LOVING BEFORE WITNESSING

By Ron Price … I believe Adventist doctrine appeals to the intellectual mind. Being a member of the Mensa Society, what other church could I possibly consider joining? (Side note: If you do not know what the Mensa Society is, please Google it so you will get my humor, and no, I am not a member.)

Seriously, our message is so grounded in Biblical Truth and makes such rational sense that we sometimes expect people to accept it on that basis alone. But, aye, thars the rub. Especially these days, perhaps, people are not focused solely on rational thought. With the stress and strain of life, other matters typically take precedence. The state of the dead, vital as it may be, simply does not matter to one who is hungry, or grieving, or struggling to stay alive. Nor is it significant to someone who has been hurt or mistreated by a church member, but that is a matter for a separate column.

While I would never suggest we veer away from or somehow cheapen our message—make that God’s message—I do believe we need to be more focused on meeting people’s felt needs before we seek to bring them to a knowledge of “the truth.” Yes, Truth is essential and should always be a component of our mission, ministry, and outreach, but without love, we will come across as a clanging cymbal (see 1 Cor 13:1-4).

For too long now, we have relied on the Truth of our message to win souls for The Kingdom and to fulfill our part of the Great Commission. Maybe that is working at your church, but I doubt it is working everywhere. Some people will respond to a flyer they receive in the mail, but I dare say the vast majority will not. Many more are likely to respond favorably to an invitation from someone they know cares about them and has their welfare in mind.

The planning for an evangelistic series of meetings cannot begin with designing and purchasing a flyer. It must start with building relationships and showing people we genuinely care about them. We could do this through a series of non-religious outreaches. Our church has a plethora (I just love that word) of resources to help people in every area of their lives. Our health message is without comparison. We have programs that any church could deliver to help people meet their relationship needs, financial awareness needs, mental/emotional health needs, dietary needs, etc.

The 20th century English economist John Maynard Keynes said: “The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping old ones.” I doubt he said that with our present-day church in mind, but he could have. We have been following a model of evangelism for so long that some might believe it comes straight out of the Book of Acts.

I am a product of the church’s evangelistic outreach, so I dare not be too critical. But that, I have to say, was 40 years ago. I hope I am not the first to tell you that things have changed a bit since then, but our methods not so much. Of course, that is not a universal indictment of our church or our “movement”—I haven’t heard that term in a while. I’m certain many churches have adapted to the times and are reaching out in new ways to reach a new world.

One outreach I recently became aware of is found in The Inviting Church by Mitchell L Williams. In it, Pastor Williams provides a model for loving your neighbor before you witness to them. Or better yet, you witness through your love and service before you witness through your knowledge of the Truth. That sounds like a great idea to me—what say you?

–Ron Price is a member of the RMC Executive Committee and lives in Farmington, New Mexico. Email him at: [email protected]

29 Mar

OUR OWN—SORT OF—REFORMATION

By Andre M. Wang … In May 2014, North American Division President Dan Jackson summoned church administrators and leaders in the United States and Canada to convene in Dulles, Virginia. The main topic on the agenda: CHANGE. A sort of reformation, if you will.

The issue was not about the church’s beliefs or values, but about sustainability. Can the church continue, much less thrive, under the current mode of operation? The premise of the meetings was that the current model the North American Division uses to execute its mission was cumbersome, inefficient and redundant. Dan Jackson asserted, “Good stewardship requires us to explore a better way to do things.” He then asked the gathering of leaders if they supported the idea of structural change, even if it meant the elimination of their own positions and territories. Every hand went up in affirmation.

An action was taken to establish three committees to examine and propose reforms in the areas of education, mission and governance. As fortune would have it, being an unrepentant policy nerd, I received an invitation to serve on the committee on church governance, or as I called it, the Committee on Committees to Study Reducing Committees Committee.

The work of the governance committee was fascinating. As a lifelong Adventist, I was shocked to learn and discover how much I didn’t know about how the church operates, how it’s financed and how decision-making flows. We critically examined everything from church structure to tithe distribution. We turned over every proverbial rock looking for a better way the church could do business.

The three committees ultimately presented their findings and proposals at the 2015 NAD Year-end Meeting. After the reports were presented, Jackson announced that they be examined by NAD administrators for action.

The desire for change directly implies that the status quo is not working and that there must be a better way to do things. But there is always a natural resistance to change because it’s a journey into the unknown. While serving on the NAD governance committee, I heard many “resistance responses” around the table and this is how I interpreted them:

It’s always been like this. Interpretation: the need for change is much older than we originally thought. This is an argument that change should have happened a long time ago.

It’s this way everywhere. Interpretation: the need and scope for change is bigger and more widespread than we anticipated. Change should not just happen locally, but globally.

It’s not in the budget. Interpretation: money is not being allocated (read, “spent”) in the proper places.

It’s too political. Interpretation: let’s not hurt anyone’s feelings but avoid critical self-examination and the asking of tough questions about the organization.

It’s tradition! Interpretation: the organization has no clue what they do and why they are doing it.

Below are seven lessons I learned about change from serving on a committee about change:

1.Fear and emotion are part of the process.

This is only natural as we are sentient, thinking human beings who care deeply about things that affect us. It is helpful to write out a list of the negative factors, interesting factors, and positive factors toward adopting change in order to bring our deepest fears to the surface where we audit how we feel about a particular issue and stimulate our creative side. The “interesting factor” list is where the creativity takes place and ideas for change develop that lead to a positive outlook.

2.It’s not the change that is scary; it’s the journey to change.

Change is never as simple as dropping everything you know and doing it differently. The status quo is a comfortable place that is known, structured, proven, certain and reassuring. Conversely, change is unknown, unstructured, unproven, uncertain and unsettling. The area between the status quo and change is predictable and foreseeable—risk, fear, anxiety, confusion, blame, etc. This is why pilots get on the loudspeaker to advise nervous passengers what to expect on the flight, and why doctors update anxious families on the status of their loved one’s surgery. The journey to change should be open and transparent.

3. Don’t be afraid of the scope of change.

At the outset, there must be a basic understanding what will change and what will not. Before embarking on a journey to change, take inventory of the things that will remain the same, make a list of things that cannot be done now and still cannot be done after the change; list things that are being done now, but will no longer be able to be done after the change and list the things that cannot be done now, but can be accomplished with the change. This puts the change (and the journey to change) in context and hones the focus on the ultimate prize.

4. It’s not ownership, but authorship.

In an organization, change cannot be imposed by fiat or executive declaration. No one person or committee owns the change. It must be organic, with meaningful thought and input from everyone involved. A leader gives the group authorship of the change, empowering them to design and make the change for themselves. Thus, people are not responding to change, but have essentially taken control of it.

5. Create a change checklist.

Imagine you are cleaning out your closet. You must decide: (1) What to keep?; (2) What to toss?; (3) What to change?; and (4) What to add? An organization needs to go through the same closet-cleaning analysis. This is where the design for change takes place.

6.People want change.

Every product in the history of business is based on change. The number of people who desire change is always greater than we think. But change must be offered, not foisted.

7. Cultural change must come before structural change.

Change just to do something different is fake change. Structural change is rather easy to design on paper—revise the organizational chart, the flow of capital and the methods of decision-making. But has really anything changed? In order to be real, it must start with cultural change, changing the mindset while upholding morale. Until the culture of the organization is changed, no other change is possible.

I implore everyone who desires change to keep an open mind. A closed mind is a de facto vote for the status quo. An open mind explores the opportunities and possibilities. Yes, it runs the risk of disappointment and failure, but it’s a chance to make a difference.

Although it is now six years since the NAD ad hoc governance committee completed its work, I remain hopeful that the ideas we presented and the analysis that brought us there are still valuable and capable of bringing change to the church that I love and want to see thrive into the future.

We can keep things the same or we can make a difference. We cannot do both.

–Andre Wang serves as general counsel and director of public affairs and religious liberty for the North Pacific Union Conference. He writes from Portland, Oregon. Email him at: [email protected]

29 Mar

SPARE CHANGE – A MEDITATION IN FRAGMENTS

By Barry Casey

1. We take change in three ways: we refuse it, we resign ourselves to it, or we leap at it. Attitude plays a role here. Your mileage may vary.

2. Most change happens without warning. We brace for impact. We anticipate some changes; we plan for them. And many changes happen while we’re worrying about the first two.

3. Sometimes, in order to see the changes, we have to go away and then return.

4. Maybe the change we long for is to return to what is familiar. We look for stasis as soon as possible after change.

5. We are stretched between stability and novelty.

6. Nicodemus is a literalist. He plays it safe. Jesus speaks in metaphors. He risks it all.

7. The prodigal son cannot bear the same old routine every day, so he tears it up and leaves. But, on his way back, all he can think about is his mother’s soup and the way his father throws his head back when he laughs.

8. Jesus’ baptism sets ablaze his experience of God’s showering love. It is a pinnacle moment, one that anyone would long to dwell within forever. But the Spirit drives him, throws him, propels him, into the wilderness. It is a shattering change. The desert is the habitation of demons and Satan is waiting. Every vulnerability in Jesus is savagely probed and battered. All that remains, all he can cling to, is that voice in his head saying, “You are my son, my beloved, and I am well pleased with you.” Satan pushes, Jesus pulls.

9. God changes and remembers everything.

10. We change and forget the changes. If our memories fade, do the changes blur and smear? If we can’t remember a change does that mean, we have not really changed?

11. Are our changes merely adjustments to keep us in place, like treading water to stay afloat or walking backwards on a moving sidewalk?

12. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. (Psalm 51:10) The spirit lay rusting from disuse. It needed a clean heart to work.

13. Heart is stained and broken. Spirit is rusting. Weeds have grown up between them. “I miss you, Heart,” says Spirit. “I am nothing without you.”

14. The prophetic writings are entirely about change. The people have lost their way. They have trusted other gods, gone down a dark path. When this happens the land itself becomes infertile.

15. Change is constant in the Scriptures. Someone is always moving away, reversing course, changing names, repenting. The history of the people of God is the history of constant change.

16. We don’t get used to change, even though it’s happening constantly. Every change rings a bell somewhere that says, “It’s all slipping away. Nothing stays the same. You can’t stop it.”

17. The only change that makes a real difference is knowing that everything put together falls apart.

18. Random notes on change:
personal changes
personnel changes
changes in relationships
changes in my body
change in how I think about the Bible
change in how I imagine Christ
change in how I view God as Father or Mother
change to the church vs change by the church
change over time or cataclysmic change
gradual change—do we notice?
is it really change if we don’t notice it?

19. Heraclitus: You cannot step in the same river twice. God: Behold, I make all things new. Heraclitus: This is what I’m saying.

20.Cease to do evil and learn to do right, pursue justice and champion the oppressed; give the orphan his rights, plead the widow’s cause (Isa. 1:17).

21. Possibly overheard outside a Metro station. “Hey buddy, you got any spare change?” “Sorry, I haven’t got any cash. I have a Starbucks gift card, though.” “Thanks anyway.”

22.Rilke famously murmured in one of his poems, “You must change your life.” I came across this line in a novel where an American mercenary is about to push a nun out of an airplane over the sea off the coast of Nicaragua. She says this to him with a half-smile on her lips. In the novel, the mercenary hears this every night in his dreams.

23. Then one of the seraphim flew to me carrying in his hand a glowing coal which he had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. He touched my mouth with it and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your iniquity is removed, and your sin is wiped away” (Isa. 6:7).

24.The draw, the excitement of change, is in the anticipation. The imagination blossoms, connections snap together, attention distills the sensory flood to a charged and concentrated fusion. We are, paradoxically, open to everything.

25. A voice says, “Cry,” and another asks, “What shall I cry?” “That all mankind is grass, they last no longer than a flower of the field . . . the grass withers, the flowers fade, but the word of our God endures for evermore” (Isa. 40: 6,8).

26.Listen! I will unfold a mystery: we shall not all die, but we shall all be changed in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye . . . (1 Cor. 15:51 NEB).

27. Tents
Let us say,
the church is not
a fortress. That would be
God says Luther.
No, the church
would be a tent
folded in the night,
carried toward the dawn
in another country,
having done
what we could in this place
filling the stomachs
of the famished, making a wall
against the destroyer of souls,
opening the eyes of the dead,
surprising the living once again.

28.Repentance, in the New Testament, is metanoia. It means “to turn around,” go in the opposite direction. “Change” means doing a 180, retracing one’s steps. But I like what Moses did when he saw the burning bush: he turned off the path he was on and cut a new trail toward the fire.

29.“Change will come,” we are advised. “The wheels turn slowly.” As if it was a machine without a human operator. As if there were no moral currents involved. As if we are looking at it through the wrong end of a telescope. As if Change was an old man with a walker and a heart condition.

30.I say I want the Church to change, to be inclusive, to recognize its diversity. These are phrases: what I really want is to belong without changing.

31. Buber says, “All real living is meeting.” All encounters change us. Therefore, we are continually changing. The Church could be the place where we are not afraid of that.

32. “Be the change you want to make in the world.”

33. With relation to divinity, the Greeks sought perfection, the Hebrews sought dialogue. Only one of these can be achieved. Only one can be improved by change.

34.Change is conflict with “the way things are.” After conflict comes something new. And the new becomes “the way things are.” Rising and falling; is there an end to this?

35. “She had a change of heart,” we say. How casually we speak of such an operation!

36.In math, change is a constant. The same could be said about God.

37. I had a friend who used to say, “Nothing . . . has changed.” Which was true—if you were Nothing.

38. William James did some of the first research in America into attention as a learning component. In order to hold attention, he said, the teacher must change the angle to the subject every few minutes, for without change we cannot learn. The absolutely old cannot hold our attention and the absolutely new cannot either. But the old in the new commands a lively attention. The friction between the old and the new makes the fire.

39.What does it take to make us change? I have been driven by fear to change. I would rather run toward it.

40.“For we are not now as fully whole in Christ as we will be one day.” —Julian of Norwich

41. To change oneself is the result of ambition. To allow oneself to be changed throws open the door of desire that longing is standing behind.

–Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communication for 37 years in Maryland and Washington, D.C. He is now retired and writing in Burtonsville, Maryland. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods. His first collection of essays, Wandering, Not Lost, was recently published by Wipf and Stock. Email him at: [email protected]

29 Mar

LOVE/HATE RELATIONSHIP WITH CHANGE

By Jessyka Dooley … Humans have a love/hate relationship with change. When we look back on history, we see how far we’ve come. Beyond the advancements we have made in technology and efficiency, I believe that we are also welcoming in some of the most accepting and forward-thinking generations ever. Despite all the progress, it remains true that we have a love/hate relationship with change. We love to see how far we’ve come. We wait in mile-long lines to get the newest iPhone. We’re able to work on flights and post photos on our social media pages from an airplane flying across the globe. So much of what we consider “normal” would not exist if we were not constantly updating, pushing boundaries, and changing. At the same time, somewhere in our humanity, we also struggle against change.

This past year has shown this to be true on a deep level. We cherish the comfort of knowing—or at least holding on to the idea—that we can know what’s coming next. We thrive on structure and routine. We find ourselves comfortable in the knowledge that what life will look like tomorrow, next month, next year—is more or less what we got yesterday, last month, and last year. Fear of change, it seems, might make people intolerable.

Like humanity, the Adventist Church also has a love/hate relationship with change. We love to see new ministries springing up and we get excited over fresh leadership and rebranding, but at the end of the day, what we’re actually really comfortable with is just putting fresh paint on an old house. Because really, how has the church actually changed recently? The world has changed drastically in the past few decades, but has the church kept up?

I recently saw an opinion shared by a young woman on Tik Tok stating that churches should lose their non-profit status. At first, I was flabbergasted. How in the world would our churches continue to operate?! She continued to share why she thought this was the way forward, and by the end of the video, I understood her stance. She shared that, in the past, churches were open seven days a week. Churches fed the hungry, put shoes on the barefoot, sheltered the homeless. Churches were, in essence, the place anyone in their community could go to receive the care they needed. Unfortunately, most churches do not operate that way. Most of our churches are open one day, maybe two days, a week. And when they are open, they don’t look much like a non-profit organization. Let that sink in. It was hard for me not to get defensive watching this video, trying to find all of the ways that churches, my churches, really are non-profits that take care of their communities.

Churches have a love/hate relationship with change, yet somewhere along the way, we actually changed a lot. In my opinion, we’ve stopped operating whole-heartedly in the way of Jesus. The early church shared everything they had in order to take care of one another. This idea in the modern church is rather uncomfortable. Now, we operate like little businesses where the transaction is tithe dollars for an entertaining Saturday service and maybe a few ministries on the side. We moved from a church model that took care of those around us to a model of pushing our finances up to the top just for them to trickle down again. Hear me out, money is not the evil here, but the old phrase rings true to, “Put your money where your mouth is.” As followers of Jesus, where are our dollars going? If they are not being used to love our neighbors, we have a problem. We could fill in that phase with countless other currencies. “Put your time where your mouth is.” “Put your energy where your mouth is.” “Put your creativity where your mouth is.” You name it. As Christians, we want to it to be on earth as it is in heaven. That means the people around us should be loved so well and so fully that they see the character of God in each of us.

My question is, do the people in all of our communities see the character of God being lived out by Adventists right now? In the midst of charged politics, do the people in your community see Adventists loving their neighbors and standing up for the oppressed? During times of financial difficulty, do the people in your community see Adventists giving out of their own wallets? As we welcome in the next generations, do the people in our community see our leaders pouring themselves into kids and teenagers? If you’re having to search the corners of the room to present evidence, chances are we’re both thinking the same thing—something’s got to give.

We have a love/hate relationship with change. We saw the church in Jesus’ time struggle deeply with the “change” Jesus brought. Here’s the catch. Jesus came to restore what was supposed to be, but the church saw it as “change” because they had created so many of their own systems. Jesus did not come with an agenda to fix the church systems. He did not spend heaps of time at church “business meetings.” Jesus had no desire to come fix the systems that we had set up, His desire was to bring humanity back to its rightful place, to bring a hurting humanity the healing it deserved.

Maybe you’re one looking for change. Or you could be one who really values the way things are. Now, stick with me here, what if all of this . . . the system . . . what if it doesn’t matter so much? The way it is or our individual opinions of the way it ought to be. What if our church isn’t the thing that needs to change? What if it is actually you and I who need the inspired love of Jesus Christ in our hearts? Maybe the problem is that we have a love/hate relationship with change. We would love to see the church and all its systems change, but we’d hate to have to experience that change for ourselves on a deep, personal level. Maybe it’s time to stop looking at the speck in the eyes of Christianity or Adventism and begin looking at the log in our own eyes. Our communities and neighbors don’t need a non-profit to help them. They need the hands and feet of Jesus. They need your hands and your feet.

— Jessyka Dooley is RMC associate youth director. Email her 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]

29 Mar

ADVENTISM AND THE FEAR OF CHANGE

By Tony Hunter … What if one day you learned something new? How would you react to that? How would you incorporate that into your life? If you’re like most people, depending on how useful the new thing is, you would file it away in your mind and keep it handy for when it’s needed.

But what if that new thing you learned contradicted or disproved a previous thing you knew? What would you do then? Would you make the modifications to your knowledge base and alter your perspectives in order to incorporate this knew thing? Or would you pretend the new thing wasn’t true so that you didn’t have to change anything and, therefore, keep utilizing the old thing that you now know is false?

The question becomes, “How willing are you to change?”

This question always seems easy for Adventist Christians when it’s about someone changing to agree with the locally- accepted Adventist view. But when it’s the other way around, it becomes a serious problem. If an Adventist, or the group as a whole, were to learn something that so clearly and absolutely contradicted a previously accepted “truth,” it becomes a harder and more complicated question.

Adventists, like most people, believe they are people in search of truth. And like most people, it’s true. And also like most people, they believe the new truth as long as the new “truth” is the same as the old “truth” they already know.

Right now, some of you are saying an enthusiastic “Amen.” Others of you are unhappy with that statement and are looking for the editor’s phone number.

However, if we stop and think about it for a minute, it really does make sense. Humans tend to be resistant to change. Change implies accepting something new and letting something go. It implies an altering of our course, our minds, and our very perspective on reality in ways large or small. This is difficult because, thanks to the culture most of us were raised in, we tend to equate being correct or incorrect with being right or wrong. And we equate being right or wrong with being good or evil. Being correct or incorrect, then, becomes a statement of our own morality instead of a learning experience. And since Adventists are made up of humans, it applies to us just as much as anyone else.

This is true not just as individuals, but also on an organizational level, which makes sense since the organization is made up of those same individual humans who struggle with this dynamic. And as Christians, we get to add the concept of sin to it as well, which makes our reticence to change even stronger because once we start tying sin to it, we also start correlating it with salvation, or a lack thereof.

And suddenly, change is no longer about applying new learning and correction to our life, but about staying as rigid and unmoving as possible so that we don’t lose our salvation. Which really says a lot about how messed up our views of salvation are, but that’s a whole different article.

There is a reason that, in both Christian and non-Christian spiritual traditions, the Spirit of God is often symbolized by flowing or pouring water. Water that moves. Because water that stagnates breeds death. It’s unhealthy water. But water that moves is life giving. Water that moves adapts and alters the flow through its environment. Moving water finds a way.

One might argue that moving water, no matter how it adapts and flows, is still water and therefore unchanged. I would argue that, while the hydrogen and oxygen that make up water are unchanged, there are lots of other minerals in water that are picked up and dropped off at different times and in different places as it flows over, around, and through its environment that are part of what make quality water good for the soil and also good for the body.

If it doesn’t alter and change, water becomes damaging. And like water, if humans, including Adventist Christians, are not able to change, they will become stagnate and die, both physically and spiritually.

But let’s shift symbols. There is a story in the Gospel of John, Chapter 3, where Jesus is talking to a man named Nicodemus. During this conversation, Jesus compares being born of the Spirit to the wind. “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So, it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

This implies a number of things. It implies unpredictability. You go places and learn things you didn’t expect to. It’s a life of constant change. It doesn’t conform to the rules we want for it. It’s not always clean and orderly. Where we were and what we were yesterday may not be true for today or tomorrow. What we understood yesterday may not be what we understand today or tomorrow.

The Spirit doesn’t just bring change and demand change; it IS change. Maybe that’s why we fight the Spirit so hard. We need things to stay comfortable. To stay the way we are used to them being. And even though we know we don’t know everything, and we know our perceptions are flawed and our understandings fallible, we fight to keep our views as rigid as possible in an ever-changing world.

This mindset is so powerful, we even write songs about it, songs like, “Give me that old time religion.” It’s a mindset that demands that change never happen. But it’s the very word “religion” that undermines that mindset. Religion is a compound word that comes from first century BC Latin—“re,” a prefix that means “again,” and “lego” meaning “to read.” It is a word that denotes continual study. And one does not study so that they can remain the same; otherwise, there is no point in studying.

To say that we are religious is to say that we keep studying, keep learning, and keep growing. It says we are dedicated to changing. And as Adventist Christians, we believe in transformation. Unfortunately, we only believe in transformation as it conforms to how we’ve understood things in the past. But transformation isn’t only about the past; it’s also about the present and the future. What was good for us in the past may not be good for us now. Sometimes, we are only able to accept certain things, but later we can accept others, and it is the wisdom of the Spirit to see these things and find the strength to let go of what was, even if that thing is some deeply-cherished Adventist belief. Because it is God we follow first and always. Everything else can come and go.

If we want to grow and know God more and be useful in this world in any meaningful way, we absolutely must change. Let go of what holds us back and cling to that spiritual wind as it carries us forward.

This is the whole reason the original Adventists believed in a concept called Present Truth. The idea was that God will continually reveal new things to us through the spirit. The problem, though, is that this is the only part of the concept of Present Truth that we kept. Because the other part of this concept that the early Adventists understood was that we also had to be willing to let go of things we thought we had right and were certain about.

We can be so sure we are correct and still be incorrect. And that is okay. It isn’t evil. The first Adventists understood this. They understood that being wrong wasn’t evil. It was simply a by-product of learning and growing. To be an Adventist who believes in Present Truth is to both learn and to let go. To be a true Adventist is to embrace change, not fear it, and not condemn it.

As I said at the beginning, modern Adventists don’t like change. But it’s not too late for us. It’s time to learn new things, but just as importantly, it’s time to let go of old ones. You are not bound by someone else’s fear-based rigidity. You can make a new choice. You can walk a new path. Let the Spirit flow through you. Let its winds move you. You can be changed and be change. You don’t have to fear it because God is with you.

I say, give change a try. You just might get to see God do something new. And you just might like it.

Wouldn’t that be something?

–Tony Hunter is a Seventh-day Adventist pastor and a hospice chaplain working for Elevation Hospice in Northern Colorado. Tony and his wife, Nirma, live in Firestone, Colorado. Email him at: that [email protected]

29 Mar

SLEEPING ON BORROWED TIME

By Mark Johnson … “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations, and then shall the end come” (Matthew 24:14, KJV).

Enjoying time with children and grandchildren is a blessing from the Lord. So is sleep. Often, however, these are mutually exclusive pleasures. Parents and grandparents soon learn that any “late” morning slumber is sleeping on borrowed time.

The world, too, is sleeping on borrowed time. An incontrovertible argument that change is needed in the Christian church can be summarized in a simple phrase—we are still here.

Judged by Matthew 24, the gospel has not yet been given to the world. Apparently, either “all the world” has not been reached, the true “gospel of the kingdom” has not yet been preached, or it has been presented in a manner that is not a winsome “witness unto all nations.”

Is it possible that in spite of our well-thought-out official Adventist beliefs, practices, and widespread evangelistic campaigns that we, too, have failed to appropriately preach the gospel? We pride ourselves on our worldwide presence, but as Christ noted, missionaries can end up making children of hell, too (Matthew 23:15). We have also been told by Ellen White in The Desire of Ages that, “Had the church of Christ done her appointed work as the Lord ordained, the whole world would before this have been warned, and the Lord Jesus would have come to our earth in power and great glory.”

The most satisfying response to our dilemma would be to conclude that we do, indeed, have the true gospel of the kingdom and we are presenting it in an attractive manner—we have just not yet reached all the world. Neither of the other two options is acceptable, but nothing could be more serious than to find that we are actually misrepresenting the gospel of Christ, despite our apparent success.

Many reasons have been suggested for why we are still here. Most of them call for the church to go back—back to a legendary time when the Adventist message was pure, our witness was alluring, and the manner in which it was offered made it almost irresistible. Unfortunately, those times, if they ever existed, pre-date my experience with the organization.

It has also been suggested that what is needed is a return to the purity of the Protestant church in the Reformation period. Some of Ellen White’s observations, however, cast doubt on that option as well. “Luther and his co-laborers accomplished a noble work for God . . . It was their work to break the fetters of Rome, and to give the Bible to the world; yet there were important truths which they failed to discover, and grave errors which they did not renounce.”

Thus, we should not look to the past for reform—change must move us forward.

There are many problems in today’s Adventist church. We act as if our facilities are country clubs instead of hospitals. We dogmatically limit the God-given potential of women and members of the LGBTQ community. We are the world’s most diverse Protestant church, yet racial tensions persist. We have lost the trust of many of our most generous donors. We do not do enough to reach and help the neglected and downtrodden. We do not adequately care for the earth, and we seem to have little to offer those of higher status in society.

But I believe the real reason we are still here, sleeping on borrowed time, is because our evangelistic outreach is upside down.

Morris Venden raised this issue in his series of sermons on the similarities between the Exodus and Advent movements. He pointed out that God’s work with the children of Israel began with a magnificent revelation of His love and mercy. He next worked to build their trust in Him. Finally, He presented them with His law, the blueprint of how they should live. Elder Venden then commented that we Adventists have frequently gotten this sequence of messages backwards, or upside down, in our evangelical outreach.

The pattern mirrors Christ’s approach. Ellen White writes, “He mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, ‘Follow Me.’”

This is to be our method, too. “There is need of coming close to the people by personal effort . . . The poor are to be relieved, the sick cared for, the sorrowing and the bereaved comforted, the ignorant instructed, the inexperienced counseled. We are to weep with those that weep, and rejoice with those that rejoice. Accompanied by the power of persuasion, the power of prayer, the power of the love of God, this work will not, cannot be without fruit” (White, Letters and Manuscripts, Volume 13).

Many Adventists are well-grounded in scriptural proof-texts. They could win most disputes dealing with biblical teachings about how we should live in accordance with the law. We are not nearly as facile, though, in discussing why we should put our trust in God, or in describing His loving character. And often, our debating spirit is anything but appealing.

Ellen White directly addressed this approach to witnessing, “The combative armor, the debating spirit, must be laid off. If we would be Christ-like, we must reach men where they are.” She then commented that some of our pastors “are as sharp as a razor, [and] cut off the ears of the people, and make them mad, and that is the end of the business so far as converting them to the truth is concerned.” You cannot simultaneously antagonize and persuade.

When our church leaders argued in 1888 that it was not the special work of the Adventist church to preach Christ, since other Christian denominations were doing that, but to preach the law of God and the third angel’s message of Revelation 14, Ellen G. White responded that “as a people, we have preached the law until we are as dry as the hills of Gilboa,” and asserted that the third angel’s message is the message of righteousness by faith in Christ alone.7 We were counselled to find “Christ in the law” and Christ in the third angel’s message.

We are still working on that.

Instead of a fearful emphasis on the law, and displays of the terrors of the last days, we should begin our outreach with a revelation of the love and mercy of God, followed with evidence on which to build faith and trust in Him. When we finally present the law, it should be clear that to love as Christ loved is the fulfillment of its requirements (Romans 13:8,10). The return of Christ then becomes “good news” instead of a “fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation” (Hebrews 10:27, KJV).

God wants friends He can trust eternally with infinite freedom. He can heal and will save all who trust Him. He is not primarily concerned with forgiveness, for, according to White, “to all, forgiveness is freely offered.” Instead, He is concerned with character. Ellen White writes, “It is the will of God that each professing Christian shall perfect a character after the divine similitude. By studying the character of Christ revealed in the Bible, by practicing His virtues, the believer will be changed into the same likeness of goodness and mercy.”

The greatest change needed in our church today is for more of us to spend time each day, as White puts it, “studying the character of Christ revealed in the Bible.” Surveys show that currently only a minority of our members do so. This is how we come in contact with the love of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. This is where our characters are changed into the likeness of Christ, for “it is a law both of the intellectual and the spiritual nature, that by beholding, we become changed. The mind gradually adapts itself to the subjects upon which it is allowed to dwell. It becomes assimilated to that which it is accustomed to love and reverence” (White).

When the world sees us uplifting Christ, they will be drawn to Him (John 12:32) and will either accept or reject Him. As the goodness of God’s character is revealed, those who accept Him will be led to repentance (Romans 2:4). Those who learn to know and trust Him will glorify Christ, who declared that His work on earth was finished when He had glorified the character of God before mankind (John 17:4).

That is how our work will end as well.

–Dr. Mark Johnson is chair of the vision board of Boulder Adventist Church. Email him at: [email protected]

29 Mar

ONE FRIDAY EVENING IN JERUSALEM

By Andy Nash … I’ll never forget my first Friday evening in Jerusalem— and the surprising clarity it brought to my Seventh-day Adventist faith.

Drawing near the temple mount, I expected the serenity and solitude of Orthodox men rocking back and forth in prayer at the Western Wall. But as the plaza came into full view, another emotion filled the evening air . . . Joy!

Circles of Jewish teenage girls danced hand in hand, singing. Not far away stomped a spirited line of Jewish boys, their hands on each other’s shoulders, their yarmulkes hanging on for dear life. Closer to the wall, hundreds of worshippers gathered socially in close conversation: the women and men in their respective quarters. Laughter and tears, hugs and clasps. The whole place burst with emotion. I was stunned by the pulsating energy of the place.

Every so often a Jewish man or woman broke from the socializing to approach the wall and pray—then returned to the community, walking backward. Some Jewish worshippers won’t turn away from the wall all evening. Why would they want to turn away? This wall once protected the temple of the Lord!

Watching these children of Israel, I found myself marveling. What an interesting people God chose to reveal himself to! What an interesting way they dress and worship and act. Then I remembered: God didn’t choose a people who dress and worship and act this way. These people dress and worship and act this way because God chose them.

Suddenly, I had the strangest sensation wash over me. Familiarity. I somehow felt right at home. How could this be? I was at a place I’d never been before . . . with hundreds of people I’d never seen before. No one had really made any effort to welcome my family and me. We weren’t even Jewish. We were Christian. How could we feel right at home?

I looked around the plaza at other Christians standing there. They also seemed happy to be part of the evening. Still, by the looks on their faces, they seemed out of place. Their expressions seemed to say: What an interesting experience this is. It’s a little like church Sunday morning . . . except that it’s not church, it’s not Sunday, and it’s not morning.

That was true. It was Friday evening under the stars—as it was for the first humans. And that’s why I felt at home— not because of people or place, but because of something that transcends both people and place.

Because of Shabbat—the sign of the Jews—I’d never felt happier to be a member of my own Judeo-Christian faith community.

Today, more Seventh-day Adventists keep the Sabbath than any other group in the world, including Jews. We have the true privilege of being the torch bearers of Sabbath rest as a symbol of our salvation rest in Christ.

But as Judeo-Christians it’s important that we represent the Sabbath in a balanced and scriptural way.

Sometimes in our zeal we’ve gone too far in emphasizing Sabbath rather than emphasizing Christ. After all, consider which of the following prayers you hear most often in our churches: (1) Thank you, God, for the Sabbath, or (2) Thank you, God, for Jesus.

We’ve also at times gone overboard in criticizing other Christian believers for “Sunday worship” when in reality they are simply worshipping Christ on Sunday. There is nothing wrong—and everything right—in worshipping Christ every day of the week. In fact, a bigger problem someone who worships only on Sabbath and lives in Babylon the rest of the week.

At its heart, the Sabbath commandment is about resting from our labors—about resting in Christ Our Savior, who alone restores our souls.

–Andy Nash is lead pastor of Littleton Adventist Church. He leads study tours to Israel each summer. Email him at: [email protected]

29 Mar

IS CHANGE GOOD FOR THE CHURCH?

By Denis Fortin … Should a church change over time?

In 1995, George Knight published a book whose title caught attention—The Fat Lady and the Kingdom. It was obviously not politically correct, nor very considerate, but the point was made, nonetheless.

Could a big, institutional church still claim to fulfill the mission of the kingdom of God? The title indirectly pointed to the fact that our church has changed over the years. We have become “fat” with the excess weight of institutionalism.

Knight’s book was a collection of ten articles or presentations he had done in the five or so years before its publication. All had to do with Adventist identity and relevance. Sensing the church was at a crossroads, 150 years since the Great Disappointment (in 1844), the book sought to address many current issues and offered some suggestions. The book sought to open up some possibilities as Adventists contemplated an uncertain future.

The book was published 26 years ago, but I find its evaluation of the institutional church still relevant and its message still daunting. The implied critique of church institutionalism in the title was deliberate. Have we become too big to fulfill the mission of the kingdom of God? Can a big institution remain committed to the ideals and motivations of earlier generations, of those who dreamed and built the movement? Does a big church become too focused on perpetuating itself? Knight feared that this was a very real threat in the mid-1990s.

What about now? Is this still a threat today?

Of all institutions in modern society, churches are among the most resistant to change. The impulse to remain faithful to tradition is very strong. In fact, it is almost impossible to resist this impulse. “Faith of our Fathers! Holy Faith! We will be true to thee till death,” sings the familiar hymn.

One threat in particular is the church as an institution, the way it functions, how it follows a predictable routine of procedures, practices, and methods. Think about your local church and your local conference. How predictable are their monthly and annual schedules of board meetings, retreats, camp meetings, youth meetings, budget planning, etc., etc. Any good elders, pastors, and conference administrators have their calendars filled many months in advance with meetings, official committees, and assemblies. Each of these events requires planning and preparation. Our church is a well-lubricated institution with anticipated timelines.

While a well-functioning organization is certainly a blessing of God and an evidence of the guidance of the Holy Spirit, here lies the main concern as well. The institution does not really need much divine intervention any more to run smoothly. Someone has said that if the Holy Spirit were to be withdrawn from most of our churches, 95 percent of what we do would go on and no one would know the difference.

In one of his chapters, Knight introduced a model of church institutionalism borrowed from David Moberg, a sociologist who studied the church as a social institution in America. After studying the life of many churches, Moberg offered a theory of the life cycle for a church divided into five stages. Knight used this model and compared it to our church. The findings were candid and alarming.

Moberg’s life cycle of a church begins with Stage One, the incipient organization. This is the stage when a religious group starts its experiment and emerges on the religious scene. The excitement is palpable, and people join this new movement with much enthusiasm and fervor. It has a clear mission, shapes its beliefs, affirms some standard of membership. According to Knight, this first stage is easily recognizable in the first twenty years of the Seventh-day Adventist movement, from 1844 to the formation of the General Conference in 1863.

The second stage of this life cycle is the formal organization stage. At this stage in the life of a church, its leaders formulate their goals to attract new members and develop their beliefs to preserve and propagate what they see as orthodoxy. The group begins to develop its own symbols and rituals. Their lifestyle and behavior make them stand out from the surrounding society. They may even establish some parallel institutions like schools and hospitals. Again, this stage is easily recognizable, according to Knight, in the period of 1863 to about 1901 in the Adventist church. We honed our conference and General Conference governance system. We established colleges, sanitariums, publishing houses, and all kinds of societies to accomplish our God-inspired mission.

Stage Three is maximum efficiency. The church organization has become more efficient, and leaders are successful managers. All the various parts of the institution make progress, growth by good management is easily observable, and statistics show progress. The mood is upbeat, and the sky is the limit. For Knight, the Seventh-day Adventist church reached this stage between 1901 and about 1960. This was the “full-steam-ahead period” when we established a presence and duplicated our parallel institutions in dozens of countries.

By the time a church organization reaches Stage Four, it is well into formal institutionalism. A kind of bureaucracy has been well established, and leaders are more concerned with guarding their own interests than maintaining the earlier dynamic intentions of stages one and two. Stability and continuity are primary, not upsetting the apple cart. Whatever worked in the past and works now is not to be tampered with. Knight believes that our church reached that stage sometime in the 1960s. If a church enters that stage it has two options. Either it stems the tide of bureaucracy and institutionalism by doing some radical reorientation of its objectives, structures, procedures and policies and somehow goes back closer in time to stage three, or it nonchalantly edges its steps toward the last stage. This is the crucial moment and perhaps a point of no return.

The fifth stage is the disintegration stage. The over institutionalism, formalism and bureaucracy produce the unintended indifference to the needs of its members—the institution matters more than the people. This situation causes people to lose confidence in the church. People leave the church. For those who stay, there is often a lack of wholehearted commitment. The denomination will continue with career leaders with vested interests and with a membership admiring the good old days. Knight believed that back in 1995, some geographical areas of our church had already reached this stage.

Moberg’s study and Knight’s essay point to one constant factor: whether we like it or not, all churches—whether at the local congregation or the denominational level—change over time. As a church ages, its leadership and processes are routinized and bureaucratic structures increase. Structures or programs put in place to address a problem are kept in place even after the problem is solved or is no longer an issue. As time goes, the number of needless structures increases and over time they themselves become a problem. The over institutionalism and formalism of a church may be the causes of its disintegration (Stage Five). In some ways, this is an “institutional disease.”

Back in 1995, Knight said, “Nearly everyone seems to agree that radical administrative and institutional reorganization, consolidation, and reform are imperative, but few appear to be willing to put their best judgments into action. The result is that a great deal of money and effort is expended in defending the existence of the status quo when these resources might better be used to develop new structures and methodologies to reach the movement’s original goals.”

In reality, the level of institutionalism we have reached in 2021 is an indication of our success, but it can also be an indication of secularization, of routinization, of no longer really needing the Holy Spirit to function smoothly.

Can we stem the problems inherent in an aging church? Yes, certainly. While a church may naturally follow a pattern of unperceived changes over the years and not realize that it is progressing from Stage One to Stage Four and inching toward Stage Five, to reverse this trend, a church has to consciously become proactive to change this pattern if it wants to remain relevant to the original mission of the kingdom of God. It requires leaders, lay and church-employed, who are willing to evaluate constantly and critically a church’s goals and to bring church structures and programs into line with these goals. But this suggestion, in itself, almost sounds too institutional, too mechanical, too management-by-objectives.

The underlying point though is that a church that does not change and adapt to new cultures and environments will become likely irrelevant. And the reverse is just as possible. A church may become focused only on itself rather than on a world to save.

The greatest need of the institutional church will always be to depend on the guidance of the Holy Spirit and sense the direction He is taking the church. To be open and sensitive to this guidance is the best solution.

— Denis Fortin, PhD, is professor of historical theology and former dean of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary of Andrews University. He serves also as teaching pastor of the One Place Fellowship on the campus of Andrews University. Email him at: [email protected]