29 Mar

SEVENTH-DAY ADVENTISM, PILGRIMAGE, AND CHANGE

By John Skrzypaszek … The global chain of political, social, environmental, and technological changes encompasses contemporary life with an encumbrance of an unexpected set of anxieties that cast a confusing shadow over the quality and purpose of life and its meaning. In response to the plethora of mounting pressures imposed on life’s journey, Adam Fenner writes, in Ministry magazine, that the Seventh-day Adventist Church faces a serious task to maintain the relevance of its doctrinal expressions in its mission to the world. Errol Webster identifies the confronting reality by asking, “If knowing doctrines does not sustain members during personal crises or fortify them against secularism, is there something missing from our teaching?” He identifies two essential elements in the existing quandary: members’ struggles in spiritual life and the lack of Christ-centered teaching of doctrines.

In his thought-provoking book, The Safest Place on Earth, Larry Crabb highlights the existing dilemma’s core, arguing, “For too long, we’ve been encouraged by a solution-focused, make-it-work culture to flee to human mountains when life gets tough. . . . We’ve been counseled, medicated, religiously entertained and inspired, exhorted, distracted and formula directed long enough.” In his view, the reactive solution-seeking response to the human heart’s needs leads to a lost focus on spiritual living. Is it possible to entertain the notion that a clear, logically presented exposition of propositional truth flowered with the prophetic interpretation of events descends into the domain of solution-focused Christian activity? What needs to change to make it known that our conversations do not flow from an isolated dais of doctrinal superiority, but rather come from Christ?

The Heart of the Pilgrimage

Based on sound theological foundations, the Seventh-day Adventist identity story began with a journey, a spiritual pilgrimage with a new and revived focus on Jesus. In the prevailing climate of the Great Disappointment, a time of spiritual and doctrinal confusion, God raised a prophetic voice to provide comfort, encouragement and aide-mémoire of His return. Essentially, Ellen White’s prophetic voice inspired the movement to “fix their eyes on Jesus.”

Her influence emerged at a critical phase during the journey. David Sterling refers to such moments in history in terms of unexpected surprise, “when the blackness of the present is understood to be so thick that God’s purposes can neither be perceived nor fulfilled without a new direct intervention in both revelation and salvation.” It energized the early Sabbatarian Adventists with open-minded plasticity, prodding them to study the Bible dynamically and apply the unfolding beliefs to life’s journey. By 1860, the process had raised the movement’s foundational theological framework, and the name Seventh-day Adventist had been adopted.

The discovered beliefs referred to as the “present truth” were not locked into a set of propositional assertions detached from the spiritual dimension of lived experience. Consequently, the selected name encompassed the spiritual component of faith expressed in doctrinal position, i.e., the faith-oriented depth of spiritual experiences weaved a renewed measure of relationally oriented trust in God’s presence into Adventists’ beliefs. According to Marjorie Thompson, “the spiritual life is grounded in a relationship. It has to do with God’s way of relating to us, and our way of responding to God.” Furthermore, it embodies “a deep hunger for direct experience with God, rather than second-hand faith,” a yearning for personal faith to “catch fire.”

John McClean discusses the close-knit relationship between spirituality, theology and its application to life’s experience. He explains theology as part of the lived experience and asserts that it engages with drama. Moreover, the lived experience calls on “theology to step into the drama” to shape a dynamic, inspirational motivation towards a progressive understanding of God’s revelation through Jesus (John 17: 3). Nevertheless, he forewarns, “A Christian theology that is true to its apocalyptic roots will resist the temptation to offer a neat, static, providential system that explains and justifies the world.” Instead, it calls on followers to “take into a serious account the hiddenness of God’s hand in the world that we see.”

The hiddenness of God or, as these brief reflections suggest, the mystery of God breeds a new awakening and drive to rediscover a clear understanding of the hope imbedded in God’s solutions—the Jesus story. In the named space, all doctrinal expressions flow from the depth of spiritual frustrations, struggles, doubts and often God’s silence—the pathway of human struggles to know and understand God—a pathway that also unfolds the meaning and purpose of life designed by God.

In the spiritual journey’s milieu, the work and function of the prophetic voice and the prophetic movement move beyond the boundaries of informative propositional expression of doctrines. Walter Brueggemann defines it as the responsibility to “nurture, nourish and to evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perceptions of the dominant culture around us.” He further maintains that the alternative consciousness function serves to energize persons and communities with a visionary, inspirational “anticipation that God has promised and will surely give.” It refrains from telling people what to believe in, how to believe and what to do. Rather, the depth of such a prophetic worldview invites all to step into the realm of God’s space—a space of alternative consciousness, the kingdom of God’s grace, for a transformational experience with Jesus.

The Call for Change

The movement’s evolving journey encountered the pressures exerted by the “consciousness” of the changing world. The organizational structure’s escalating expansion, theological debates and arguments, confining the distinctiveness of Seventh-day Adventist beliefs and fundamentalism’s augmenting influence, effaced the movement’s focus on the spiritual nature of its calling.

Defining the fixed application of doctrinal beliefs, Børge Schantz observes that between 1874 and 1889, the Seventh-day Adventists approved other missionary societies to lead people to Christ. However, the Adventists were “committed to bring them to the last warning” [the distinctively Adventist doctrines]. Consequently, the emerged struggles associated with understanding the depth of spiritual experience through the lens of righteousness by faith (1882-1888) prompted Ellen White to issue a warning: “The correct interpretation of the Scripture is not all that God requires. . . . We are to bring into our practice, in our association with our fellowmen, the spirit of Him who gave us the truth.”

Space does not permit a detailed analysis of the lost focus on spiritual authenticity, but during the entire period, Ellen White’s voice immersed doctrinal beliefs into the inspirational Jesus’ story: “Every true doctrine makes Christ the center; every precept receives force from his Word.” She revived an undivided commitment to the authority of God’s Word, not for the sake of argumentative disputes, but for an in-depth experience with Jesus. She called for a change built on an alternative consciousness to the surrounding consciousness of her time—a consciousness of implicit trust and confidence in God’s presence: “Everyone needs to have a personal experience in obtaining a knowledge of the will of God. We must in dividually hear Him speaking to the heart.”

In the space of the spiritual attachment to Jesus, she called for renewal of the dynamic open-minded creativity towards a progressive understanding of the Bible and openness to a deeper application of God’s revelation in Jesus to life’s journey. She warned: “There is no excuse for anyone in taking the position that there is no more truth to be revealed, and that all our expositions of Scripture are without an error.” Her call for change encompassed a call for a renewed focus on Jesus imbedded in the gospel’s story. It summoned the movement to present faith’s sincerity and authenticity by transcribing doctrinal beliefs into an authentic theology in practice.

A Contemporary Call for Change

As outlined in the introductory paragraph, the contemporary Seventh-day Adventist movement faces an ongoing challenge to retain a meaningful voice amid the changing world’s complexities. The inherited shift from the seekers of truth to established beliefs’ defenders initiated a disengaging insensitivity to the value of a transformational journey with God.

The call for relevance challenges the movement to recapture the seeker’s pioneering spirit—comprising passion, zeal and commitment to innovative creativity to explore new territories in the journey of faith. It further calls on the movement to step into the domain of human suffering and remain in a state of continual interaction with the changing nature of the social and cultural environment, sharing contemporary beliefs immersed in a Christ-focused theological practice.

–John Skrzypaszek, DMin, has recently retired as the director of the Ellen White/Seventh-day Adventist Research Centre, and is a lecturer at Avondale University College, Cooranbong, NSW, Australia. Polish by birth, John takes a keen interest in heritage, spirituality, and identity studies. He is married to Brenda and has two sons, Raphael and Luke. Email him at: [email protected]

 

Suggested Reading

The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann.

Theology and the Future: Evangelical Assertions and Explorations by Trevor Cairney and David Starling (Eds.).

The Safest Place on Earth Where People Connect and Are Forever Changed by Larry Crabb.

Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life by Marjorie J. Thompson.

Desire of Ages by Ellen White.

Education by Ellen White.

Testimonies for the Church Volume 1 by Ellen White.

29 Mar

THOSE SERMONS WITHOUT ANGELS

By Nathan Brown … I’ve seen a few of these social media posts recently: earnest church members expressing their “concern” or disappointment that Adventist pastors aren’t preaching like they used to. Too many sermons these days—so the complaint goes—are “merely” about Jesus or the gospel or love or caring for others. These are sermons that you could hear in any “other” church—it is assumed—rather than the “real” Adventist preaching of prophecy and preparedness. Whether a criticism of a particular pastor or local church or the perception of a larger trend, in the minds of these concerned critics, Adventist preaching has lost its edge.

At the other end of the church, the three angels of Revelation 14 are back in focus, if they ever weren’t. The General Conference has voted that the Three Angels’ Messages will be the worldwide church’s theme for emphasis, study, and evangelism in the current quinquennium. Resources are being developed, books written, logos designed. Away from church headquarters, a plethora of independent ministries seem to compete to be the most Three-Angel-y; thus, the most “Adventist” and most worthy of your donations.

But this continuing attention on the Three Angels raises questions about whether we risk a preoccupation with the angels themselves, as some kind of shorthand, slogan or logo, rather than the messages that they and we are called to share. And perhaps if we understood these messages more deeply, we would come to recognize and hear them more commonly, even in supposedly mundane sermons and everyday faithfulness.

The Angels Are Not the Message

The ideal delivery system is one that we don’t notice. If we are noticing the system, it is likely that there is a problem. When I am in my office, reading and sending many emails each day, I am thinking about what I am writing, not the functions of the email software or the hardware of our internet servers—unless these systems stop working.

Throughout the Bible story, one of God’s key messaging systems has been angel delivery. As dramatic as this tends to be, the risk is that the appearance of the messenger tends to overwhelm the recipients, which is why so many angelic messages begin with, “Do not be afraid.” The natural human reaction can get in the way of good communication. Yet the angel would be the first to urge that they themselves are only the messenger, not the message.

Similarly, proclaiming, sharing and living the messages of the Three Angels do not always require a scripture reading of Revelation 14:6–14, an explanation or depiction of the angels, or a stylized triple-angel logo. It isn’t that the angels are unimportant, but they are not the message. There’s a place for that specific Bible study, but read the messages again . . . Wherever the gospel is shared, whenever diverse people are invited, welcomed and included; when the created goodness of our world is affirmed, protected and celebrated; when the injustice, oppression and the systemic evils in our world are condemned and undermined; wherever people are called to live differently and better; whenever we anticipate and imagine a world in which evil will be undone and creation restored, the messages of the angels are shouted again.

The Messages Are Good News

When reading the Bible through, by the time we get to page 1031 (in my Bible), the key messages of the angels are not new. These messages are a summary of the good news of God’s intentions for our world, including His plan to remove evil and restore us and our world to what they were always meant to be. Revelation 14 has an added element of end-time urgency, but even the warnings of judgment against the fallen systems of this world and those who profit from them or are deceived by them are themes that have been growing across the breadth of scripture.

The earliest Hebrew prophets were insistent that a day would come to destroy wickedness and those who have refused to give it up. That our world is broken and fallen is not news to anyone paying attention. But the real news is that a different story, a different ending, and a different way of living is possible—and necessary.

This is what makes the good news “good.” For us and for all who choose, the world as it is does not have to be this way. The “eternal Good News” is that God offers a choice, an alternative, that “everyone who believes in Him will not perish” (John 3:16*). The content of the messages of the angels is an expansion and specific application of this good news, expanded beyond all human prejudices to include everyone and applied in a final warning to and demarcation of those who insist on evil.

Such judgment is a two-sided equation. Judgment can be for or against. For those who suffer injustice, judgment means liberation and restoration. For those who benefit from injustice or just don’t care, judgment is a grave danger. God’s announcement of the liberation of the slaves in Exodus sounds very different if one is a Hebrew or an Egyptian, a slave or an oppressor.

So how do we live in expectation of such judgment? Jesus’ answer was given in the second half of His end-time sermon in Matthew 25. Wherever we live and act with hope, anticipation, faithfulness, and compassion, we respond to and enact the messages of these angels. When we begin to see with God’s eyes and work for greater justice and mercy in our world, we are doing the work the angels have urged us to do. And whenever we worship the God who promises ultimate justice and restoration, we answer their call.

A Sermon Without Angels

As such, these messages are heard and repeated in a million ways. The angels are part of the picture, but they are not the point. In fact, the angels might be a distraction. Not that I have anything against angels but in a world where stories of angels are often misunderstood or dismissed, there might be better ways to share their messages. We don’t need to quote the angels to sound their call.

And within our community of faith, we need to be careful about mistaking the Bible study for the application or the invitation. One could be suspicious that Paul was writing to a particular faith community that understood itself as repeating the shouts of the angels and aspired to a superior understanding of the Bible’s prophecies: “If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, . . . but didn’t love others, I would be nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1, 2).

It can be helpful for us to understand our faith with the picture of angels flying with an urgent message. But Paul would caution that the loudest proclamations are not always most faithful. We live and share this understanding most fully when we love our neighbors, our communities, even our enemies and those who might persecute us, and even if at great cost and self-sacrifice. Without that, we are only making more noise in an already noisy world.

Often the strongest invitation is given quietly. The most faithful sermons are not always the most dramatic, sensational or complicated. The best story we tell is always the story of Jesus. And the best witness probably doesn’t have a logo.

Rather, love is our edge, the thing that makes our faith real and unique, the thing that will set all our preaching, sharing and serving apart. That is the most Adventist-y thing we can be looking for and living out. That is the worship that most honors our Creator God and all those who are equally created in His image, with whom we are firstly recipients of the angels’ call.

So those humdrum gospel sermons that are “merely” about Jesus suddenly take on a fresh urgency. These preachers are speaking in tune with the angels if they are again reminding us of the story of Jesus, the grace and love of God, and urging us again to surrender our lives to His invitation to follow Him with all our lives. Even in the most “unprecedented” of times, the most important thing any of us can say to the world is to insist that God is good, that we can see this still in the now-broken world that He has made, and that we can see and accept it most fully in the story of Jesus. This is the best, everlasting and ever-new Good News that we offer to our world.

–Nathan Brown is a writer and editor at Signs Publishing in Warburton, Victoria, Australia. Nathan is co-host of a new podcast series called “Moe and Nathan Go to School” as part of the Adventist Peace Radio podcast: http://www.adventistpeace.org/podcast. Email him at: [email protected] signspublishing.com.au

* Bible quotations are from the New Living Translation.

29 Mar

WE NEED A FRIEND NOT AN ENEMY

By Reinder Bruinsma … Some twenty years ago, I attended a meeting in Miami about evangelistic strategies organized by the leaders of the Inter-American Division. In most countries in that part of the world, the majority of the population belongs to the Roman Catholic Church. To my surprise, one of the top leaders of that division appealed to the participants to be much less aggressive in their attempts to “convert” Roman Catholics to Adventism. He argued that by constantly criticizing the leaders of the Catholic Church in the evangelistic programs, we lay the basis for, or reinforce, a critical attitude, which the new members are likely to maintain once they have joined the Adventist denomination.

I doubt whether this strong advice led to any major change because many of the evangelists in Inter-America and elsewhere continue to use confrontational tactics to get the attention of their audience. This may well contribute to the unfortunate reality that for many Adventists the ideal of defending the Truth implies aggressively confronting “the enemy,” who supposedly is bent on destroying God’s Truth and will, ultimately, fiercely attack those who have accepted and defend that Truth. In traditional Adventist thinking, the enemy is first and foremost found in the Roman Catholic tradition, but also in other Christian movements that have adopted some of the Catholic dogmas—Sunday keeping being, of course, paramount among these.

Where Did This Come From?

Not all Adventists think alike. Some feel that the time has come to end all bashing of other Christians, Catholics included. Others believe that protecting our Seventh-day Adventist identity, as the commandment-keeping remnant church, requires that we carefully maintain our traditional stance. No doubt, this discussion will continue, but it may be useful for a better understanding of the issue if we look at its historical context.

To say that early Adventism was rather combative in character would be a strong understatement. Admittedly, nineteenth century Adventists needed to be combative in the world in which they lived. The denomination began when a number of small groups of (mainly) former Millerite believers started to hold meetings, studied their Bibles and gradually reached consensus about a number of biblical truths that the members of other denominations regarded as totally unfounded or even as horrible heresy. During the first decades of their emerging movement Adventists were usually viewed as weird and not as bona fide Christians. In particular, their conviction that God wanted them to keep the seventh-day Sabbath rather than Sunday—which they denounced as a “popish” invention—created a lot of opposition.

As the nineteenth century progressed, a strong movement emerged that wanted to make America “a Christian nation.” One key element in this process would be legally enforced Sunday worship. As a result, several states enacted “blue” laws that made Sunday keeping obligatory. As this occurred, in several places Seventh-day Adventist were fined or even incarcerated for disobeying these laws. Ever since, there have been attempts from various political and religious groups in the United States (and in some places in Europe) to enforce Sunday keeping. And ever since, Adventists have feared that one day these tenacious attempts will succeed and make life for Sabbath keepers very uncomfortable indeed.

The Influx of Millions of Catholics

Also, as the years went by, the growing strength of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States was seen as an immense threat. Originally the United States was staunchly Protestant. From a mere 50,000 Catholic believers in 1800, they had increased to 200,000 by 1820 and 2 million by 1860. And by the turn of the century, the number of American Catholics stood at 12 million (in a total population of 76 million). No wonder this created a lot of uneasiness. Moreover, it was widely believed that some countries exported their most undesirable citizens. Also, the newly arrived immigrants were often prepared to work for lower wages and this was considered unfair competition on the labor market. But what was perhaps even more important: people feared that the ultimate loyalty of these Roman Catholic newcomers would be to the pope rather than to American democracy. Perhaps the anti-Catholic sentiment of that time among Protestants in general, and Adventists in particular, can be compared to the resistance of many people of Western countries today to the arrival of large numbers of Muslims.

As the nineteenth century changed into the twentieth century, most of the strongly anti-Catholic sentiment among Protestants had gradually disappeared. But not so among Seventh-day Adventists. Their prophet—Ellen G. White—had developed a five-volume series of books about the conflict between good and evil. The books covered the Bible times, while also sketching the story throughout the Christian era. In her depiction of the history of Christianity, Ellen White vividly described the high points of faith and commitment and the low points of moral decay, the unbiblical notions and rebellion against God. As we look back and try to see her work in the context of the time in which she lived and wrote, we easily understand how for her—in her context—the Roman Catholic Church became the culprit par excellence. Her book The Great Controversy, which appeared in its more or less definite form in 1888, did not, however, significantly differ in its criticism of Catholicism from that of many other contemporary Protestant authors.

Ellen G. White was part of a nineteenth-century Protestant American environment, which differed greatly from our present globalized, multi-religious and multi- cultural world. Quite naturally, she saw Roman Catholicism as an ever-growing menace. It should also be noted that her thinking, in line with the attitude of most of her contemporaries, was almost exclusively focused on what happened in the United States and in Europe. She had very little to say about spiritual developments in other parts of the world or about the non-Christian world religions. In all her printed works one can only find a handful of references to Islam!

The Great Controversy Theme Is as Valid As Ever

What does this mean for Seventh-day Adventists in 2021? Does this mean that all traditional Adventist criticism of Roman Catholic dogma and Catholic history must be forgotten? And do I want to suggest that Ellen White’s The Great Controversy has totally lost its value? Certainly not. The fundamental theme of The Great Controversy between Christ and Satan is, and remains, a fundamental aspect of Adventist theology and of its perspective on past, present and future. However, we must try to discover how the principles of this basic philosophy apply to our current situation.

Looking with twenty-first century eyes at Ellen White’s The Great Controversy, we may wonder whether she might have changed her appraisal of Roman Catholicism if she were still alive today. In fact, already during her life, with her express approval, the anti-Catholic rhetoric of her book was toned down, as the 1911 edition shows. But, apart from this, just as the Bible needs to be interpreted to make sense for us who live so many centuries later, this is also required when we read the works of Ellen White. The trouble is that we may find this rather self-evident when we read the Bible, but many forget that this principle also applies to our reading of Ellen White. When I read in the Ten Commandments that I should not “covet” my neighbor’s donkey, I understand that, for me, that means that I should not look with jealousy at my neighbor’s Jaguar. And, even though some Bible texts clearly condone slavery, we do not take this as a recommendation for us but fit this into the biblical context.

The “great controversy” is still a very relevant theme, but in our time, it may play out in a way that differs substantially from what Ellen White and her contemporaries experienced and then extrapolated into the future. An important part of their future expectations was the prediction that Sunday laws would soon be enacted on a global scale. Today, there are still many church members who expect that a coalition of Catholics and (especially American) politicians will use some, as yet unforeseen, opportunity to put these Sunday laws into effect. This will then, it is argued, be the beginning of a series of actions which will eventually make life unbearable for Sabbath keepers, culminating in terrible persecution and even a “death decree.”

It has often been said that it is difficult to make predictions, especially when they concern the future. This certainly also applies to this matter of Sunday laws. Global enforcement of such laws might have been a credible future panorama, but as we look at currents in our contemporary society, this looks highly unlikely. All around us we notice that interest in a weekly day of rest and worship has been waning, with no signs that this trend will be reversed.

We must come to terms with the undeniable fact that the Western world is no longer dominated by Catholics who are bent on destroying Protestants—and especially Seventh-day Adventists. Today, the main threat to the Adventist Church does not come from other Christians, but from the rampant secularism that has pushed God to the margins of our society, while non-Christian religions and sheer paganism are constantly gaining territory. Let us remember that in plotting the prophetic scenario we have often been overtaken by actual events in the world. It remains to be seen how the great controversy will eventually take shape.

Hope

Finally, our Adventist hope cannot be based on a triumphant conviction that we belong to a movement which claims loyal adherence to biblical truth, over and against all those who are part of the machinery of the arch-enemy. Our hope is based on Jesus Christ, who has already defeated the enemy for us. In following Him, we must not be propelled by aggressive combativeness against what we consider false teachings, but by love for our Lord and for all people around us, without regard to their religious persuasion. After all, although we hope that many will feel attracted to our faith community, our ultimate mission is to “win” them not for our church but for Christ! They need a Friend, not an enemy.

— Reinder Bruinsma, PhD, has served the Seventh-day Adventist Church in publishing, education, and church administration on three continents. He writes from the Netherlands where he lives with his wife, Aafie. Among is latest books is “I Have a Future: Christ’s Resurrection and Mine. Email him at: [email protected]

29 Mar

ADVENTISM AND CHANGE?

By Tim Gillespie … Strange bedfellows. I’ve always been a bit amused at that idiom. What makes for strange bedfellows? Peanut butter and pickle sandwiches. Razzleberry pie and chocolate mint chip ice cream. Adventism and change. What these three things have in common is that they are strange bedfellows. They seem disparate, but when tried together, phenomenal things can and do happen.

The last one, Adventism and change, seems to be a sticky Gillespie wicket at times. Adventism has had a difficult time with change, which is strange, as we are products of significant changes, pivots, and even mistakes that informed our early church trajectory. For a group of people who believe so strongly that God still speaks and moves, who are known for our understanding of Present Truth, we are a strangely immovable group of believers. We seem to believe in the Grand Canyon kind of change—slow and slower—rather than an earthquake that can change whole landscapes at once.

Now, I know that people don’t like it when someone who is seen as a bit more progressive is discovered being critical of the church. There is a sense of disloyalty that is inferred, although not attributed to those who might be considered more “conservative.” However, if I may, I would pose a simple question: What are you trying to conserve? Trying to conserve the very heart of the Seventh-day Adventist church—Jesus—is the most conservative stand you can take.

But I digress—back to the task at hand. The strange bedfellows of Adventism and change is really a matter of us becoming disconnected with the elemental tendency of the early Adventist pioneers, who were willing to go where God was leading, regardless of the cost. As we re-engage those traditional muscles, we will see that change is something that we embrace, and not something that we fear. But it does beg the question, “What needs to change in Adventism?”

I would posit that there are a few things that need to change in any organization to keep it functioning in today’s world, and Adventism is no different.

Processes

Adventism is stuck with a collection of processes that are no longer efficient in today’s world. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that travel budgets for executives, the need for huge brick-and-mortar headquarters, and over-staffing are simply not needed. If we are looking for the world to change back to what it was before our Covid-imposed isolation and work-from-home practices, we will simply go back to processes that were expensive, inefficient, and ineffective. It is time for us to embrace a change toward minimalism in administration and bureaucracy in order to more profoundly fund and execute the local work of the gospel.

Evangelism

We have to take stock of what this word even means. “Evangelism” is nothing more than the orientation of the hearts of each our congregants. As we have handed over the work of evangelism to “professional” evangelists, we have taken away the blessing of sharing the gospel from our congregants. This is not only a tragedy, but has changed the nature of what our churches seek to be. A church that is interested in sharing the gospel will be more loving, caring, outreach oriented, and inclusive. As our churches have experienced mission drift, they have become more and more exclusive, catering to those already a part of the community, and unrecognizable as outposts for evangelism in our communities. We pay for “experts” to share the gospel with our friends and neighbors, and we diminish our own responsibility and joy at sharing the grace of Jesus Christ with them. This investment in our resources would be better spent with updating facilities, seeking younger and more vibrant ministers and their education, and allowing the local church to do the work for which it was incepted, be the Kingdom of God in a particular place for a particular people.

Excellence

Over the years there seems to have been a lowering of the bar when it comes to how our churches do the work. We have become complacent and willing to accept “good enough.” This comes from a scarcity mentality that misunderstands that our resources are not simply handouts that come from the trickle-down economy of the world church, nor are they gifts we have to beg out of our congregations. They are the blessing of God’s abundance in the world and for His work through our communities and congregations. Psalm 50 tells us that God owns the cattle on a thousand hills. If this is true, why do we allow ourselves to work in human scarcity? While I do agree the church needs considerable reorganization, I also believe that even within our system, we can do great things with what God has in store for us from His storehouses, not from the storehouses we have built up. Case in point: Crosswalk, the church I am blessed to serve, had more than 500 new givers in this Covid year. We expected to not only run lean, but at a deficit. However, God provided. We all need to live in the reality of the abundance that God has continually created in the world; but this also means we have to work with a sense of excellence and hold our congregations up to this same standard.

Reimagining Our Identity

I know this is hard for some, but we need to do a deep dive on what Adventists truly are. We have been involved in an identity crisis for some time, allowing the most fringe elements within our faith to become normalized and be seen as reasonable. We have followed the world in that we allow those who can create the largest megaphone not only a seat at the table but to also order for us. Just because a ministry becomes popular does not mean it should influence policy and culture. I am saddened that our church has followed the world when it comes to popularity of certain pastors and ministries and has allowed them undue influence on the very identity we hold as Adventists. Every church member decides every day what an Adventist is. The way they express the gospel in their lives, homes, businesses, and churches defines Adventism for their circle of influence.

We could continue this list ad nauseam, or we could pick apart each and every aspect of our lives in Adventism. However, what I think we need more than anything is a hard look into what makes us us. What are those pillars that define who we are? This question goes far beyond simple fundamental statements. It speaks to the totality of who we are, how we experience life, and how we can rediscover the elemental impulse of Adventism, which has to be that clarion call of “God with us.” In its earliest inception, those early pioneers were fascinated and held captive to the idea that Jesus wanted to be with his people. While in their excitement, it led them down some paths that were not necessarily efficacious (i.e., The Great Disappointment.), it was the guiding principle they clung to.

Jesus with us.

This relational and high Christology has to be rediscovered, reimagined, and re-implemented in order for us to have a clear way forward. And this is not something that should or can happen from simply the right messaging or from a new program or motto. Rather, it comes from the conviction of every heart that identifies itself as Adventist and then goes about living in such a way that others know God is indeed with us. Jesus has to be both the center and circumference of our faith, the message and the messenger. Without an assent to this kind of expression of Adventism, I fear we will re-engage in the previous trajectory we had as a people of faith.

Now, perhaps where we were was where you were comfortable. It is possible that many don’t see any need for change at all. If that is the case, then the previous words of this article will cause you consternation. It will cause you anxiety that something you have become very comfortable with is being pulled from you. I can understand that sentiment, but I can’t retract what I have come to believe is the truth for our future. Now, I would much rather have Jesus come so that we don’t have to see who is right, but if He decides to delay a bit more, then what is the trajectory for our tradition? What is the hope of how we will continue to grow the kingdom of God?

If we are Christians, then we have nothing to fear from a deeper identity with Christ, a deeper expression of His love and grace for us, and a greater explanation of the gospel into the world. In fact, with Christ, we embrace the changes that are coming with joy and not fear, as the perfect love of Christ will always cast out any fear that we have. What have we got to lose by change? Perhaps everything we have built; but we can never lose what Christ has built, as that is everlasting.

Adventism and change? They shouldn’t be strange bedfellows; they should be best friends.

–Dr. Tim Gillespie is lead pastor of Crosswalk Church in Redlands, California. Email him at: [email protected]

29 Mar

ADVENTISM AND THE NEED FOR CHANGE

By Ed Barnett … There is an old trick I have shared with pastors on several occasions that is really very simple. I first heard it from Robert S. Folkenberg, our former General Conference President. The pastor gives everyone in attendance a small piece of paper and asks them to write their age. When the deacons pick the papers up, they add the numbers together and divide it by the number of individuals who filled them out to find the average age of the church. If this is done every year, within a few years, it will become evident whether your church is growing younger or older.

Across the North American Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the population is rapidly aging, a real concern for me and it ought to be for you as well. I don’t believe we are drawing young people into our churches today. Even our pastoral leadership across this division is aging. When I visit rural churches in RMC and look around the congregation, I realize I am often the youngest one there! Unless there is a miracle, their days as congregations are numbered.

Has the church lost its zeal and its first love? Are our young people frustrated with the church? Is it because of the bickering taking place in the church? Are they frustrated they are rarely offered a place at the table when it comes to making decisions for the local church or the church in general? Do we need to dust off some of the things we have typically done for the last hundred years?

Perhaps the piece that bothers all of our people, especially our young, is the lack of genuine love for one another in our faith communities. It should be obvious that as Seventh-day Adventist Christians, we ought to be the kindest and most loving people in our communities. But is that really what we are in our churches? Are we a testimony for Jesus?

On January 6, 2021, when the U.S. Capitol was attacked by a mob, I was bothered by seeing a person holding a sign that said “John 3:16.” We all know that verse. When I saw that, I cringed. I was thinking, “So this is supposed Christians using a Bible verse claiming God’s great love to the world and yet here they are attacking our nation’s Capitol, looting and desecrating one of our country’s greatest symbols and all in the name of God?”

Reflecting on the events of January 6, I wonder if this is how our young people see our church today? Do they see “us” carrying placards pointing to John 3:16 and hear us saying we ought to love like Jesus? And then, come to church and question why they don’t feel that love? Where is the love? Why do we instead hear gossiping and see the back-stabbing?

Our young people may be asking questions, “Why won’t they let me take part in the life of our faith community?” Why do we do church the same way every week, year after year? Young people don’t want to play church. They want an authentic and transparent experience. They want it to be meaningful and life changing, not only for them, but for the rest of the church family as well.

In the last year, so many of the norms of life have changed, a very discouraging fact that drains us all. Yet, one thing we noticed that has surprised us was how quickly our churches and schools closed. Some naively thought the only way that would ever happen was when the Sunday laws came. Hopefully, this has been a wakeup call. Be careful not to go by a list of things that you think must happen in a certain sequence before Jesus can come. Perhaps we need to enhance our Bible study and be willing to listen to the Holy Spirit as we consider the end of time on this old planet.

We need to shake off the cobwebs and realize the church has to change to keep up with the times. For starters, we must be a draw for our own young people and those in our community who are looking for answers to the crazy world we live in. We need to dust off the furniture and make it look new again and inviting!

Jesus is coming soon! He wants the church to be reaching out with a last-day message of hope and love to the world around us.

–Ed Barnett is RMC president. Email him at: [email protected]