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.
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]