By Katie Morrison
It’s a common concern, a Catch-22. The church fears the departure of millennials and yet struggles to engage with the younger generations. Millennials fear their voices being ignored but resist commitment to any one church or religion. The current situation is hardly ideal, but what truly is? When asked to describe the ideal church, some of my friends mention one great thing they’ve experienced in the past: the music at an academy church, the senior pastor of the college congregation, the social activities of the youth group. Our concept of “ideal” is only based on something amazing we’ve experienced on earth. But this isn’t God’s ideal; to envision this, we need to set aside our previous perceptions.
Some of my peers have recently been questioning the structure of the Adventist church. What is the intention of the structure, the need for religion at all? To look at this, we examine the initial structural establishment of the Adventist church and the logic. In Matthew 28, God’s people are tasked with the Great Commission, spreading the good news to every corner of the earth. From Jesus’s own lips, we heard our mission. The Adventist roots latched onto that and established a structure to make it happen. From the General Conference down to the local congregation, the organizational intent was to reach the world, and it was done successfully! But at what cost?
Denominations and religions feel like they’re structurally set up to isolate. Even the verbiage feels divisive: us and them, our beliefs and theirs. Religion seems set up to protect the truth. An excellent book called Mission Drift studies organizations that were originally founded with radical mission statements, such as Harvard’s initial identity as a seminary, and the gradual and inevitable drift that can occur without firm guardrails. This feels especially relevant to the Adventist church’s beginnings. With twenty-eight (or so) fundamental beliefs, this governance was meant to protect our identity from mission drift. As the world church grew, our “truths” had much further to disseminate, offering more opportunity for misinterpretation and enhancing the necessity for an organized structure.
It makes sense that we don’t want to lose our identity as Adventists. But should that be the first thing people see?
Or should it be Jesus?
As the world church expanded, the process of conviction evolved. What worked locally was packaged and applied generically; if this worked for you, why not package that magic sauce into a palatable recipe for others? But this eliminates the organic growth, the natural development of a spiritual relationship, pointing to a set of beliefs and rules instead of the heart of our identity, the purest of truths.
Shouldn’t the journey start with Jesus?
If we lift up Christ and encourage relationships, it doesn’t release us from a higher standard. It doesn’t pardon us to behave recklessly. On the contrary, we’re called to a higher standard. This is only possible through the Spirit.
Consider the story of the woman at the well, found in John 4. She felt marginalized because of her background and social standing. But look at the difference in worship between the Samaritan woman and the Jews. The Jews were God’s chosen people. They had received God’s truth hundreds of years earlier and basked in the pride and safety that the truth offered. They worshipped in truth. The woman was operating from a different understanding, a less informed position but nonetheless poignant. The woman worshipped in Spirit. Comparing these worship styles is pretty unfair.
But, as Jesus pointed out in verses 23–24, “A time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and His worshippers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” Those who worship in Spirit, being led by the Spirit, will ultimately find the truth. But how much harder is it for those worshipping in truth to open and hear the Spirit’s calling? That’s the challenge facing Adventists, the obstacles of meritocracy and pride.
Bearing this in mind, let’s return to the original question: what is the ideal church? Do we answer that for the spiritual state of the church or do we answer it for the organizational structure?
Isaiah prophesied saying that God would “do a new thing, springing up rivers in deserts.” The physical vehicle through which the Spirit moves is often a “new thing” that we don’t expect, but that is always consistent is the Spirit itself.
Could it be that the ideal church is one that is more concerned with each individual bearing the fruits of that Spirit, allowing each community the flexibility to become whatever vehicle it needs to be to spread the Gospel? Is it possible for a world church to loosen its grip on its traditional identity in order to more tightly grasp the hand of Jesus, trusting His Spirit to lead and protect rather than an ever-growing list of ordinances and fundamental beliefs?
In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul says that the love of God compels us. I see an ideal church as something outside of four walls, beyond one day a week. I see relationships that empower and uplift, that encourage in moments of doubt and remind one another of the identity we have in Christ. When we let our love for God compel us, the ideal is not black and white. The ideal has a million faces, one for each Christian who claims it.
Katie Morrison is a healthcare marketing professional and lives in Orlando, Florida. She was a communication intern at RMC in 2015. Email her at: [email protected]