May 24, 2006

To Bow and to Bend

1515 page5 capf the church’s ministry priorities were determined by you, how would you rearrange them?”
I put that question a month ago to several groups of Adventist professionals and businesspeople gathered for a weekend conference at the Historic Adventist Village in Battle Creek, Michigan. On a chilly April morning in a reconstructed nineteenth-century barn that smelled of old lumber and older hay, we spoke of priorities we are passionate about: public evangelism, health ministries, Adventist education, local congregations, international missions, and community service.
To sharpen the focus, I called on members of the group to physically reorder the “volunteers” I had called to help me in my experiment, each of whom held an iconic placard that symbolized one of the named ministries. Would you put the pulpit (public evangelism) ahead of the sailing ship (international missions)? Is serving the community through disinterested benevolence (a caring hand) more vital than serving members in church-based ministries (the stylized and steepled church)? Should the schoolhouse (Adventist education) claim a greater loyalty than the patient in the hospital bed (healing ministries)?
1515 page5Having assured my audience that there were no wrong answers, I watched with fascination as they moved my volunteers about, subtly—and not so subtly—signaling the relative weight they place on each kind of ministry. One participant, who operates an assisted-living center, quickly moved healing ministries to the head of the line; others, probably converts, chose public evangelism for the top spot. The schoolhouse and the sailing ship moved up and down the line as audience members acted out the value system they had long internalized.
I was not teasing them: there were no wrong answers, even though their priorities differed widely. What became immediately apparent—and gratefully, without my having to point it out—was that other dedicated, serious believers could have beliefs about the growth of the kingdom that differed markedly from theirs. For a fleeting moment we glimpsed the challenges that attend whenever leaders gather to do the business of the church, whether at a poorly attended Saturday night church business meeting or a massive General Conference session. In a dimly lit old barn I nonetheless got to watch the lights come on.
What makes this system work? You know the answers. Respect. Tolerance. Careful listening. Negotiation. Compromise. Accountability. A pledge that we will not let ourselves be torn asunder by the all-too-familiar temptation to huddle only with those who share our passions and confirm our priorities.
I noted with quiet satisfaction that Sabbath morning that, even with our obvious differences, no camps were forming, no campaigns were being mounted, no persons were being vilified. The “public-evangelizers” were still talking to the “schoolhouse types” when our hour concluded. Someone even allowed that the mission ship could possibly carry cargo for far-flung medical clinics and even ADRA rations for the homeless. Our differences could—and can—become a source of synergy, not irritation.
This is not a call for mushy-headedness, for pretending that our differences do not matter, or that they are always minor. Through the special gifting of the Spirit, believers are always seeing things differently, and it is their very allegiance to the Lord that causes them to speak and act passionately about their causes and convictions. What we require in an age when even the church seems riven by the divisiveness of winner-take-all politics is a code of not-so-common civility. Have I heard my brother clearly? Could I fairly summarize his argument or priorities so that others understand his thinking? Have I allowed the merits of his plan to penetrate the armor of my way? How will we think when we have finished praying together?
The church is just as much the body of Christ when it meets to prioritize and plan as when it gathers to wonder and worship. The two or three who gather in His name may be assured of His rapt attention and presence whether they have met to pick the hymns or to balance the budget. One Lord meets and cherishes us all.
And I can only guess how proud He is when we bend to each other even as we bow before Him.
Bill Knott is an associate editor of the Adventist Review.