September 20, 2006

How to Save the Church

 “We can be bearers of the torch or we can carefully husband a little flame . . .”—Rufus Jones, Quaker pioneer.1
2006 1526 page26 capOW TO SAVE THE CHURCH?
God only knows. God only can.
 What is more, God does. Every day congregations stand tall thanks to the grace of God. Not long ago, I met a woman who helped me see the fact clearly. She was saying: “When I first went into the Takoma Park Adventist Church, I just knew these people were my people.”
She told me that one day at age 13 she entered her house to find both her siblings smoking marijuana, and both her parents drunk and passed out on the living room floor.
Despite her battered heart, she realized that her family’s destiny didn’t have to be her own. Later she became acquainted with a community of Adventist believers bound together by the grace of God, and determined to be healthy. At that moment, she told me, she felt she had found her true home.
Today, still Adventist and still thankful, she finds her business flourishing and her life headed forward, like the clouds on the back of the wind.
Good stories there are.
But what’s sure at the same time is that in Adventism’s older strongholds—North America, Europe, Australia—the church today needs saving. Where we first spread our wings we face new struggles. In these places (and perhaps others) it’s harder than it once was to build congregations that truly flourish; harder to keep our schools vigorous and solvent; harder to resolve conflict over doctrine, standards, and finance; harder to keep our children—or even our friends—interested.
The truth is that flat or declining enthusiasm, especially among second- and third-generation Adventists, is the quicksand already pulling at our shoes.
Forces We Can’t Control
2006 1526 page26The problem, in part, is what Paul called the “principalities and powers”—forces we can’t control that leave their stamp on everything. One of these is our culture’s idolization of the self, everywhere evident and everywhere a curse. Another, nearly as widespread, is its suspicion of deeply held belief: when you have convictions beyond “whatever,” you seem old-fashioned and fanatic.
Both these forces put the church—a community that embraces shared life and deeply held conviction—at great peril. Both make for the splintering of communities into ever-smaller fragments. Both tempt our children—and tempt us—to be less strenuous and self-giving, more frivolous and self-absorbed, than we aspire to be.
Another of the forces we can’t control is the entertainment culture. Today’s mass media is not just TV and the movies but also the Internet, and with every advance in media technology comes a new assault on the human attention span, and on our capacity for prayer and thought, and for long-term goals. In this culture worship itself becomes entertainment. The Bible goes unread. The biblical vision meets an ever-stronger countercurrent.
Still another thing we can’t control turns out to be a gift as well as a challenge. Today we experience, inside the church and out, a tumult of variety—not just of skin and gender, but also of theology and politics and culture. This adds complexity to our lives, and although it is often difficult, it is also invigorating: diverse groups and organizations with their own perspectives and special missions bring new creativity and passion to the Adventist experience.
Still, stresses remain. Today’s church leaders obsess over cost-cutting; struggle to find and keep great pastors; look more, it seems, to finding new members than to energizing current ones; find too little time, most of them, for Bible study and vision-making.
World-changing churches—the torchbearers—grow in both new and seasoned membership; they grow in new understanding; they find new reasons for new passion. To be such a church is surely what we hope for. Who wants to end up guarding a flame that barely flickers? We want to do something truly beautiful for God.
On Being God’s Junior Partners
Paul understood that God only knows and God only can. His unforgettable words—“it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:19, 20, NRSV)*—echo down the ages: we are not God, and the key to the new life is Christ inside of us. But Paul goes on to speak of “the life I now live . . . by faith.” He knows, in other words, that we are made in God’s image, that in each of us the “I” endures, that in each, as Ellen White wrote, there is “a power akin to” God’s, the “power to think, and to do.”2

When I believe, Christ is inside me. But I am still . . . me, still somebody. As Paul knew, none of us is a puppet; each is, at least potentially, God’s cocreator, God’s junior partner in the making and renewing of all things.

Including the church.
So we must, by God’s grace, try to save—try to renew—the church.
Lately when I reflect on all this, one thing stands out. At our movement’s start, Adventists could make their pledge to Christ and one another in words that were at once simple and practical. Even though the studious ones had written long Bible studies, and had explored and argued over the fine points of doctrine, they remained suspicious of whatever seemed too long-winded or pontifical. They knew how to boil everything down—and then keep conversation and daily adventure alive.
Organized Adventism began in 1861 when a group of Seventh-day Adventist congregations in Michigan bound themselves together, for the first time, as a legal association. The pioneers had been shaping the movement’s vision for nearly 20 years. These 1861 organizers had no interest, however, in a creed-like statement of belief—such a thing, said James White, would block “new light,” stand in “direct opposition” to the “gifts” of the Holy Spirit. Instead, they embraced a simple pledge: “We, the undersigned,” they said, “hereby associate ourselves together as a church, taking the name, Seventh-day Adventists, covenanting together to keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus Christ.”3
Great ideas change the world. But mere words—especially words unlinked to the fabric of life as we really know it—are hype, or balderdash, or simply boring. Doctrine does matter, but divisive bickering over doctrine and inattention to its practical significance leave most minds numb and most hearts dry.
Especially now.
But if idle words deplete, words that soar renew. I think, in fact, that more than anything else from the human side, fresh words—fresh vision and purpose—are the key to rejuvenating the church in the older strongholds.
So here is what I have been exploring:
Can the Adventist heritage supply us—today—with the simple words we need, the compelling words? Can we express, from our own heritage, a vision—a purpose, a great idea—that any young person can understand and any adult find rich and evocative? Can these words spur action that is both adventurous and transformational? Can they help us to feel vividly alive while doing good?
Minneapolis—a Midcourse Correction
I come back again and again to what happened in Michigan in 1861. The promise those delegates made to one another was short, easy to remember, and fully practical: we’ll do as God asks; we’ll live the faith of Jesus. The words came from a signature passage of pioneer Adventism, Revelation 14:12, and they were at once wonderful and fierce: you made that promise and you had something large to live for; you made that promise and the crust of self gave way.
But something was wrong. It turned out that focus on obedience lapsed easily into alarm about not being good enough for God. You could also make a pledge of full loyalty to Christ a matter of conceit, and begin to think you were superior to others. You could even fall into both of these snares, and have a weirdly conflicted inner life, a mishmash of self-loathing and self-adulation.
2006 1526 page26So what happened later, in Minneapolis in 1888, was also momentous in Adventist history. Church leaders heard a contentious debate that sprang from the unhappy possibilities of an obedience-focused faith. In the end, however, the debate renewed their sense not only of human inadequacy but also of sheer gratitude for God’s acceptance and good favor.
In 1888 the church was reminded that a Christian’s “righteousness” is by faith. We are forgiven and empowered by the grace of Christ. Instead of earning God’s approval, as “legalists” try to do, we simply benefit from God’s grace—God’s forgiveness and empowering presence.
Anyone who takes this in feels profoundly thankful for the ability it gives to live with confidence and loyalty. So the Minneapolis conversation was a great gift to the church. Other gifts had preceded it, not least the visionary gift, and even before 1888 the church had been lengthening its reach. Prior to 1861 Adventists had opposed slavery and embraced nonviolence. Afterward, living healthy became a passion. The medical work began.
The idea of human flourishing was taking hold.
In 1867 the church in General Conference session reaffirmed its embrace of peace instead of warfare: “engaging in war,” said the delegates, directly violates “the teachings of our Savior.”4 Soon new adventures started. Missionaries crossed the sea. Adventist higher education took flight. The church embraced the temperance movement and defended religious liberty.
In one way, and then another and another, Adventists were changing the world.
All this suggests refinements that could make the pledge made in Michigan in 1861 more compelling. Suppose now, when we wanted to express our vision and purpose in the simplest possible words, we said: Thanks to the grace and peace of Christ, we join together in keeping the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus; we help one another flourish and we dare to change the world.
Any young person can understand this. Any adult, however highly educated, can find here a reason for further study. What is more, these few words reflect not only the simple gospel but also the heart of Adventism.
The words begin with grace, and express a response to it. They tell us to look to God and to make Jesus our example. Like the Creation story in Genesis, they say our job is to make a difference. These words contain what we stand for at our best: a love reaching out to all; a welcoming of Sabbath rest; an urgent and emancipating hope.
But can we truly say we’ll change the world?
Just remember that Paul did. He was familiar with suffering and setbacks. He said that “not only the creation, but we ourselves . . . groan inwardly while we wait” for full redemption. But anyone who is “in Christ,” he also said, makes the whole creation “new” (see Rom. 8:23; 2 Cor. 5:17, NRSV).
New Hearts. New Passion
So the astonishing verb in the simple pledge that grows out of our church’s early life is fully justified. Even if in the midst of suffering, even if by tiny increments, even if the Second Coming is our final hope, we do, by God’s grace, change the world.
Surely that is enough to keep conversation and daily adventure alive. And surely the simple pledge our pioneers inspired is enough to keep us distant from mere convention. We can be the trumpets of a new day—the “other spirits” of whom the poet spoke, those who stand apart “Upon the forehead of the age to come” and give the world “another heart, / And other pulses.”5
New hearts. New passion. And thus new life. These gifts we have to offer, and they are what Christ enables us to give.
The woman who at 13 saw her siblings stoned and her parents drunk, all on the same day in the same room, received just those gifts from an Adventist congregation. So, years before, did slaves for whom the pioneers were advocates. And so did all those who learned good health, received medical care, heard the gospel for the first time.
Others await similar gifts from people responsive today to God’s grace and peace—people willing today to be . . . well, to be disciples.
That’s it. The simple words mined from early Adventist experience spell and inspire discipleship. In reminding us of what we are called to be, they soar, as on eagle’s wings. And if we would live by them—giving our gifts, embracing the disciple’s way—we would not only bear a torch and change the world. We would, by God’s grace, renew the church itself.
*Bible texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
1Quoted in Robert Greenleaf, Servant Leadership: A Journey Into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness (New York: Paulist Press, 1977), p. 172.
2Education, p. 17.
3The pledge is cited in Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia (1966 edition), p. 310. One account of the meeting, including the discussion of creeds that preceded embrace of the pledge, is in Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White: The Early Years, 1827-1862 (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1985), pp. 453, 454.
4Early Adventist statements on war can be found in Douglas Morgan, ed., The Peacemaking Remnant: Essays and Historical Documents (Silver Spring, Maryland: Adventist Peace Fellowship, 2005), pp. 96-98.
5From John Keats, “Addressed to Haydon.”
Charles Scriven is president of Kettering College of Medical Arts in Kettering, Ohio. He is, as he says, “a theologian in his spare time.”