October 10, 2006

Annual Council 2006 - Paulsen Sermon

Service -- An Attitude 

Scripture: Romans 12: 9-21

capIt has been my privilege over the past three years to engage in 12 or 14 television conversations with youth and young professionals in the “Let’s Talk” series. And they always ask me: Why are you doing this? Youth are a bit wary, cautious, and suspicious particularly towards a church leader. And they will not take you seriously if they smell a publicity exercise. So, I tell them – and I try to represent the leadership of our church – that we want to hear them. We want to know what moves them in respect to faith and mission. Over half of our global community is under thirty years of age, and they need to be heard and have an active presence in our church. They have perspectives, they have hopes, they have dreams, and they have visions for the church which need to be considered seriously. If we don’t, they will feel disenfranchised, as many of them already do.

Paulsen Sabbath2

Photo Credit: Larry Blackmer

As the number of these conversations has increased, I have come to feel that there is a difference between the issues which engage teen-agers and students as compared to those that engage young adults – the 22–32 year olds. I am anxious to know what that particular segment of our church values highly; what they are prepared to live and die for. I feel while we will take seriously what youth say to us, we need to pay particular attention to what the young professionals are saying, for among them we should look for both today’s and tomorrow’s leaders.

It did not take me long to discover that there are a number of items that come regularly into every conversation; maybe frivolous, and in the eyes of some, superficial, but never-the-less important to the ones who ask. These are questions about dress, music, jewelry, personal lifestyle and habits. But once you move past these up come some weighty issues which clearly deserve considered self-examination on our part as church leaders. They deserve a thoughtful response. And these are the ones:

1)     Are church leaders aware of the current burning issues in society, and do they care about the pains which are out there – yes, also outside the church? Does leadership nurture a church which is so focused on spirituality and eternity that they have no feelings in their hearts for what is happening to society today, except to condemn decaying morality. Do they think about the environment; do they care about HIV/AIDS; and what about poverty? Do they understand what poverty really is? Poverty extends beyond economic and physical poverty to psychological, moral and religious poverty. The poor are all those who have to endure hunger, violence, and injustice without being able to defend themselves. The poor are all who live on the fringes of death, physically and spiritually. They seem to have nothing to live for, and life offers them equally little. The poor are all who live at the mercy of others, and who live with empty and open hands. Poverty means both dependency and openness. The ‘poor’ are those who, for one reason or other, cannot handle life as it comes to them. By contrast, the ‘rich’ are those who live with tightly clenched hands. They are neither dependent on others nor are they open to others. (J Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, p. 79). They have all they could want.

I have been surprised by the strength of feeling entertained by the younger members of our church with respect to this matter. And, so, they probe me about whether the plight of the poor is on the agenda of the church. You have to feel for them in your heart before you are ready to do something to reach them. They asked me in Africa a few weeks ago: Have you ever been to the home of a really poor family? And they follow it up with a “Why not”?

And they ask me: Does the message of Matthew 25 about Christ’s presence in the poor, making the point that what you do to one of these you do to me, does it say anything to us as a church? Do you, as a church leader (they say to me) understand that there is a disconnect between the church and the mission of Jesus Christ if the church does not embrace the people of the beatitudes—the poor, the mourners, the meek, those who hunger for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the persecuted?

And so they feel compelled to press me on these matters: how does leadership feel about it all? Where do we go to fix the things that have gone wrong? And then some, thinking about their professional occupations, especially in developing countries, ask: “Is it o.k. for a Seventh-day Adventist to enter politics to try to do something about what needs to be fixed in society?”

2)     And then they ask me how we as leaders feel about differences within the church itself. And they are very observant with a deep sense of fairness. This is God’s people – this is the church of the end-time – the family of ‘one faith, one Lord, and one baptism’ – and they see things inside the church which they feel should not be there. ‘Diversity’ is a word we often use; it covers many things, and it is more than racial. The Seventh-day Adventist Church must not only tolerate differences – and what they are talking about are differences which are not hostile to historic Adventism and historic Adventist values – we must also exercise discipline to accommodate them. The church must be good at affirming many kinds of differences. What do they mean? What are they asking for? Well, they are looking at a ‘flat’, multi-cultural world in which people, by the millions, are constantly on the move. It is happening inside our church as much as outside. Receive people you meet with kindness. Let that be your first, unqualified Christian instinct. Resist your first inclination to make them cultural replicas of yourselves. For it is a fact that while we, as a global and multi-cultural Seventh-day Adventist family, have the same spiritual DNA, we do not have to have the same ‘fingerprints’. And they ask me: Is recognition of that good enough in our church?

3)     The other big issue which young adults want to hear from us on is the matter of ‘integrity’—of openness and honesty. And they remind me of the words of David in prayer just before he died when he said: “I know, my God, that you test the heart and are pleased with integrity” (1 Chron. 29: 17); and also when God appeared before Solomon and spoke to him and outlined the basis for his reign being blessed, the first thing he said to Solomon was: “If you walk before me in integrity of heart and uprightness . . .” (1 Kings 9: 4).

That ‘integrity’ is in short supply in society in general, particularly in government and in big business, is there for all to see. But young adults are not sure that the church is as pure in this matter as it should be, and they will quote me examples which they find disturbing and disappointing. And they remind me of the counsel of Ellen White (Child Guidance, p. 154): “In every business transaction a Christian will be just what he wants his brethren to think he is. His course of action is guided by underlying principles. He does not scheme; therefore he has nothing to conceal, nothing to gloss over. He may be criticized, he may be tested, but his unbending integrity will shine forth like pure gold. He is a blessing to all connected with him, for his word is trustworthy. He is a man who will not take advantage of his neighbor. He is a friend and benefactor to all, and his fellow men put confidence in his counsel. . . . A truly honest man will never take advantage of weakness and incompetence in order to fill his own purse.”

It was an astonishing statement which the prime minister of Hungary made a few days ago when he confessed that his government had misled the people in order to get elected “We lied to you in the morning”, he said, “we lied to you in the evening, and we lied to you at night”. And the masses were outraged and walked through the streets of Budapest by the tens of thousands demanding that he resign. It may tell us something about the danger of lying to the public, but maybe even more about the danger of telling the truth to hang on to your elected job.

Integrity, honesty, openness, which are so abused in the secular public service sector, are rated very highly by our youth as they look to leadership. As I suspect does the Lord, they don’t expect you to be perfect, but they expect you to be honest. 
They don’t expect you to have all the answers, but they expect you to have integrity. And they will hold you and me accountable, as will the Lord. The wise man said: “The man of integrity walks securely, but he who takes crooked paths will be found out.” (Prov. 10: 9) And in the words of Paul: “In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity . . . so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us.” (Titus 2: 7,8)

4)     And maybe the most pervasive and important challenge young adults put to me is this – and it comes especially strongly from the young professionals – and is directed primarily to leadership in local churches, but also to elected leadership in other assignments: “We feel that we are not trusted or considered worthy to be taken into the, thinking, planning and decision-making of the church! We are held outside”, they say. And, they add: “In ten years you may not be here. Unless you include us now, we may not be here either.”

We need to hear and understand what they are saying, for it comes across clearly and strongly from those who are under thirty in our church. The point they are making is this: Being included, being trusted, being considered responsible, for elders to be prepared to take some risk with inexperience, are sentiments and attitudes which senior leadership must be willing to show, or we are gone! We are gone simply because we have no ownership responsibility in the life of this church. While their message is primarily directed to leadership of the local congregation, for they understand that that is where leadership skills are honed and sharpened, there is more to it, for what they are ultimately getting at is the thinking and attitudes of elders such as me.

And this takes me to an appeal I want to make to this body: Like you I know that our church is made up of both young and elderly – that considerations and trust, love and acceptance, are sentiments which need to flow in both directions. And some who are closer to me in age say to me: “Don’t just listen to the youth. Why should all adjustments and accommodations be made just in their interest. They don’t think of the needs of those of us who are older, and we also have needs.” And I don’t argue with that; there is much truth to it. I recognize that the main-stay of our church, financially and otherwise, are those who are late-middle age and older. And I really respect and praise them for the care and loyalty they carry for the church, and for their commitment to keep the church steady and on course; and I honor them for what they give. And, I am confident, so does the Lord. Theirs is a labor of love which does not go unrecognized and will not go unrewarded.

But I and most of you, my fellow-leaders, are in our current roles for a relatively short time, some with obviously more latitude than others, but time passes quickly. The church goes on, and we have to remember that the church which we serve is bigger and takes priority over any one of us. Even as we seek personal choices and preferences inside the church, we have to ask ourselves what we think is good for our community. That comes first. The Church was established for mission, and with an eye to that it must grow in effectiveness and spiritual strength until the Lord returns.

Furthermore, the church must not be allowed to fragment; fragmentation would be a fatal error. We are meant to hold together, and everything we say and do must contribute to the unity of the church. In order to be effective in looking after the united church and keeping it strong in mission, it is critical that the men and women who are young today be invited to sit next to you and me; that they be invited to think and plan with us, and that they are listened to as values are defined and the mission agenda examined.

If this does not happen, the inevitable generational gap will widen. The danger then is that when one generation is gone the next one is not there. Or what is there is hardly recognizable when compared to that which was. As is already happening in some places, the church will cease to be, or will become something other than what the Lord has instructed us to be.

I want the youth and young professionals in our church to know that I do not own the church in some sort of special way or to a degree which they do not; that I am not the church more than they are. And, so, when they introduce a question to me with the words “what should the church do. . . .”, I will sometimes return the question to them and say : ”why do you ask me? You are the church as much as I am”. What I want them to see is that the church is not something separate from themselves. If when you think of the church you think ‘we-and-them’ you have already reduced the church to a club, and membership in the club is interesting only as long as it serves your interests.

But that is not the church. The church is God’s chosen community, precious to him – the “apple of his eye” on which he bestows daily his loving care, and life within it has to do with salvation and eternity. And it is very much like a family in which my grandkids are as much family as I am. I want our youth to see that and to act in harmony with it.

Ownership in the life and future of the church is shared. Only when we are able to communicate that as a genuinely held conviction or mind-set can we safely hand over to our youth the trust which we have been given, and know that they will faithfully care for it until our Lord returns. And when you and I grow older and observe that the leadership of my congregation has been handed over to the generation behind me, I must remind myself that I am still as much church as they are and my inheritance responsibility has not been taken from me or reduced.

As I look back at these conversations, what strikes me about the questions they put to me is that they are all about mindsets and attitudes – about what it is that drives our behaviour and our decisions. It’s about how do we think? In a sense it is a “battle of the minds.” The youth and young professionals of our church are not fighting the church; they are not fighting against structures and policies, or committee and election processes; they are more concerned with the thinking which drives all of this. And they will compare what they meet outside the church with what they find inside; and it troubles them. They observe that people who are driven by personal ambitions and greed tend to be exclusive rather than inclusive. Such individuals seem threatened by younger ones who are gifted and well-educated. That’s how it is in the public market place. But why, they ask, do church leaders have to think as they do? And then there is all the politicking which goes on with favors being owed left and right. Political thinking, even political correctness, is an extremely unsafe and unfulfilling basis on which to make decisions about the future of our church and our personal roles in it.

Also, it is important for you and me to remember that the church is not a domain to be controlled and ruled; it is a community which functions best when we are able to counsel together and defer to one another. And this is a matter of personal convictions and attitude.

Attitudes – who defines our attitudes? Clearly Jesus Christ and he alone – he who never sought favors and never became politically indebted to anyone! That is how it must be in our church. Paul introduces the famous portion about the self emptying of Christ with the words: “Your attitude should be the same as his”, Phil. 2:5. ; and the focus is on just being of service, just simply giving for the benefit of others, and how ultimately fulfilling it is to let God do the exalting in his own time.

He, into whose life was brought “no trace of luxury, ease, self gratification’ (7BC, p. 903) is the one they expect us as leaders to try to model. They don’t expect us to always succeed, for they are all acquainted with failures in their own lives; they just want us to keep on looking to Jesus and model our lives on his attitudes.

I am reminded of the words of the Lord’s servant: “What Christ was in His life on this earth, that every Christian is to be. He is our example, not only in
His spotless purity, but in His patience, gentleness, and winsomeness of disposition. He was firm as a rock where truth and duty were concerned, but He was invariably kind and courteous. His life was a perfect illustration of true courtesy. . . . His presence brought a purer atmosphere into the home, and His life was as leaven working amid the elements of society. Harmless and undefiled, He walked among the thoughtless, the rude, the uncourteous; amid the unjust publicans, the unrighteous Samaritans, the heathen soldiers, the rough peasants, and the mixed multitude.” (HP 181.2) 

I am reminded of what Peter writes, in the context of how we should live our lives so as not to sink into decay: “Arm yourselves with the same attitude [as Jesus Christ]” (1 Peter 4:1); and, he says, even more so as “the end of all things is near” (1 Peter 4:7).

I come back to the words read as our opening Scripture:

“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. . . . Honor one another above yourselves. . . . Live in harmony with one another. . . . Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Jan Paulsen
AC 2006