March 2, 2021

Opening a Dialogue About Church and Change

Change is wonderful. Change is terrible. When it comes to the church, which is it?

Lael Caesar

What might you care to say about change? I know. You want to say that it’s terrible. Either that, or that it’s good. It’s not a simple answer. I understand completely.

Change? It’s Terrible!

In the long-ago days of my childhood, moving to a new home was my deeply distressing marker of the constancy of change. Dad never hired Allied Van Lines, or American or International Van Lines. Nor ever rented U-Pack or one of those self-driven U-Haul trucks. We preferred what we had: a long cart drawn by one or two horses, our version of the semi, I guess. For shorter trips, when the houses weren’t too far apart, we used shorter carts—donkey carts—perhaps our dodgy version of the family van. Whichever it was, I definitely hated it—not the horses or donkeys or their, at times, idiosyncratic driver; it was the pain of change that I could never bear. Change was constant and change was painful. Especially when, as you’ve learned before,1 everyone held hands and sang, “When we asunder part it gives us inward pain.”2 Inward, outward, upward, and downward: pain. Parting for me was never sweet sorrow.3

Change? It’s Wonderful!

I’m not at all sure how it happened or when, but my desperate objection to change—the kind I just described—has totally evaporated. What I do know is that now, if I had the option, I’d ride that horse-drawn cart, crawling along at three miles per hour, across the world. Or surrender its movement to the immobility of being stuck with my beloved wife, Lena, watching the crowds in an airport somewhere because of mechanical failure (an act of humans) or bad weather (an “act of God”); the horse-drawn cart traded for the comfort of flying at more than 500 miles per hour, while seated at the window of no plane in particular, on its flight between distant cities, countries, or continents.

Change: The Voices You’ll Hear

My first problem with change gives much less insight into my philosophical orientation toward change than it does to my attitude toward social bonding, and/or to travel. And I have found that conversations about change related to my church can rise to dangerously high temperatures before it has even been determined what is meant by “change.” Specifically, our recent query to you about the church and change yielded a panorama of enthusiastic answers from various segments of the Adventist community, almost evenly divided between male and female, and from many generations, ethnicities, and countries of the world. The following article reports on that conversation, including what “church” or “change” means.

These are fervent answers. We clearly care about our church. Think of this gathering of “voices” as a variation on our standard Voices segment, where you speak or hear yourself through your community’s voices. This time around it’s an interactive exercise between Adventist Review readers and editors. By contrast, with this monthly feature, you may hear more echoes bouncing off the walls of the sanctuary, hopefully stimulating conversation in which everyone is engaging with everyone else in the room.

The selections you read may or may not echo your own thoughts. We urge you to share your own specific convictions, suggestions, and opinions about your church and change with us. Write to us at [email protected], bearing the subject line “Changing church”; or, if you prefer, send us a letter by snail mail to our mailing address: Adventist Review, 12501 Old Columbia Pike, Silver Spring, MD 20904.

In the comments you read on the following pages, the writers have been identified according to areas of ministry, distinguishing individual preference, and/or initials.

If this is the first, it should not be the last time you participate in a dialogue regarding change and the best way forward for your church, our church. Hopefully, the fruits of this first conversation about church and change will make for healthy spiritual and ecclesiological nutrition to nurture a constantly growing church; a transforming miracle of grace-inspiring corporate testimony to the eternal splendor and glory that will soon “be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18).

  2. The Church Hymnal (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1941), no. 432.
  3. As Juliet told Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, Act II, scene 2, line 185.

Lael Caesar is an associate editor of Adventist Review Ministries.

Can We Talk About Change?

Beginning a conversation

The opinions expressed in this conversation are voices reflecting our church family. They do not represent a research-based sample of the convictions and ideas of people making up the church we love. But their voices and experiences invite all of us to reflect on change and begin a conversation.

Change: The Conversation Begins

When we started the dialogue about church and change, we expected to find a range of conversational attitudes: “Yes” to “No” to “Perhaps.” There would be individuals sufficiently contented with the status quo to want to maintain it; others would be ambivalent, loving some things about their church enough to hold on to them, while recognizing that growth in some area or other was a reasonable requirement. Then there would be the iconoclasts, who would want to break everything and begin at their own new beginning.

What we found was a reflective process in which no one denied the need for change. We heard stories and heartfelt convictions. We also saw a strong desire to start a larger conversation that involves listening kindly, talking gently, and reflecting carefully.

This conversation is a relevant exercise. The consistency on the call for change varied only on “what” the change would be about. The topics are diverse yet familiar.

List of participants in alphabetical
order of identifying abbreviation:

Ch – the chaplain;
CK – the college kid;
CS – the communication specialist;
Cou – the couple;
Ed – the educator;
Entr – the entrepreneur;
HA – the humanitarian ambassador;
MC – the management consultant;
PA – the pastor for administration;
Ped – the pediatrician;
PK – the preacher’s kid.

28 1 9 7The Attitude of Change

Many are aware of, and can feel the tension involved in, change:

HA – “ ‘Change’ is an uncomfortable word in our church. People hear it, I hear it, and I get ready for a fight.”

PA – “As a fourth-generation Seventh-day Adventist, I acknowledge that change can often seem scary. Some believe that to admit that there is anything to change is disrespectful to our history and current reality. Confession of a need to change may also seem to indicate that all is not perfect in ‘Paradise.’”

Entr – “Change requires acknowledging there is something that is either wrong, missing, or necessary.”

PA – “Any religious organization that seeks to grow and improve continually believes that ‘OK’ is not good enough.”

Staff – “Though change means different things to different people, it is a necessity. Change brings with it lessons in faith to take a leap, or the challenge to let go of all that you long to cling to. We want to ever remember that ‘Higher than the highest human thought can reach is God’s ideal for His children.’1 Have we reached that ideal? When we consider God’s ideals and our reality, we recognize that conversations about change should be welcomed—not feared.”

CK – As Adventists we must take ownership of our charge within the [global] church and revoke the feigned title ‘apolitical’ and instead be political.”

CS – “Currently more than half the membership is denied the most significant roles in ministry: why?”

HA – “Sometimes I struggle to understand the topics my church will engage in. . . . I cannot walk home without witnessing the cruelty of people toward one another. I see riots happening in my street, hatred, bigotry, and racism at a fever pitch I could never imagine! Friends ask about the Church’s position on a social issue, and I have no answer. Our silence makes social injustice appear acceptable.”

CS – “Race isn’t our worst area, but we’re pretty bad on it: why?”

CK – “Somewhere between now and our origins as abolitionists and anti-imperialists we decided it was best to keep to ourselves and avoid controversy, as if the decisions we make have no influence on the sociopolitical world.”

Staff – “One immediate benefit of this conversation is the opportunity to clarify. In genuine conversation, participants not only speak distinctly but also listen carefully. With regard to social justice, what the Church may need to change is not necessarily its position, but its communication and demonstration of that position. Though it may come as a surprise, the Church does have something to say about the global question of social injustice. In September 2020 the C`hurch’s Executive Committee voted a compelling statement on social justice entitled ‘One Humanity: A Human Relations Statement Addressing Racism, Casteism, Tribalism, and Ethnocentrism.’2 On this point, then, what you may wish to tell us is that the lesson to be learned, the change to be made, is probably the lesson on getting the message out.

We ask, with you: What messages have we succeeded in getting out? What messages do we insist must be heard? We understand that what we are known for and not known for are both parts of our identity. And we hardly help your understanding of your church, or the cause of heaven in the world, by declaring, or even insisting, that there’s a file on that in our records.”

28 2 9The Church: Inclusion, Diversity

Inclusion is a house with many rooms. It deals with accommodation for those who are different. Inclusion is clearly related to the discussion of diversity. Here are some selected comments, observations, and suggestions:

Ed – “Let’s begin with a necessary observation of how we select who is called to overlook the work of the Church.”

PA – “First, we strive to be better at embracing the call of women to pastoral ministry. . . . Second, I believe we need to seek ways to ensure we are leaders, not reactive participants, in the fair treatment of marginalized groups. Asking hurt people to forgive and forget without taking decisive actions and making tangible changes muffles their voices and inflicts more pain. So, too, is ignoring that there is a problem. Similarly, promoting unity without being willing to have difficult conversations, soul-searching, and advocating for others is false harmony.”

Entr – “Open the doors of our church to the ‘least of these’ and clothe them, feed them, remind them they are part of the family.”

Cou – “Let us have greater representation of our diverse body in our leadership at every structural level, and let us more intentionally disciple and mentor future leaders.”

Staff – “We all long to find a place to belong, to be made to feel that room at the table has always been held open for us. We need to know that there is a place for everyone. We belong. All of us.”

Staff – “Recall this children’s song: ‘Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in His sight.’ Somehow we need these words to help us embrace others. Jesus said that we would always have the poor with us. Perhaps that statement should also include the different and the difficult, because they, too, are loved by Him, and as His representatives, by us, the embodiment of His church.”

28 3 9 1The Church: Undying Love

Love seems to be the essential glue that keeps a diverse global church community connected. We heard a number of comments about our personal and collective need to be infused by divine love.

Ped – “I’m discouraged at reports stating an overall decline in church membership and attendance in Western countries along with personally seeing friends drift away from the Church. Complaints of hypocrisy, irrelevance, conflict, and lack of community are often made as reasons for leaving. In response, some churches have transformed their services to meet the needs of worship style and building community through social events and social media.”

Cou – As we anticipate the Second Coming, let us take seriously Christ’s warning: ‘Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved’ [Matt. 24:12, 13].”

Staff – “How does this reality impact the Church we love? What needs to change in our lives and in our congregations to rekindle that first love we felt when we first met Jesus?”

Staff – “‘God is love.’ As Christians we embrace, repeat, experience, and share these words with one another. How are we expressing this message in our daily life and actions toward others?”

PK – “We are our brother’s keeper. We truly are our brother’s keeper.”

28 4 7 5The Church: Redefining “Church”

One of the most reflective themes in the answers had to do with how “church” is defined and perceived in structure and content.

MC – “The pandemic has forced us to find new and different ways of worshipping. What is different about not being physically present in a building? For one thing, the fellowship is missing! I miss hugging and greeting my friends. I also miss singing. The pandemic is still preventing a return to what we have long been accustomed to as a traditional Sabbath day of worship and fellowship. Who knows how long we will be forced to find creative ways of worshipping and sharing our faith?”

Staff – What creates a community of believers? A community of disciples willing to work together through conflict and/or failed communication processes in order to become a light of inspiration and truth in dark times?”

Ped – The concept of ‘ME’ is not a new issue, but it is one that has proven to be divisive. I believe the church must change to a concept of ‘you.’ The questions we should strive to ask are ‘How can I contribute to the church? How can I help? Can I do extra?’”

Staff – “Church architecture reflects theology. In the past, massive cathedrals told of a God who is far removed from humanity and is awe-inspiring. Small house churches, on the other hand, convey God’s proximity. What do Adventist church buildings communicate to those looking in from the outside?”

MC  – “Given that we have embarked on new and different ways of worshipping, how is the Church adapting to the myriad ways we now need to exist? Maybe we need to shift our focus from our heavy reliance on a rarely-used building. Maybe our focus could include welcoming spaces and multipurpose buildings in the neighborhoods. These can serve as educational centers of excellence. Maybe once we return to traditional, weekly, centralized church gatherings, our neighbors whom we have welcomed during the week would gladly spend some quality time with us on Sabbath.”

28 5 0Change: A Conclusion?

CS – “We know the Church needs to change. Let us know you know it too.”

Staff – Change is difficult. Acknowledging the need for change is difficult. In order for change to occur, we must speak about it, listen to one another, labor with one another. The one constant that will not change is the guidance God provides through His Word. Dialogue requires a humble heart and a yearning to seek change for betterment in our ministry and mission.”

Ed – “How about securing the hearts of young people, to remind them God is coming, to make them look forward to this event. Let them work toward this cause, let their education count toward the need to enlighten other people on how loving our heavenly Father is, how great the sacrifice of Jesus!”

We close with this prayer from the chaplain:

Ch – “Perfect, loving, unchanging Lord, guide us as a church! Let Your Spirit convict our hearts in corporate unity to hold firm to the perfect truth You have revealed. Allow Your Spirit to lead us together to a deeper understanding of Your will. Give us humble hearts to let go of the traditions that stagnate our growth; power to surrender our need to hold on to our human habits that somehow we confuse with Your leading. Help us always to be a river of life that flows from Your throne and brings life to everything it touches. Make us a firm, unwavering home to all Your children!  As You work Your perfect unchanging will in each of us, make us a church rooted in our knowledge of You, changing from glory to glory until You come!”

  1. Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1903), p. 18.