The Future of the Adventist Ministry

Maintaining the faith during last-day crises will be a function of men of the Word who relate the deep things of God to the needs and concerns of their flock.

 

Gordon Bietz is pastor of the Stockton Central Seventh-day Adventist church, Stockton, California.

In years past the pastor was a highly respected member of the community. He was generally the most educated person and was considered knowledgeable in almost every field. Now specialists have largely taken his place, and the trend of humanistic secularism has re moved him from being the natural thought leader in the community. What is the future of the Adventist ministry in this context of change?

We spend too much time in the past, not enough time in the present, and no time in the future. I am not a futurologist; but the fact that we are not yet in the kingdom leads me to believe that there must be some changes in the way we are doing things in the present if we expect our generation to usher in the second coming of Christ. Something is wrong and it is time we faced up to it. Israel could not wander in the desert for 39 years and give good reports to the constituency. They could not claim wonderful progress, no matter how optimistic the administration. No matter how many miles were covered, no matter how many children were born to the nation, no matter how many statistics they compiled, they were not where they were supposed to be, and that pointed to problems. We are not with our Lord, and that means problems.

When we talk about the future of the Adventist ministry we are talking about change, for if we are not anticipating some sort of change there is no point in looking ahead. The church and its ministry tend to resist change and to develop inertia, as Ralph W. Neighbor, Jr., convincingly points out in his book The Seven Last Words of the Church: We Never Did It That Way Before. Ideally, change should not make us nervous but should cause us to become enthusiastic about the potential ways God has to use us and this church in the future. How ever, in reality, no one is more threatened by change than those whose bread and butter may be affected by that change. Ministry has a tendency to opt for the status quo and increasingly so the closer it gets to retirement.

The church, more than many organizations, is infected with the disease of inertia because of its calling to "hold fast the landmarks" and "to stand firm on the foundations." The problem is that we tend to identify landmarks and foundations with anything we have been doing and with the way we have been doing it. As the Adventist ministry approaches the future, we must sort social custom from theological base. It is my thesis that the future of the Adventist ministry rises or falls on its ability to think theologically in the midst of change and turmoil.

When I was an intern, a friend asked me what I did all day. I gave him an idea of my schedule. I studied until noon, then I went out and did visitation, et cetera. He replied, "Well, if you spend that much time studying, I guess ministers are the real eggheads among us." I have come to the conclusion that he was right. The minister really should be the intellectual among us. Who else has a job description that includes so much time to be spent in study?

"The minister is a surgeon with words; the scalpel can cut either way: to heal or to endanger the patient even more. A pastor whose scalpel is dull or rusty is guilty of theological malpractice." Carnegie Samuel Calian, "Can We Expect Greatness From the Clergy?" (The Christian Century, May 25, 1977, p. 509). Too many ministers—Adventist ministers—have been guilty of theological malpractice. It's painful to do the work necessary to be a skillful preacher or theologian, and so the ministry has too many who are practicing with dull scalpels. The church members realize the malpractice and are seeking pastors that can stir them with great preaching. But without the study necessary for great preaching our minds will be empty. And an empty mind in a pastor results in empty pews in his church. Will members in the future bring lawsuits against their pastor for theological malpractice?

Ministers should be the most educated people among us. Why? Not because of formal schooling but because "as an educating power, the Bible is without a rival" (E. G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 596). No one should have a wider capacity of understanding and more true education than the minister, for the simple reason that he spends (or should spend) more time with the Bible than any other person. It is his job. "The mind will enlarge, if it is employed in tracing out the relation of subjects of the Bible, comparing scripture with scripture, and spiritual things with spiritual." —Fundamentals of Education, p. 127.

Unfortunately, too many malnourished minds exist in the ministry, minds that have atrophied rather than enlarged, withered rather than grown. Too many non-growing minds are passed from church to church when their three-year supply of sermons dries up. Too many retired minds still inhabit unretired bodies.

Mrs. White urges us not simply to duplicate other men's thoughts but to be thinkers in our own right. The danger in ministry is merely to reflect the thoughts of others. The habit of uncritical credulity—of taking the ideas of books, magazines, and tapes without independent thought—encourages a dependent dogmatism that will not stand the spotlight of criticism that will descend on our church in the future. Don't borrow unexamined convictions from others simply to avoid paying the price of disciplined, thoughtful study. The unexamined life is not worth living, and the unexamined belief is not worth holding.

Preaching that really takes the Word to people in today's society requires work. Study takes work. Ray Jordan declares in his book You Can Preach, "If there is blood in a man's preaching, he will have to make preaching the great business of his life. Other important matters will not be excluded; rather they will give one's message vitality and life." The pastor, notes G. B. Williamson, must be "primarily a preacher. Any excuse for failure at that point is invalid. God's call is not to be an organizer, promoter, a mixer, or an ecclesiastical mechanic, but a preacher of the Gospel of Christ, which is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth. The understanding that preaching is primary will have far-reaching effects" (Overseers of the Flock, Beacon Hill, p. 30).

One of the main reasons the ministry has not always measured up to God's standard for it is that it is caught up in busy work and trifles. Mrs. White says, ' 'If occupied with common place matters only, it [the mind] will become dwarfed and enfeebled." Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 596.

Too many dwarfed and enfeebled minds have resulted from allowing the easy busywork of the ministry to occupy the time. Ministers are busy; there is no question about that. We are out every night, working very hard. But we have tended to confuse being busy with worth, activity with fulfillment, and movement with results.

"If the mind is allowed to run almost entirely upon trifling things and the common business of everyday life, it will, in accordance with one of its unvarying laws, become weak and frivolous, and deficient in spiritual power." —Testimonies for the Church, vol. 5, p. 272.

Most of us have not learned to establish proper priorities, and the result is that the pressure of busywork has established our priorities for us. We set sail with no centerboard, allowing the wind of the telephone and the squeaky-wheel member to blow us about. We are busy doing what is easy, keeping active and proving to the members that we work hard. It is easier to respond to a phone call and satisfy some member's trifling need than it is to resist the gusts of wind and say, "I was called to study and present the Word first and foremost, and for this I am in the ministry."

There are immediate rewards in drifting with the wind of the telephone. "The pastor surely works hard." "He is certainly responsive to our needs," But we are not called to respond to the church members' needs as they see them; we are called to minister the Word. And without spending time with the Word we cannot fulfill that calling. The future of ministry depends not on skills of bulletin preparation and administrivia. The survival of effective ministry depends on spending thoughtful time with the Bible. This must be the first priority.

Unfortunately, it is easy to flee from thought in busywork. The sad problem is that many of us would be lost without administrivia. We wouldn't know what to do with ourselves. Too many of us are overworked and underemployed, seeking to program our way out of dilemmas rather than think and study our way through them to the future. We are pulling burrs from our socks instead of buying shoes for our feet.

If ministry allows itself to be less than what we might term "grass roots theologians," if we allow our time to be used in program administration and simply accept our theology from the college professionals walking "in the sparks of others' kindling" (Testimonies, vol. 2, p. 644)—our church is doomed to decay and the ministry is doomed to becoming paper-pushing clerics. We are on the verge of abdicating our calling to the professionals in every field. We are not professional counselors; we are not professional administrators; we allow the seminaries and colleges to do our theological thinking for us and pass it to us through workers' meetings and MINISTRY magazine. As we increasingly become neither this nor that, what are we? Where is our expertise? This identity crisis causes us to lose some of the best young minds among us as they leave the ministry to do something, anything, that gives identity.

I believe the minister's identity should be found in being a "grass roots theologian" on the front line, standing in the heat of battle and developing sermons that stir the hearts of our people. Theology prepared in the archives of the seminary and not hammered into shape on the anvil of experience does not feed the people like theology produced in the local parish as the minister walks back and forth between the Word and the lives of his people. The local church is the focus for reaching people—not the conference office.

Maintaining the faith for ourselves and our members during the crises of last-day events will not be a function of the seminary but a function of men of the Word who mingle as pastors with their flock relating the deep things of God to their immediate needs and concerns. Let's refuse to allow nonpriorities to occupy our lives to the extent that we become professional at majoring on minors, more concerned about cars and gas mileage than doctrines and preaching.

The future of the Adventist ministry must be a future of theology. Being specialists in bringing the Word of God to the person in the pew is the only valid justification for our professional existence.

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Gordon Bietz is pastor of the Stockton Central Seventh-day Adventist church, Stockton, California.

February 1980

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