Dream or die!

There is not much to do but bury a church when the last of its dreams are dead. The Seventh-day Adventist Church stands today at a crossroads between the memories of the past and the dream of the future. Now is the time when we must decide whether to bury ourselves in legalism, to lose ourselves in permissiveness, or to dream together the dreams that will lead us to a vivific future!

Gordon Bietz is pastor of the Collegedale, Tennessee, Seventh-day Adventist church.

 

To paraphrase Dickens: It is the best of times; it is the worst of times. It is an age of wisdom; it is an age of foolishness. It is an epoch of belief; it is an epoch of incredulity. It is a season of light; it is a season of darkness. It is the spring of hope; it is the winter of despair. We stand today at the crossroads of the future to determine the direction of the church. Will the future bring the best of years or the worst of years? Sociological studies of religious movements indicate that we have only two options as we stand at this crossroads—both bad.

The further religious organizations move from their founders the closer they come to an inevitable struggle between those on the one hand who attempt to preserve the fire of the past by means of laws and creeds (legalism) and those on the other who accept a loss of identity or a loose identification with the world (permissiveness).

Legalism is a trap that distracts the church from spreading the gospel. By preserving the forms and traditions of the past, it becomes a "clever cage of rules by which alarmed members think to keep their treasure safe, but it entraps them instead—and the treasure somehow slips away."

Permissiveness, however, is not a better road. It recognizes that the essence of the church will never be preserved by rules and regulations or by focusing on creeds and doctrines—but it purchases escape from the cage of legalism at the price of loss of identity. The inner fire and devotion that lead to a distinctive lifestyle are lost, and a lowering of standards and commitment results. Legalism seeks to preserve the church even if the form is all that can be preserved. Permissiveness, by focusing on individual freedom, loses the identity of the church altogether. The ditch on one side is not significantly more disastrous than the ditch on the other.

That the Seventh-day Adventist Church is at just such a crossroad is aptly illustrated by the polarization occurring in some doctrinal discussions. But we can learn lessons from studying the roads that other religious movements have taken. First those movements that have chosen the road of legalism.

Last fall I went with my family to the Smokies to see the autumn colors. While there we noticed a number of people who looked as if they had come from the middle nineteenth century—the Amish. Here is a society living in another age. In establishing their identity, they have so avoided the world that they are no longer making an impact on it. To ensure the purity of the church they practice "shunning." You may have read about a farmer, Robert Bear, who was shunned by the Reformed Mennonite Church. His wife and six children moved out of his house, and the entire Mennonite community refused to have any contact with him. Needless to say, it broke this man, who called his life "a living hell."

Besides shunning, the Amish have also developed the Ordnung, or "rules of living," to protect the church from the influence of the world. For example: "No ornamental bright, showy formfitting, immodest or silklike clothing of any kind. Colors such as bright-red, orange, yellow and pink not allowed. . . . Hat to be black with no less than three-inch rim and not extremely high in crown. No stylish impression in any hat. No pressed trousers. No sweaters. ... A full beard should be worn among men and boys after baptism, if possible. . . . No decorations of any kind in buildings inside or out. ... No bottle gas or high line electrical appliances. Stoves should be black if bought new." —John A. Hostetler, Amish Society, pp. 59, 60.

The Amish have certainly maintained their identity, but their impact on the world is more in the nature of a curiosity than a living witness. In their attempt to preserve their identity they have locked themselves into a nineteenth-century time capsule.

Another group that arose with great fervor and evangelistic zeal was the Quakers. They faced mobs, martyrdom, and imprisonment to communicate their message. But as time passed, others joined them, and children were born; their devotion and evangelistic zeal began to wane. Those who remembered the good old days wondered how to preserve the former fire and enthusiasm. They reacted to their fears for the future by taking what were generally agreed-upon principles of the Christian life and spelling them out in specific detail so as to wall out wickedness from their world. Matters of dress were specified, and even such things as whether cemetery grave stones were to lie down or stand up!

Likewise the Jews at the time of Christ were seeking to preserve the dream of Abraham in the legalism of the Talmud that measured a Sabbath day's journey by feet and defined in detail how to fast. But they only proved, as have others, that the attempt to preserve the heart of religious zeal through formulations of law will not work.

The general history of the Christian church follows the opposite road—the road of permissiveness. As the church became acceptable and institutionalized, it began to adapt to the world until the fire went out of its spirit. During the Middle Ages the church was more worldly than religious. This process was repeated continually. The Wesleyan revival that swept England with fire and enthusiasm became Methodism. I suggest that today Wesley would not recognize the church he founded. The Lutheran movement that began the Protestant Reformation became Lutheranism, and I wonder what revolution Martin Luther would bring to the church he founded?

Which way for our church?

Will we travel the road that ends in a legalistic isolationism, where we become simply a carefully preserved relic of the past, an anachronism? Will we travel the road that leads to a permissive pluralism in which we lose our identity in total absorption by the world? Is there not another option? Another road?

L. A. King writes: "To date no denomination . . . has maintained its original distinctiveness and power. It is difficult in succeeding generations to reproduce the vividness of the original experiences, and so at least some later converts will have less than the original devotion. . . . Defensive isolation keeps the form but loses the fiery life; relaxed permissiveness the commonest development keeps an institution from having great distinctiveness or impact." —Legalism or Permissiveness: An Inescapable Dilemma?

Must our church travel one of these roads? I pray not.

Many of us have been nurtured on the story of the little boy Samuel working in the Temple for Eli the priest. "The word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision" (1 Sam. 3:1, R.S.V.). I would like to suggest that such a description of conditions at the beginning of the ministry of Samuel describes the condition of our church today. Of course it is a ready-made story for children. Little Samuel hears the voice of God calling him. He mistakes it as Eli's and keeps running to him until Eli tells him to say, "Speak, Lord; for thy servant heareth" (verse 9). And a vision comes to Samuel because he is listening, listening for the voice of God.

Eli had received other communications from God concerning his sons. But Eli wasn't really listening. Maybe he was caught up in a controversy of the times. Maybe he thought he could no longer change his ways. At any rate, he wasn't listening; he wasn't acting on what he knew.

But Samuel listened: "Speak, Lord; for thy servant heareth." Today we need to remember that memory verse of long ago. Today we need to be prepared to receive a vision from the Lord. Today it is time that we listen for a dream. To avoid the polarities of permissive plural ism and legalistic isolationism we must dream again.

"We are all of us dreamers of dreams,

On visions our childhood is fed;

And the heart of the child is unhaunted, it seems,

By the ghosts of dreams that are dead.

From childhood to youth's but a span

And the years of our life are soon sped;

But the youth is no longer a youth, but a man, When the first of his dreams is dead.

He may live on by compact and plan

When the fine bloom of living is shed,

But God pity the little that's left of a man

When the last of his dreams is dead.

Let him show a brave face if he can,

Let him woo fame or fortune instead,

Yet there's not much to do but to bury a man

When the last of his dreams is dead." —William Herbert Carruth, "Dreamer of Dreams"

 

And might I add to William Carruth's poem that

There is not much to do but to bury a church

When the last of its dreams is dead.

According to Robert Dale, a movement has reached the final stages when it no longer focuses on its dream but becomes caught up in nostalgia of how things were in the past. A healthy church is born out of a dream; a diseased church is one that prefers simpler yesterdays to uncertain tomorrows. A church that sets a mood of uncertainty by reflecting on the "I remember when" stories of the golden era is signaling that it has begun to lose its dream for the future. The healthy church builds on and is renewed by its dream. The diseased church doubts and questions as it moves toward organizational death. Elder Robert Pierson's last address to the church as General Conference president was a plea to avoid somehow the progression from movement to machine, the steady, almost inevitable, progression from a first-generation movement begun with dream and vision to a fourth-generation machine attempting to run a bureaucracy to preserve the forms that were created in the fervor of yesterday.

It is time to dream again.

There must rise again among the people of God a dream. A vision that captures the essence of the Seventh-day Adventist movement. The future of our church will be found not in absolute doctrinal purity but in the moving of the Spirit of God as the people follow a dream. If you had done a doctrinal purity study of the early Christian church, I doubt you would have been pleased. Peter didn't always understand Paul, and the Jewish Christians certainly had some different views than the Gentile Christians. But they were caught up together in a vision, a dream, given to them by Christ. Their dream was to give the good news to the world, and they were one in Christ in that effort.

If you had done a doctrinal purity study of the early Seventh-day Adventist Church you would have found many different views. But they were one with a message to give to the world. They were caught up in the excitement of a movement with vision, a movement that had the courage to dream. The message of Adventism was not the dry musings of their teachers. The message of Adventism was not the reminiscences of their parents. The message of Adventism was not the codified beliefs of the church manual. The message of Adventism was the living reality of their lives!

Unity? Yes! They had unity, but not the kind of unity that comes from formal assent to creedal statements. Not a unity caged in formulations of systematic theology. It was the unity of a dream! It is time to dream again, to have vision and commitment as did those who were the founders of our church. To dream like Joseph Bates.

Joseph Bates had a dream to publish the new truths he had discovered, so in May, 1846, he prepared a forty-page tract entitled The Opening Heavens. Money to publish was supplied by an Adventist woman who sold a rag carpet she had recently woven.

It is time to dream again, like J. N, Loughborough.

Twenty-year-old Loughborough had been preaching on Sundays for three years, when he cast his lot with the Sabbatarians and accompanied Hiram Edson as a circuit-riding preacher and later pioneer of the work in California and England.

To dream like Uriah Smith, who at 21 joined the Review office in Rochester, New York, where his thirty-five-thousand-word poem "The Warning Voice of Time and Prophecy" was running in the Review. The printshop did not have proper tools, and he blistered his hands trimming publications with a penknife. Smith remembered that the tracts they published were square in doctrine, even if the pages were not.

To dream like Stephen Haskell, who heard his first sermon on the Second Advent at age 19 and was so thrilled that he talked about it to everyone he met. A friend challenged him to preach, and Haskell jokingly promised to do so if he would provide a hall and audience. The friend complied, and Haskell was stuck. Soon he combined part-time preaching with selling the soap he manufactured.

Time doesn't permit us to speak of James and Ellen White, J. N. Andrews, and a host of others who caught the dream of a movement with a message to give to a dying world.

We can't do the work just as they did. We shouldn't seek to emulate them exactly, for times have changed. But we must dream again as they did.

The greatest song of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is still unsung, and we will have the opportunity to write the tune of that song, to dream that dream. For where can nonbelievers see the dream in our church today? Where can nonbelievers read an unequivocal mes sage about the value of Christian sacrifice, the promise of the Advent, the worth of Sabbathkeeping, and the promise of the gospel? They can read the message in our writings, but where can they see it in our lives?

In fact, would not a majority of the secular world today describe our church and its members as a people living more or less like everyone else, acting more or less on the same principles, buffeted by more or less the same confusions, threatened more or less by the same dangers, and as resourceless as the rest of their fellowmen?

It is time to dream again! Certainly our church, with the everlasting gospel, has a dream for those in fear of a nuclear holocaust. Certainly our church, with the message of the soon advent of Jesus, has a dream for a world run out of solutions. Certainly our church, with the concept of the Sabbath rest, has a dream for a world filled with stress. Certainly our church, with its under standing of the sanctuary, has a dream for people who don't know where God is and what He is doing. Certainly our church, with its concepts of health, has a dream for a world being inundated by disease. Certainly our church, with its concept of man as a steward of God's creation, has a dream for a world struggling with starving people and ecological nightmares.

It is time to reject the idea that we can encapsulate the church in the nineteenth century, legalistically preserving the form without the fire. It is time to reject the idea that we can destroy the pillars of the church and its very raison d'etre with a permissiveness that defines the church by the world rather than by God's Word. The dream of Adventism needs to be caught by our generation. That dream has faded as too many days have come and gone. It is time to dream again.

That dream has waned as generation after generation is born into a church without having experienced its message. It is time to dream again.

That dream has been dissipated by argument over doctrinal nuance. It is time to dream again.

That dream has been undermined by confidence-destroying church decisions.

It is time to dream again. To dream of a people consumed with an appetite for God's Word rather than for the words of others. To dream of doctrines that change the way people behave rather than simply being subjects for discussion.

To dream of the unbeliever seeing an unequivocal message in our lives. It is time to dream again. To dream of a people transformed by their beliefs. To dream of a church converted by its doctrines. To dream of a church that leaves the world wondering, "Behold, how these people love one another!"


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Gordon Bietz is pastor of the Collegedale, Tennessee, Seventh-day Adventist church.

October 1984

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