When entering the atrium in the General Conference headquarters building in Silver Spring, Maryland, you immediately notice a huge globe of the world. It is a topographical map turning slowly on its axis, with only the physical features of the world displayed.
Your attention then shifts to several plaques around the base of the globe. They list the names of the division and union offices. But there seems to be no relationship between the globe and the plaques. You do not know that there is supposed to be a light shining at the spot on the globe where each office is located. However, every light ceased functioning some six months ago. I am told that it is difficult to keep the fiber optic bulbs shining without burning out.
However, without the shining lights the globe is nothing more than an art object. I view this sphere each day as I climb the stairs to my office. Watching it spin without any light leaves me wondering about our church. Is it possible that we have a world church that is constantly in motion, but with little light? Could our progress in fulfilling the gospel commission be less than we think?
We have heard exciting reports about the success of our church around the world. We rejoice over every person won to Christ. We look forward to even greater things happening under Global Mission. But is it possible that under neath all the optimism, all the euphoria, all the movement, all might not be as well as we would like? Is it possible that we are making progress without much light? Is it possible that church growth in the statistical column is not matched by growth in the character department? Is it possible that even our statistics are not as accurate as we would like?
Now, I believe in church growth and evangelism. I am presently preparing to conduct a major evangelistic series in Durban, South Africa. And I am asking some very critical questions about what will happen in those meetings. I do not want them to turn out like some other meetings I have heard about. While baptisms are important, there must be more than baptisms. I want people discipled for Jesus Christ.
Problems in evangelism
Is our world turning without much light? A close friend of mine who served as ministerial secretary of a union told of one campaign that resulted in 1,000 baptisms. One year later he traveled to that locality to evaluate the long-term results. He found only 57 people out of the more than 1,000 who had been baptized. The other 943 were still listed on the church books and will probably remain there for years to come.
During Harvest 90 many administrators felt tremendous pressure to meet their goals. One field president experienced difficulty reaching his target. So he talked to a local chief and promised him seven bales of clothing if he could deliver 1,000 people for baptism. By the end of the year his tally of 953 people was close enough to get the clothing. But these people knew little about Adventism and even less about the gospel.
In a recent Adventist Review, Editor William Johnsson interviewed David Lin, former secretary of the China Division. Pastor Lin reported on similar pressures to achieve results in the old China Division. He told of how pastors would invite their friends and relatives to a meeting and then ask them to be baptized. Out of respect for the pastor they would accept, not because they had fallen in love with Jesus and accepted His salvation.
Church membership records are highly inflated in some areas. Eight years ago one conference decided to do something about it and dropped 14,155 people in one year. Instead of being the largest conference in the union it dropped to third largest.
I realize it is quite possible that the examples cited are isolated incidents, small blips on an otherwise successful enterprise (please write and let me know of similar episodes in your area). It is difficult to find out for sure because no one likes to talk about this side of our work. Who wants to be the bearer of bad tidings? It is much more encouraging to praise God for the marvelous things happening in the area that used to make up the Soviet Union, for example, than to deal with problems that develop. But unless we are willing to be honest and candid, we will find that we are moving, spinning, progressing, growing, but with little light.
We admit that we are the Laodicean church. But we don't like to dwell on being "wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked" (Rev. 3:17).* We prefer to see ourselves as rich and successful.
Ellen White was extremely positive about our church. Without her counsel our organization would never have grown to be the size it is today. However, we must be careful that we do not fall into the same trap that the Jews fell into when they declared, "We are Abraham's seed," and then turned around and crucified the Messiah. We can boast that we are the remnant church and at the same time bear false witness to the gospel.
Ellen White prophesied about our church that "in the balances of the sanctuary the Seventh-day Adventist Church is to be weighed. She will be judged by the privileges and advantages that she has had. If her spiritual experience does not correspond to the advantages that Christ, at infinite cost, has bestowed on her, if the blessings conferred have not qualified her to do the work entrusted to her, on her will be pronounced the sentence: 'Found wanting.' By the light bestowed, the opportunities given, will she be judged" (Testimonies, vol. 8, p. 247).
But you say, "Are we not winning many people? We must be doing God's will." Let's pause for a moment. Is it possible that some of our people, and even some of our pastors and evangelists, are motivated by reasons other than the cross of Christ? For example, Jehovah's Witnesses are one of the fastest growing religions in the world, but they have a righteousness-by-works-dominated religion. They know nothing about the cross and the imputed righteousness of Christ, yet their members are going door-to-door, often putting our own members to shame. The Mormons are also one of the fastest growing religions. Many of them sacrifice two years of their life to witness for their faith. They probably cite their figures as proof of God's blessing.
People join religious groups for various reasons. Many feel the need of a structured life: they want boundaries, so they are impressed with a group that has strong beliefs. People would rather join a conservative church than a liberal one but are they joining for the right reasons?
The Jews of the Old Testament were God's people. God had given them tremendous light, yet Jesus denounced their soul winning in these terms: "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are" (Matt. 23:15). So statistical growth in and of itself is no guarantee of truth. In fact, it can easily lull us into a false security.
When I mention the three angels' messages, what is the very first thought that pops into your mind? The mark of the beast? The Sabbath? The sanctuary doctrine? Or is it the cross of Christ? Is it justification by faith? Ellen White re minds us that "justification by faith . . . is the third angel's message in verity" (Selected Messages, book l,p. 372). But how do our members regard it? Do they see the cross as the essence of Adventism?
The cross the focus
What does it take to make Global Mission my mission? What was so powerful about the early church's witness? They preached Jesus Christ and Him crucified as the only hope of the world.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians saying:
"For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
"For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. . . .
"But we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Cor. 1:17, 23).
Then he concludes this opening section of his letter with these powerful words:
"I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:2). Jesus said: "I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself (John 12:32). Peter declared: "There is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).
Just a few weeks ago I talked to a lady in one of the area churches. The doctors had discovered a tumor in her abdomen and decided she would have to enter the hospital. Naturally she wondered if it would be cancerous. She told me that she was frightened about the possibility of dying and leaving two small children without a mother. "Can I pray to God to heal me without any conditions? Is it ever God's will that my children should be left without a mother?" she asked.
How would you answer that question? What theological point would you use? Which one of the 27 doctrines would help the most? All I could do was point her to Calvary. I said, "I cannot answer your question, but I can tell you this: God loves you. The cross demonstrates that fact. God loved us so much that He was willing to come here and become one of His creatures. He died a death that He did not deserve a cruel and horrible death. If God did not love us, He would not have died on Calvary. Place your faith in Jesus. Don't look within for assurance: look outside yourself. Look at the cross, and God will give you your answer."
All this happened during the break between Sabbath school and church. I made an appointment to see her that next Tuesday night before her operation Fri day. Unfortunately, an emergency arose that caused me to fly 500 miles away on the day of her appointment and not return till late that night. When I called to tell her I would miss our meeting, she said:
"It's all right, pastor; I am now at peace. I did what you said. I went to the cross, and now I am content; I know that whatever God wills will be what is best for me and my family."
I visited her Sabbath, the day before leaving for the Annual Council meetings in Australia. A big smile filled her face. The tumor was not malignant. What a time of rejoicing we had together.
What makes the difference?
A "celebration church" has just be gun in the Washington, D.C., area. It met for the first time Sabbath, September 26. A core of some 12 families mailed out 300 invitations to their friends and relatives. Three hundred twenty-five adults and children met in that first worship experience. They plan to meet once a month for four months on a trial basis. How many evangelists would be delighted to receive that kind of response from so few mailings!
What made the difference? They made Jesus Christ and Him crucified their mission. They wanted a church service where praising Jesus Christ in word and song consumed their entire attention. People responded to that cross-centered focus. While this new church is springing into being, the Adventist churches surrounding it are barely growing, and there is certainly no motivation for the members of these other churches to invite their friends and neighbors to Sabbath services.
Why not? The answer has grave implications for our church. These people are attempting to rebuild the New Testament church. They are attempting to recapture the same fire and enthusiasm that shocked the Jewish authorities and the Roman world. And some of their methods shock us, too. They want a church on fire for Jesus Christ; a church that is longing for His soon return.
But there is a danger. When I said a celebration church, I meant it. Today any church that innovates with contemporary music and overheads is tagged a celebration church. Most of these churches are not celebration churches modeled after what is happening in certain other places. There seems (and I stress seems) to be an underlying theology that is at the basis of some of these churches where attendance has mushroomed. This theology some interpret as saying all that matters is Jesus and the cross, and we don't necessarily need all the traditional doctrines and standards of the Adventist Church. These churches are reacting against the legalism and heavy emphasis on doctrine in our church.
One 22-year-old with whom I have been dialoguing quite extensively told me just two weeks ago, "I grew up in the Adventist Church. My parents believed the doctrines and gave Bible studies all the time. But all I remember hearing in the church were the 'don'ts' and the 'musts.' You don't do this on Sabbath. You don't eat this or wear that. You don't go there or watch this. You must live a good life so that your name will not be stricken from the records when Christ comes to your name in the heavenly sanctuary. You must pay your tithe; you must study your Sabbath school lesson; you must go Ingathering. You must...You don't. ..."
He told me, "You believe that it is possible to really make the doctrines of the Adventist Church Christ-centered. I and some of the other people starting this new church are beginning to believe that that is not possible. We believe that the Adventist boat is so encrusted with barnacles that it is now impossible to clean them all off. We would rather build a new boat---a boat without some of the distinctives."
If this is the foundation of much of what goes for true "celebration" (and that has not yet been clearly established) then we will find that some of these churches will eventually leave the denomination. The Sabbath is just about the only distinctive they still hold on to. But it is very difficult, if not impossible, to maintain an independent Sabbath-keeping church.
Justification by faith
Herein lies our church's dilemma or tension. Do we, like Paul, preach Christ and Him crucified as our main mes sage the message that galvanized the early church, that brought thousands flocking into its ranks? Or do we preach something else?
Some are afraid that if we dwell too much upon the cross we will minimize victory over sin. But victory comes when we lift up the cross. Justification by faith is what God did in Christ 2,000 years ago. It is not first what God does in us, but what He has done for us. Ellen White dealt with this concern when she said: "Some of our brethren have expressed fears that we shall dwell too much upon the subject of justification by faith, but I hope and pray that none will be needlessly alarmed; for there is no danger in presenting this doctrine as it is set forth in the Scriptures. If there had not been a remissness in the past to properly instruct the people of God, there would not now be a necessity of calling a special attention to it.... The exceeding great and precious promises given us in the Holy Scriptures have been lost sight of to a great extent, just as the enemy of all righteousness designed that they should be. He has cast his own dark shadow between us and our God, that we may not see the true character of God. The Lord has proclaimed Himself to be 'merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth' " (Selected Messages, book 1, p. 372).
I compare the gospel to a picture and the doctrines of the Adventist Church to a frame. You do not need a frame to show the picture, but a well-chosen frame certainly draws attention to the picture and showcases it beautifully. The problem occurs when the frame becomes so large and so dominant that it overwhelms the picture. Now people notice the frame rather than the picture. That which was intended to enhance now obscures.
Our 27 fundamental doctrines are a case in point. Salvation is listed as one of the 27, but it is more than just one of the 27. Take salvation out of the 27, and it does not matter how well you keep the remaining 26—no one will make it to heaven. But keep salvation and eliminate the 26, and a person can still make it to heaven.** I sometimes tell people that it is harder to get into the Adventist Church than it is to get into heaven. Only one thing is required for heaven faith while 27 are required to join our church.
The picture and frame
If we want our people to make Global Mission their mission, we must go to extraordinary lengths to make Jesus prominent to them. We must make it crystal clear that our salvation is based not on what we do, or any change in us, but on what God did in Christ at Calvary. We are saved not because of what we have done, but because of what Jesus has done. Whenever we look within for merit, whenever we emphasize imparted, or infused, righteousness above the imputed righteousness of Christ, we obscure the picture. We begin to enlarge the frame. The solution to humanity's problems is not health reform, the Sabbath, etc., but Jesus.
"I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified."
That did not mean that Paul did not deal with other issues in his letter to the Corinthians. But it is amazing how little the New Testament says about how to keep the Sabbath, pay tithe, refrain from unclean foods, discard jewelry, and so on. The principles can all be found there, but there is very little emphasis on detail except as it pertained to a specific situation. We tend today to major on application and minor on principle.
How can we help our members recapture the same spirit that existed at Pentecost the same enthusiasm, the same joy, the same peace? I believe that we need to reconsider how we have written our 27 fundamentals. I would like to see us take the cross, the plan of salvation, out of the 27 and make it first, make it the foundation of our doctrinal statement.
Then under this clear emphasis and description of the gospel, show how the following 26 doctrines are the frame that surrounds the gospel without obscuring it.
Or to change the analogy, the 26 are the setting in which the diamond, the gospel, is placed. Every jeweler knows that while the true value resides in the gem itself, its beauty and color can be magnified and improved by the type of setting surrounding it. No one would mistake the setting for the diamond. No one would mistake the frame for the picture. And yet that is exactly what has happened in our church.
I would love to see this voted at our next General Conference session at Utrecht as part of the emphasis of Global Mission being made personal because of a Person, Jesus Christ. (Again, if you like this idea, please let me know.) People should join our church because they love Jesus, not because they are impressed with a logical presentation of doctrine. If we are to turn the world upside down, we have got to let the world know that we preach Christ and Him crucified. When people hear the name Seventh-day Adventist, a picture of the cross should flash through their minds rather than one of our peculiar doctrines.
God has commissioned our church to provide the same function that John the Baptist fulfilled when announcing the first coming of Jesus. We must live the same kind of lifestyle John lived, which gave credence to his message. Godly living is important. Unfortunately our message concerning lifestyle has degenerated to emphasis on a half-dozen areas where we must be different and outside of that we apparently think we can live as we please. This has given rise to all kinds of contradictions. It has also caused many of our people to consider giving up even these few standards, because they wonder why they are so important and not the dozens of other areas in which the church has not spoken.
We need to remind ourselves what it means to be a disciple of Christ. The gospel commission is much more than baptizing; it is making disciples of people who are reflecting the character of Jesus.
I hope that by the time I return to the GC, the bulbs will be lit on the globe in the atrium (they were). I hope that as our church makes its plans at this Annual Council we will be interested in more than just numbers, statistics, growth, movement, etc. For we can have all of these without Jesus Christ. I hope that we will look for ways to constantly uplift the cross. While looking forward to His second coming we must be constantly looking backward 2,000 years to His first coming.
When we do that, God will be able to work through us in ways we cannot now imagine. His glory will lighten the earth. Everyone will make his or her decision for or against Jesus. Jesus will come, and our Global Mission will have been com pleted. We will go home to spend eternity with Him.
As Ellen White so pointedly reminded us: "Christ crucified talk it, pray it, sing it, and it will break and win hearts. This is the power and wisdom of God to gather souls for Christ" (Testimonies, vol. 6, p. 67).
"For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified."
* Bible texts used in this article are from the New International Version.
**I am not implying that a person can will fully reject the 26 and still make it to heaven. Jesus said, "If you love Me, you will keep My commandments." It is just that the 26 are never the basis of salvation.