Every significant movement has been sired and then sustained by a vision that inspired people at the core of their spirit and the fountainhead of their imagination. Such visions have had the capacity to probe the most mystifying riddles of life. When we see them and allow them to confront us, they often strike our humanity in the thigh of its greatest vulnerability yet give us courage to ford our feared Jabboks and return to our true home (Gen. 32:22-33:20). Such visions touch down and settle like tongues of fire on the heads and in the hearts of those who are searching the face of God for something beyond that which they already have, or with which they have become vaguely dissatisfied.
It is not at all coincidental that the Bible begins with a description of this world as being formless, dark, and empty, waiting for the Spirit of God to move upon it to give it substance, shape, and soul. It is clearly not coincidental either that the overall framework of the Bible is fashioned from events similar to this first one. Noah burning with a vision that included the necessary breaking down and reshaping of the earth itself into a new order. Abraham called out of ancient Ur and the traditional gods of his ancestors into an at first rather vague new country that God would show him. Moses en countering the irrepressible urge to turn aside from his safe and secluded way of life to hear God's voice and receive a disturbing but far-reaching vision for himself and his people. Nehemiah hearing of the broken-down walls of Jerusalem, weeping and praying and confessing and then implementing the great dream to rebuild the beloved city. Then of course there is the ultimate expression of this in Jesus and the arrival of "the fullness of time," when He, the foundational vision, arrived "to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons" (Gal. 4:5, RSV). And each of these biblical movements, especially the last, is prophetic of the final transition when Christ breaks into the present order, consummating the ultimate progression at His second coming.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church began with a primal thrust of energy fueled directly by an original insight, dream, or vision, centering in Christ and His second coming. This vision came from God and has been sustained by Him in miraculous ways. But in Adventism, as in almost all great visionary movements, such a vision has hardly brought a movement into being when, growing out of the passionate belief of the visionaries, monumental efforts are made to organize so that the great truth discovered may be communicated and expressed in action.
This effort to organize moves quite naturally into a stage of institutionalization, when not only are buildings built (churches, schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, publishing houses, conferences, and a General Conference), but doctrinal formulations are put into writing, policy structures are constituted, and organizational designs are instituted. Such a state of things has, historically speaking, hardly become satisfying to a new generation when the next stage tiptoes in almost unnoticed: institutionalism when the institution takes on a life of its own, more or less independent of the original driving inspiration. At the same time a significant dissatisfaction begins to stir, at first almost unnoticed in a now more sophisticated, multigenerationed, and enlarged membership.
This malaise opens the way for the stage of questioning. In the midst of this advanced phase another new generation begins to question the meaning of it all. Some become apprehensive about the original vision, which for them is all but dead. They tend to favor discarding the original dream and replacing it with something meaningful to them at the moment. Others go to the opposite extreme, insisting on a rather simplistic adherence to a hastily conceived, loyalistic version of what they see the original vision to have been and calling into question anyone who objects to what they advocate. Both approaches seriously threaten the long-term life of the movement, which is clearly at a decisive crossroad moment in its history.
During this period of questioning, another approach emerges. A burgeoning desire rises in the hearts of people that calls for a careful revisiting of the original vision and that prayerfully searches out a fresh expression and even recasting of that vision. A divinely inspired restlessness takes over, until both the objective and the subjective elements of the present faith actually express the original vision and possess its same spirit and action, speaking just as profoundly in the contemporary situation as they ever did in the beginning.
There is no movement immune to the effects of an aging sense of vision. It is not the vision that at its heart is aging, but rather our sense, expression, and commitment to the vision.
The Adventist Church is now a world wide movement whose global development has occurred over decades, and thus whose geographical and cultural parts are at different stages in this aging process. But in many parts of the Adventist world body there is certainly the need for recasting the original vision or simply having the vision ourselves in terms of our here and now.
I believe that the most urgent need and the most challenging task for us as pastors is to see this kind of vision and to lead our people into this kind of freshness. We live in a time that demands and dares us to search out the original realities eagerly, coming to know them for ourselves in the now, and casting them in terms of our present cultures. When I speak of originals, I definitely speak of the original vision of Seventh-day Adventism. But even more, if I am to be consistent, I think of the bottom-line essential of the apostolic spirit that said such things as "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. ... In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. ... And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father" (John 1:1-14, RSV).
And then there is the clarion call of God's voice one night as He spoke directly to Solomon: "When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among the people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land" (2 Chron. 7:13, 14, RSV).