Flash: Pastor of major Adventist church leaves denomination to establish a new congregationally based church, and half his members leave with him.
Flash: Pastors of multiple-church districts demand reductions in bureaucracy to place more workers in the field and to reduce their workload.
Flash: Donors, frustrated with the church's utilization of funds, redirect their tithe and offerings to media ministry for direct proclamation of the message.
Flash: Rumors abound of a secret study commissioned to describe what the church would be without departments and the services they provide.
What's going on? Are the above cases the issue or symptoms of a deeper, potentially more destructive, problem?
Whatever your observations of the state of the church, most of the above items are symptoms of a deeper spiritual problem that prophetic insight foresaw long ago. "In every religious crisis some fall under temptation. The shaking of God blows away multitudes like dry leaves. Prosperity multiplies a mass of professors. Adversity purges them out of the church" (4T 89).
What's going on? A shaking of God's people.
These flash points are indicators of spiritual lethargy or even rebellion. Congregationalism is not new nor are independent-minded pastors who lead their members away from the unified body. "I was shown that it is Satan's special work to lead men to feel that it is God's order for them to strike out for themselves and choose their own course independent of their brethren" (TM 29).
Of course there is growing dissatisfaction among pastors, as well as laity, when the organization is perceived as consuming resources that are more urgently needed at the local church level. Too often pastors see resources wasted in bureaucratic structures that have been sacrificially given at the local level. I felt concern for this as a pastor, and I feel the same today.
But the appropriate response is not independent separation. Inspiration says that is the work of Satan. Likewise, it is an inappropriate response for church structure merely to pronounce that all is well and to ignore legitimate concerns.
On the other hand, overreaction is equally dangerous. We might become so enthusiastic in dismantling structure that we throw the baby out with the bath water. The French Revolution is an excellent example of a system that waited too long to respond to real issues coupled with resultant anarchy when constituents finally seized power for themselves.
While we certainly need some of the things the structure provides—I like to believe we need the resources for pastors, local church elders, and pastoral families that are prepared by the Ministerial Association—we may not need every service and every resource, and we definitely need more in the local church.
At the same time, hard-working, multiple-church pastors do not need fewer congregations as much as they need to refocus priorities. The reality is that most multichurch pastors serve far fewer members than single-church pastors who need staff help and frontline evangelists who need teams of Bible workers and musicians to assist them.
Why do I say that multiple-church districts don't need additional pastors? At the risk of offending my colleagues in multichurch assignments, an example from my last pastorate demonstrates reality. In that metropolitan area, where people live, I was serving approximately seven hundred fifty members with two associates. The same number of members "downstate" were served by eight pastors.
Some in church organization would worry about "dark counties" but seem unconcerned that more people reside in one highly populated county, with just two congregations, than the entire population of several states. Someone mentioned to me, "But the downstate pastors have to drive longer distances between churches and members." Another commented, "And those pastors must hold three board meetings or prayer meetings rather than just one."
My response remains: Let's stop trying to make small churches act like big churches. Perhaps only quarterly board meetings are necessary in small churches. My congregation functioned well with only seven board meetings per year. As for extra prayer meetings and other services, utilize your elders. Their leadership function must be wider than guarding the platform and pews during services.
Does the church need to reallocate resources? Definitely. But we need to place such "freed up" resources and personnel in major metropolitan areas, where the people are. Let us release these funds and capable individuals to minister to millions of lost souls in the world's great cities.
Let me hasten to add that before we advocate dismantling bureaucracies, we remember that they provide us with useful infrastructures which we tend to take for granted, but which we nevertheless rely on substantially for many servic important to us personally and professionally.
Bureaucracies also help to provide us with a certain cohesiveness and identity. Let me add, however, that I have heard some say with tongue in cheek that bureaucracies provide a place for warehousing those among us who are marginally effective and who would cause serious damage if released back into the real world!
As for how a church without departments and services would appear, it would look just like the emphasis of the administrator in charge at that moment. Every individual, including every church administrator, has special areas of interest and expertise. The temptation is always to emphasize our strong suits and neglect other areas.
God's plan to assign some individuals the task of focusing on specific areas of church life that otherwise might be neglected remains a necessary balance for all avenues of the mission to flourish.
And those who refuse to support the structure and donate their tithe to media or other independent ministries are as wrong as those who refuse to support the structure and establish independent congregations. Both groups are, alike, headed down the same slippery slope— different motivations, perhaps, but just as entrapped by Satan.
You see, whatever the excuse— perception of wasted tithe, pastors who are too liberal and/or too extreme, top-heavy structures, etc.—all those who will ultimately depart will fall into the same trap and will be swept away by the same tide of apostasy.
I admire those media programs that reject such tithe donations and avoid the trap of reasoning that "it won't be given otherwise." But from others, I hear a strange silence on this issue.
What's going on?
Just exactly what we expected. A shaking of God's people is underway and will escalate. In describing the antidote to the poisonous atmosphere of such shaking, Ellen White says, "Their only safety was in keeping their eyes directed upward" (IT 180).
I have great faith in the Adventist message and fully expect the church to go through triumphant to Jesus' return. A great falling away is before us. While we should pray that it will not come, we should embrace the reality that prophetic insight says it will and do everything possible to prepare our people to meet the Lord.