Can the church be relevant and survive?

Final of a two-part series on how the church may blur its identity in a search for relevancy

Jay Gallimore is president of the Michigan Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Lansing, Michigan.

In part one of this series (Ministry, April 2003) we asked, Can the church be relevant and thrive? In this part we ask the same question with an important twist: Can the church be "relevant" and survive.

Considering the impact or influence that some megachurches are having within Adventism, at least in North America, we need to ask how such changes might in fact affect us. If Seventh-day Adventists, in an attempt merely to be "relevant" to the surrounding culture, adopt their approaches and methodologies, will we also tend to adopt some of their presuppositions about the church and, most significantly, their mission? If we adopt their mission, will we, in turn, adopt their ideas about the nature of the church, and their conception of why the church exists? If so, would such changes bless or curse us?

The three angels' messages

Most Seventh-day Adventists recognize that Revelation 14:6-12 represents the most succinct biblical source for our theology, identity, and particularly for our mission. All three of the messages of the angels of this passage are merged. A person cannot change or neglect one without changing the other, and thus the thrust of the message as a whole.

The everlasting gospel, in the setting of the three angels' messages describes the heart of our theology. We identify ourselves with the remnant who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony and faith of Jesus. Our mission is to give that everlasting gospel to every tribe, nation, language, and people.

It is because this is the particular commission of Seventh-day Adventists that we cannot look to the nature or mission of other ecclesiastical entities, making them our model. These churches don't have the theology, identity, or mission that, through a unique, historic encounter of the three angels' messages, has been given to Seventh-day Adventists.

This is not to say that we cannot learn from other churches and organizations. But it is to say that they cannot be our models. This is so because, without the unique commission that has been divinely imparted to Seventh-day Adventists, that particular message cannot be carried into all the world as God intended it to be carried. And to carry that particular message is in fact our mission.

Maybe, then, our early Adventist fathers and mothers were right after all about church organization. By spreading our human and financial resources over the entire world field, we are able to grow in many different cultures with an amazing degree of unity. Our organization is not rigid but elastic. It is adaptable, not pluralistic. Our organizational structure adapts well worldwide while providing high proportions of unity and oneness. It allows for significant cultural diversity without sacrificing the essence of what is uniquely ours to proclaim from the Bible.

Congregational churches, on the other hand, are limited by their local focus and culture. They may by all means be compelled by the gospel commission, but their organizational vehicle is simply too small and fragile to carry out a world mission. By their nature they cannot maintain any degree of unity and cooperation beyond a localized sphere of influence. They consume large proportions of their resources on the local level where many of them exclusively operate. They have difficulty acting upon the need for an unselfish unity and sacrifice that provides for an out reach to all languages and people groups.

Mission and structure

There is a principle here. Concepts of mission give birth to church government. Some Seventh-day Adventist congregations which have recently left the sisterhood of the Seventh-day Adventist Church to follow a megachurch dream are an example of how this principle works. First they changed their mission, then their form of church government.

They went from a passionate worldview to a passionate local view. Then they naturally moved from a representative to a congregational form of church government. Does this mean that we Adventists are not passionate about our local work? No, not at all. Rather, it means that we are passionate about both. We believe that an investment in world missions returns to strengthen the local work. It should not surprise us that unselfish love unleashes more human and financial resources than any other power in the world. So instead of having fewer resources, we actually have far more. Adventist giving is astounding when compared to almost any other church. Our passion for the whole leads us to cooperation. Our theology embraces the fact that the gospel work is not finished any where until it is finished everywhere.

During the crisis of the last presidential election in the United States, the citizens of the nation did not know who the president-elect was going to be. In all this, the nation could have lost its footing, but it kept going largely because of the stability of well-established structures that operated despite the serious uncertainties that arose when things at the head of the nation were in question.

Representative forms of government will not succeed well unless they have building blocks starting at the grass roots. This way, the power is both top-down and bottom-up. These layered structures provide stability throughout and steer the whole. Certainly, such structures can be cumbersome, but they provide necessary strength and stability. While it is appropriate for us to think about alternative forms of church government, as a church we have a biblical die cast, and its not a corporate or political one, but one where authority is shared and balanced among the levels of a representative form of church governance.

As an example of the sharing of government among the levels of church organization, take the role of the conference. The decision of where the church schools of a given conference should be located is not one made at central headquarters. Here the local decision is primary. Even the conference is given life by local church delegates at a constituency meeting. Those combined delegate votes give the conference authority to oversee and guide the operation and expansion of churches, schools, and other ministries within its jurisdiction. It exists to choose pastoral and educational leadership and to shepherd unity, local initiative, and self-determination within the whole.

These local conferences form the union conferences, which in turn make up the world divisions of the church. Unlike some organizations, the Adventist Church is not held together merely by charismatic personalities. Policy, carefully crafted through a process involving all the levels of the church keep the organization working concertedly. The ongoing life of the church is not dependent on a localized body, led by one or two, as it is in many of the megachurches of our time.

The union conferences represent their part of the world field to the General Conference. They are vital to the policy making process just as the bone marrow is vital to making blood. The General Conference develops resources and is the vision caster and final authority on the policy and planning that drives the world church. Each of these parts wield real power but in different spheres. We all depend on each other doing well. Like wheels within wheels, we need the Holy Spirit to constantly pour His oil into the machinery, His water into His living organism.

Spiritual, not secular

We sometimes have difficulty realizing that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is also not to be run by a model adapted from secular politics. Our process is set up for spiritual, not political purposes. We should be concerned when we see people trying to work our spiritual process like politicians. The two don't mix.

Whether we are members of a local church board or a conference executive committee, we are not politicians or CEOs, but servants seeking the will of God. There is always the temptation for members and workers to try to manipulate local church business meetings or conference and union constituencies or, for that matter, the General Conference. We must remember these represent not just what we sometimes thoughtlessly call"the body," but they represent the body of Christ. Any part of the church, including any level of church administration, is not the head, but parts of the body. As such they do not lead out in self-government, (which is the common political view of a secular democracy) but they lead looking to the Head Himself for governance.

Our organization was set up with the concept that humble, godly believers would come together and make organized decisions. It never envisioned one person running for office against another. Neither was it meant to sustain well-orchestrated manipulative campaigns to force, trick, or manipulate the body into decisions. In the New Testament, the manipulative methods of Simon were immediately put down by Peter.

In Galatians, Paul challenged Peter's hypocritical politics publicly. In Acts, the early church called for the leadership and delegates from various places to come and settle disputable matters. Political maneuvering pro motes division, pride, and competition, rather than unity, humility, and cooperation. To try to impose the secular processes on the church is to ruin it as a reflection of the humble Savior.

Genuinely Christian servant leadership will educate the body so that it may carry out its functions well as it looks to its Head.

Conclusion

Seventh-day Adventist theology and mission is unique. It is not found anywhere else. We believe God has brought us into being for a particular eschatological purpose. The programs, organizations, and worship styles reflected in the mission and governance of other bodies is not ours. Trying to embrace these wholesale without embracing their theology is causing a great deal of stress in many of our congregations. Trying to merge their methods with our mission will not give us a super hybrid. At stake in all of this is nothing less than the survival of the Adventist Church itself.

We do not simply want to survive but to thrive. Thriving means we must realize that human leadership is not enough. We need in our assemblies the conscious presence of our real, unseen Leader. We need a great awakening. We need a spiritual renewal that grows in power and scope until Jesus comes. We need spiritual power from the sanctuary above. We need the glory that shines from between the cherubim to enlighten a darkened world. We need the blood sprinkled on the mercy seat to carry us through the close of human probation. We need the celestial glory of Jesus Himself, directing His church through the maze of tempting options, persecution, and attack.

In the final analysis we do not succeed because of church government, as important as that is; we do not succeed because of human ingenuity and brilliance, as much as that is needed. We succeed when, by faith, we individually and collectively surrender ourselves to Him who is our Head. It is then that He will use poor, feeble, and unworthy mortals like us to "lighten the world with His glory."

* For a complete, unedited version of this article, email <[email protected]>

 

 


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Jay Gallimore is president of the Michigan Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Lansing, Michigan.

June 2003

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