Last Sabbath in my home church we sang a striking hymn that I'd never noticed in the Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal. Here's its opening verse:
When the church of Jesus
Shuts its outer door,
Lest the roar of traffic
Drown the voice of prayer:
May our prayers, Lord make u
Ten times more aware
That the world we banish
Is our Christian care.
Among people in the Western cultures of our world and elsewhere, it is painful for us to acknowledge that Christianity has unnecessarily lost alarming proportions of its credibility. And we know that Adventist ministers are by no means untouched by this trend.
Citing an array of reasons, some of us may rather brashly banish any significant concern about this. But it cannot be escaped that easily.
If it were in fact necessary for us to lose credibility or the trust of many of those around us, in order to faithfully carry out our God-given calling, such a loss would be a worthy one. But I don't think that a lot of the loss of trust we are experiencing is necessary.
It is certainly important to the Church's ministry in this world that we faithfully and fearlessly "point out sin," when we are in fact called to do so. But when rebuking and correcting sinners becomes the predominant characteristic of our ministry, the trait we are especially known for, then we have left the ministry of Jesus Christ to take on the very "ministry" for which the arch enemies of Jesus were notorious.
We know that Jesus of Nazareth had good reason for carrying on His ministry as He did. He by all means helped people right in their homes, villages, streets, byways, and alleys simply because He loved them, but this kind of ministry was unquestionably a major reason for His ability to reach their hearts with His teaching and His preaching to reach them with "the truth."
Jesus had the real thing: legitimate, convincing integrity and credibility. And so He was ultimately effective. He won people's innate trust by being a true fellow traveler with commoner and celebrity alike. He related to people where they were and as they were.
So scores of them loved Him by no means all just because they couldn't help it as they experienced the way He touched them and lifted them at the focal point of their most pressing pain, sorrow, or joy. And so they hung on his words and believed those words, not only because he was a great speaker and miracle worker but, again, simply because they trusted him on the basis of who He was to them and for them.
All this we know, of course, but I must admit that I have a difficult time internalizing it and actually incorporating it into the way I practice my ongoing ministry.
For the Seventh-day Adventist Church and for us ministers of the Church to find meaningful balance here, is as crucial a challenge as it is life long.
Evangelism? Of course! But evangelism, or Christian ministry in general, without this element of authentic care is not the real thing. It's not going to be all that effective. It can't be. It's not the full treatment, and it will lead to the well- known feelings of frustration that so many of us are well acquainted with.
With honesty, insight, and cutting satire, Soren Kierkegaard once said: "We artful dodgers act as if we do not understand the New Testament, because we realize full well that [if we let on that we did] we should have to change our way of life drastically. That is why we invented 'religious education' and 'Christian doctrine.' Another concordance, another lexicon, a few more commentaries, three other translations, because it is all so difficult to under stand. Yes, of course, dear God, all of us capitalists, house-owners, beggars, the whole society we would be lost if it were not for 'scholarly doctrine!'"
The more one thinks about the thrust of this kind of assessment of organized religion, and the verse of the hymn quoted above, the more one feels the need of a kind of Christian ministry that tugs at us with beautiful but challenging conviction; that calls us to fashion our ministry and that of our churches after the radical order of the down-to-earth, holy ministry of the New Testament communities of faith, and again, that of Jesus Himself.
1 Fred Pratt Green, When the Christian Church of Jesus (Carol Stream, 111.: Hope Publishing Co., 1969). Used in the Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal as hymn 581, by permission of Oxford University Press.
2 Soren Kierkegaard, quoted by Peter G. van Breemen, Called by Name (Denville, NJ: Dimension Books, 1976), 88, and in Brennan Manning, Abba's Child (Colorado Springs, Co.: NavPress, 1994), 135.