Knight's Law applied to church leadership

About 25 years ago I decided to try my hand at developing some cryptic and esoteric sagacity of my own. The result: Knight's Law, with two corollaries for church leaders.

George R. Knight is professor of church history at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

The world is full of laws, not only in I the physical realm but also in the I social. I have been collecting these I enlightening laws for some time. Take Schmidt's Law, for example: "If you mess with a thing long enough, it'll break." Or Weiler's Law: "Nothing is impossible for the man who doesn't have to do it himself." Then there is Jones's Law: "The person who can smile when things go wrong has thought of someone to blame it on." And most of us have experienced Stewart's Second Corollary to Murphy's Law: "The magnitude of the catastrophe is directly proportional to the number of people watching."

Having been enlightened by such wisdom, about 25 years ago I decided to try my hand at developing some cryptic and esoteric sagacity of my own. The result: Knight's Law, with two corollaries for church leaders. Put simply, Knight's Law reads, "It is impossible to arrive at your destination unless you know where you are going." Corollary number 1: "Church leaders who don't know where they are going are lost." Corollary number 2: "Church leaders who are lost often have confused motion with progress."

Confusing motion with progress

Let's start our discussion with corollary number 2. For those of us who have been in the Adventist system for a number of years, it's all too easy to confuse motion with progress, and it is even easier to confuse statistics with progress.

Now, I must admit that the statistics are impressive even inspiring. Some months ago the denomination's 141st Annual Statistical Report crossed my desk. It is moving to read that a church that had about one million members when I was baptized in 1961 had grown to 13,406,554 adherents by December 31, 2003.

Then there are these impressive statistical configurations: that the total tithes and General Conference offerings for 2003 had been nearly two billion dollars, that the denomination baptized 991,714 people into membership that year, and that it operated 6,689 schools, 754 health-care institutions, and 56 publishing houses. It is equally exciting to read that the church by 2003 had entered 204 of the 230 nations of the world and was using 882 languages in its outreach programs.

Yes, the statistics are truly impressive, but we need to remember that the ever-growing statistics are not an end in themselves. Perhaps their true significance lies not so much in what the church has accomplished but rather in what they tell us is yet to be done.

After all, when compared with the more than six billion people living on earth, the denomination's fourteen million adherents doesn't sound like much (they represent a little more than two-tenths of 1 percent of the world's population). I remember some years ago when addressing a closed meeting consisting of the General Conference president and the North American Division and union conference presidents, I noted in my opening remarks that the very fact that the denomination had six million members on earth was a sign not of its success but of its failure. The same could be said for 14 million, or 30 million, or even 100 million members.

After all, the problem that is the basis for all other problems and challenges in Adventism is that the church is still on earth rather than in heaven. We must never confuse the excitement of growing a large denomination on earth with the real goal of arriving in the heavenly kingdom.

Thus even though statistics have their purpose, they are not what the church is about. They may represent a means to the end, but they must never be confused with the end itself. In fact, theoretically the statistics could continue to grow throughout eternity without ever bringing about the desired end. So again, we must ever remember that motion is not necessarily progress.

That dictum also needs to be kept in mind in our daily activities as church leaders. One of the deadly sins of administration is equating the filling out of reports, the planning of projects and campaigns, and the raising of money to pay for those projects with genuine progress. The bad news is that we may be generating motion rather than progress, heat rather than forward movement.

Like the little boy on his rocking horse, we may have a lot of activity, but we may not be progressing toward our original goal. We must not lose track of the vision and goals that made us Seventh-day Adventists in the first place. To do so is to become lost, even while we are loudly and enthusiastically proclaiming that we have the real answer. Those who have fallen into the pit of corollary number 2 represent a rather classic example of the blind leading the blind.

The case of lost leaders

That brings us to corollary number 1: "Church leaders who don't know where they are going are lost." Now I do not mean lost spiritually. Rather, theirs is a case of occupational, vision, or mission lostness.

As implied above under corollary number 2, church leaders need to raise their sights above the bean counting mode if they are to gain a helpful perspective or orientation.

One of the greatest needs of leaders in all parts of the Seventh-day Adventist work is to re-vision the future. Even though we as leaders may be comfortable with the way things have been done in the past, we need to awaken to the fact that familiar and traditional ways of doing things are not the only ways of doing them and are probably not even the best ways.

We need to re-vision more effective ways of using the media, selling books, running healthcare and educational institutions, and structuring the church and its outreach. And "more effective" does not mean some how surviving or even surviving with more style and funds. That approach to being "more effective" may be satisfactory for IBM or General Motors, but it is inadequate for Seventh-day Adventist planning.

We need to focus on the fact that our goal is not to run a good business here on earth but to forward the mission of the church in such a way that it enables the coming of the kingdom of God. Adventist leaders must move beyond the mentality of being successful business people to that of being radical revolutionaries who are out to change the world order.

If we continue to vision success from the perspective of what common, earthly evaluations identify, we will be on the planet for a long time. The church may be in this world but its vision must not be of this world. The only way to keep out of the realm of occupational, ecclesiological lostness is to move beyond the success measures of the larger culture to the truly radical vision of the Christ who claimed that He would come again and consign all the symbols of worldly success to the eternal rubbish heap.

In re-visioning the future, Adventist leaders need to stop thinking arithmetically and begin thinking geometrically. Too many of us just chug along as if church growth is a graph that gently (or maybe not so gently) slopes upward. Thinking and planning along the lines of that kind of thinking will keep the church earthbound for a long time probably for eternity.

If I am reading my Bible correctly, the church will at some point in time be faced with explosive growth of such a magnitude that terrestrial structures will not be able to contain it. Is that kind of exponential growth a part of our vision of the future?

Furthermore, it should be pointed out, radical, massive change does not necessarily take a lot of time. Let me illustrate. In October 1989 I was touring East Germany as a guest of the East German government. At the time we made the arrangements, neither I nor that government could foresee that I would be traveling through the midst of a revolution that in a few weeks would overturn the entire Soviet system.

The whole structure fell virtually overnight. And that degree of radical change was of the highest magnitude imaginable for most people. But as Adventist Christians we expect to see a social/political change of such pro portions that the fall of the Soviet block will pale into insignificance by comparison. In the meantime, we should see the sudden collapse of the Soviet system as an historical type of what can happen on a massive scale in a very short time.

But such megachange did not hap pen by itself. There were human spark plugs, such as the influence of Polish labor leaders, who envisioned a different world and were willing to risk and sacrifice to make it happen.

Adventist leaders need to think big rather than small if we are to have a part in these big events rather than just plodding along at the speed of mere day-in, day-out change. And, needless to say, such spiritual leaders, like the radicals from within the Soviet block, need to be willing to risk and sacrifice to make the larger vision come about.

An attitude of doing business as usual just won't do. Such is the hard road of becoming ecclesiologically unlost. The church needs leaders who can envision something better than what we have now and what we are doing in the present.

Keeping leadership eyes on the goal

That thought brings us back to Knight's Law proper: "It is impossible to arrive at your destination unless you know where you are going."

Now I wouldn't want to go so far as to say that some Adventist leaders are confused as to purpose, but it does seem that some are a bit messed up in how they operate. It has been a pleasure in my work to hobnob with both the church's foremost leaders and its most humble district pastors. In fact, I often room and eat with district pas tors as I teach extension schools around the world, and what some of them tell me is quite enlightening when it comes to the perceived mentality of some of their leaders.

In one rapidly growing division, for example, the pastors told me that they were not given permission to attend my class until they had reached their baptismal goal. They went on to note that in their Union pastors could not have their vacation unless they reached their goal.

At that juncture they pointed out that the only way some of them could reach their goal was to invent names (as in getting them from nearby tomb stones!) and add them to their baptismal report. Voila! the goal had been reached and everybody was happy.

Such stories, as I hear them from people under pressure to come up with results, lead me to question whether some of us aren't just a bit more than confused regarding the overarching, genuine goals of the church.

Do we as church leaders really know where we are going? Or are we merely "playing church" in the same way others play at making McDonald's the world's most successful fast-food chain?

I want to be very clear and explicit at this point. The Seventh-day Adventist Church has only one genuine, ultimate goal: the arrival of Christ in the clouds of heaven.

That one goal is beyond human achievement. But and here is where the church comes in in preparation for the Second Advent God has given an end-time message that must be proclaimed to all the earth. "Then I saw another angel flying in midheaven," we read in Revelation 14, "with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and tongue and people; and he said with a loud voice, 'Fear God and give him glory, for the hour of his judgment has come; and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the fountains of water'" (verses 6, 7, RSV).

That first angel's message is fol lowed by a second dealing with the fall of Babylon (verse 8) and a third commending those who are patiently waiting for Jesus to come and who, while waiting, are keeping God's commandments and maintaining faith in Christ* (verse 12). Immediately fol lowing the proclaiming of those three messages is the Second Advent, which is pictured in verses 14-20.

One reason I became a Seventh-day Adventist was because of our under standing of the teachings of Revelation 14. Adventism has never seen itself as merely another denomination. On the contrary, it has from its earliest times viewed itself as the gathering of a people of prophecy with a special message to be preached to all the world before the Second Advent.

It is that conviction that has liter ally driven the Seventh-day Adventist Church to the far corners of the earth, until today it is history's most wide spread, unified Protestant body. That vision with its imperative to world wide mission has led generations of Adventist young people to give their lives to mission service and it has inspired older members to financial sacrifice in order to support them.

It is the vision of a last-day mission to all the world that has made Adventism a vibrant movement. When the denomination and its leaders lose that vision and begin to see Adventism as just another denomination, Adventism will have lost its reason for being. It will become just another toothless religious group.

Of course, it would still be some what different because it keeps Saturday instead of Sunday and has some other peculiarities. But to all intents and purposes it will have lost its biblical reason for existing, no matter how many millions it can count as adherents.

Vibrant Adventist leadership must keep at the very forefront of its collective mind both its destination and the task that God has given it in Revelation 14.

The Second Advent is the denomination's ultimate goal, and worldwide mission is the proximate goal that God has given it. There must be no sacred cows in Adventism. Anything that does not contribute to the ultimate mission in the most effective manner is expendable. As a church we have been good at adding things to the denominational system, but we have failed dismally at the job of pruning and chopping off those aspects of the system that are less than maximally effective. The ultimate and proximate goals must be the measure of all we do.

It is fine to say that worldwide mission is the proximate goal of Adventism, but even such a worthy mission must, by its very nature, be mission about something in particular and targeting someone in particular. To all the world is Adventism's rather "hum ble" view of mission. And the content of its mission message is specifically spelled out in Revelation 14, especially verse 12.

In that verse we find the three absolute essentials of Adventist mission content:

1. The Second Advent.

2. The end-time importance of God's commands, which will be an issue at the end of time. (See Rev. 12:17. And as we read this verse, let's please note the allusion to the Sabbath commandment at the end of Rev. 14:7. The context is clear that at the end of time everybody will be worshiping someone either the Maker of heaven and earth [verse 7] or the beast and its image [verse 9]. Thus in verse 7 we are even told which commandment will be most problematic as events lead up to the eschaton.)

3. The supreme importance of having faith in Jesus.*

The point that needs to be emphasized at this juncture is not only that God has given Adventism a specific message, but that it is a balanced mes sage. With that in mind, it is important to note that the faithful proclamation of a balanced message implies the need of balanced leaders.

That being so, if I were the devil I would do everything I could to unbalance the leadership of the church. I would not be overly concerned with the direction of the imbalance, just so long as most leaders were off center in some direction.

Thus I would get some of .them so involved with preaching the commandments and those aspects of doctrine that make them distinctively Adventist that they would neglect the great gospel truths that Adventism shares with other churches. On the opposite side, I would get other Adventist spiritual leaders so focused on the gospel truths as posited in other churches that they would neglect the heavenly sanctuary doctrine, the last-day implications of the Sabbath, and so on.

Still others I would send on a psychological or megachurch trip that neglects the Adventist message altogether. Better still, I would aim at getting the various factions of Adventist leadership divided and arguing with each other. If those tactics took root, I would have very little to fear.

Now if the devil's strategy is imbalance, I would suggest that God's is balance. If I were God I would seek an Adventist leadership that clearly sees that the only genuine goal is the Second Advent, that the specific mission of the denomination is to preach the message of the three angels to all the world, and that that message must be preached in a balanced way that emphasizes both the great gospel truths that the denomination shares with other Christians and those truths that make it distinctively Adventist, all set forth within the context of the Bible's end-time scenario.

That brings us full-circle to the heart of Knight's Law: "It is impossible to arrive at your destination unless you know where you are going." God has spelled out both the denomination's goal and its message in Revelation 14. It may seem arrogant for such a small church to claim it has God's last-day message to the world as set forth in that chapter, but no other religious body has specifically under taken that prophetic task.

It just may be that a bit of "sanctified arrogance" must be part and parcel of those leaders who claim to be following the One who claimed that He was the Light and the Way and the Truth and who sent out an unimpressive and poorly educated dozen followers to take His gospel to the ends of the earth.

Maybe things haven't changed all that much. And one thing has certainly not changed: Leadership must both understand and be committed to its destination if it ever hopes to reach it.

* For a discussion of the "faith of Jesus" of Revelation 14:12 being "faith in Jesus," see George R. Knight, Angry Saints (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1989), 52-60.

 

 

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George R. Knight is professor of church history at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

July/August 2005

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