As we have entered the twenty- first century, our church faces many challenges, one of the greatest being, How do we adapt to the ever-changing world we face while, at the same time, staying faithful to the message we have been commissioned to bring to that world?
Confronting this challenge
To begin, in the process of bringing our proclamation methods up to date—while keeping the core of the Advent message intact—we must be aware of potential dangers. For instance, we could be tempted to accept, indiscriminately, methods that have been successful in other religious traditions without thinking through the larger implications of those methods. No doubt we must study effective communication, but we can accept only what is inside a framework of sound biblical principles.
A delicate task
Leading people to Christ is a delicate balance between preacher, message, methods, and target persons. Still the main reason for church growth will always be the target person’s own seeking after the meaning and purpose of his or her life. It is the person’s nostalgia for heaven; it is the sinner’s longing for peace with God, even if these thoughts aren’t consciously on their minds. For those who don’t want it, there’s nothing we can do. However painful, we must remember that the Master talks about shaking the dust off our feet when people are not ready to listen.
At the same time, a watering down of the Advent message is unacceptable. The art of making disciples should not be attained by lowering standards. The values the Adventists stand for must be kept and must remain the framework for outreach. In this delicate process we should jealously guard our teachings. Our message is powerful; we need a witness worthy of it.
Analysis of the development of church growth principles
Today there is talk about the use of spiritual gifts and a possible lack of them in Adventist churches. Some argue that if we had more healing services and were to introduce the gift of tongues, we would see more progress.
To understand the emphasis some evangelical groups put on the application of certain spiritual gifts (based on an extreme interpretation and understanding of some Scripture passages), the following background could be of help. The summary is incomplete, but it outlines some reasons for the developments of the general church growth trends.
1. Historically the initial emphasis was on bringing people to Christ. The church should grow by additions of individuals. This concept was strongly influenced by the Western individualism, where the I and me are in the center. The voice from the so-called mission fields reacted negatively because in other parts of the world it is the family, the clan, the tribe, and the group that are important. Persons are part not only of a family but of a wider fellowship. Bible texts show where Noah and his family entered the ark, and Joshua said that he and his household would serve the Lord.
2. On this background the term church growth came in use. The focus somewhat shifted to the church. Many books and courses on the church growth principles appeared. The results of this new emphasis, however, did not reach expectations. Sure, some churches grew, though often due to members transferring their membership to a nearby church with a more attractive program. And some of these desirable churches got such a large membership that pastors were unable to do justice in care and concern, while others lost so many members that they had to be closed.
3. In this way the concept of church planting came into the picture. New churches should be established specially in geographical areas where there was no church. Thereby the Christian message could be spread out. Some have wrongly interpreted church planting to mean that there was a need for a “new” church because the older churches were not able to conceive of new ideas and were not fit to accept newborn Christians. The church planting champions use interesting slogans, such as It is easier to get babies than to raise the dead. That sounds intriguing. However, so-called church planting has too often taken place by splitting older churches in such a way that younger active members have transferred their membership to a new church, thus weakening the old one. So, really, no baby was born; instead, an old person has been pushed one step closer to the grave.
4. The latest wave in the growth movements is a focused promotion of spiritual gifts. Some church growth advocates claim that when individual witnessing, church growth, and church planting don’t give the expected results, the reason is that the spiritual gifts have not been applied as they should. They specially emphasize the gifts of healings, signs, wonders, and glossolalia.
They draw attention to charismatic currents that have touched more than 500 million Christians in about 15,000 Pentecostal-type denominations worldwide. Even Evangelical and Catholic churches have been influenced. This one-sided emphasis on special gifts has caused conflict and division as many members impacted by the Pentecostal movements sweeping through their church felt that they had no need for this extreme emotional experience.
The celebration movement
Adventists have felt the winds of change as well. “Celebration” churches were established, though many had a short life span. They did not really fit into the Adventist ethos and traditions. In connection with the question of spiritual gifts, what brings growth is the gift of hospitality paired with the gift of teaching. These are the most effective factors in outreach.
It is my impression that the “celebration” experience had a positive influence on many churches, at least in parts of the United States. The first part of the divine service (perhaps up to 20 minutes) became livelier with song, music, personal testimonies, drama, and poetry. Although these elements are directed toward the younger sets, they are generally also accepted, even enjoyed, by the senior members as well.
People experience God in different ways
In all our planning for efficient churches, we have to understand that the Lord meets different people in different ways. A few are inspired by reading or listening to deep theology, others are lifted up by the narrations of biblical personalities, and many are spiritually enlightened by exploring prophecies. Some people best receive divine guidance by more emotional means; this can be expressed in song and music. Still, when God reaches out to people, His way of doing it is within the borders the Word of God has set for beliefs, practices, and purposes of worship.
Church programs must not have a dividing effect
Studies were made of an evangelical church in California with more than 4,000 members, old and young, from all walks of life and representing many races, languages, and cultures. When they met on weekdays and Sundays, they were spread in many groups in the various halls and rooms in the huge church building. Here they partook in their specific interests and expressions of their Christianity, according to their cultures and preferences, often in their own languages.
The senior pastor, however, insisted that at the divine service, Sunday morning, all were together. Children, youth, and senior members and folk of all ethnic backgrounds were in the sanctuary and sang the same hymns, heard the same Scripture readings, and listened to the same sermon. No other activities were allowed in the church at this hour. The purpose was to integrate the whole church so that all, whatever their backgrounds and interests, were united as the family of God. Families were sitting together. At this hour they formed a complete whole and totality.
Interestingly, a study of the same mega-church was also conducted about whether the time had come for renewal and change in the established order of the divine services. Many responses to the questionnaire revealed that the regular church-goers wanted to sit together as nuclear family. They did not want to be split up at the main service. They also wanted to know the precise time, week by week, when to sit down, to stand up for singing (psalms and Scripture reading), and to kneel in prayer. The only item in the traditional and well-established program they wanted as a surprise was the sermon. They expressed that a lively, well prepared, short, and appealing sermon would be a treat.
The concepts of Christian church structures are based on the family pattern
A healthy balance in the life of the church will be obtained only when children, youth, parents, and senior members all give to each other and forgive one another. It is by no means a result of separation and segregation by various groups according to their age and other backgrounds. All must feel they are part of God’s family.
In the transition from the Old Testament sanctuary model to the New Testament church, various factors played a role. The worship form in synagogues had a great influence. However, it was the family pattern that gave structure to the newly founded churches. In the New Testament we find terms like father (Matt. 23:9), brotherhood (1 Peter 2:17), children (Rom. 8:17), house (Heb. 3:2, 3), wedding (Rev. 19:7, NIV), bride and bridegroom (John 3:29) used for the church, her activities, and her organization as well as the Christian church members’ experience. All these expressions are from family relations and activities. Symbolically here are all the functions a church needs. In the way the family as a kinship group provides shelter, protection, education, discipline, development, acceptance, love, care, and concern for its members, the church should function.
In the modern world where there is stress on the divisions of people according to age, education, sex, hobbies, nationality, color of skin, etc., the church of God is the best place where all this can be integrated.
1. The church must be open to new ideas for functioning. However, these should always be in the framework of the biblical teachings.
2. Genuine and lasting church planting is not obtained by splitting up existing churches.
3. Experiences in biblical and church history reveal that the ideal church model (based on the family) is where old and young meet and work together in harmony.
4. Senior members should realize that age may make people more conservative and rigid. They have to pray for flexibility and let go of responsibilities for the benefit of the younger members.
5. Younger members, generally termed the future of the church, are also the church today. They should show generosity and patience with the senior members who have borne the burden and heat of the day.
6. All age groups in the church should follow the principle Paul expressed in his epistles when he makes clear that love must prevail over knowledge (1 Cor. 8).
The church is compared to a body with many parts and “those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty” (1 Cor. 12:22, 23, NIV).