A dream deferred

Are our churches' dreams being realized? Or are they illusions?

Skip Bell, D. Min., is professor of church leadership and administration, as well as director of the Doctor of Ministry program, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

In my youth, God inspired a dream that created my pastoral vocation. As with many of you, my dream developed from an intense desire to see people come to salvation in Jesus. It fashioned a compelling image as I imagined a church plant in Manhattan, New York, that demonstrated the ideal nature of God’s community on earth—that is, a church formed by members engaged in ministry who experienced meaningful dynamic worship in a diverse congregation, and who created a Christian community in small groups.

Dreams are essential to our ministry. They also change, or at least evolve. So has it been with mine. Not that the dream of my youth died; rather, it simply responded to the seeming contradictions of pastoral ministry. Much of life evolves that way. Stunning realities challenge our dreams.

But who would we become without our dreams? And why, if our purpose grows dim, do we persist in the inspired quest of church ministry? Troubled as we may be, we have not abandoned our dreams for God’s church. We must not. Like threads of gold uniting our hopes around the earth, we treasure the following four elements of our dream for Adventism.

Dynamic, growing Seventh-day Adventist congregations

Dynamic growing Seventh-day Adventist congregations are the first element of our dream. This dream affirms the local church. It affirms that the people of God, formed in fellowship for mission in their community, are the Lord’s most important agency on earth. Joined to a congregation of other believers who have committed their lives to Christ, these people form spiritual disciplines and lead others to Christ. The essential nature of the church is a Spirit-empowered ministering body. Stated simply, the local church is God’s primary evangelistic entity.

Empowered equipping pastors

Empowered equipping pastors who develop leadership for God’s harvest are the second element of our dream. This dream affirms the church pastor. It affirms that God carries out His work in the community, gifting people to provide leadership to the congregation. Paul expresses the calling of the pastor: “It was He who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Eph. 4:11, 12, NIV).

Pastors are the most important leaders in our world movement. Wherever the gospel is taught or preached, people form into a ministering Christian community, which becomes the frontier of mission. In the formation of the local church, the world movement fulfills its God-given calling. Pastors (and I will add teachers in the ministry of education) develop leadership for mission in that context. They build Christian community, lead the church in the formation of shared vision, challenge people to discover and employ spiritual gifts in ministry, and envision new churches.

Excellent mission-driven Christian schools

Excellent mission-driven Christian schools, redemptive in their effect on young people, are the third element of our dream. This dream affirms the importance of Christian education and also affirms children and youth. The substance of the dream is not institutional; it is children and youth who are able to learn about God, to know His character in Jesus Christ, to see His character reflected in teachers, and develop faith in Christian schools.

Teachers in these schools are prepared for their professional task and valued for their contribution. They devote their best energy to the ministry of learning, knowledge, and character formation. They enthusiastically engage in their ministry with a sense of evangelistic purpose, both in its broadest sense and with specific interest in each student.

With loyalty, enthusiasm, and finances, church and community members support these schools. Churches embrace support of a Christian school as central to their mission without reference to numbers of children from their congregation in attendance.

Efficient mission-driven denominational organizations

Efficient and service-oriented denominational organizations driven by the shared mission priorities of Adventist members form the fourth element of our dream. This dream affirms the world church. It affirms the Adventist movement as a worldwide gathering of Christians who have a prophetic message of hope. We seek a network that shares inspiration for mission, promotes essential beliefs, and distributes resources to accomplish our purpose.

These organizations are changeable, provide for the association of local churches, effectively sound the calling formed from the shared vision of church membership, and serve as guided by members and front-line pastors and teachers. They are streamlined to absorb as little as possible of the resources preserved for front-line mission. In developed regions of the world, communication technology provides for a matrix of these organizations without hierarchal layering.

These church associations make it possible for members with front-line pastors and teachers to form policies empowering to their ministry while assisting churches in distributing resources to other front-line missions. They also enable gathering for Bible study and theological inquiry, and they facilitate accountability.

Realities

Our longing may be seen by some as an impossible dream, an illusion. Granted, the reality of the situations may not always be encouraging. I have seen a thousand small rural churches lifelessly clinging to habits drained of the Spirit’s power. People longing to find a sense of Jesus’ presence often find little to embrace in Sabbath worship or weekly fellowship in such congregations. I have also seen the superficial sophistication of large churches satisfied with their own institutional strength. Comfort pushes aside raw mission. I have seen village churches multiplying in countries where the idea of “empowering the individual” has eclipsed spirituality.

Developing empowered pastors seems an impossible dream. Some pastors serve churches for a few years and then move on as if the congregations were mere stepping stones with commitment to a mission-driven congregation often replaced by longing for position. In reality, leadership on the front line is hard, often accompanied by isolation and lack of appreciation; meanwhile, in the background, the perks of position beckon. After all, traveling church consultation or analyzing ministry around a committee table seems more inviting than living the challenge on the frontier of mission.

Christian schools? We have a difficult time confessing the realities in our schools. With a few exceptions in large institution-driven Adventist communities, local elementary schools are underfunded and understaffed. An often overlooked fact, the health of the Christian high school or college is in proportion to the growth of the church-operated elementary school. The value we assign to Adventist Christian education may be questioned as these schools compete for meager resources. And when they are shut down, it’s often with little note from denominational organizations. Many churches do not contribute to a local school anywhere.

Streamlined mission-driven church organizations also seem an impossible dream. As a world mission movement, we must provide a mission network. So, early in our denominational history we formed fellowships of congregations (conferences) fellowships of conferences (unions), and fellowships of unions (divisions). While information and communication technology have dramatically changed the way human society forms organization and community in recent decades, the look of our denominational structure has remained basically the same for over a century.

The challenge of servant leadership has proven difficult in church organization. We drift toward substituting power for love, control for collaboration. Policies of pay or perks often reflect hierarchal thinking and copy, although with moderation, secular organizations. This creates a climate of “promotion” in the local church. In reality denominational organizations complain of disconnect from the local church while members and front-line professionals in ministry complain of disconnect from the processes and policies that affect them. Feeling “the organization is too big,” members explore new ways to distribute resources for mission. At the same time, ownership of denominational policies decreases, and local churches start thinking how they might strengthen vision and belief through their own initiatives.

A dream made real?

How shall we relate to these realities? Some deny them, others flee them. A better alternative does exist. To observe the way things are and to suggest that those realities define the church is to be unfaithful to the power of God. We must treasure a God-given dream for the church. A God-honoring vision for the future is neither present reality nor an illusion but a gift by which we may see the church for what it really is and not for what it seems to be. A dream has creative power.

Don Quixote, the central character in Cervante’s masterpiece, pursues a foolish quest fighting imagined metaphorical foes, righting abstract wrongs, and seeking righteousness where evil dwells. In his journey he meets a girl, Aldonza, a street urchin living a shameful life and filled with disgust for herself. Quixote, ever the dreamer, sees her differently. Envisioning beauty in her soul and bearing, he names her “Dulcinea”—his sweet little one. He honors the regal bearing he alone sees by calling her “my lady.”

Aldonza can bear the absurdity no longer. She angrily confronts him with the truth about her birth to unknown parents, about her life of servitude, and about her prostitution. She derides Quixote’s efforts to better her: “What good are dreams, after all, to someone with no hope of achieving them?”

What of our dreams for our church? Will they remain only dreams—dreams deferred, perhaps indefinitely, or is there hope? I believe there is hope, because I’ve seen examples that cause me to hope, such as the Kelso-Longview Seventh-day Adventist church near Vancouver, Washington. This church, like hundreds of others, has taken leadership responsibility for mission, has creatively designed worship and ministry to reach the community, and has grown dramatically. Their “Journey to Bethlehem” Christmas pageant attracts nearly seven thousand visitors from the community. They also cherish Adventist world mission, finding ways to engage in front-line service outside their boundaries.

And then there is Randy Davis, a pastor who affirms our hope. He, like hundreds of other pastors, stays committed to the leadership of the church he serves. Recently declining an invitation to a large institutional church (a “positive career step,” he was told), he chose to continue with University City and Gastonia churches in North Carolina. After serving six and a half years in the community, he has seen University City move from an attendance of around thirty-five to nearly two hundred. He finds joy in the grace and ministry of his churches; they are his home, and he has committed himself to the community.

Brighton Adventist School in Colorado thrives with 153 students, excels in academics, emphasizes appreciation in music and art, and has a varied curriculum of physical development while centering on biblical curriculum. Visionary local church members underwrite the school’s solid financial operation while nonmember parents from the community, who choose the school for their children, make decisions for baptism.

What of denominational structures? We must concede that streamlining where financial crisis demands it remains as simply a management necessity. We find more hope, however, in the occasional conversation among committees that explore new mission-driven organizational paradigms that would move more resources to front-line leadership.

We take encouragement from these examples, with our hope remaining in a promise. It has always been that way. “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Heb. 11:1, NIV). We are a spiritual movement, in faith living in His reality but looking for a new and better age. Faith carries us through this age. Commissioning His church, Jesus said, “And surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20, NIV). Our hope and our dreams rest on God’s vision for us.


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Skip Bell, D. Min., is professor of church leadership and administration, as well as director of the Doctor of Ministry program, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

June 2006

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