I apologize for the tardiness of this post. The third week of August I was speaking to the young adults at the Manitoba-Saskatchewan Conference camp meeting at Camp Whitesands. It was a wonderful time, but quite remote, and Internet opportunities were limited. This also made it difficult for me to meet other deadlines. But I’m back again.
We’ve been talking about how to move forward as a denomination, after the quite fractious vote in San Antonio over women’s ordination. One reason that we fight about such a peripheral issue is that we’ve lost our sense of purpose.
Many will disagree with me, citing the continued evangelistic activity around the globe. But in many cases, that “activity” has become an end in itself. Not only do we find that many who are newly baptized do not stay long with the church, but our emphasis on numbers and on obtaining agreement to certain belief statements has led to increasing numbers of mere “adherents”— people who know a great deal about the Bible, but don’t know the Savior at all.
This plays itself out in many ways. One of them is the demonstration we just saw in San Antonio, where many of both sides demonstrated — and many others continue to demonstrate — that they think holding the right beliefs matters more than how we treat one another. Somehow, when a person disagrees with us on a point of doctrine, too many of us feel free to condemn the opposition to outer darkness.
As one of my friends says, we disagree in our most vigorous shared language. When it comes to religion, this translates into not “we disagree,” nor even into “I’m right, and you are wrong,” but into “I’m right, and you are Satan’s tool.” If you think I’m wrong, look into how many times the words “defiance” and “rebellion” are used to describe those who disagree not only with the vote taken in San Antonio, but on how to interpret the bylaws of the General Conference.
On the other side, charges of “pride,” and “patriarchy” – a cardinal sin to postmoderns — abound. Neither of these approaches will lead to reconciliation.
Another reason to consider much of our efforts in evangelism misguided comes from the simple fact that it has produced the church that we have, the church where the second-generation flees our congregations as soon as they can.
To recap: 1) many brought in by traditional evangelism do not stay long; 2) the emphasis on agreeing to beliefs has led to a scarcity of understanding that salvation is a saving relationship and, frankly, to many unkind and dysfunctional congregations; and 3) no matter what the ethnicity, skin color, or national origin, second generation children born in Adventist homes, once they attain a certain level of affluence and education, are leaving in alarming numbers.
And before we get too intoxicated by the large numbers joining the church in the Third World, we need to recognize that sometimes church membership doesn’t mean exactly the same thing in the Third World it does here. The situation in Rwanda 20 years ago, where Adventists — even pastors — actively engaged in slaughtering other Adventists, should serve as a stern warning.
A recent study indicated that Adventists are the fifth largest faith group in the world, an astonishing fact. These numbers, as many as 18 million members, as many as 30 million adherents — those who share the beliefs whether or not they are on the books — are intoxicating. And it’s easy to believe that such rapid growth demonstrates that were doing the right thing.
But I submit that when we treat each other as we did in San Antonio, not to mention how we often treat each other within our congregations, or — shudder — in disagreements online, something very serious is amiss.
If we believe, as we often say we do, that salvation means having a saving relationship with Jesus Christ, then that is what we should be about; that is our mission, to build relationships with other human beings in order that they may learn how to build relationships with Jesus Christ. If that is truly our mission, then we are failing miserably at it. How can we build relationships with lost and hurting people when we can’t even build relationships with our own children? How do we lead people who we do not yet know, and with whom we have little in common, to trust in Jesus Christ when we cannot lead those closest to us to do that?
By focusing on the numbers, and on simply getting people to agree to a set of beliefs, we appear to be succeeding. Thus the competition over donations, and over power, for those are based on the numbers.
Earlier in history, our purpose was clear, our mission was paramount. In an era far more intolerant of female leadership than is ours today, we accepted, even celebrated, a female prophet providing crucial guidance and leadership. Today, we wrangle over words like commissioning versus ordaining.
In early days we were a small, embattled group. Our numbers were tiny, but our vision large and increasing. We were, if you will, a battleship. We had an urgent mission to complete and welcomed all who would help us complete it.
Today, with our large numbers, and multi-million-dollar budgets, we are more like a cruise ship. Now we wrangle over who gets to sit with the captain, and when the buffet is going to open. We’re concerned about the size of our staterooms.
And as that cruise ship, our concern is about making sure we secure enough sales so that the staterooms will continue to be full. As long as the number of passengers keeps increasing, we don’t care how many have fallen overboard, or left us at the last port.
We need to become a battleship again. We need to become one body united around a common mission. If we believe the salvation means a saving relationship with Jesus Christ, then we need to start building those relationships. We need to rethink our understanding of our faith, an understanding which explains everything in terms of our relationship with Jesus Christ.
What does Creation tell us about how God relates to us, and how he wants us to relate to him? What does the Investigative Judgment, or the Millennium, or the Gift of Prophecy tell us about how God relates to us, and how he wants us to relate to him?
The answers to those questions will give us a clear and compelling purpose and mission, and a sense of identity, one that people of all educational and economic stations will welcome and desire to share. Learning how to build healthy, positive relationships with God and with each other will revolutionize our congregations, our homes, and eventually the world.
The way forward, I suggest, is understanding what God wants from us, and what we need from each other.
That’s the path I’m taking.