by Dan Appel,
“In essentials, Unity
In non-essentials, Diversity
In all things, Love.”
Marc’ Antonio de Dominis (1560-1624)
I had just finished another committee meeting in the church I pastored. The issue involved change and as usual the tone turned rancorous as those wanting change butted heads with those who were bound and determined that change, any change, would not occur. One side cited declining involvement and attendance as the impetus that made change necessary, while the other side cited change as the reason that God could not bless us and that if we just returned to the way it had always been done, then God could pour out his Spirit and blessing and things would surely change.
As I drove home I realized that the dynamics at that meeting were a microcosm of what was happening all around the world in my church and country.
Like it or not, we live in a time of cataclysmic change. For some, it is exciting, invigorating, stimulating, challenging, and promising, something to be embraced and enjoyed; for others, it is a time of discomfort. For them change is threatening, terrifying!
Those who are for change cannot begin to imagine why anyone would oppose it. Those who are against are willing to go to almost any length to make certain it doesn’t happen.
What makes it difficult is that all sides, when it doesn’t involve something that they feel strongly about, know that change is good and necessary in this world. In fact, any living thing that is not changing is in the process of dying. So, the question is not whether to change or not, it is whether a particular change is a positive or a negative one. Rather than defaulting to opposing change if it runs counter to my likes and dislikes or my prejudices and desires, we need to look carefully at the issues and make intelligent, wise decisions.
The church is not immune to these tensions. On the one hand there is the cry, “The church must change if it is to meet the challenges of ministry in our world and to be true to God’s Word.” On the other, there is caution and resistance and the cry to “Hold the line, don’t change, or we will cease to be God’s people.”
The factors that condition our feelings about these changes in the church are both theological and social. But whatever the factors, and whatever our feelings, as a church we must come to grips with what is happening and the dynamics that are behind it, because, ready or not, change happens.
Stability Versus Change: a Generational Chasm
The generation that preceded the Baby Boomers (those born since World War II) was committed to creating stability. They lived through the Great Depression where little was stable and where change signaled pain and hardship. They fought either in World War II or the Korean War struggling to maintain the life they knew. Meanwhile, their families were at home, fearful of what would happen if they did not return or if they lost the war. Driving against terrible odds, they made things as stable as they possibly could while dad was gone. The airwaves crackled with the message that change was bad. Change came to be viewed with a suspicion bordering on paranoia.
When the war ended, the soldiers returned committed to creating an unchanging environment for their families. Of course some things needed improvement. A manufacturer might add some bells and whistles, or a process might be fine-tuned or refined, but by and large these men and their families wanted something stable and unchanging. Stability became a mainstay value. Presidents were elected who promised quiet and calm as well as a secure economy. People decided on a brand of car and were loyal to it for a lifetime. They settled into jobs and planned to stay in them until retirement. They picked a church and joined for eternity.
Their children were different. Having never experienced the hardships of their parents (except as dinner table reminiscences), they found change stimulating. Their appetite for new and different ideas, products, and ways of relating to situations and people was as visceral as their parents’ commitment to the status quo. Brand name loyalty became a thing of the past. They changed employers and careers often. People shopped for quality, features, and what captured their interests. Things weren’t right just because some said they were. They had to try and test and search for themselves. For them, change became a value. They gloried in it and they glorified it. Their parents naturally often felt betrayed and bewildered. Everything they sacrificed to create and secure, everything they stood for, everything they built to last forever was being challenged, rejected, and denied by the very ones for whom they created such permanence.
Change in Church: An Illustration of the Clash
This tension is clearly dramatized in the church, where two distinct world views, two distinct generations, and two points of view are clashing. One view says that there must be substantial change if the church is going to survive, relate to those we are supposed to be reaching, and fulfill the gospel commission. We are losing, they say, or may already have lost, a whole generation, and are now in the process of losing another. We are not impacting our world. The question is not if change should occur, but what change—and how. Some are, in effect, saying that if something doesn’t happen soon, “We’re out of here.”
Then there are those who honestly believe that there are some things that have to change if we are going to live up to our claim of being people committed to living as genuine followers of Jesus rather than captives of our sub-culture. Some examples would include: in the 1960s and 70s the Association of Adventist Forums successfully worked to bring integrity into the workings of many institutions in the hierarchy of the Church. In the 1970s the issue was equal pay for women and men at the Church’s publishing houses and other institutions – an issue the Church was willing to litigate rather than doing the right thing by the women of our church. Beginning in the 1980s, there was an increasing groundswell in support of the notion of ordaining women to pastoral ministry – something that it seemed would be an easy choice given Ellen White’s role in the history of our Church. In the 1990s, the Church began to pay out settlements for victims of sexual abuse by pastors, teachers and youth workers that proportionally (considering the size of both organizations) were significantly similar to those paid by the Roman Catholic Church. This only occurred because brave and honorable laymen, clergy and administrators finally began to challenge the good old boy networks that kept abusing pastors, teachers and youth workers shifting from one place to another with little or no accountability. Then there is the One Project, a lay centered movement committed to the idea that “a Jesus-driven, Jesus-bathed, Jesus-backed, Jesus-led, Jesus-filled, Jesus-powered, all-about-Jesus Adventist Church is the uncompromising directive from our past, the joy of our present, and hope for our future” and have begun to work tirelessly to return Jesus to the center of our Church from where he had been relegated, all too often in the flurry of our church’s programs and doctrines. Finally, there is a group of administrators and pastors who God has raised up to call a halt to power-plays from the top and to the blatant dishonesty of things like what happened at the last General Conference Session.
Others, the “maintainers,” assert that God has raised us up as a people – something both sides generally agree on. He is the Creator of the Adventist church. Thus if you change the church, you destroy it. If you alter it in any significant way, you reject those who built it and ultimately the God who created it. To restructure it is to take away the underpinnings that made it strong. We are losing members, they say, because the church has changed too much and is still changing. In an age of massive shifting, people need a stable church. If it changes, the church cannot and will not give people the stability and certainty they need. The church is letting go of the things that, if properly retained and proclaimed, would attract people to it. Having joined the world in all its restless fluctuation, they feel, the church doesn’t know any more what it believes, and people do not know what they can trust or where they can safely stand. What is needed, they say, is not change but solid commitment to what we know has always been true and what has always worked.
So, we observe the rise of powerful groups like GYC which are dedicated to indoctrinating academy and college age youth with the idea that any change, other than the use of new technologies is evil and part of creeping compromise that is gutting the church. Powerful and well healed laymen have moved into the leadership of organizations such as ASI and are funding efforts to thwart any change in the church in a number of significant ways that mirror what occurred in the 1960s with Adventist Forums. The so called, “Last Generation Theology” pioneered by M.L. Andreasen is making a strong comeback among the “right wing” of the church. Related to this is the resurgence of a focus on “The Shaking” – a process in which all of those not absolutely committed to the “perfectionism” inherent in this view will be shaken out of the church. Those espousing and promoting this view express heartfelt sadness at the idea of those, including many “bright lights” who are going out who will not make it through to “the Kingdom,” but feel that strong stands must be taken and the forces of compromise and apostasy must be beaten back if the Church is to be Christ’s “pure bride.” They honestly and sincerely believe that they have been called to the Church for such a time as this to pull it back from the precipice of corporate and personal apostasy.
However generalized, these opposing descriptions do present an accurate picture of the church today.
They are nothing new.
One has only to read the pages of the early Adventist Review and Sabbath Herald and the transcripts and actions of the early Bible Conferences and General Conference gatherings to see the same tensions. Ellen White was so committed to the changes she knew had to occur if the Church was to receive God’s blessing and accomplish its mission, that she was willing to take on General Conference Presidents and wealthy and powerful patrons of those leaders. For her efforts, she was excoriated, attacked from many sides and finally banished to Australia where it was hoped that her influence would wane. Thankfully it did not, or we would not have the church we have today.
While the bitter acrimony that characterizes so much of our church today is nothing new, as we stand on the threshold of eternity it is something that must be worked out or we will find ourselves diminished or destroyed.
Change: How to Approach Change in God Honoring Ways
What can be done to find common ground that will allow the church to be flexible enough to be contemporary and yet not sacrifice what’s important? Somehow, there has to be a process that leaves us closer to each other, stronger as a church, and more fully in our Father’s will. What follows are a few steps that will help us view change without losing the ground we stand on.
First of all, are there foundational principles we can apply that will let us determine whether something should change or not?
To begin with, we need to remember that,
1. Something is right because it is right and wrong because it is wrong, not because someone else does it.
I remember my first communion service as a pastor. Wishing to make the setting beautiful, I placed two candles on the table and prepared to light them. My head deaconess came rushing forward and told me I could not have candles on the communion table, because certain liturgical churches used candles in their services, so they were not allowed. I started to ask her how Jesus lit the upper room when he instituted the service, then decided that I would save that battle for another time.
Just because someone we do not consider to be orthodox does something, does not make it bad. If that were so, and here we go from the sublime to the ridiculous, none of us could wear pants in the pulpit or, for that matter ties, and we would not have pulpits or rostrums in our churches, or pews or . . .
2. Something is right because it is right and wrong because it is wrong, not because of its history.
Our beloved pipe organs were originally designed and built to provide background music, much like the theater organs in early movie theaters, while Christians were fed to the lions in Roman amphitheaters. That history does not make them bad, it is just their history and is living proof that something designed for evil can be used for good.
3. Something is right because it is right and wrong because it is wrong, not because of its associations—not because the one doing whatever it is has a character that is questionable or exemplary.
Mozart’s character, to understate the case, was questionable, but his music is a delight. Well known evangelists in my own denomination have preached powerful sermons that brought many to Christ then gone to their motel room, smoked cigars and slept with their secretaries—both of which are seriously frowned upon in our church. And, just because “Morning Has Broken,” the Welsh hymn, was sung by Cat Stevens does not make it bad and worthy to be expunged from our hymn books.
4. Something is right because it is right and wrong because it is wrong, not because I like it or don’t like it or because it effects me, personally, in certain ways.
It has been said that we often create God in our own image. The same could often be said concerning our perception of His will for our lives and others. Most often, that perception is colored by our own likes or dislikes, prejudices, predispositions and history. Just because I danced or made love during the 60s to a particular piece of music does not make it right or wrong for anyone else but me if it takes me back to those days in unhealthy ways any more than because I do not like Boston Baked Beans they are not good for anyone.
What determines if something is right or wrong? For us who follow Jesus, the one standard is what He and his Father and the Holy Spirit have to say on the subject. Our one rule of faith is His Word, the Bible, and not creeds or statements of belief or commentators – sacred or otherwise unless I have confidence that their positions were explicitly communicated to them by God – any more than my own prejudices and predilections. In short, something is right or wrong depending on how it effects my relationship with God and others. Anything else is a distortion of God’s ideas of right and wrong. As much as it may validate me and my ideas, not everyone else in life has to see and believe everything just as I do.
Then we need to come to terms with the idea that some things can change and some cannot. As mentioned earlier, history teaches us that the only constant in life is change and that the only things that are not constantly changing are those that are dead, dying or decaying. At the same time, history also affirms that some things should never change but are immutable.
What should change and what should not? Israel lost their place as God’s chosen because they wouldn’t change some things that needed change. In contrast, early in the history of the Christian church there was serious apostasy because the church changed some things they shouldn’t have. Thus, we must determine what does and does not need changing.
Understanding Church Life in its Various Aspects
Church life and ministry can be looked at as consisting of four essential features or aspects: values/pillars, teachings/beliefs, customs/traditions, and methods/means. Some of these cannot and must not be changed; others can be changed without destabilizing what the church stands for; still others must be changed if we are to remain true to the quest to become more and more like Jesus.
Our Values/Pillars define us. As Seventh-day Adventists, these are our core beliefs, our defining values. We may express them at different times in different ways; we may emphasize certain of their facets more than others from time to time, or we may come to a deeper understanding of them. Our values/pillars cannot be changed if the church is to survive and flourish and maintain its identity. Each of them, we believe, is firmly based on a specific “Thus says the Lord.” These core values are the basis for church life and discipline and are the standard for fellowship in the church.
Our Teachings/Beliefs are based on our study of Scripture and the experience of the church. As the years come and go we find ourselves open to clarifying and revising our understanding of Scripture. Adventists have always known how important it is to submit to “advancing light” or “present truth.” In themselves the biblical underpinnings of teachings and beliefs are absolutely secure, but we must nevertheless subject our interpretations and applications of those Bible principles to the possibility of “greater light,“ deeper understanding or the possibility of error. Though our teachings and beliefs help to fashion our identity, at their essence they have more to do with enriching and empowering us and making us a truly spiritual people. They are absolutely vital to our life in that they enrich and ennoble us. Here, there is room for disagreement or change as we come to a deeper understanding of God’s will for our lives or how they are applied to the lives of believers in different places and circumstances. They are positions on which the church recognizes a lot more latitude for individual understanding and variation and which should or need not be considered “tests of fellowship” at any step of the church’s or the individuals life and experience.
Traditions/Customs naturally develop in the life of an individual or a group. At any given time or place we begin doing things certain ways – often for good reasons. We become comfortable with them, and they become customary, traditional. Sometimes those customs are dictated by the times or our heritage. Then again, they may grow out of convenience or personal taste. Eventually, they gain an air of permanence, even though the reasons for a particular tradition may be lost in the mist of the distant past.
However, the longer we practice a tradition, the more we tend to think of it as a belief or even a value. Thus traditions come to define our comfort zone. Any attempt to change them is equated by some as tampering with core values.
We should, therefore, periodically ask ourselves if our traditions are still serving a worthy purpose, if they stand in the way of progress or enhance it. Is there a good reason for continuing this custom, or are we clinging to it because of personal taste? It is not bad to continue a tradition that does not obstruct our growth in our personal or corporate journey or mission. On the other hand, it is tragic to hold onto customs and traditions that keep us from becoming what God wants us to be in a fluid environment.
Because of the emotional attachment most have to customs and traditions, we need to be sensitive when we want to change them. By the same token, those who oppose changing a tradition should realize that they may be keeping the Holy Spirit from leading the church toward a greater spiritual and corporate maturity.
Methods/Means help accomplish our mission. They are the way we do what we do. They are how we achieve what we want to, the means for attaining our goals.
They can and often should change because environments change, conditions change, times change, and challenges change. Our methods must also constantly change if we are to stay competitive in our battle with the forces of darkness. William Wrigley understood this and challenged his company to change their ways of doing things every five years at least – even if they were working. It was way of keeping things constantly fresh and vibrantly alive. The results speak for themselves with The William Wrigley Company controlling 97% of the world’s chewing gum market today. The very best generals recognize that today’s war cannot be fought with yesterday’s tools, tactics or methods. Unless we are willing to adapt and adjust to changing conditions, victory can be elusive and defeat certain.
Sometimes radical change in how the church fulfills its mission may become necessary. For example, since the time of Constantine, the church has been building-centered. Today, however, many churches are discovering that buildings may be a liability in expense, time, energy drain, number of volunteers needed, and the ability to plan for growth. Huge financial outlays are needed just to develop and maintain real estate and buildings used for relatively small amounts of time. So some congregations have eliminated buildings altogether, focusing evangelism, ministry and nurture in and through small home churches or cells. They rent school gyms and classrooms for weekend “celebrations” when the whole church body gets together to worship and praise God. Others are returning to the New Testament idea of “house churches” where small congregations meet in individual’s homes then gather occasionally for larger celebrations. Everything else is done out in the neighborhoods where people live and work. It may be a little less convenient at times, but most of their financial and personnel resources are channeled into ministry.
Most change in methods and means is not that radical. But it must occur. As Wu Lin, the king in Northern China, said in 307 B.C., “A talent for following the ways of yesterday is not sufficient to influence the world of today.” We must constantly be asking ourselves, What do we do? What do we want to do? Why do we do what we do? How could we do it better? If we were starting from scratch, what process or method would we develop that would make our efforts in this area most effective? Does this particular method or process enable us to accomplish what we want with maximum effectiveness and efficiency or does it drain resources away from what is truly important? If our methods are no longer the servants of our goals, then we must change them.
Unfortunately, methods and means often morph into traditions, and eventually they assume belief status and some eventually begin to think of them as values. For instance, it is easy to start a new program but almost impossible to end it if it’s been around for any length of time. Even if it has died a natural death, we continue to prop it up and try to breathe new life into it. All too often, the church is the only organization on earth where, if something no longer works, we continue it—twice as hard!
As times change, so must our methods and the processes we use to carry out the great commission, or we will never see it completed, at least not in our lifetime.
Change: Implementing a Model
With these four in mind, we can now build a model which can help us to evaluate any considered change in our church and to decide a course of action.
The diagram below provides a basis for examining virtually any area of church life:
Values/Pillars. E.G. White, one of the founders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, speaking in 1905, said that she only knew of seven core values that defined our church: salvation by faith in Christ alone; the immutability of the law of God; the Sabbath; the biblical teaching of the state of the dead; the literal second coming of Jesus; the pre-advent judgment in heaven; and the three angels’ messages of Revelation 14. She called them our pillars, and she knew of no others that qualified for the title. These seven are the essence of what makes a Seventh-day Adventist. Other churches have their pillar doctrines which are their basic values and is what makes them what they are. Any organization does. When you deviate from these, you may be a nice person, but you are no longer an Adventist or a Baptist or a Catholic or a Jew or a Rotarian or a Mason or whatever.
Beliefs/Teachings. These would include teachings on which the church at times has allowed considerable latitude for varying interpretations, such as the finer points of our understanding of Christ’s human nature, the Trinity, and appropriate diet or dress for a Christian, etc. While we, for the most part, believe that our positions are based on Bible principles, there is not generally, unequivocally a definite “Thus says the Lord.”
E.G. White challenged Seventh-day Adventists to take a strong position on educating people about vegetarianism, unclean meats and her own prophetic ministry yet urged that they not be made tests of fellowship and counseled that church members be given time and space to grow into their acceptance of them. There are all kinds of issues that are important issues for the Christian. Yet these are areas where we should seek to persuade and educate rather than to legislate and judge.
Traditions/customs. These would include such things as how we worship, how often and when we celebrate Communion, whether we use one cup or many in the Communion service, whether we baptize face up or face down, what constitutes reverence, and what music should be used in church services, etc.
Sometimes traditions and customs are based on advice of prophets and leaders for dealing with life in specific times and situations. Other times, they just grow out of living and growing comfortable with certain patterns of doing things. They are almost always based on personal preference rather than a definitive statement from God – although it is easy to begin rationalizing them as important teachings or even values because it does not seem spiritual to defend my ideas and preferences on the basis of my selfish desire to always have things my way.
Methods/Means. How we do evangelism, the color of the carpet, the ages of kids in specific classes, how we usher or don’t usher people out of church, guest books in the lobby, nominating committee structures, our whole church governing framework, and a plethora of other ways we have developed of doing what we do are all methods and not only can, but should be in a constant state of change. If not, we are not growing and are beginning a death spiral away from relevance which sooner or later will destroy us.
As a side note, within any organization there are opposing forces constantly at work to shift elements from all of these categories. For instance, the “liberals” in the group are constantly trying to move things from the inner circles of the diagram out towards the periphery, while the “conservatives” are constantly attempting to move more things towards the core. In my own denomination 7 Core Values have experienced a four-fold increase to 28 that many would use to define what an Adventist is, with some pushing for more; while at the same time, there is pressure from others to abandon anything but the shell of what makes us who we are.
While some persistently agitate to make methods and means into customs or even teachings, and things that for most of our history were only teachings into Core Values, others wish to relegate virtually everything to custom and tradition.
It leaves moderates in the middle between these two and the onlooking community confused over just what we truly are all about. Are we libertarians for whom there is nothing concrete and unchanging, or are we legalists bent on earning our way into God’s favor like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day by heaping on greater and greater degrees or requirement?
Dan M. Appel is a published author and retired pastor living in Magalia, California. He is a deeply committed and sometimes passionate follower of Jesus who loves being a layman, and trying to live in the marketplace that he has encouraged others to do for so many years.