By John McLarty | 21 September 2018 |
I spent a couple of hours last night doing church. The people I was sitting with organize worship, coordinate children’s Sabbath School, manage the maintenance of our large, old building, take food to our senior members when they are sick, feed the homeless, provide the money and volunteer hours required to operate our school. These are good people. They care for one another. They love their church. The congregation would collapse without them
And they are non-compliant.
We are non-compliant—if “compliant” means studied submission to the dictates General Conference committees or employees. Such compliance never crossed our minds. Our holy ambitions are not focused on compliance with an ecclesiastical vision fossilized in a policy manual. We aspire to a brighter and nobler calling: loving God and loving our neighbors.
If worship is a measure of our love for God, this congregation is pretty good at loving God. We devote a significant portion of our corporate attention, time, and money to our public worship services. We are publicly and privately devoted to the God who loves. We nourish and express that love in our worship services and dream of even better worship.
If service is a measure of love for neighbor, this congregation is really good at loving neighbors. One of our circle fired an employee because of his drug use . . . and then paid for the ex-employee’s rehab program, paid for his kids’ summers at camp, and now includes this former employee—turned successful contractor—and his kids in church social events. Another of our circle funds grad school scholarships for women from Africa. One is revered by an entire clan in another country because of the love he showered on one of their own and the respect he has demonstrated for the entire community across the decades. Another of these “non-compliants” tracked down the lost family of one of our seniors who had been dumped in an orphanage when she was five years old. The fruit of this work: in her old age, this “orphan” was joyously received by a family of brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews whose existence she had scarcely suspected.
What can I say about the place of church in supporting the family love on display among us. We celebrate, appropriately, the precocious children in our midst, the kids playing violin, dazzling us with their stage presence when they read scripture or preach. These kids give us a collective sense of parental pride at our annual recognition of all their academic and athletic and community service awards. Church is where these brilliant young people hear unambiguously the call to employ their greatness in service. Church is also where we love and honor the other children, the forty-year-old babies who have not yet learned to say a single word or even managed potty training. They are our children, too. Where besides church can all these children be treasured as the gifts, as the weighty responsibilities they are? Church is where all mothering is honored—the mothering that sets the stage for future greatness and the mothering that never sees a graduation, never attends a recital, never is reversed in a sweet old age where the child becomes the caregiver. Church is not about 1844 or 6000 years or perfect families where all the children are above average. In the congregations I have been part of church meant all of us together.
I make no pretense of knowing how to run a denomination or a university or other large institution. But I do have decades of experience leading congregations, groups of people devoted to God and in love with people. (Note to the bureaucrats: tithe and church school support measurably increase in congregations where I pastor.) The heresy-hunting and policy-obsession evident in Ted’s Compliance Committees is utterly alien to the life of church as I tasted it at last night’s board meeting at Green Lake Church, and have experienced over the decades in congregations from New York City to Seattle. While I have no credentials for claiming to know how to run a denomination, Ted has no credentials for claiming to know how to run a church. (I have more years on denominational boards than Ted has as a pastor.)
Green Lake Church is an Adventist Church. It would not exist apart from the denomination. The majority of people in the pews and on the boards and committees of Green Lake Church have deep, multi-generation roots in Adventism. The new families that show up, swelling our children’s Sabbath School departments and disrupting our carefully planned worship services (smiley face), come because mom or dad or both grew up Seventh-day Adventist. These new people arrive at our church because we are Seventh-day Adventist. However, they stay because we are non-compliant. They stay because here they do not have to choose between being Adventist and honoring the ministry of women or the research of scientists or the humanity of their gay friends. They would not listen to apocalyptic speculations. We are Adventist by history, culture, and religious conviction. But none of us has bothered to read a church policy manual in a very long time. And we care nothing about being “compliant.” Instead we cultivate acquaintance with God and love for our neighbors. We give careful attention to the text of the Gospel (i.e. especially Matthew, Mark, and Luke). We pursue truth and love.
Rather than looking over our shoulders to see if we are compliant with the dictates of church bureaucrats who have little experience in actual church life, we look forward along the path illuminated by Jesus: loving God and loving neighbors. We will do this in the context of Adventism as long as we are allowed.
Note: In this article I depart from my long practice of referring to General Conference presidents with the title “Elder” and their last names. I refer to Ted Wilson as “Ted” not from personal animus but as a spiritual judgment. The act of proposing the Compliance Committees has completely emptied the office of General Conference President of any spiritual validity. It is now revealed to be merely another political office, necessary to the function of a religious corporation, but utterly divorced from the shepherding function envisioned by Jesus in Luke 22:24-30 and John 21:15.
John McLarty is Senior Pastor of the Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists, Seattle, and director of Talking Rocks Tours, camping trips that explore the geology of the Southwest. Go to www.johnmclarty.com.