by Danny Bell
I haven’t always been in the church. As a young and naive twelve-year-old SDA kid, I decided I wanted to discover the world and what it had to offer. I was in for a rough and deadly ride.
Sex, drugs and rock-n-roll were only part of it. There is an underbelly. The loneliness, the fear, the self loathing, feelings of being lost, feelings of escape, feelings of suicide—all there waiting for anyone who wishes to tangle with the dark side.
While in the world however, I didn’t expect this—God did not leave me. All along he was there, and thankfully he gave me a final call to come back to him at the age of twenty one. I grasped at the opportunity, and he took me in like the prodigal son of old. No judgement, just big love. 1985 was my new birthday.
Attending church was like being close to God. Church life was as much my saviour as Jesus was, it seemed. Don’t get me wrong, I was having a true conversion, and Jesus guided me through many minefields—much to learn and much to unlearn. The problem for someone like me, though, was coming from such an extreme lifestyle to a clean, vegetarian, suit-wearing one. I embraced it with white knuckles. I never wanted to go back and so immersed myself in Adventism lock, stock and barrel.
I wanted to put distance between myself and the world so much that I turned from it in ways I now see were not helpful. I was so wrapped up in my own personal journey that I could not see that it wasn’t all about being saved. Immersed in church life, I became unwittingly devoted to getting a reputation as a “good clean Adventist young man.” I found acceptance and status in my new world of comfort, and the church, like a mother, gave me a warm place to grow.
Conservative members were quick to “teach me” the ropes. I was heavily into our doctrine (which I still am) and embraced certain lines of thought on offer if you wanted to be a true SDA—tying a Windsor knot, veganism, tithing, quietness in the sanctuary, spending three hours a day with God, the evil of drums, and the wicked, wicked world out there. Church life made me want to stay forever and never change the system of belonging and reward. I was somebody now, but in the world I was nobody.
But alas, the church had not only become my mother, it had become my god.
It would take being in the church for a further 28 years to see more clearly Gods plan for me. I have now transitioned from being church-centric to God-centric. I no longer feel the need to gain all comfort from my church, as important as that is. It is God who comforts; the church helps but I no longer feel the need to breast-feed.
In my journey, I saw how easy it is to get ‘stuck’ in a maternal relationship with the church. The truth is many of us don’t come to church to be transformed, but to participate in comforting rituals that have changed little since our childhood.* One can get stuck and not progress because there is a strong reward for participation and sameness. High achievement can be seen as having a position in the church that gives a sense of purpose and status. The feeling is that God is blessing if we and our children are in the church, and they are doing well at school, and they marry other Adventists to produce perfect babies.
I became disquieted. Surely this was not the ultimate? I started asking questions. I began to gravitate away from domestic church life and found myself asking God what the next step was? I had a growing dissatisfaction with the status quo, not happy just to float along in a cocoon insulated from the world. Are we to just keep coming to church once a week going through the motions? Is being happy and comfortable in the church my goal? Is it all about personal piety and waiting for the Second Coming, or is there something else that needs to be done? The world was calling me once again, but in a different way. I had sympathy for the lost and could no longer justify that the world was a place to be feared and resisted.
My previous time in the world helped me see certain things more clearly than if I had never left the church. I’m not advocating we become part of the world to gain this insight, but we do need to be in touch with it. I would be lying if I said I didn’t secretly wish my fellow church compatriots had time in the world for a bit of it to rub off on them. My experience in the world for all of its danger has made me know extreme good and extreme evil which is a thing I find church lifers struggle to understand. You can’t know what it’s like to be lost, without hope, without God unless you have been there—it’s horrible. To be rescued by God from this nightmare is an experience some will never know. I have never forgotten the hole from which I was rescued.
Passion for lost souls runs deep with those who were once lost themselves. They know what it’s like, and so they have mercy and see great potential and an urgency to bring sinners in. When the church was my mother and god, the world was the enemy. People coming into the church from the world with new ideas meant change, and change meant danger. If you are trying to change my church, you are trying to change my GOD and HE is unchangeable! So I thought.
We need to ask ourselves, Why is change met with a lot of opposition? If the church has become our god, then those who seek change are trying to change God! In this sense, church-centric people resist the world so strongly that they lose passion for the lost, settling for a small, selfish vision of comfort and reward.
An old song I used to listen to came on the radio the other day. I never really listened to the words when I was younger but I was blown away by the depth of meaning of Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd. The song asks:
Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts? Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze? Cold comfort for change?
Did you exchange a walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?
For me the song can be easily about being stuck in a church-centric culture. It talks of the exchanges that are made in order to stay safe. Have we traded our Bible heroes for modern day ghosts of success? Have we coveted the useless ashes of fame and popularity for the trees of heaven? Did we prefer the cold comfort of an ordered lifestyle rather than life-giving change? Have we missed the best offer in the world by trading a walk on part in God’s war for a safe place with a narrow view?
My favourite grandmother once said:
We are soldiers of Christ; and those who enlist in His army are expected to do difficult work, work which will tax their energies to the utmost. We must understand that a soldier’s life is one of aggressive warfare, of perseverance and endurance. (E.G. White, Testimonies, Vol. 6, p. 140)
If church is our god, then we are in a cage. There is a war going on right now, and the battle noise is getting closer. Being gently rocked in a perch by our god-mother is not realising our full potential. Church life is important, but there are souls lost and dying outside of our walls. Who will go, and who will say, “Here I am. Lord send me!”?
* Why Men Hate Going to Church, Murrow, pg24