The Bumpy Road to Remnantville
by Lawrence Downing | 6 January 2020 |
It is not difficult to find those who opine that Remnantville, like Valhalla or Atlantis, is a mythical city. The countless thousands who have ventured forth on Remnantville Road conclude otherwise. For those who are of a mind to experience the journey themselves, a brief introduction to what lies ahead may be helpful.
First, the trip to Remnantville is a unique adventure. The traveler will find Remnantville to be a quaint village. Its citizens are of a mind that they are quite self-sufficient, thank you. The visitor will note that the community is largely isolated from worldly things. This is by intent!
The citizens are, for the most part, gentle, except when riled. One need not be an astute observer to note the emphasis on rules and the citizens’ attention to Law, as evidenced by two stone tablets that greet all who seek entrance to the city. The one tablet is attached to the left gate pillar of the arch that defies the main gate into the City. On it are engraved the first four of the Ten Commandments,—the 4th commandment is written in caps illuminated by a spotlight timed to turn on when the sun goes down Friday and turn off at sunset Saturday (Sabbath). The second tablet, posted on the right gate pillar, contains the other six. Note the plaque at the center of the arch, the one with the scratched-out numbers: it once read: Population 144,000.
The Remnantvillites have proven themselves experts in the design and implementation of numerous peculiar rules. This talent is consistent with their self-designation as “A Peculiar People.”
The Remnantvillites tell anyone who will listen that they are satisfied to live in social and cultural isolation. They find Remnantville to be a place of security and a satisfying escape from the evils of the world. Why, then, the obsession to recount the strange and frightful accounts that terrorize their children and disturb their sleep? Cliches multiply like fleas on a dog’s back: The End Times. The Time of Trouble. The Shaking. First-time visitors can expect to hear strange and frightful accounts of believers facing persecution for their refusal to perform work on their Sabbath or participate in other activities perceived to be “doing their own pleasure.” More than a few have been known, after listening and watching those who live in the city, to express the opinion that Remnantvillites are a dour bunch. This evaluation is a bit harsh. It is true they are a pessimistic lot: “The world is getting worse and worse.” “The music now is nothing but noise. You can’t sing the songs even if you wanted to.” “Standards have gone to pot. Whatever happened to modesty? It looks like anything goes.”
Remnantvillites are dead sure they have been called to demonstrate it is possible to achieve a sinless life. Their goal is to achieve a life that will stand as proof before the universe and the unfallen beings that fallen humanity can live a life without sin. Jesus, they propose, came to earth with the nature of fallen Adam. He perfectly kept God’s law. The Remnantvillites are confident that when they achieve this state, the trump will sound and Jesus will return to redeem His commandment-keeping people. After all, they proclaim, there will come a time, at the End of Time, when we will have no mediator in heavenly places. This “Remnant” band will, of necessity, be sin-free! If there is one theological conviction that binds the citizens together, this is it!
Consider this awesome, even frightening prospect: the Remnantvillites cherish the conviction that they hold the fate of the world. The Almighty hostage to a small group? Some might respond, “What arrogance!” The Remnantvillites accept this as their divine responsibility.
A word of warning: A significant number of the Band of Remnant, perhaps a majority, have slid off Remnantville Road. Did they tire of the dirt and ruts? Was it that the cry of wolf—“We’re in the end times”—wore them down? For some, it was the impossibility of the whole thing. They faced reality. No one they ever knew, including themselves, could make a credible case that he or she had reached, even for a brief time, the perfection point. An evaluation of an individual’s life was sufficient to provide affirmation the opposite was true—Isaiah’s dire pronouncement struck pay dirt: “Your righteousness is as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). What is apparent: the Remnantville Road is fraught with risk.
Granted, Remnantville is a mythical place, much as James Thurber’s unicorn is a mythical beast. The characteristics and beliefs promoted by those who apply Remnant to themselves and others with them are real. Seventh-day Adventists from their very beginning in the middle 1800s have identified themselves as God’s Remnant people. Putting aside the mythical Road to Remnantville and the Remnantvillites who walk thereon, let’s get real.
We Adventists live in a world far different from that of our pioneers. We may live in the shadow of those who predicted Jesus would come in 1844, but it is a dimmed shadow that an ever-decreasing number claim as their own. Adventists, in ever-increasing numbers, have little to no interest in parsing Daniel’s obscure symbolisms. The Investigative Judgment is part of the eschatological interpretive jumble that has long been part of Adventist eschatology. Why, in light of our technological abilities, saddle the Almighty with a painstaking examination of every person’s life and pronounce a non-negotiable verdict at the conclusion of each person’s record, a record laboriously documented by a heavenly being?
The recent General Conference (GC) actions that led to the establishment of the five Compliance Committees has added to the collective actions that, despite claims to the contrary, tend to alienate and divide. The GC action to censure non-compliant church leaders, with threats of further actions against the non-compliant administrators adds to the mounting tensions that encumber responsible and effective church employees. Where, people ask, will this all end?
Let’s be clear: The issues are trust, power, control. People who trust one another would not propose such foolishness. It is apparent the GC does not trust those in other administrative levels. Lack of trust and respect flows the other way, too.
When an organization does not trust its employees, or neglects to nurture and support its valued personnel, that body is on the road to irrelevancy, or worse. North American Division (NAD) President Daniel Jackson provided us a time-honored theological term to express his view of the Compliance Committee structure: “This is Hooey!” He said he hopes to see the document in the shredder.
Power of the People
What of we who occupy the lower rungs of the organizational ladder? What can we do? We can deny that we occupy the lower rungs. We, in fact, possess amazing power! We in the parish are the geese. We lay the golden eggs! The local congregation is the only entity in the Adventist structure that generates revenue. The other denominational levels are consumers. Let our voice be heard! Write or call church leaders and let them know our thoughts.
We can do something else. When a professor or other church employee comes under attack from church officials or others, contact the person to express your support. Give a pat on the back. Put forth the energy to challenge hooey when we see it!
Fortunately, individuals, both denominational employees and non-employees, have countered the mandates that originate from ill-guided administrators.
Marcia Moore in October of 2019 addressed NAD Annual Session delegates. She said,
“To know the right thing to do and not do it is a sin. Quite frankly, and I say this in love, I do not understand how some leaders can come here year after year and talk about the discrimination against their predecessors who were not allowed to eat in the General Conference cafeteria, or speak against the terrible acts of discrimination that they personally witnessed, but still go home and say that their hands are tied because they can’t go against a General Conference vote against women’s ordination.”
Daniel Jackson, at the Nov. 3, 2019, NAD Year End meetings:
“It shouldn’t surprise us that in a group like this, the answer to many questions was, ‘We need to pray more.’ Pray that God will guide us. That God would direct these affairs. That God will bless the best interests of NAD and the world church. It’s an idea that appeals to me, except that I keep wondering: if prayer is the main thing, why didn’t God prevent all of this in the first place when in 2010 we prayed for a GC president who would bring peace to our denomination?”
Jack Hoehn (AT Web, Oct 1, 2019):
“No conference or union that does not permit gender equality in ministry, including the ordination of women pastors, will receive any of God’s tithes from me. Not because I wish to punish anyone, but because the Spirit has made it clear to me that this is a moral and spiritual battle.”
Ray Tetz (Publisher, Pacific Union Recorder, November 2019, pp. 25, 27) added his voice:
“Perhaps you’ve noticed this is a rather complex time for our church. There are some divisive issues. We don’t quite know how to make sense of everything that’s happened or hasn’t happened. And can we seriously say that we’re honoring our history, our mother, when we deny full agency to women who represent more than half of our community?”
These people are our family, and numerous others join with them. This church of ours is composed of an amazing collection of gifted people. Allow these talented people to apply their abilities to strengthen the local congregation. Each parish has the ability to influence the course of the Adventist church. If the people in the pew fail to act, the future is bleak. It is we who determine whether the Adventist church will be a relevant 21st century force or fritter away, a relic on the fringes of mediocrity.
We Can Do Better
One need not search far to identify church administrators who have made poor judgments. Like all other members of the human family, administrators make mistakes. We can perseverate on administrative errors or we can pursue possibilities that have potential to provide positive impact and improve the organization of which we are a part.
We have within our churches women and men who believe we can do better. We know people who strive toward excellence and seek superior performance—superior performance defined as 30% to 45% above the average.
We share membership with people who are open to unconventional ideas; women and men who are willing to take the leap of faith. Those of us who have church-watched have witnessed the ubiquitous promotions that originated by a conference departmental person that promise unimagined success. If we learned to implement the methods that created the mega-churches. Copy their pattern and we’ve got it made. Willow Creek was the great Mecca. Various media Adventist media center personalities stood before us to announce the newest and most innovative series. These creations, we were assured, would “finish the work.”
There is a flaw in these magical formulas: we who have been around have witnessed the implementation of the newest program that will “finish the work” and watched the miraculous creations go down in flames. “Finish the work” morphed to “do in the work.” We’ve had enough of the newest, the best, the “cannot fail.” Our recycle bins are full to overflowing with such stuff. Is there any wonder why so many of us are skeptical when a challenge is issued to venture beyond our comfort zone—and that comfort zone may well be the church we attend and little beyond.
We who attend and support a local church want our church to thrive! Our church is where we greet friends, keep informed as to what’s going on with people we know, and share ideas. For many of us, Adventism is in our DNA. We also acknowledge that our denominational leadership has made decisions that trouble us. We know that, in response to administrative decisions, people we know and care about have left the church. When church members walk, we are left with problems we did not create. Empty pews remind us of our loss. Not very satisfying, is it? There is, however, an alternative universe.
Ideas that Work
Every once in a decade or so, an idea comes along that grabs our attention. “Hey, this makes sense!” The latest thunderbolt that came my way I’ll toss out for others to consider. I think the suggestion is applicable to the parish—and again, note the limitation: to the parish.
Hold fast this fact: The local congregation is the irreplaceable component in any equation that involves the Adventist organization.
Jeff Bezos, founder, president and CEO of Amazon and holder of the Richest Man In the World title (Forbes), has more on his plate than marketing TVs, books, and others of life’s necessities. His passion for factoring the future entices him to think far beyond peddling earth’s contraptions and paraphernalia. He ventures to contemplate the mysteries that reach toward the limitless beyond.
In May 2019, in an hour of startling statements, Bezos, in a fervor remarkably similar to that of a Bible thumping evangelist, shared both his vision and accomplishments related to human excursions beyond earth. He foresees the day when our engineers and scientists will unite their skills to enable humans to surmount the challenges associated with designing systems that will sustain life on a planet far removed from earth.
This guy was passionate about the space program he champions. He is a man with the energy of conviction.
In his presentation, Bezos gave emphasis to challenges that must be overcome for a space program to succeed and be sustainable: 1) A radical reduction in launch cost. An important component of this equation is the development of a reliable reusable space vehicle. 2) It is essential to utilize the resources that are on the planets. These resources will sustain life and enable further space exploration. The space program, he stated, cannot succeed until we meet these requirements. The development of a retrievable space vehicle is history. The utilization of in-space resources awaits.
The Adventist congregation confronts challenges that parallel those Bezos identifies. Our financial resources are limited. Think of what we Adventists support: the local church; hundreds of elementary schools; dozens of academies; 10 or more colleges/universities. A significant number of these organizations are financially fragile.
We also fund an astounding number of other projects: missions, the euphemistically identified “supporting ministries” that include media productions—Amazing Facts, 3ABN, Carter Report; publications—Spectrum, Adventist Today, Seminary Studies; and other not-for-profit organizations—Maranatha, orphanages, schools and many other entities.
To protect our future it is important we control costs: prioritization, mergers and down-sizing are only the initial decisions. Second, provide our congregations with the resources that will assist them to thrive. Many congregations ship away the larger part of their income and are left with a depleted bucket. Our funds build multimillion dollar educational and administrative edifices. We pay for hundreds of administrative officers to travel the world. Our North American church members send tens of thousands of dollars to foreign countries. In some areas of the world, accountability for how these funds are used stops when the person in the GC pushes the “Send” button. There are conferences in the world that will not allow auditors to examine their books. I have talked to several auditors who affirm this was their experience.
We live in a highly competitive world. Brand loyalty is down the tube. The church is not exempt. Our congregations compete with Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Baptists, independent congregations that meet in the warehouses down the street, the newest video game. “But we have the Truth!” “We are the Remnant!” These shibboleths do not make it in the 21st century world. Doctrines and truth will not win the day.
Bezos waxed eloquent as he elaborated on his accomplishments and hopes for his space ventures. Suddenly he paused and switched gears.
“I cannot,” he said, “count the times when people came up to me and asked me what I thought awaited in our future. This,” he said, “is the wrong question. The question that matters is this: What do we do well? Put your resources into those ventures that are successful.”
What Do We Do Well?
This statement brought me up short. What do we Adventist do well? What does your church do well? What do we have that will keep the people we have and attract others? Have we capitalized, funded and staffed those things we do well?
If Bezos is on track, and I think he is, what is your local church good at? What are we, as a denomination, good at?
A high probability exists that in any metropolitan area, the local parish attracts individuals from a wide array of language, ethnic and cultural groups. Our churches are a melting pot of ethnic and racial groups. How can we benefit from this unique social opportunity?
With the above as context we have reasons enough to conclude that many of us participate, support and benefit from a viable and thriving organization. Then why are so many congregations in survival mode? Why are there so many empty pews? Do people not buy the product? Is there need for a new marketing plan? Is it time to re-think what we are about? Would we benefit if we ejected certain of our beliefs that are theologically challenged? Are we doomed to remain in our parochial rut? No!
As stated above, if there is to be any movement toward superior performance the local congregation must be at the center! The challenge to us Adventists is to transform ourselves from a bureaucratic, administrative-centered organization to a parish-centered model.
Administrators vigorously affirm that the congregation is the foundation of the church. They strongly oppose any hint of congregationalism. They have a point. There is, however, an alternative to congregationalism: The regional structure. The territory that defines the NAD can operate apart from the other divisions and the GC. In fact, our local church has the capability to function quite well with little outside assistance. That’s the reality of the matter now! Ask your pastor how much assistance the conference personnel provide. When was the last time a conference departmental person made a significant impact on your congregation or assisted the pastor?
A congregation is largely removed from the fallout from GC policies and directives. The group that met in the GC assembly room that created the Compliance Committee concept and the reprimand process did not speak for many of us, nor do the actions affect most of us. We reject their actions with no consequence. A “reprimand” to individuals who are out of compliance we see as an infantile attempt to shame and control, and we move on. A letter of “warning” to conferences perceived to be “out of compliance” has the hall-marks of desperation by a failing organization. This may disturb our sense of fairness, but most of us will continue what we do. A significant number of us will stay with the ship and find satisfaction in continuing our friendships and relationships with people whom we like.
Back to Bezos. He made two points that challenge the pertinence, purpose, practice, and goals of religious organizations: 1) Identify and take advantage of those things that will NOT change. 2) Create the space infrastructure for the next generation. His point in the second statement is a recognition that what is put into place now will be the infrastructure upon which succeeding generations will build. Some aspects of the “now” will be discarded, others will be adapted, but there is a continuum. So it is with the Adventist church organizational structure and the associated beliefs, practices, traditions, values and purpose.
Not an Organization, but a Person
Hold to what we value. Keep true to our faith and grasp firm the bond that unites in our conviction that Jesus Christ is Savior and Lord.
The Gospels offer an alternative to the Remnantville Road. Hear St. Luke as he introduces John the Baptizer: He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:3-6).
Luke saw another road, a road that leads not to a mythical Remnantville, but to a Person. When we Adventists guide people down that road—now that’s a road worth taking!
Lawrence Downing, D.Min, is a retired pastor who has served as an adjunct instructor at La Sierra University School of Business and the School of Religion, and the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies in the Philippines.