By Juleun A. Johnson, D.Min.
I have a true confession for you. I love church. I enjoy the music, the fellowship, the preaching, and the worship experience. I am a Seventh-day Adventist preacher’s child that became a pastor. Matter of fact, recently I realized I have been working for the church for 15 years. But what is the church? How should it function? What would the ideal church look like? What changes should it take what problems should it address? What pitfalls should be avoided? I would like to offer a perspective of what I feel that the church can do to continue to remain a strong voice.
The church is a group of people that claims the name of Christ. A more formal definition of the church comes from fundamental belief #12, The Church. It says:
The church is the community of believers who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. In continuity with the people of God in Old Testament times, we are called out from the world; and we join together for worship, for fellowship, for instruction in the Word, for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, for service to humanity, and for the worldwide proclamation of the gospel.
This is a great insular definition. It reveals the nature of the church being for us and not so much others. Is it possible that this definition of what the church is creates an atmosphere of what the current state of the church? This definition uses doctrine as a basis for inclusion in the church as the body. By doing so the definition allows for seeking, finding, and searching for faults of others based on not living up to the “standards.” I do not deny that churches need structure and organization to survive but what about people in this post-millennial society that look at structures as obstructions to life? Churches in western society are dying left and right. Some churches are on life support, others are in the intensive care unit, others need serious urgent care. I couldn’t resist I am a healthcare chaplain.
I have served as a rural, suburban, and urban church pastor. I have come to find that there is one note that rings true with many church people. Many have stopped short of conversion. Many outside people are convinced that there is something to spiritual things and God, Jesus Christ, and some other mystical being. Many well-meaning Christians by birth or association have been convicted that they like Paul much change their worldly ways to follow God wherever God leads. However, I would dare say that many people have fallen short of true conversion, which is necessary for the church to be empowered to function at a very high level.
Convinced people are very warm and welcoming and are looking for evidence that the talk matches the walk. Convicted people over time can lose their Ephesian first love to a Laodicean slumber. Converted people do not need affirmation or approval to love unconditionally all people for whom Christ died. In short, the church in a way is suffering from a power failure. Our Methodist ancestry ensures that structurally we will have challenges with power. Following the Methodist hierarchy we have duplicated system of church governance that keeps us in a circle of committees, possibly losing touch with contemporary needs of local environments. However, the most powerful entity on the planet is the local church. It is a group of diverse people, by way of age, nationality, gender, education, and occupation who come together to encourage one another on a weekly basis.
In my clinical training, my supervisor assigned us to go Alcoholics Anonymous. If I didn’t have your attention before, I sure have it now. Reluctantly, I went, partially because it was a requirement. But something happened to me in the meeting, I began to cry. Tears flowed as I realized I was around people who were honest about where they were in their lives and the help they needed. I heard the 12 steps being repeated and I realized if church went like this it could revolutionize the world. We have a liberating message at times offered in a stifling package. As soon as I had that experience…I went to church. I told my church about my experience at Alcoholics Anonymous. They looked at me like I lost my mind. I had. I was and still am crazy enough to believe the church must be a place of transformation.
In order to remain transformed the church must continue to rely on its most powerful asset. The members in the pew. Seventh-day Adventist Church members are the most powerful group of church people. How should the power be used? The power of the church must be used to reinforce the idea of transformation. The transformation that occurs must be as a direct result of a continual encounter with our Creator. The stories of that transformation are what provide the power and impetus for change and growth. Do you know how the people in your church joined the church? Beyond a flyer, seminar, or Bible study what was going on in them that they knew that needed to change? What if every month you heard the stories of how people in your church came to the Lord? The Sabbath reinforces the idea that we must commune with God in order to keep a strong connection. If the only thing that happens is a rehearsal of what happened 20 years ago. Something is wrong. God’s blessings are new every day. If the blessings are new, but the stories are old, something is wrong.
If your church only attracts people of the same demographic something is malfunctioning. The gospel is for everyone. If your church is satisfied watching the news versus making news something is wrong. If your church is into self-preservation as opposed to love empowered action something is broken. In order for your church to get out of second gear it must take an honest and candid look at itself. Do the systems and structures of the corporate church fit my local need? Thom Rainer in his book Simple Church gives a very clear four part method for church effectiveness: clarity, movement, alignment, and focus (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2011). Does your church have a clear form of communicating? Are you moving together? Is there alignment between the pastor and board, and member to member? What is the focus for this year or the next five?
To merely desire new baptisms and people is like desiring a new car or new shoes. Many people want the newest car and newest fashion if money were no issue. However, what are you doing with the car and clothing items you have? Church and conference rolls are over run with names of people who may or may not be attending. One conference president I worked for did a membership audit. The numbers of the actual members was astounding. What if we kept the people who were kids? What if we discipled those who were baptized? We can’t use rotary phone methods in an iPhone society. For too long the emphasis has been on right living as a product versus a process of development. Plastered on the church walls should be a sign “people under construction.” Think about it. How long did it take the church to come up with a set of beliefs and standards to operate? Several years. In 150 plus years of existence of the church it was recently 5 years ago voted to have a doctrine on Growing in Christ.
Imagine how much more full the church would be, how vibrant the witness if the emphasis was on growing vs. being an adult. Currently, one must agree and have a general knowledge of most doctrines before getting baptized. Paul even says that new babes in Christ need milk; our church does better! We give steak as prophecy and unlocking seals. Is this wrong? No. But if I don’t know myself, and am learning about Jesus why is the emphasis on John and Revelation? Give me Jesus!!! Let me grow up to learning about other things of importance. Let me continue growing because sanctification is a process of daily spiritual construction
Creating a shift in focus for the church requires a shift in attitude of churches themselves. The church can no longer be a country club for former everything’s. It has to be a community of transformation for people who have issues, burdens, problems, and victories. I would like to offer my definition of the church. My definition: The church is a community of people who are being transformed by the character, life, and stories of Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit. Who can’t belong to this church? It gives an opportunity for people to go through their own process.
In order for there to be a shift there must also be a change in emphasis. Every TGI Fridays is not the same size. They tailor make their locations to meet the dimensions of the space. Despite size challenges they serve a product that is consistent. The challenge for each congregation is that it must determine not to water down the gospel but serve it in a way that it can best be received in that community. Dave Browning’s book Deliberate Simplicity (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009). speaks about building a network of reproducible and predictable churches that invest themselves in the community for the upbuilding of the cause of God. How can this idea influence the way church happens now?
Some places may not need the existing church. There are not enough people, key families have left, children have grown up, and patriarchs have died. Churches in many cities and towns are struggling to pay utilities and conference remittances do not necessitate the need for a full-time pastor. Districts are growing larger and the patience of faithful members is shrinking. What should happen? Some churches need to merge, some need to close, others need to be buried, while some can be resurrected.
I would offer that every area needs the presence of God’s word and power. To accomplish this task of fulfilling the gospel commission I would encourage another level to the system in place. As it stands we have missions, companies and churches. I would offer that we need lighthouses. These lighthouses would serve well in rural areas where you need a presence. They include doing mission projects: reading classes, financial seminars, feeding programs and bible story hour, just 2 days a week. Any 2 days. This can be done in already existing buildings enlisting the aid of the community associate members to help.
I believe that the greatest days of the church are ahead of us. To become ready for the great out pouring of the future more prayer is needed, more collaboration is needed, more power is needed. I long for the day where technology, innovation, and a deep spiritual walk are synonymous with every believer. As the church and community moves through the advances of society one thing remains, Jesus is coming again!
Juleun A. Johnson is a chaplain at Florida Hospital in Orlando. He is a graduate of Oakwood University and Andrews University, and earned a D.Min. from Claremont School of Theology in Spiritual Care and Counseling.