The Local Church: The Rainforest of Adventism
Back in the day, when invited to give a talk to young people, I developed a message that I titled, “Jesus, Yes; Church, No.” It was the age of Aquarius. Young people, and some older people as well, were becoming enamored with the man Jesus. For them it was the great discovery, as if He hadn’t been around for two thousand years. Radical theologians had pronounced God dead. Doomsayers were saying that religion was a relic of history. Humanity was come of age and no longer needed religion with all its trappings and baggage.
Now a new day was dawning. The “Jesus freak” showed up all over the place proclaiming that Jesus was an all right guy. They could “dig” Him. Broadway got into the act and there was Jesus Christ Superstar.
At the same time the new devotees were turned off by those people who gathered from time to time in special meeting places to worship Him. The church—organized religion—they declared to be a bunch of hypocrites and phonies. For them it was Jesus, yes; but church, no!
I tried to point out that from the outset of the Jesus movement the newly baptized were added to the church, three thousand of them, all those who were being saved. I went so far as to use a popular song: “Love and marriage . . . go together like a horse and carriage. . . . Try, try to separate them. . . . You can’t have one without the other.”
What is true of love and marriage is also true of Christ and His church. There is no dichotomy. Family is the word that best describes this relationship. Jesus cannot be separated from His people. We cannot separate the body from the head. And there are no working parts that can survive separate from the body. Every one of us is connected to the body and thus to Christ—the Head. We were made for community. This is why we crave it. We starve without it. Without it there is no growth. The church fills this need. Church is not an afterthought. The strategy was fully formed before the emergency arose. The plan responds to basic human need. It was always in Yahweh’s mind and heart. There is no substitute. Wherever the religion of Jesus is presented, it becomes a given.
This is so basic that even our agnostic friends are coming to recognize its universality, even without the scriptural witness. Time magazine has reported on the rise of “atheistic” churches. A spokesperson for the movement says, “Faith in your fellow man and a desire for like-minded fellowship are evidence of an ability to believe in something bigger than one’s self.” Exactly. The church is a common fellowship where all are welcome and treated as brothers and sisters under the one Head, Jesus, who indeed is the whole body. The church, the community called together by God, is just the right learning environment for discovery of that “something bigger than one’s self.” God intended for His children to be happy and fulfilled.
They are involved in community with Him. And God Himself says, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness” (Jeremiah 31:3). We can care and be cared for only in genuine community. A community transformed by the Spirit is still the goal that energizes us. We must go beyond the arrangement of systems, structure, or even doctrines
We could call that anatomy. But the church—the body of Christ—depends on the spiritual growth of the people that John saw on the glassy sea shot through with fire. This is God’s vision. A people who are in agreement with Him. His heirs. “Holiness is agreement with God.” We share it. We are guided by it. It keeps us in step with heaven’s action plan. “For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed” (Romans 8:19).
The growth of the ideal community is the ultimate goal. This is what the universe is longing to see—the appearance of the sons and daughters of God, long awaited. We are now into the twenty-first century. This is the time when the local church, the congregation, must come into its own. The time when the word must get out of the seminaries, conference offices, pastor’s studies, and committee rooms and into the pews and into the hearts and lives of the people who are, in fact, the church.
Structures are not to be confused with the church. We have placed too much weight on the structures—the conference, the union, the church board, the executive committee—a corporate model of the church. A CEO might say, “I took this company over and made something out of it.” The servants of God do not look on themselves as captains of industry. They feel blessed to serve, it is a privilege. Their reward is service, people, souls added to the fellowship, the growth of the kingdom of God on earth. The structures are subservient to the church.
It may help us to think of the local church as a rainforest. To what shall we liken the kingdom of God? Rainforests are vital to the ecosystem. “Tropical rainforests have been called the ‘jewels of the earth’ and ‘the world’s largest pharmacy’” because “over one quarter of natural medicines have been discovered there.” They “are responsible for 28% of the world’s oxygen turnover” and thus “have been called the Earth’s lungs.” “More than half of the world’s species of plants and animals are found in the rainforest.” In the economy of heaven, the local church is the living cell where the lowest common denominator in number is two or three, though not limited to any number, because Jesus is in the midst. It is His presence that legitimizes the meeting.
I venture to say that the local fellowship, where two or three come together in His name, is the rainforest, the living cell that reinvigorates, refreshes, and renews the body of Christ. It is in this fellowship that we experience God in community. He is there “when you come together,” to use Paul’s expression (1 Corinthians 11:18). There is something unique about this coming together; the possibilities are limitless. The “assemblies of the home church . . . are God’s appointed opportunities for giving the early and latter rain.” Private devotions and closet spirituality come to flower in the gathering. United prayer is more powerful than private, according to Ellen White: “The promise is made on condition that the united prayers of the church are offered, and in answer to these prayers there may be expected a power greater than that which comes in answer to private prayer. The power given will be proportionate to the unity of the members and their love for God and for one another.” This intelligence gives purpose to the meeting. Do not forsake the assembling of yourselves. All in attendance have something to contribute. We come away fulfilled, complete, revived. “And so much the more, as you see the day approaching!” (see Hebrews 10:25, KJV). A thorough, Second Coming–oriented awareness gives the community purpose, direction, and guidance. The worshiper finds the fellowship to be a resurrection center. Our emphasis must be on the local fellowship—“on earth, as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10, NLT).
My forebears met in the woods and swamps. They sometimes had to “steal away to Jesus.” I have read about the believers in the Congo—Kimbangu’s followers—who met a great while before day and whispered their prayers. I have heard about the house churches in various parts of the globe, especially China. The pattern is always the same, “where two or three are gathered.” This is sine qua non, without which there is no other.
In the development of Seventh-day Adventist history, it is the same. “The little flock,” the movement was sometimes called in the early years. “Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32, KJV).
Sometimes for these little flocks to travel hopefully is better than to arrive. They have to return to an unfriendly world—a poisoned atmosphere. I call this the peril of reentry. But we can carry the atmosphere of the gathering with us. The committed follower of Christ is surrounded with it. A shared life, intimacy, togetherness. A healthy learning environment. There is bonding, mutual support, and mutual love for one another.
So despise not the day of small things (see Zechariah 4:10, KJV). In this coming together God is present. The riches and power that rule the universe are present and available. All heaven is interested in what is going on here. It is clear that this is what the Savior had in mind when He set forth the principles, the constitution of His government on earth (whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven [Matthew 16:19, KJV]). This unit is indestructible. It will always be here, modeling the kingdom of heaven. But the little flock must be fed and cared for. They are the rainforest. Failure to support and encourage these little rainforests could prove fatal. Take care of the rainforests. Don’t take them for granted.
We have become masters of the great assemblies; we must now give some quality time to the rainforests. We must let them know that in the midst of pressures our major concern is for them. “Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28), declared the apostle Paul. There is a quaint expression I used to hear my elders use about knowing which side the bread is buttered on. Where would we be if not for the rainforests?
I am ready to say without any reservation that the local church, the congregation—“where two or three are gathered”—is the rainforest of the Seventh-day Adventist movement. We must preserve the rainforest. Beware and shun anything that would jeopardize the unity of the family. Gathered, authorized, equipped. When the question is asked, Where is the church? the correct answer is found in Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (KJV). The gathering is validated by the Creator, not by the gathered. “The Sovereign LORD declares—he who gathers the exiles of Israel: I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered” (Isaiah 56:8; see also Isaiah 11:11, 12; Ezekiel 34). The idea is present here of being summoned, invited to join the assembly or congregation of God’s people. Church is actualized when people come together in assembly. The church is the community of God called together by God. The people never call themselves. Yahweh reserves to Himself the initiative (Isaiah 48:15; 45:4). He has always been the God who calls out, gathers a people unto Himself and makes covenant with them. He is always the convener. He is Creator, Designer, Architect, Master Builder, Owner, and Operator. More than some impersonal “thing” or “it,” the church is His bride, family, people, living temple, flock, blood purchase, chaste virgin. “Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters” (Hebrews 2:11). The Old Testament picture is that of a nobleman who finds an abandoned child and cares for her, professes undying love for her that ultimately triumphs over her waywardness and backslidings. “Yet will I remember the covenant I made with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you” (Ezekiel 16:60; see also Deuteronomy 32:10; Isaiah 62:3; Zechariah 2:8; 9:16; Malachi 3:17).
We must accept the estimate that Christ places on His church and be careful not to discount the high regard He has for His chosen possession. It is not an aristocracy or an oligarchy or meritocracy. It is not a club of the spiritual elite. As individuals the members of the church may seem to be a motley crew indeed, full of faults and failures, obviously defective in so many ways. But there is a reality beyond the narrow confines of human vision. It is not ours to judge. Don’t judge the book by its cover. “In a desert land he found him, in a barren and howling waste. He shielded him and cared for him; he guarded him as the apple of his eye” (Deuteronomy 32:10). The local church is fully equipped by the Spirit and recognized as being capable of acting on behalf of the risen Lord.
The local church is the “port of entry” to the kingdom of God. It is here that those who come to belief in Christ are baptized, admitted to the community, and given the right hand of fellowship. Those who accepted the message Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost “were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day” (Acts 2:41; see also verse 47).
We must be careful not to give the impression that the local church is in some way inferior to the church universal. The local church is the most palpable manifestation of the body of Christ on earth. In the New Testament the local churches exercised the highest ecclesiastical functions: the control of memberships (Matthew 18:17). In Corinth matters of discipline were carried out by the fellowship (1 Corinthians 5:5; 2 Corinthians 2). And the decisions stood. There was no review or reversal on the part of so-called higher bodies. The selection of officers (Acts 6:3–6; 14:23; Titus 1:5). The apostles were confident that each local fellowship was quite capable of not only appointing its officers but creating offices and structures to meet felt needs.
The apostle Paul’s personal experience is highly instructive: As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do” (Acts 9:3–6). As the narrative unfolds, the brilliant young rabbi, who had already been chosen to represent Christ “before the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel” (verse 15), goes into the city and is contacted by a member of the local fellowship. The Lord could have directed Paul to the more prestigious Jerusalem congregation. He could have given him instructions to guide him in every situation throughout the rest of his ministry.
What we have here is our Lord at the outset affirming the status of the local church. Thus there is no need to set up a straw-man fight between the church universal and the local church. The local church always represents the whole church. In fact, wherever the local church is duly established, it is the church in that place. The integrity of the congregation must be maintained. The paradigm is unchanging—“Where two or three are gathered in My name, I am there.”
Every congregation is an eschatological (end-time) community. There is awareness, expectancy, constant renewal. Each one of these little worshiping assemblies is a power center that cannot be overcome. Neither any power on earth nor “the gates of hell” can prevail against it.
By now we should see that Yahweh has put all of His eggs in one basket—the local church! The Acts 2 curriculum They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:42–47). We find here curriculum for growing church, for rising to our challenge—every church a resurrection center!
The challenge is all-inclusive—church members, church officers, pastors, conference leaders. “The work of God in this earth can never be finished until the men and women comprising our church membership rally to the work, and unite their efforts with those of ministers and church officers. The Word (“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching”). The Word is first. The preached word created the community. Three thousand were baptized. Worship (“They continued to meet together. . . . They broke bread . . . together . . . , praising God”). But then came worship. The church indeed is a worshiping community. Fellowship (“And to fellowship. . . . All the believers were together”).
This led to fellowship. The development of koinonia, people living together as brothers and sisters. “We share our mutual woes, our mutual burdens bear, and often for each other flows the sympathizing tear.” Service and ministry (“They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need”). All of this leads us to ministry. It would be truncated if left in our little circle; we must break out of structures to serve the world—preaching, teaching, leading, making disciples.
The Sabbath School class remains an invaluable means for implementing this curriculum. “The formation of small companies as a basis of Christian effort has been presented to me by One who cannot err.” I have asked Sabbath School teachers to share their secrets for success. The consensus seems to be hands on, intimacy, contact, creating a community. The members get to know each other. The class comes to be a mini church. A caring unit—all for one and one for all. The weak and discouraged are surrounded with family.
A very talented pastor told me that he once thought that Sabbath School was a waste of time, that more could be accomplished by enhancing the worship service. He made an appointment with the conference president and carefully went over his plans, which he intended to put into effect almost immediately. The president urged the pastor to give Sabbath School a chance. It was well over a year later when the president reminded him of their agreement. Rather sheepishly the pastor confessed he was not ready to give up on Sabbath School. Too valuable to let go.
In the class to which my wife and I belong there is a brief time given for prayer requests and answered prayers. One of the members told of her prayers for a cousin who was well employed but had a drug problem. This continued for years until she finally said the time had come for him to decide to face up to reality. A short time later her cousin called to let her know he was free. Several years have passed, and things remain the same—positive.
The curriculum includes every member. “Everyone who is added to the ranks by conversion is to be assigned his post of duty. Everyone should be willing to be or do anything in this warfare.” This has been the weakest link in my ministry, and many pastors and church leaders have admitted difficulty in accomplishing this. It is easy to put on paper but another thing to see to it that every member knows his or her assignment and is expected to do it.
We must do better to save the rainforest. Talent scouts are needed. God is an equal opportunity Employer. The goal is full employment, making every church a resurrection center. All hands on deck! We cannot suffer the dehydration of the rainforest! A spiritual gift is a terrible thing to waste (apologies to the United Negro College Fund). Prayer and planning go hand in hand in implementing the curriculum.
Goal-setting is a spiritual activity, and it all begins with prayer. Martin Luther used to tell his students that to pray well is the better part of study. What would it mean to the cause of God on earth if every board meeting, committee meeting, and planning session were bathed in prayer, the agenda focused on mission, on the gifts and the development of people and their potential? We have met the church, and they are us. “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Ephesians 2:19–22).
Here is the great discovery—we are the church! The church is, in one sense, a place, a locality where we live out our lives together, learning about God, experiencing His will and way. But, of course, it is not a building. It is people; it is a miracle. Christ is the uniting Stone. We have been introduced to the Father and the Son and the members, and we are one of them. My dear parishioners used to say, “I been introduced to the Father and the Son, and I ain’t no stranger now.” Throughout his letters, Paul uses a rich variety of terms to describe the church. “The church is a new creation, the first fruits, the new humanity, the fellowship of faith, the people of the way, and the household of faith, to name only a few,” writes Keith Russell. Perhaps the most revealing of all comes in 1 Corinthians 12: Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many. . . . . . .
But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it (verses 12–14, 18–20, 27). “Body” truly says it all—unity, organization, administration, ministry, relationships, authority, governance, discipline, how the system works. The overarching consideration is unity, both among members and among the churches (1 Corinthians 1:10; 2 Corinthians 13:11; Ephesians 4:4; Philippians 1:27; 1 Peter 3:8).
As there is a legitimate communion of saints, so there is an actual community of churches. Each local congregation is “the church” manifest in “that place.” But there is a solidarity demanded beyond one’s own community. According to the body motif, all these parts are joined together, held by ligaments and sinews. But how is this unity achieved and maintained? “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:3–6). The emphasis is on the work of the Holy Spirit: “For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body” (1 Corinthians 12:13). “My prayer is . . . that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you,” said Jesus of all who would come to believe in Him. “I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:20–23).
The church’s ministry to a hostile world
The mission of God’s chosen vessels is to establish in the midst of a rebellious society a community under His kingdom of justice that will bring glory to God. We are His representatives in a hostile world.
The insights of New Testament scholar Gordon Fee concerning the mission of the local church are well worth consideration by Adventists. One of the desperate needs of the church is to recapture this vision of what it is by grace, and therefore also what God intends it to be. In most Protestant circles one tends to take the local parish altogether too lightly. Seldom does one sense that it is, or can be, experienced as a community that is so powerfully indwelt by the Spirit that it functions as a genuine alternative to the pagan world in which it is found. It is perhaps not too strong to suggest that the recapturing of this vision of its being, both in terms of being powerfully indwelt by the Holy Spirit and of its thereby serving as a genuine alternative (“holy” in the most holistic sense) to the world, is its single greatest need.
Yahweh intends that the church, His body, should be not only a teaching tool but a laboratory and demonstration room. His people must take the living words and put them into real life. How then shall we live? A set of plans, no matter how well drawn, is not an end in itself. We want to see the building. How does it function? Everything must come to expression in real time, in the real word, with real people, in real communities. Paul’s epistle to the Romans, some would say, is the greatest theological statement in Scripture. However, as much recent scholarship is rediscovering, it turns out that its main focus is the spiritual growth of the church. Paul does not leave the matter in the lecture room but takes it to the fellowship for verification, proof.
Church is the crucible, the smelting pot. Commitment to Christ and His kingdom, and understanding His plans and purposes, is required. Soldiers of the cross find themselves attacked on every hand, forced to fight on many fronts. A weak faith will surely collapse under the stress and strain. We need an intelligent faith that we can call our own—something that we have bought into, that we are willing to stake our lives on.
Bumper sticker sound-bite theology will not do; neither will Pollyanna feel-good answers. Emotion, sentiment, nostalgia will not do. We need bedrock under our belief system. The house must be built on a rock. “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15). It is God’s purpose to make the church His place of residence, His pulpit, the sounding board from which His word, the gospel, the good news is shared with the people of this earth.
The triune God is enshrined in His people. “As God has said: ‘I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people’ ” (2 Corinthians 6:16). God chooses human beings to be representatives of His kingdom who in themselves are examples of the good news of salvation at work in real time and in real human situations. The people who grasp this great truth become its witnesses. They want to tell somebody about it; they want to tell the world about it. “The mouth runs over with what the heart is full of.”
The church is always reaching out to others. Never seeking its own comfort and ease. Believers take on the Master’s spirit, to serve and not to be served. “What can we do for you?” They are always looking outward. Shining “as lights among the sinful people of this world” (Philippians 2:15, NLV). Showing God’s goodness to the world, the world that God loves passionately—every part of it, hill and valley, smoke from a thousand villages. To be in sync the church must become pro world. Unselfish service: this begins with the household of faith. What can I do for you? “Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others” (Philippians 2:4, KJV).
It is here that we have the Creator putting Himself into the hands of the created and fallen! It is through church that this becomes a reality. We are partners in “The House of God and Sons”—a phrase coined by Dr. Natelka Burrell, my education professor, to explain the relationship that exists in the church. In today’s business world, the young and restless, tomorrow’s leaders, would give an arm to hear the CEO say, “You are a partner! You can put it on that brass plate on your office door.” Heaven has already told us that! “There is nothing that Christ desires so much as agents who will represent to the world His Spirit and character. There is nothing that the world needs so much as the manifestation through humanity of the Saviour’s love. All heaven is waiting for channels through which can be poured the holy oil to be a joy and blessing to human hearts.” God wants and will have witnesses. It is time for us to say yes to Jesus Christ and yes to His church also—undivided, inseparable for all eternity! It is time for us, members of His body, to recast the vision. The story must become our story, we must tell it in our own way—compelling and strong enough to embrace and meet the terms of Revelation 14:6: “an everlasting gospel to preach unto . . . every nation, kindred, tongue and people” (KJV).
- Sammy Cahn and Jimmy van Heusen, “Love and Marriage” (1955). ↑
- David Fraser, quoted in “What You Said About,” Time, August 18, 2014, 2, commenting on Josh Sanburn, “Nonbelief System: Atheistic ‘Churches’ Take Hold, Even in the Bible Belt,” Time, August 4, 2014, 52. ↑
- Ellen G. White, Testimonies, 5:743. ↑
- “Rainforest,” Wikipedia, last modified October 12, 2017. ↑
- White, Testimonies to Ministers, 508 ↑
- White, “Power for Service.” ↑
- White, Gospel Workers, 352. ↑
- John Fawcett, “Blest Be the Tie That Binds” (1772). ↑
- White, Testimonies, 7:21, 22. ↑
- White, Testimonies, 7:30 ↑
- Keith A. Russell, In Search of the Church: New Testament Images for Tomorrow’s Congregations (Durham, NC: Alban Institute, 1994), 53. ↑
- Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, rev. ed., The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Ned B. Stonehouse et al. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 162. ↑
- Barth, 70 ↑
- White, Christ’s Object Lessons, 419 ↑
Charles E. Bradford graduated from Oakwood University and was conferred with a doctor of divinity degree from Andrews University. He served the Seventh-day Adventist church in pastoral ministry and leadership throughout North America for four and half decades and succeeded Neal Wilson as president of the North American Division. The Bradford-Cleveland-Brooks Leadership Center at Oakwood University is named in his honor. You can order The King Is in Residence here.