by Loren Seibold | 2 February 2021 |
As I wrote in a previous article, after a lifetime of ministry, I now wonder if ministry as we’ve conceived it all these years can continue. At one time the pastor’s role was rooted in community tradition. He was educated in Scripture and church doctrine and ritual—sometimes one of the few educated men in the community—and at his best was a coordinator of community do-gooding.
But the church is changing, and the role hasn’t. So let’s continue this discussion of the pastor-congregation relationship by looking at what the congregation is, and could be.
It is being realistic, not negative, to say that many congregations are on a slippery slope to nowhere. We’ve clung to the old—the old leaders, the old doctrines, the old structure, the old buildings. We show every sign of following in the steps of Europe, where religion was discredited by entitled pastors, fossilized worship and theology, and in some places by political cooperation with corrupt governments. Like Europe, we too will see church buildings across our towns and cities turned into boutiques and bars. And there will be ex-pastors on the job market.
Predicting and prescribing
It’s dangerous to act the part of prophet. But I will go this far: the Seventh-day Adventist Church, if we don’t do something, has an uncertain future in the west, by which I mean North America, Europe and Australia/New Zealand. It will survive in some of its institutional forms: hospitals and some colleges. I suspect administrative offices, which have so far resisted all efforts to reduce their footprint, will hold on long after they are without purpose.
In order to understand the challenges of ministry in the next several decades, you have to understand this fact, well-known and understood by everyone even if you rarely hear it mentioned:
While some large churches are holding on—particularly those near institutions—the small churches are getting smaller, and more of them are in danger of closing. The western church is growing older, and people aren’t being evangelized as readily as they once were. The old evangelistic techniques have stopped working, and the entire concept of people meeting in traditional churches is fading. Thousands of small churches will inevitably fold. One of my biggest disappointments is that with the massive denominational machinery we have, which purports to provide us with resources and guidance, there is virtually no recognition that most of the congregations in the North American Division are small and dying. Our leaders are happy for growing ethnic churches but—though this is a topic for another essay—research is suggesting ethnic churches may not save us in the long term, either.
As for prescribing what might make churches happier, more successful places, I’ll throw out a few ideas. (I talked this over with my friend Paul Llewellyn, Executive Secretary for the Canadian Union, for whose thoughts I am grateful—though I must be clear that not all of what I express here are necessarily opinions he’d agree with.)
What is the church?
I used to think of the local church as a unique thing, like nothing else on earth, directed by God and having a godly purpose. But lately I’m finding it more useful to see the church in terms of human organizational dynamics. If you consider how hard it is to enter a congregation, or even remain in it if you differ in some way from the main group, it has appeared to me more and more like a private club, like the VFW or the Shriners. Churches talk about growing in numbers, but they really don’t want to unless they create people identical to themselves. In contrast to retailers, who seek to open any door to potential customers, the average congregation is quite inward-looking.
How will that change—and should it? I again admit the limits of predicting and prescribing, and wish I had a wiser social psychologist to advise me. But surely old ways of thinking about ourselves will have to be rethought if shrinking, dying congregations want to be something more.
In one congregation I knew well, every time a new family moved in, the old leaders immediately got into a fight with the new people. They always had good reasons, but still, the pattern was conspicuous. I remember once when a mentally challenged couple appeared, one member said to me, “It’s fine if they want to be here, but those aren’t the people we need.” We needed, she said, smart people, rich people, enthusiastic people. How to explain, without being cruel, that this congregation could never attract those she aspired to have?
A new model
Adventists have long supposed that because we teach our church is special, the “only true church,” that something extraordinary is expected of our churches. Somehow all of the city—the state, the country, the world!—has to become Seventh-day Adventists, because we’re the only true church!
By contrast, the attitude of most small Sunday churches, who don’t have to carry the burden of being the only ones who are right, is to keep doing something. They don’t suppose they alone have to change the world.
You’ve heard the story of the man standing on the beach after a storm, throwing back into the ocean, one at a time, shellfish that had been washed up on the sand? A passerby said, “There are millions of them. What you’re doing isn’t going to make a difference.” The man throws back another, and replies, “It made a difference for that one.”
We need to teach that to our little churches. Let’s lower the expectations. Let’s just say, “Let’s do something that helps someone!” Small churches should stay active. But to suppose that they are ever going to change the whole world will only lead to frustration. Let’s be content to change a few lives.
If the church is a private club, the building is the clubhouse. If a club has a compelling purpose outside of itself, it will stay busy. Lacking that, it turns to obsessing about the clubhouse.
Anyone who has pastored a church will tell you that the most discussed topic in most church boards is keeping the building in repair. The smaller the church, the more it becomes the paramount issue. It defines many congregations far more than their ministry does.
There are thousands of empty meeting places every Saturday where it would be cheaper for the congregation to rent than to own a building. Yet the thought of not having one’s own clubhouse is hard for most congregations to imagine. I once knew a congregation whose church building was literally falling apart around them: there were raccoons in the sanctuary, water seeping through the ceiling and the lower level had so much free asbestos no one was allowed down there. Yet parting with it and moving the ten remaining attendees to a rented room in a congregation next door created so much anger that those who advocated for it were hated.
A great many congregations could move to rented facilities, or even into homes—not just because it makes financial sense, but because it changes the psychology of a group to not be saddled with a building it has to personalize and defend.
The house church
For years, my friend Milton Adams has been advocating for house churches. From the moment I first heard the idea, I realized he was on to something important.
It’s clearly a biblical model. That’s how the early New Testament church worshiped! Our notion of a dedicated building for worship comes from the Jewish synagogue by way of Roman Catholicism, which early on even took pagan temples and made them into churches. It’s no accident that most churches for the 2,000 years of Christianity have Greek or Roman design elements.
As for worship, there’s no picture of worship in the New Testament that is like what we do on Sabbath morning. That doesn’t mean what we do is wrong—but what they did was a whole lot more like family worship.
I see lots of advantages to gathering people together in an informal space, rather than a formal worship event. Too much church time and money is spent on structure of all kinds. It seems to me much harder to invite someone to a formal worship space than to your home.
And let’s not forget the concept of the online church. Could this be the blossoming of a new era, where we actually plant online congregations?
Finally, although this essay isn’t about doctrines, I am doubtful about the future of a denomination that still thinks its ace card is prophetic speculation about the future—which speculation has so far produced little except a conspiratorial mindset.
Do we want to create conspiracists, or Christians? Now, conspiracism may be what we desire. Perhaps that’s genuinely who we are, and why we pursue these themes so vigorously. But then we need a whole different identity, and in the process we’ll have to shed lots of the more sophisticated manifestations of ourselves that we value, such as universities and hospitals and scholarship.
But we don’t need to do that, if we only emphasize the best of what we can be. How many more wonderful teachings, like the Sabbath, religious liberty, education, and health we have! Couldn’t those carry the denomination without having to resort to silly stories about the pope?
In my third part, I’ll talk about the person of the pastor, and what is coming up in the future for that role.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.