Thinking about Church
by Lawrence Downing
For the past couple of weeks I’ve given thought to questions about church: What is church? What is its purpose? In more specific terms, what is the Adventist Church and what is its purpose? A contributing event that prompted the transference from thought to paper was the news that Ryan Bell is no longer pastor of the Hollywood church, the parish where I began my pastoral ministry.
These questions were first prompted by the numerous brouhahas that have recently erupted within the Adventist Church. Examples are the young earth/old earth debate, women’s ordination and the “rebellion” within the ranks evidenced by the choice two Union Conferences made to reject the strong statements from GC leaders to follow the guidelines relating to the ordination of women. To this mix one can add the admonition from GC personnel to avoid dabbling in biblical higher criticism and the call from this same group for revival and reformation within the Adventist Church. The repeated calls for revival and reformation lead one to conclude that the prompters accept a priori that the Adventist Church is somnambulant or worse, and has strayed from a path that it must once more regain. Which leads me again to ask: what is the Church and why does a Church exist? If it were a matter only of definition, a quick look at a dictionary will provide answers. However, a dictionary does not answer the “whats” and “whys.”
In seeking answers to the “what’s” and “whys,” of church, the theological track leads one direction. “The True Church exists to ‘finish the work.” The Church, in this scenario, proclaims the Three Angels' Message that culminates in the Second Coming. There is another track that I’ll call, for lack of a better term, the social direction. Those who prescribe to this scenario understand the Church to be a group of diverse people who are bound together by a common experience or shared goal. There are, I believe, especially among the under-30 group, more Adventists who are on board the sociological band wagon than those who hoist the theological banner.
An observer of the American Adventist Church will note that in the past couple of decades there has been a significant shift in how people view and practice church. Today the brand loyalty that once held people secure in the Church has markedly diminished. Doctrine does not have the power and influence it once possessed. People are more apt to go where their needs are addressed and met than to a church that can “prove” its beliefs are right and true. This component views the Church as the medium, not the message. The Church is a vehicle, a tool, that has no more inherent value than any other tool. The more adaptable and effective the tool proves in meeting a need, the higher the value. On the obverse, when the tool proves ineffective, it will be discarded; its place taken by another.
When compared to previous generations, Adventists today are far less committed to specific beliefs or doctrines than they are to finding a church where they feel comfortable and where they find people they like and can relate to. This is a significant shift that has been largely ignored by the Church hierarchy. One should not conclude that the Church has become a social club. Not at all! What we find is that the social aspects of a Church have taken precedent over statements of belief. The shift in priority has resulted in a more inclusive attitude on the part of Church members and a less judgmental stance. The post-modernism bent may be labeled the culprit or celebrated as a welcome wind of change. Whichever it is, there is abundant evidence that the people who sit in the pews today have a far different read on life than Adventists of previous generations.
The “Good Old Days,” when the Adventist gloried that he could prove Adventists right and the others wrong, who took pride that his Church was the True Church ,are gone forever and are not recoverable. The seismic shift brings consternation and anger to a still influential segment within the Church. There exists among Adventists a group that pounces upon those who do not come up to the mark they have established. There are Adventists who are certain that the Church is defective if it does not proclaim, in their voice, their Truth. For them, the Church is God’s ark of safety; his shelter from the stormy doctrinal errors that abound. Church, for them, is synonymous with the salvation vehicle. It is difficult, if not impossible, for this mind-set to accept the proposition that a church is a group of people who decide to meet together to sing, pray, plan and think, and nothing more. Which brings us back to the questions we started with: What is church? What is its purpose?
Scripture, especially the Older Testament, offers few clues and fewer specifics as to the purpose and function of a local congregation. We do find in the writings of St. Paul instructions to believers that give guidance to how believers are to act and what behaviors they are to avoid. We are hard pressed to find instructions that enable us to create a church structure or practice. Inferences? Yes. Specifics? Few. This lack of direct biblical teaching on how a church is to function creates a dilemma. Who is/has the final word on what church is and its purpose? The answers are as diverse as the number of church entities, and these groups now number in the tens of thousands. What we can do is accept that people’s understanding of church has changed from what it was three decades ago and will continue to evolve. If the Adventist Church is unwilling to accept those who do not follow a once-accepted church-governance model, the revolving door will continue to turn and the steady stream of young people now leaving the church will increase, and older ones will join the throng. Sad and unnecessary! Where is it written that the Church is responsible to hold people to a specific belief system? Why does an organization, on whatever level, feel the need to define belief and in practice enforce those on others?
Individuals chose to be with Jesus because he provides them a safe place where they can be themselves. Yes, he challenged destructive behavior and he did call men and women to follow him. What he did not do is reject and isolate those who decided otherwise. If people left his presence, it was their decision, not his. Should his followers today evidence such wisdom, understanding and compassion? Perhaps one day…. And what would the Church look like if this were its modus operandi? How would the Church define its purpose? The guardian of “truth” or a vehicle of that offers welcome and care? The abode of the “pure” or a beacon of hope for those who seek? These questions, and others like them, await answers.