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Whenever I am passing through Chicago and circumstances permit I try to attend a service at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, IL. Since I live a considerable distance away that isn’t too often. But last weekend I was there.
Willow Creek sometimes evokes strong reaction – both pro and con – within Adventism. But that debate is largely beside the point I wish to explore here. I have never left one of their services without feeling uplifted, and frequently challenged. And that was again the case this time.
The speaker was a guest – Dave Workman – senior pastor of the Vineyard Community Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. His topic was Servanthood, and was intended to complement a Ministry Fair Willow was conducting for its members. His starting text was, as you might guess, Mark 9:35: “If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all.” And he moved into an exposition of what it means to have an outward-focused life and what radical servanthood might mean for a Christian.
Workman proposed the revolutionary idea that a Born-Again Christian needs to still be Born Again one more time. The first new birth makes you a believer. The second transforms you from a receiver to a giver. And it is only after this second born-again experience that a Christian is fully formed.
Vineyard is intensely oriented toward serving with many and diverse activities directed toward the community. And certainly, they are aware of and sensitive toward the evangelistic possibilities. But what was especially interesting to me was their even stronger intent to isolate those possibilities from any bottom-line reasons for serving. That is, they reach out to their community and leave any resulting response to just happen with no nudging by the church. This goes considerably beyond, I think, what is sometimes called the ‘un-baited hook’. Here there is no hook at all. Just an open door.
The contrast between this philosophy and historic, or even contemporary, Adventist outreach is stark. Now it is not my intent here to make any backhanded jabs at the institutional church. And I would hope respondents would also exercise restraint. Rather I would like to reflect on what it is we Christians should be all about doing here below. Certainly evangelism is front and center in scripture, as are good works. But it is intriguing to consider whether Vineyard’s approach has any value as a model for Adventism. They totally embrace service, with doctrinal teaching coming much later, and any request is initiated by the recipient of their service. Adventism has operated much differently with a major emphasis on communicating propositional truths and a focus toward eschatology. But perhaps we sometimes confuse ends and means. It seems almost self-evident to me that everything Adventists have ever done to win people must be considered as means, not ends. And therefore, as means, the methods must be viewed pragmatically. It is the ends – salvation for lost people and lives transformed – that must be held inviolate.
Now Adventism’s past evangelistic methodology would likely be an inhibiter to major tactical change. But that caveat, while pragmatically important, is moot when asking the more fundamental question of how faithful Christians should interact with their surrounding culture. Are Workman and his philosophical brethren too radical? If so, why? If not, why not?
Rich Hannon is a software engineer who lives in Salt Lake City. His reading interests focus on philosophy and medieval history.