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Over the next few weeks, months and years, I'm sure we'll read quite a few reports in Adventist publications concerning individuals, congregations and regions where revival and reformation are catching on and great things are happening for God. And there will also be quite a few "how to" books and articles written. So I'd like to join the parade and share the dynamics of a micro version of revival and reformation that took place in my congregation several years ago and continues to this day.
The fact that I'm reporting only a micro example shouldn't diminish its significance. In fact, I'd suggest that, typically, revival and reformation happen in a series of micro versions before coalescing and escalating into a macro version. For example, I'd suggest that, despite their ups and downs performance-wise, revival and reformation were happening daily on a small scale in the lives of Jesus' disciples. Then it all came together at a dramatic macro level following his resurrection. And I'd suggest that ongoing, nearly imperceptible changes take place in individuals, congregations and denominations today. Then some catalyst catapults us to an altogether different level and a grander scale. Rarely does the macro come without the micro having preceded it. And there's a lot more that we can do to generate micro revival and reformation than macro.
Also, I'm not so sure that revival always precedes reformation. It strikes me that very often it's changed behavior that paves the way for revival rather than the other way around. And I'd suggest that the catalysts for change--be they micro or macro--can be primarily cognitive (new understandings about God and what he wants for us and and how wonderful he is) or primarily experiential (something happens that puts things into an altogether different and more compelling perspective). Or they can be a combination of both cognitive and experiential. But it's not a tidy, sequential, predictable package. There's a certain randomness and unwieldiness about it. Now to my example.
In most denominations, communion is special. Over and over I've heard non-Adventist Christians say, "I definitely don't want to miss church this week because it's communion Sunday." Typically, Adventists don't say that--not even with "Sabbath" substituted for "Sunday." Were Adventists to say anything at all, it often would be: "This would be a good week to visit another congregation or stay home or take an all-day hike; it's communion Sabbath."
Early in my sojourn at Markham Woods Church, I discovered that communion was not a looked-forward-to event. On the rare occasions that it was conducted during the worship service, it was as if word had gone out that the someone with the bubonic plague would be attending that day. It was the proverbial "abomination of desolation." Attendance would drop by at least 65 percent (no exaggeration). And quite a few of those who did attend would leave once we separated for the footwashing. So we usually conducted communion on Friday nights. At least on Friday nights a minuscule attendance wasn't so hard to explain to visitors--because there rarely were visitors. I remember one Friday-night communion when we actually had more deacons and deaconesses than participants! I think you get the picture.
So the church staff huddled and gave thought to how we might change things. And we talked about it on the church board. Among other things, we asked ourselves what kept people away from communion. Quite quickly we came up with three main reasons, all of which we could influence in varying degrees.
First, the service on communion Sabbaths was all but guaranteed to run long--way long! Even non-diabetics were about to go into insulin shock by the time we reached the benediction. We could have argued that truly spiritual people don't watch the clock. But we didn't. We said, "OK, we'll change that. We can fit communion into one hour like a normal service. It can be done." So we streamlined our next planned communion, including only what absolutely had to be included. We went out and bought little bread inserts to go into our wine trays. That way the deacons could make one pass through the congregation, exit the rear doors of the sanctuary and not reappear.
Second, we concluded that many Adventists don't like communion because they don't feel worthy. And don't the scriptures say that if we partake "unworthily" we do it to our own damnation? Who wants to risk that? So I preached a series of three sermons before the next scheduled during-the-church-service communion. I pointed out that Paul's concern was not the participants' level on the sanctification scale. He was concerned with the manner in which they actually participated. It seems that some dived in with both hands, so to speak. If there was no bread left for their neighbor, tough luck. "Unworthily" is a verb. It describes the action itself, not the state of being of the participants. I preached about grace--unmerited favor. I pointed out that communion is the celebration of the lengths to which God was willing to go to save unworthy humans. That's all of us. Communion is a celebration of the fact that God loves us despite our unworthiness. Communion is all about grace--from beginning to end. Having a different theological perspective suddenly made the event a lot more attractive to a lot more people.
The third hang-up Adventists have about communion is the footwashing. It's a very foreign experience for many of us--if not most of us--reared in the 20th and 21st centuries. Many Adventists aren't comfortable handling someone else's feet. It just seems strange. It's outside our comfort zone. This objection is a little harder to do anything about. But there are still many things that can be done.
For starters, the symbolism of the footwashing can be well explained. Participants can be invited to wholeheartedly get into what's essentially a "role play." And we can acknowledge that not everyone will feel comfortable participating. Some might choose to stay in the Sanctuary and mediate while music is played. Others might prefer to observe but not participate. Others might choose to leave. We've sought to ensure that everyone feels welcome to engage--or not engage--according their comfort level. No one needs to feel second-class for whatever they choose to do or not do.
Also, we've sought to highlight the significance and specialness of the "ordinance of humility" (as Adventists have labeled it) by our attention to detail in our Fellowship Hall, where the footwashing is done. For every communion service we arrange the chairs in some different, attractive, eye-catching formation. Every towel is perfectly folded and meticulously placed on the back of the chair. Every chair is placed with military precision (we measure and stretch strings and even chalk lines that we then rub out). We decorate with plants, candles and artifacts that lend themselves to the communion theme. We pay attention to the lighting. It's kind of like a reception for a wedding. You can't walk into the room without getting the idea that someone takes this very seriously and that it's very special.
Just those simple changes and preparations--(1) promising ahead of time that the service would be no more than an hour, and living up to the promise; (2) removing the fear of participation by emphasizing in lead-up sermons the grace aspect and seeking to remove the impediment of perfectionism, (3) making the footwashing venue physically attractive and allowing people to determine their own level of participation--worked wonders. So many people participated in communion the first time we conducted it after our intentional approach to improving it--could we label our actions themselves as "reformation"?) that we were caught without sufficient towels or sufficient wine/bread-tray capacity. We found ourselves in a mad scramble--but a highly welcome mad scramble! On the following Monday we had to go shopping, buying more wine trays and bread inserts and a couple of hundred additional towels. And we've had to buy more towels on at least two occasions since.
Success begets success. It's contagious. There's such a thing as "critical mass." To have nearly a full congregation participating in communion changed the image of the event and the energy generated by it. Over the months and years since, we've tried to ensure that our communion service is kept to one hour, we've sought to continue our grace emphasis, and we've gone out of our way to make the footwashing special. We've still left it with the individuls to determine for themselves their level of participation. And the enthusiasm for communion Sabbath has slowly but steadily grown. In fact, communion-Sabbath attendance is only negligibly smaller than other weeks. And just a few weeks ago, when we decided to hold a communion service on New Year's Eve, we once again found ourselves in mild panic because we'd underestimated the number of people who would choose to attend.
Might our communion experience provide a useful model for other types of hoped-for revival and reformation?
We didn't browbeat or chastise the congregation about a perceived spiritual inadequacy demonstrated by their failure to participate in communion. We never even said to the congregation that our goal was to get more people participating or to make it more meaningful for those who did participate. We simply set about to change what was within our power to change. We tried to remove the impediments and stumblingblocks. We tried to create a climate that was conducive to change. We tried to inspire. We openly acknowledged certain negatives, and we announced our intention to do what we could to change them. We tried to give the correct theological emphasis and make communion an experience of grace and a celebration of joy rather than a fear-invoking guilt trip. We tried to ensure that the total environment would be conducive to an experience that's primarily affective, emotive, esthetic. We sought divine wisdom and asked for God's guidance. And change came.
Of course, I'm always hesitant to tout success and wave the flag as if we have it together. We don't. I frequently tell people that our congregation does some things superbly, we do some things passably, we do some things poorly, and some things don't get done at all. Our communion services aren't perfect. Our attendance and participation still aren't 100 percent. (Nor is our weekly attendance, for that matter). And I'm sure there are people in the congregation who would say it could be done better. And they'd be right. But the change (for those who can remember where we've come from) has been truly dramatic. It's been highly rewarding--not because of bottom-line numbers but because the spiritual experience of a large number has been enhanced.
Alexander Pope made an astute observation: "Men must be taught as if we taught them not, and things unknown proposed as things forgot." Revival and reformation are worthy goals. We should be working toward that end. But is it possible to focus too much on the ultimate goal--the macro event--instead of creating a conducive climate for transformation by attending consistently and intentionally to the micro issues? Is it possible that indirect is often more effective than direct? Is it possible that revival and reformation at the macro level are most likely when they come as a by-product rather than as the prime goal?
James Coffin is senior pastor of the Markham Woods Church in Longwood, Florida.
Image: John McDowell, Blood Offering, n.d., wax, feathers, acrylic.