“The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers….” (Eph. 4:11) Any attempt to fulfill all of these roles at the same time inevitably results in tension and disappointment. So, the large gathering on the first two days of The One Project in Seattle this year maintained a pastoral focus through gospel-centered presentations on the final week of Christ’s life. Then, on the last day of The One Project, a smaller group of about about 180 attendees met at the Create Conference, billed as a "hopeful, faithful, constructive, creative, and prophetic conversation about the future of the Adventist Church," focusing on prophetic dialogue and faithful critique.
In the first presentation, A Local Revolution, Alex Bryan was careful to point out that the Create Conference was not just about deconstruction and critique but also about offering a positive perspective for the future. Yet, the prophetic impulse does involve rooting out the negative in order for the positive to flourish. Bryan said the Create conference theme this year arose from the many stories of Adventist young people who left the shelter of Adventist institutions only to find they had no place to belong in local Adventist churches.
Quoting George Knight, “If I were the devil, I would undermine the importance of the local congregation,” and Loren Siebold from Spectrum, “As a denomination we have not made local church a priority,” Bryan explained the problem—Adventist theology focuses on the life to come rather than the here and now. While careful to point out that the goal was not to criticize administrators but rather the system we have all created, he shared a graph revealing the most recent ratio of pastors (4,498) to administrators (5,783). He pointed out that this upside down ratio only makes sense if our focus is on the global denomination’s message rather than belonging in local churches. In response, he called for a decade of doing rich theology of the local church—ecclesiology. Bryan’s presentation laid out the question for the day, since the church is forever and always local—a real community in a real place—how do we create thriving, incarnational, local churches that will inspire the best and brightest to enter ministry and stay there?
In the second presentation, Why (Good) Theology Requires Space, Tim Gillespie pointed out that the gospel we live is just as local as the land we stand on. Orthodoxy (right belief) requires orthopraxy (right practice) which in turn requires orthopathy (right love). Put another way, loving the people around you will demonstrate very clearly what you believe. He pointed to Deuteronomy 6 and the gift of the land to the Israelites in which they were to inhabit to bless others. In the same way, we should inhabit and bless our communities. Instead, displaced administrators make too many decisions for the local church and often we don’t live in the communities where our churches exist. As a result, churches are good at random acts of kindness but poor at sustainable community impact.
Gillespie challenged us to get to know the communities where our churches are located. Further, he encouraged members or at least the pastor to actually live in the local church’s neighborhood. His presentation helped us recognize that the gospel is local. And in that is the hope.
Lisa Clark Diller both celebrated the success and admitted the failure of her local church in the third presentation, The Work of Neighborhoods. Diller said her role as a historian is to confess sins of the past and point to a contingent future, similar to the role of a prophet. She encouraged us to not fear failure by repeating several permutations on Samuel Beckett’s encouraging quote, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Fail again. Fail better.” Bemoaning the lost sense of placeness in our commuter society, Diller recommended the local movement as an attempt to gain what modernity has lost.
But, while this work of getting to know and recognizing our interdependence with our neighbors is needed it can also be tedious and dull. Defining what is local, obtaining demographics, discovering needs, finding opportunities, being present, giving to and receiving from the neighborhood is long, slow work. But, there are benefits. Slow community culture can free us from both frenetic programming busyness and from selfish navel-gazing.
Diller highlighted four opportunities for churches to partner with their communities: economic improvement, racial reconciliation, friendship evangelism, and making a long term effort. Yet, for each opportunity there are equal challenges, particularly for her privileged white, suburban congregation situated in a colorful, diverse urban environment. She concluded with an exhortation from Jeremiah 29, “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce…. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
After lunch, Japhet De Oliveira reminded us there is no ideal past church to which we can return in his presentation, How the Local Church Can Bless the Global Church. Jesus, he said, converts people. Not us. So, we need to embrace changes in our evangelism even and perhaps especially in the terms we use such as “reaping event.” In addition, while metrics are interesting and easy to analyze, evaluating the ability of churches to create healthy space to grow is much more valuable.
De Oliveira maintained that local churches need to become the dog again and our conferences, unions, divisions and head quarters need to become the tail. Innovation of the Gospel is at the local Church. The local Church shapes the Global Church.
Sam Leonor discussed Why Higher Education Needs Local Congregations in the fifth presentation. After a brief history of Adventist higher education, he shared that now the Adventist educational system employs the largest sector of the Adventist workforce. It also costs the most money, which wasn’t a problem until about 20 years ago when enrollment at Adventist primary and secondary schools began to decline. So, about a decade ago, La Sierra made a survival decision to begin recruiting students from their local community. As a result, they grew by about 1,000 students in the last 10 years.
These shifting demographics beg the question, what is Adventist higher education for? Leonor mentioned four reasons that churches start institutions of higher education: indoctrination of our youth, education for our youth, the marrying between our youth, and creating church employees from our youth. But, the shift to a more local focus highlights another reason for churches to support education, it is the work of redemption and outreach. Adventist education is one of our greatest and most underused opportunities to reach our local communities.
The sixth and final presentation of the day was Local Work: Mentoring (and Trusting) the Next Generation by Paddy McCoy. Echoing the first presentation, McCoy recognized that the vibrant environment we create on Adventist campuses is not the reality of the Adventist world. So, beautiful, passionate children of God leave the Adventist campuses and go… where? We can reassure ourselves that some of the young people who can’t find a place in Adventism will return after they begin having children and hide the attrition of ‘only’ about 50% of young educated members behind the populations where growth is occurring. But, that won’t address the underlying problem
McCoy emphasized substance over style and authenticity over sales. He then brought to mind Richard Rice’s book, Behaving, Believing, Belonging by emphasizing the importance of creating communities that prioritize belonging. We can no longer afford to placate (appease or pacify, especially by concessions or conciliatory gestures) young adults; we must let them lead, we must mentor them and be mentored by them, and we absolutely must give them real ownership of this church!
Create was not an academic conference with footnoted papers read from ivory towers. It was rather shared stories told from the ground and rooted in love. We were reminded in so many ways to keep it local and to make our churches, schools, and communities safe places for all. Together, we created an inspiring conversation with insightful and at times moving comments from the audience following each presentation. The hope of The One Project in making space for prophetic imagining is that together we have inspired each other to try again. To never give up. The conference left many wanting more specifics and wondering what’s next, what will we create together? For now, we can continue the conversation on sites like this and Facebook where Alex Bryan responded that we should “keep on keeping on! Your place is God's place and all the action is local - right where YOU are.”
Brenton Reading is a board member of Adventist Forum, the parent organization of Spectrum Magazine. He writes from the Kansas City area where he lives with his wife and three children.
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