Over the past few weeks the Spectrum website has featured multiple articles focusing on denominational year-end meetings, both at the GC and NAD level. Because the issue of gender equality and participation was a major point of discussion at both meetings readership of these articles has been high and the comments extensive – and sometimes passionate.
However appropriate this amount of attention might be it would be inappropriate for us to skew our perception of Adventism as just a corporate entity holding doctrinal positions. Whatever storm clouds might gather in Silver Spring we should not forget the centrality of the local church as a force for good (or ill) in the world. I would venture to say that for the great (overwhelming?) majority of people connected in some way with Adventism, their horizon extends no farther than their experience with the local church.
I was powerfully reminded of that several weeks ago.
Whenever circumstances allow my wife and I like to attend a service at Willow Creek Community Church, near Chicago. This is rare for us because we live 1400 miles away. But a few weeks ago we attended, and it happened to be the weekend when each year they celebrate their church’s beginning. This year is the 36th since they were founded. Senior pastor Bill Hybels’s sermon topic was: The Local Church is the Hope of the World.
What he said was, for my taste and temperament, inspiring. But I confess I also mused on how infrequently we, in Adventism, articulate this, or perhaps even have this perspective. Yet our experience within our local congregation is far more important in navigating our religious lives than anything done denominationally.
When each person entered the auditorium they were handed a card, which contained a message that tried to capture the essence of what Willow Creek claims to be all about. I roughly reproduce it here:
The local church is the hope of the world? No. As a matter of fact God no longer dwells here I don’t believe Joy is a possibility Our lives are better lived in community and We are called to love each other radically The truth is The church is on the brink of extinction I refuse to believe that We are part of a story larger than our own and We have been changed to bring change Don’t be fooled Poverty is too overwhelming Racism can’t be overcome and Evil will never be defeated It’s impossible for me to believe Things will get better In the future It will be evident that God can’t help and you’re wrong if you believe God can I am convinced You can’t turn things around I would be lying if I said God cares But you should know I believe exactly the opposite
God cares I would be lying if I said You can’t turn things around I am convinced God can And you’re wrong if you believe God can’t help It will be evident that In the future Things will get better It’s impossible for me to believe Evil will never be defeated Racism can’t be overcome and Poverty is too overwhelming Don’t be fooled We have been changed to bring change And We are part of a story larger than our own I refuse to believe that The church is on the brink of extinction The truth is We are called to love each other radically Our lives are better lived in community and Joy is a possibility I don’t believe God no longer dwells here No. As a matter of fact The local church is the hope of the world!
But the real value of that service was not contained, or confined, by a handout, however clever and thoughtful a palindrome it may be. It was Bill Hybels’s sermon. You can access it by clicking on this link, then pressing the ‘Watch Video’ button. I realize most readers would not be inclined to spend what is a significant amount of time, to do this. But, if you think the local church matters and wish it could be better, then I invite you – even challenge you – to watch his message. You could spend your next 43 minutes in a lot worse ways than this!
 Willow Creek is sometimes controversial within Adventism. It is a Sunday-keeping mega-church that some conservative Adventists view with deep suspicion. It is my perception that a portion of that suspicion is because such institutions are considered liberal, even a Babylonish falling-away from the Bible.
During this visit I happened to pick up a booklet titled Willow Creek Community Church – Membership, which summarizes the affirmations one must take to officially join their church. Interestingly, part of their Statement of Faith reads:
“The sole basis of our belief is the Bible—the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments. We believe Scripture in its entirety originated with God and He revealed it to chosen authors. Scripture speaks with the authority of God while simultaneously reflecting the backgrounds, styles, and vocabularies of these human authors. We hold that the Scriptures, in their original manuscripts, are infallible and inerrant; they are the unique, full, and final authority on all matters of faith and practice. There are no other writings similarly inspired by God.”
Note the very conservative words ‘infallible’ and ‘inerrant’. This is a high view of Scripture. Even more extreme I suspect than most Adventists would prefer. But it is certainly not indicative of liberal theology!