All Religion Is Local

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Published:
November 1, 2019

The latest shaming and shameful events at the 2019 Annual Council of the General Conference have set some people’s teeth on edge and caused others to feel pushed over a principled precipice. For the sake of context, please note that the following sermon was delivered April 27 — after the General Conference’s 2019 Spring Meeting. This is a transcript of that sermon.

Good morning, children of the living God.

You may have heard the saying, “All politics is local.” In essence this means communication between any two people — or what takes place between our two local ears — is key to all political process and progress.

Likewise, all religion is local. Sometimes we labor under the illusion that administrative or world headquarters decisions are more important than what takes place here and now. But our present reality matters more than anything past or future. The present is the only time we can hear God’s voice. Now is the only time we can be fully alive. Local interactions are the best, most fundamental evidence of discipleship that can exist.

In the United States every four years about half the country disagrees with every Presidential election. Do we leave the country because we disagree? I don’t. I work to change my world, the world I can change. Please don’t try to change the world — you’ll go mad. Change your world — the world you can touch — and watch the ripples widen. Live in the here and now, in your circle of influence, and live for love. Love is the only reason for life.

How we view the world matters. Let’s illustrate. Here’s how many people view the organization of the Seventh-day Adventist Church[1]:

General Conference

World divisions (13)

Union conferences/missions (135)

Local conferences/missions (665)

Local churches/companies (158,334)

Notice who looms toward the top. Carrying this mindset, we come to believe that the people furthest from us hold the most power, make the most important decisions, and best represent us. Frankly, this perception is damaging and deceptive. Such a paradigm disempowers, disillusions, and diminishes personal responsibility. We come to believe that other, more important people, are doing the truly essential work, that our opinions and actions are of merely minor importance, and that what we believe has been already established for us until, as one young adult shared with me, “There’s nothing left to discover.” This mindset creates a constricting nightmare.

In reality it is the people closest to us who hold the most power, make the most important decisions, and best represent us. This local perspective empowers, encourages, and develops responsibility. You are more important than you may think. For example, being a United States president or senator is an important job, but it’s not as important as being a mother, father, child, sibling, or close friend. If something happens to any of those, it matters more to us than all the headlines in the century. The local also matters to God more, because God judges us only as individuals.

You see, God has entrusted each of us with incredibly important positions — more important than we normally think. You matter more to many people than any Hollywood celebrity, more than any political figure, more than any newsmaker you can imagine. You and your story matter. This church community matters. Consider these three facts:

1. The local church decides who belongs to its membership — and no other entity on earth can change that decision. When Dr. Desmond Ford was stripped of his ministerial credentials, the General Conference wanted his local church at Pacific Union College to disfellowship him. The church replied, “No way!” — and Des Ford remained a member. No one can take away the right of the local church to declare who is a member.

2. The local church determines what its climate will be. No official pronouncement can decide what our church climate here will be. Of course, this can be good news and bad news. You and I have visited churches that are aimed at the bad fight of sin instead of the good fight of faith, so intent on becoming the frozen chosen that the deacons require ice skates down the aisles to pick up the offering. Then there are the healthy churches that get God’s grace, that gratefully live out the love of Jesus until every person who enters feels His warm, embracing hug. Each local church decides its climate.

3. Jesus established an upside-down kingdom.[2] He told us, the last shall be first, the most honored shall be the most humble, the smallest becomes largest. Jesus used words and stories about salt and yeast and seeds, about the invisible wind and small coins and small children and small cups and small gatherings.[3]

I can’t really change what President Donald Trump or Senator Elizabeth Warren or Elder Ted Wilson does. I can change what I do, and we — you and I — can definitely change what our local church community does. That’s why after retirement I became a local church pastor. I’ve spoken with three General Conference Presidents face-to-face, and I truly consider it more important what I’m saying to you right now.

With His life and death, Jesus of Nazareth turned the religious kingdom chart upside down. The local church is now located at the top. We meet at the top every Sabbath. Here’s how Jesus’ upside-down kingdom looks in the Adventist Church:

Local churches/companies (158,334)

Local conferences/missions (665)

Union conferences/missions (135)

World divisions (13)

General Conference (1)

I love how, in Acts 11, the General Conference in Jerusalem is described as “the ears of the church.” They hear what’s going on at the top and respond accordingly. Certainly many decisions reached at the General Conference do carry far-reaching implications. The vote on divisional autonomy at San Antonio in 2015, for example, caused thousands of conscientious people to exit Adventist Church membership. But those numbers pale in comparison to millions of conscientious people who, because of varying types of mistreatment in local churches, have headed for the exits.

By the way, the General Conference doesn’t have any actual church membership, nor do divisions or unions. Every employee of those entities lowest on the upside-down ladder must be a member of a local Adventist Church.[4] No exceptions. In the upside-down kingdom one must start at the top and work down.

Okay, this is the time for local interaction. During each sermon in San Luis Obispo we set apart space and time for participation and communication, because communication is the key to life. Get into groups of threes or fours to discuss this question: “What would happen to the Seventh-day Adventist Church if everyone believed in Jesus’ upside-down kingdom, and the local church was truly viewed as most important?” Take two minutes and thirty-four seconds. Afterward, I’m going to ask you to share what you’ve heard. Make sure no one is left out. Ready, go.

[Responses shared.]

Our church organization can trumpet great fundamental beliefs, but if the local church doesn’t live out the fundamentals of loving God and loving others, it doesn’t matter what we say we believe. Likewise, we can make some sketchy decisions at the General Conference or Division or Union or Conference levels, but if the Local Church steps up and does the right thing, God is honored.

Let’s use some practical examples. Let’s say, oh, in 2015 in a city in Texas the General Conference decided that people couldn’t determine on their own to allow women to achieve as much as male pastors. Just a hypothetical here. What could a local church do? Turn in your bulletin to the last page, there at the bottom. Do you see that title next to Danita Rasmussen’s name? It says “Pastor.” The local church and the conference determined that she was worthy, so we did what was right. We follow Galatians 3:28, which states “there is no longer male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” and Fundamental Belief 14, “Unity in the Body of Christ,” that says, “In Christ we are a new creation; distinctions of race, culture, learning, and nationality, and differences between high and low, rich and poor, male and female, must not be divisive among us. We are all equal in Christ, who by one Spirit has bonded us into one fellowship with Him and with one another; we are to serve and be served without partiality or reservation.” It’s right there. Fundamental 14.

How about another example. Let’s suppose the lower levels — such as divisions, unions, and conferences — didn’t adequately financially support ministry to students attending public and non-Adventist universities, even though most Adventist university students in North America attend public and non-Adventist universities, for a variety of reasons. Jill here attended Cal Poly San Luis Obispo partially because it offered a superb degree in landscape architecture she couldn’t find at an Adventist school. But some administrators believe Adventist churches should support students only if they attend Adventist institutions. What could a local church do?

Are you still poised at Danita Rasmussen’s title? This local church — right here in San Luis Obispo — has funded on its own a pastor for ministry with collegiates and young professionals for the past 18 years. This church determined that all Adventist young people are worthy of our love and support — students and non-students, public school or not. They are ours. So we strive to take care of them, of you, to involve you in our community of God’s love. This local church welcomes everyone — every race, every age, every faith, every sexual orientation. As it says on the front of our bulletin, “All are welcome here.”[5]

We are members of a local church community first, and every Sabbath we meet here at the top to decide our church climate. We decide.

Actually, we are followers of Jesus Christ first. Jesus is our Boss. Jesus tops every church organizational chart. Jesus is the reason we get up every morning, the reason we carry realistic hope for an eternal present, the reason we live with humble assurance and defiant optimism. Because of Jesus, we are resurrected beings.

Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34, 35, NRSV).

The upside-down kingdom is simple: Love God and love all people. Because Jesus’ love is alive in us, we know that all religion is local.

 

Notes & References:

[1] Official statistics for the Seventh-day Adventist Church as of December 31, 2017.

[2] Or “kindom.”

[3] “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Jesus, in Matthew 18:20, NRSV).

[4] M. Scott Peck wrote, “If we know anything about the creation of a community, it is that it cannot be done from a distance.” (Foreword to Teaching the Bible Creatively: How to Awaken Your Kids to Scripture by Bill McNabb and Steven Mabry, Youth Specialties, 1990.)

[5] One way to make a local difference is through https://adventistchurchwelcomingstatements.org/

 

Chris Blake is former editor of Insight magazine and professor emeritus of Union College. He now serves as lead pastor for the San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay Seventh-day Adventist Churches.

Photo by Damian Markutt on Unsplash

 

Further Reading:

The Value of Local Church Membership in Light of Recent Developments by Sam Millen, October 28, 2019

 

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