In the mid-1990’s, I decided to start a school for pastors in our conference. It didn’t make sense at all on paper. I was the associate treasurer of my conference, and my pastoral experience was a distant memory. But I had a big dream. I lobbied the powers that be, somehow got a green light, and forged ahead. Pastors would come to the conference office one day a month from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. I named the school AsPIRE, which stood for “Assisting Pastors In Reaching Excellence.”
At our first meeting, I was surprised to see fifteen ministers show up— three quarters of the pastoral staff. I had already been dialoguing with many of them informally for months about God’s vision for his church, and they apparently saw the program as an opportunity to focus on that vital topic more consistently. Their attendance had far more to do with the depth of their interest than any of my own expertise.
Before opening prayer on that first day, I asked the pastors if there were any needs they wanted to mention. Without any hesitation, they immediately launched into a lengthy discussion about various professional challenges they were facing. As the minutes ticked by, I found myself getting annoyed because I had planned to cover a lot of material.
The same thing happened at the next three meetings. The sharing before prayer grew longer and even more intense. The agenda got short-changed and I grew more frustrated.
After three weeks, it finally dawned on me that what was happening at prayer time was what I had been aiming for all along. Church is primarily a loving community where people can find help and wholeness. “How ironic,” I thought. “Here I was getting all hot and bothered because the reality of church was intruding on the time I had set aside to read about it!”
At that point, I revamped the schedule and allotted two full hours at each meeting for sharing experiences and needs. As the trust level between us grew, the sharing became more personal in nature. I remember one young pastor telling the group, “Last night my head elder blasted me on the phone for the umpteenth time about nothing. Nothing! I’m sick and tired of his attacks!” Tears welled up in his eyes and his voice quivered. “This isn’t what I bargained for. Not at all. I probably shouldn’t say this, but I’m very discouraged right now. Very discouraged. To tell you the truth, I really feel like giving up.” He hung his head in silence.
A pastor from across the room spontaneously walked over and gave him a long hug. Other pastors quickly came and knelt beside him. Nothing was said, but I could hear the young man’s muffled sobs. Someone began to sing softly, “What a friend we have in Jesus.” Everyone joined in, “All our griefs to bear.” Another hymn was sung, trying to lift the dark clouds with gentle, soothing harmonies.
Someone read a couple of verses from Paul’s epistles and then the Psalms. Deeply moving prayers full of empathy were offered. Everyone eventually returned to their seats, and then the testimonies began from others who were also experiencing various types of personal pain and perplexity. These religious professionals, who usually feel that they need to look like they have it all together with God, shared as if they had finally found a safe place to be open and honest and unload heavy burdens. One after another, they told their story. I sat there in amazement. As I listened, tears welled up in my own eyes.
The sharing time became a remarkable source of caring and hope. Nothing was forced. No one had to participate. No one was made to feel uncomfortable. But these pastors had discovered something they obviously valued. At some point, one of the ministers made a remark I will never forget:, “Now I can lead my congregation into becoming a true biblical community because, for the first time ever, I’ve experienced it right here myself.” We were building something that transcended our own individual needs—a closeness that reflected the very life of God.
Since that time, I have longed to comprehend more fully, and experience more deeply, God’s purpose for the Adventist church. One thing I now know, more than ever, is that being a nurturing, life-giving community of believers resides at the very heart of the Godhead’s plan.
Donald Macleod, a Scottish theologian, observes, “The fact that we bear the divine image means that we are made for fellowship. This is probably the most important point of all. As bearers of God’s image, we are made for ‘with-ness’ . . . There is a social life in the Godhead itself. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit live in community and fellowship. The same must be true of us.”
Larry Crabb, a Christian psychologist and writer, adds, “Christianity is about the life of the Trinity released in human community.” Experiencing togetherness should define church as much as it defines the Trinity.
Paul Sampley, professor emeritus of New Testament and Christian origins at Boston University, continues the same theme. “Community is the nurturing context within which the individual is expected to live,” he says. “There the individual is encouraged to grow, is edified by the love of others, is shored up in weakness, is consoled upon straying, and is called to account when behaving inappropriately. The life of faith, the life in Christ, must be lived in the context and care of others. By God’s grace believers are given to one another and for one another. . . For Paul the life of faith cannot be imagined apart from community.”
John Powell, a Catholic priest, makes this profound observation:, “What I am at any given moment in the process of my becoming a person, will be determined by my relationships with those who love me or refuse to love me, with those I love or refuse to love.”
Henri Nouwen was a religion professor who taught at the Universities of Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard. He left teaching to share his life with mentally handicapped people at the L'Arche community of Daybreak in Toronto, Canada. In his book, Life of the Beloved, Henri Nouwen tells the story of Janet,
One of my friends who is quite handicapped but a wonderful, wonderful lady, said to me, ‘Henri, can you bless me?’ I kept thinking, ‘What does she mean?’ After the devotional service, Janet walked up to me and said, “I want to be blessed.” She put her head against my chest and I spontaneously put my arms around her, held her, and looked right into her eyes and said, ‘Blessed are you, Janet. I want you to know that you are God’s beloved daughter. You are precious in God’s eyes. Your beautiful smile, your kindness to the people in your house, and all the good things you do show us what a beautiful human being you are. I know you feel a little low these days and that there is some sadness in your heart, but I want you to remember who you are: A very special person, deeply loved by God and all the people who are here with you.’ I suddenly saw all sorts of energy coming back to her. She seemed to be relieved from the feeling of depression because suddenly she realized again that she was blessed. And as soon as Janet left my arms, another person raised their hand and said, ‘I want a blessing too!’ And then another, and another. Each got a hug and an affirmation, that they are loved just as they are. And I came away changed as well.
That is the crucial affirmation we can give each other in God’s community.
Terry Wardle reminds us, “Our society is filled with people who have suffered deep emotional woundings. The list of injuries that have occurred to people during childhood alone is almost endless. Physical, emotional and sexual abuse, rejection, shaming, manipulation, abandonment, control, motivation by fear, the absence of all positive affirmations. This is only the tip of what is hidden deep within so many, many people of all ages, genders, and classes. But rather than address the wounds head-on, we are taught to hide, stuff, cope, pretend and, if possible, forget them all together.”
It is the truth about God’s love, forgiveness, and acceptance that can free people, but how can that be comprehended and believed unless it is first witnessed and experienced within a loving, nurturing community?
I am committed to community-building because it is the Trinity’s most powerful vehicle for changing lives and winning the lost. It begins with the family unit, moves into the congregation, and expands out from there.
Church members need to interact on many levels and in a variety of ways. But the most promising vehicle for developing in-depth relationships within the Body of Christ that I know of is through participation in a small group where ten to twelve people meet regularly to grow together in Christ. It would be wonderful if churches could be filled with such groups. If church is primarily about relationships, then the small group setting is where those relationships can best be developed.
It appears that many Adventists feel that attendance at the worship service on Sabbath morning is essential but participation in a small group is optional. I think we have that exactly backwards. I believe in attending the worship service, but if I had to choose between that and my small group, the small group would come first every time. Why? Because that is where I can best help fulfill the relational mission of Jesus.
Unfortunately, most churches put their main emphasis Sabbath morning on the worship service where there is no opportunity for meaningful community building. Instead, church leaders need to put their primary emphasis on adult Sabbath School (remodeled to emphasize relationships) and small groups during the week. I would place the worship service number three on my list of priorities.
Many pastors wonder why it is so hard to build close relationships among their members. They are especially concerned why it is so difficult to get wide, ongoing involvement in small groups. Often a handful of groups start up and then, rather than expanding, within a year they fade away. Why doesn’t such a ministry thrive? Let me offer a few suggestions.
Individualism is epidemic in North America. C. Norman Kraus observes, “In contemporary American society, it is an unquestioned assumption that the individual takes precedence over the group. ‘Freedom’ is defined as individual independence.” Our country was birthed by the Declaration of Independence. People’s everyday conversations are permeated with talk of individual “rights.” As Charles Reich has ominously stated, “America is one vast, terrifying anti-community.”
The disease of individualism can easily infect church life as well. We even sing a song that says, “Dare to be a Daniel, dare to stand alone.” The ideal end-time Adventist is often viewed as someone who is able to survive by depending on God alone.
Small groups will ultimately die if they are seen as simply another vehicle for getting my individual needs met. Meeting group member’s needs is important, but our highest calling, our ultimate goal, must be to build a life-together that reflects the love within the Godhead and spills over to bless others.
The whole process of becoming an Adventist can, inadvertently, breed spiritual individualism. The usual perception seems to be that if a convert accepts Christ as Savior and adheres to our doctrines, they are prepared for membership. They are then voted into a church in moments, and don’t even have to be present. Nowhere in the process have they been asked to commit themselves to a radical relational re-orientation, to making community-building central to their lives. Nowhere have they been “trans-culturized.”
They can attend church for years without feeling any need to connect with others on a deep enough level to represent the image of God. Very few seem to realize that when they were baptized “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” they were making a public commitment to Trinitarian-living. (Matt 28:19 NKJV) A person’s commitment to God’s vision for the church is just as important as their commitment to Sabbath or any other doctrine.
Another impediment to building true biblical community is the terrible isolation that is so characteristic of today’s society.
Seventy-three year old Adele Gaboury had helpful neighbors. They mowed her lawn for free and did whatever else seemed to need doing around her yard. The only thing they didn’t do was to check if she was alive. On a Monday, police broke into her little blue house and found Adele’s skeletal remains where they had apparently lain for what was later estimated to be up to four years. “It’s not really a very friendly neighborhood,” said Eileen Dugan, seventy, who lived just twenty feet away.
Isolation has become the norm in America. Dinner is too often a disjointed affair, with everyone eating separately. Video games, TV’s, and computers mean we can happily entertain ourselves.
The problem is that true community cannot become a reality if it is squeezed in among everything else we are already doing. True community will remain elusive if we don’t take inventory, reassess our priorities, and restructure our lives to allow much more time to connect at various levels with family, fellow believers, and others.
Luke tells us that early Christians, “devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread [eating together] and to prayer.” (Acts 2:42 NIV)
Misunderstanding the purpose of our doctrines.
If biblical truth becomes an end in itself, building in-depth relationships will be seen as helpful, but not essential. It is only when we come to realize the doctrines were given to make us more loving that community-building is given its rightful place.
C. Norman Kraus writes, “The problem has been that preoccupation with future reality has undercut present expectation and possibility.” Our continual emphasis on the nearness of the Second Coming of Christ can make us feel that we don’t have time to invest in the slow, gradual business of community building. If we see our primary role as only that of a spiritual Paul Revere, then we’ll give first importance to passing on the warning and getting ourselves ready. If we believe the forest is about to burn down, why spend time planting oak trees?
When I was a Junior theology major in 1970, I thought the return of the Lord was so near that I decided to skip my senior year of college. I told my fiancé that we would buy an old bus, travel the country preaching, and live off freewill offerings. Someone eventually talked me out of that headstrong detour and I went on to graduate. But the imminence of the Second Coming still dominated my thinking.
Then HMS Richards Sr. died. Then HMS Richards Jr. died as well. No two people expected Christ to return in their lifetime more than they did. I began wrestling with the fact that the signs in nature we usually use to indicate the nearness of Christ’s return, such as the earthquake of 1755 and the Dark Day of 1780, occurred a very, very long time ago.
I then studied Matthew 24 more carefully and realized that after Jesus’ listed a series of terrible events such as wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, and pestilence, He said, “See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.” (Matt 24:6 NKJV) What we point to as signs of the end, Christ told us should not be signs at all!
Scripture offers no indication when the Second Coming will be, however, I see very clear instruction in the Bible on what the church is supposed to be doing in the meantime. The most important metric I would use to indicate whether a church is successful or not, is how well they are able to build in-depth, loving, relationships throughout the congregation that spill over into society.
Pastor Randy Frazee has a son who was born without a left hand. One day, the little boy’s Sunday School teacher was talking to the children about church. To illustrate her point she folded her hands together as if praying, then turned them inside out, wiggled her fingers, and said, “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open the door and see all the people.”
She asked the class to do it, without thinking about the pastor’s son. In a moment the boy next to him, a friend since infancy, reached out his own left hand and said, “Let’s do it together.” The two joined their hands and made the church, the steeple, and all ten people.
That is the essence of biblical community.
Notes and References
1. Shared Life: The Trinity and the Fellowship of God’s People, Donald Macleod, Christian Focus Publications, 1994, Scotland, Great Britain, p. 61
2. Connecting, Larry Crabb, Word Publishing, Nashville, TN, 1997, p. 95.
3. Walking Between the Times, J. Paul Sampley, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1991, p. 43.
4. Community That Is Christian, Julie A Gorhmanm, Victor Books, Wheaton, Illinois, 1993, p. 105
5. Why Am I Afraid to Love, John Powell, Argus Communication, Niles, Illinois, 1972, p. 48-49.
6. Terry Hershey, “That Kind of Blessing,” July 3, 2023, https://www.terryhershey.com/that-kind-of-blessing/
7. Wounded: How You Can Find Inner Wholeness and Healing In Him, Terry Wardle, Christian Publications, Camp Hill, PA, 1994, p. 19.
8. Ibid. p. 74-75
9. The Authentic Witness, C. Norman Kraus, William B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1979, p 76.
10. Community That Is Christian, Julie A Gorhmanm, Victor Books, Wheaton, Illinois, 1993, p. 78.
11. The Connecting Church, Randy Frazee, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI, 2001, p. 109.
12. The Community of the Spirit, C. Norman Kraus, Herald Press, Scottdale, Pennsylvania, 1993, p. 14.
13. The Connecting Church, Randy Frazee, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI, 2001, p 242.
Kim Allan Johnson retired in 2014 as the Undertreasurer of the Florida Conference. He and his wife Ann live in Maitland, Florida. Kim has written a number of articles for Adventist journals plus three books published by Pacific Press: The Gift, The Morning, and The Team. He has also written three sets of small group lessons for churches that can be viewed at www.transformyourchurch.com (this website is run by the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists). He is also the author of eight "Life Guides" on CREATION Health.
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