Curiosity seemed the main driver for the almost 200 attendees at the Adventist Revolution’s Zeal19 Rally held in Indianapolis, Indiana on March 22 and 23, 2019.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but I’m glad I came,” was the sentiment I heard over and over last weekend as the audience members gathered in the Biltwell Event Center, just a stone’s throw from Lucas Oil Stadium where next year’s quinquennial General Conference Session will be held.
Everything about the Adventist Revolution’s inaugural rally proved a startling contrast to the official church’s most well-known meeting, as this small group of “God chasers” convened in an intimate setting with folding chairs surrounding a modest platform in the sunlit fellowship space.
Over the two-day rally, 16 speakers from around the country presented on “The Need for…” with each addressing a specific topic including the need for space, for belonging, for peculiarity, for sacrifice, and more. Each presentation was 12 to 16 minutes long and was followed by an equal amount of time for attendees to discuss in groups of two or three what had just been said through the lenses of: what inspired you, what challenged you, and how do you plan to integrate this in your sphere of influence?
Executive Director Michael Polite kicked things off on Friday with “The Need for Zeal.” He explained that zeal is a synonym for anger, and discussed the anger of Jesus we see in the gospel but are uncomfortable talking about. “We’re not taught about the angry Jesus,” said Polite. “We’re taught about the pacifist Jesus, the safe Jesus, the Adventist Jesus.” The Bible says be angry and sin not, it doesn’t say don’t be angry. In the temple scene where Jesus flipped tables and chased out money collectors, “Jesus gets angry at what the institution is doing to his Father’s movement…and He turns the whole thing upside down.” Jesus is not only trying to push out the institutional clutter, but he’s extending an invitation to ALL, said Polite.
The Bible verse that encompassed the entire weekend, and was repeated throughout, was taken from this story of Jesus in the temple, John 2:17 — “His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’”
Tacyana Nixon, creative director for Adventist Revolution, spoke next about “The Need for Space.” Jesus is missing from our gatherings, from our places and spaces, said Nixon. We know He is missing because if He was here, we would be seeing signs and miracles. But it is not until Jesus is missing that we truly understand what he is calling us to do. The disciples didn’t get it until after Jesus had ascended to heaven. All they could think about was the kingdom when he was on earth, but after he left, they realized their purpose. “Christ has not called us to preach to the marginalized,” said Nixon, “he’s called us to redefine the margins.”
Judit Manchay, editor of Wild Faith Co., discussed “The Need for Belonging,” and how she uses her platform to create spaces of belonging for women. When creating spaces of belonging, she said, it’s important to first learn about yourself, then learn about the people you’re trying to reach, then affirm and encourage those individuals, and finally invest your time, attention, and finances in them and their success. These are the four initiatives God takes in our lives, and it’s our responsibility to foster that in our spheres of influence as well.
Danielle Barnard, program director for Adventist Revolution, brought the morning to its climax with “The Need for Revolution.” She described the idea many have in their heads of Mary, the mother of Jesus, as demure and diminutive, and then directed the audience to the Song of Mary found in Luke 1:46-55. In her Magnificat, Mary describes rulers brought down, the rich sent away empty, the humble lifted up, the hungry filled. Barnard said the text of Mary’s song was considered so revolutionary, it has been banned at different points in history, in India, Guatemala, and Argentina. She described three aspects of Revolution: Renewal, Redistribution, and Shalom. Renewal allows one to see a different life. There’s no way to read the scriptures without seeing the Redistribution of power, money, and authority play out again and again, and to realize that God doesn’t view it as ok for some to have more than others. We usually think of Shalom as peace, but the original meaning is deeper than that, said Barnard. It is a setting right of all that has been done wrong, setting right the things that sin has disturbed. When Jesus drove out the corrupt from the temple, he was saying, “I need to turn this upside down so that I can bring it right side up.”
The other topics discussed on Friday included “The Need for Stories” by Kaleb Eisele, founder of Humans of Adventism, “The Need for Bravery” by ordained minister Rebecca Davis, “The Need for Intentionality” by musical artist and youth leader Tanya Loveday, and “The Need for Planting” by Juan Labrador, founder of Origin Ministries.
After the presentations and discussion periods, attendees gathered for a “Mindfulness Moment,” to reflect quietly on the presentations and journal about the following questions: How do I feel right now? What did I hear the Holy Spirit say to me today? How does God want me to move? (Notebooks and pens were passed out to each person during registration for this purpose.)
After a dinner break, attendees reconvened for a worship service to welcome the Sabbath, complete with music and short thoughts from scripture.
On Sabbath morning, an “early bird special” brainstorming session awaited the morning people, and a lively discussion on crafting unconventional remedies for traditional problems ensued. Attendees divided into four groups with oversized pads of paper and markers to come up with unheard of solutions to challenges like attracting more young people to church, and creating spaces that feel safe for those who have left the faith but want to return.
Paul Turner, project manager for Adventist Revolution, then kicked off the day’s presentations with “The Need for Intelligence.” He said that a lot of the problems we face in the church are a problem of not being precise with our language. Adventist dialogue will continue to be unproductive because we lack nuance in our conversations. When we gain nuance, we also gain graciousness, which in turns makes us more relatable to the world, allowing for dialogue to flourish.
Michael B. Kelly III, head pastor at Mt. Rubidoux SDA Church, discussed “The Need for Peculiarity.” Kelly began by talking about Steve Jobs, and how his goal wasn’t to be better, it was to be different. Adventists are different, said Kelly, but “if your difference doesn’t make a difference, then you’re just a weirdo.” We have a health message, but we’re just as sick and overweight as everyone else, he continued. We have the Sabbath but we’re just as tired and stressed out as everyone else. Adventists have latched onto this “peculiar” title and wear it like a badge of honor, because we think being weird is what God calls us to be. But in the Greek, said Kelly, the word “peculiar” doesn’t mean weird or strange. It means different, to be set apart, and preserved for something. “We’ve been called that our difference will make a difference.”
He then discussed the ways in which we try to accomplish this, most of them not good:
• We attack those not like us.
• We try to blend in because we’re ashamed of who we really are, but in doing this we lose the power God has given us.
• We refuse to interact with anyone not like us.
And finally, we stay authentically who we are, but we cross into the spaces where the people are. This missional living is what God has called us to, concluded Kelly.
Pastor Gabriel Morales built on this with “The Need for Relevance.” “How do we go from a church that is fading away to one that is relevant?” he asked. Part of reaching any community is knowing what they need, what their values are, and listening to them, he continued. And remember, there are people in your neighborhood already doing good, so partner with them. Support your community in both times of celebration and times of grief. Jesus was there for both the wedding and funeral, reminded Morales.
Tiffany Llewellyn, founder of Adventists for Social Justice, talked about “The Need for Social Justice.” We need more social justice workers, said Llewellyn, people who will be there even after the fervor dies down, who will continue the hard, unglamorous work. When you do the work, you’re moving from an idea of “something should be done” to “I must act.” She continued, saying, you have the norm of how things are, and social justice workers choose to be the deviants who disrupt, dismantle, and speak truth to power. We know Jesus was a deviant for social justice, so how come we need to keep having this conversation about the need for social justice? She pinpointed several ways Adventist eschatology contributes to a reluctance to fight for social justice, including the idea that Jesus is coming soon so we don’t need to worry about what’s happening right now, and the idea that because God is all-powerful, he would relieve pain and suffering if he wanted to.
“What do you do when your denominational theology conflicts with your biblical theology?” asked Llewellyn. We talk a lot about safe spaces, she said, but we also need brave spaces, where we can embrace these hard conversations.
She cautioned that revolution without revelation leads to chaos. Revelation needs to lead our way when advocating for change. She also encouraged people to find their role in the work. Everyone has their own gifts and talents, and not everyone is called to every role, but everyone has a role. There are agitators who raise awareness and speak out, there are innovators who have the great ideas, and there are the orchestrators who are skilled with the execution of those ideas.
The additional topics discussed on Sabbath included “The Need for Non-Compliance” by Pastor Baron Savory, “The Need for Resilience” by Janet Ledesma, associate dean in the Andrews University Department of Leadership, “The Need for Ekklesia” by David Sedlacek, professor of family ministry and discipleship in the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews, and I presented on “The Need for Sacrifice.”
After the Sabbath presentations, another Mindfulness Moment gave attendees time to reflect and journal with the question, “What is it that you need that can only be provided by God?” Then, a final worship service concluded Zeal19.
When asked what he hoped to accomplish at Adventist Revolution’s first rally, and where he sees it going in the future, Michael Polite shared the following:
#AdventistRevolution set out to facilitate a gathering where the biblically-minded, unconventional believer could find inspiration, validation, and affirmation. Our team feels like this, maybe more than anything else, is needed within our denomination. The Spirit is trying to do new things within us and around us, and we need more spaces that calibrate themselves to usher in the innovations of the Spirit while fostering healthy community among like-minded revolutionaries. This happened at ZEAL19, and for this we are tremendously grateful to the Holy Spirit for fueling such a positive outcome.
Our exit surveys have been so encouraging! We have received dozens of confirming artifacts from attendees that speak to the refreshing uniqueness of ZEAL. They not only corroborated the unconventional aspect of our programming, but they also spoke to how inspiring these elements were. I was personally improved by the numerous conversations I had with fellow unconventional Adventists over the two days. I returned home with sharper tools and an improved perspective on what God is already inspiring around our denomination. The unhealthy aspects of Adventism's institutional culture are beginning to shift, and it is shifting because of the courageous, well-intentioned contributions of Adventists all over the world.
In the future, we hope to bring ZEAL to other regions: West Coast, East Coast, the South, and once again in the Midwest. #AdventistRevolution desires to continue recruiting more unconventional Adventists to positively rebrand Adventism one local community at a time. Over the next year, we would love to host multiple ZEAL Rallies all across the country.
More information about Adventist Revolution can be found on their social media channels:
Alisa Williams is managing editor of SpectrumMagazine.org and was a presenter at Zeal19.
Main photo: Michael Polite presents on “The Need for Zeal.” All images are courtesy of Adventist Revolution and are used with permission from the organizers.
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