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Adventist Churches on the Road—Conversation with Motorcyclist and Pastor Marvin Wray

Journeys is your book about a motorcycle trip across the US visiting Adventist churches? Why did you go?

When the Northern California Conference announced that they would allow three pastors a year to take a sabbatical of up to three months, I thought that would be a great opportunity to do what I have wanted to do for some time—visit churches all across the country. And wow, I’ve always wanted to ride my motorcycle across the country. So I submitted the proposal, and it was granted.

I spent a year making plans. There were some specific churches I had in mind: Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, for instance. What is working in the headquarters of Mormonism? Is anything particularly effective in a hugely secular city? What is working? Is anything working?

In Las Vegas there are nine churches. I picked one—the Mountain View Church, where I knew good things were happening. However, at least fifty percent of the churches were picked at random according to a route and a reasonable amount of miles. I visited a pastor or church leaders every mid-day and every evening.

I had a strong desire to see what was working, who is growing, who isn’t and why. I admit I had some preconceived perceptions. I knew that most of our churches are not really growing. Most are trying to stay current, but struggle with building a core group of young adults. In one church I visited the average age was mid-70s. I asked the pastor, “Where do you see the church in twenty years?”

In the book, I tried to emphasize positive aspects about each place, and to generalize criticisms.

Why did you go on a motorcycle? Did that affect your interaction with the churches?

I did that largely just because I thought it would be a lot more fun. I didn’t hear any negative feedback. I think it generated interest. I also thought it would make the book more readable for many. And I’m happy to say that after 11,393 miles I only had one really bad segment.

How many churches did you visit?

I met with representatives from 70 churches, including 48 pastors.

The view of the church was often clearer, less biased, from members rather than pastors. But some pastors really opened up and talked about not being able to do what they wanted to do because most of the time the membership does not turn the leadership over to the pastor. Even the more professional churches are hesitant to truly allow the pastor to lead. They want him to preach and do the visitation. The place I really saw the greatest opportunity for pastoral leadership was in church plants where they just started something new and didn’t have a long history. The longer the history of the church, the harder it is to embrace change and to be cutting edge.

What was your methodology? What were you looking for in your visits?

The first question for the pastor was, “What’s happening in your church that you are passionate about?”  There are all the standard things that have to be cared for, but is there something that is creative, is there something that could really make a difference in your church? I wanted candid responses. They had to really think about that. In many cases it caught them off guard. I think many of them are lacking the tools, the idea bank.

I get tons of ideas reading both from within as well as outside of the Adventist church. I really get inspired by Mark Batterson’s In a Pit With a Lion On a Snowy Day. He wrote another one, Primal, that is fantastic. Another great read is David Platt’s Radical and the sequel, Radical Together. Batterson founded the National Community Church in Washington, D.C. They started by opening up a coffee bar right across from Union Station. Now they have branches in movie theatres connected with subway stations.

Some of the pastors I visited are not encouraged to read from outside sources, but we don’t supply them with the same energy from within very often. I have appreciated George Knight’s books, and Jon Paulien’s devotional on Revelation is great. I would also greatly encourage every pastor to read his latest book, Where Are We Going? But I also believe we should be in touch, for example, with David Kinnaman’s books such as Unchristian, and his latest, You Lost Me.

Were you recommending materials?

Yes, but mostly I was encouraging pastors simply to read, and to read widely. In some places they just think that is a terrible idea. We’re missing so much. We don’t have to take it all, but don’t miss it all either.

You said members were more creative in answers?

Lay leaders who were willing to meet with me were there because they had something that they were passionate about.

In Roswell, New Mexico, it was late when I pulled in. I’d had a long hot ride. Three members met me at the church, and after we had visited for awhile they asked,  “Would you like to see our prayer ministry?” We walked to what I thought was a storage building, but it was their prayer ministry.

It was set up so beautifully. First, I went into a waiting room. One of the prayer ministry people met me there and explained what I was going to be doing at the seven or eight stations. I had time to meditate, to write down my burden, and I picked up a brick to go with it. Then I went on to another space where I wrote in sand what I had written on the paper, and then I smoothed out the sand and laid my brick down. I picked up a link of a chain that had been broken. The whole thing amounted to identifying my burden, laying it down, and believing that Christ could answer my prayer and then coming out and having my burden lifted. I went through it with them, and I was moved just walking through it.

The members want to make it available to their community 24/7. This was a ministry with lay-led passion.

Did a lot of people from the community utilize it?

The word was getting out. They wanted people to know that if they had a prayer in the middle of the night, there was a place that they could go.

This was a new Adventist family that was doing this. They were passionate. They had tears in their eyes as they told their story. The passion showed all over their faces.

The next day I told the next pastor about my experience the night before. He said, “We have the same thing.”  All the same steps were laid out, but not nearly as attractively. And he said they were talking about turning the space back into Sabbath School rooms. The difference was that in that church they had no one passionate about that ministry.

That is not necessarily a bad thing. I just thought, there is no one program. All you need is one program that somebody is passionate about.

In your last chapter on what you learned, you say that more should be done to empower the local church and church pastors. What specifically would you like your conference to do for your church in Napa, California?

Hmmm, is my president going to read this? We need to find a way to funnel more of the money back to the local church. There is not much funding available for creativity, and some of it takes money. I feel blessed in my church and in my conference. I’m not forced to do any top down programming. We’re building and growing, slowly but safely. I’m not getting pressure to do any specific programs. Give me options. Give me ideas. Again, we’ve got to find a way to get resource funding back to the local church. The conferences and unions have cut their staffs, and I think that’s good. We’re still not using up-to-date technology as effectively as we could. I would like to see all conferences make a stronger effort to immerse their pastors in creative ideas and encourage them to experiment.

Read the entire interview in the current issue of Spectrum: The Journal of the Adventist Forum. $40 a year. $20 for students.

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