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The Church of the Scattered Believers


I pull up at a home among the bluffs near the Ohio River. This is Appalachia, the poorest part of Ohio, and what I see in this yard I see every quarter mile or so: an old trailer with sagging porch tacked on, a scattering of vehicle bodies and expired appliances, a firewood pile, a couple of big dogs barking at my car window. Inside, clutter, the signs of poverty. But the inhabitants are precious: elderly Seventh-day Adventists, proud of the message, who even though never prosperous or educated, for decades served a church family with their time, talents and money, and can testify that the Lord has sustained them through many hard times. I do adore them.

Amid the clutter, one more thing that I’ve seen in so many of the homes I’ve visited out there: a satellite receiver, with a wire snaking out the window to a small gray dish, and Three Angels Broadcasting Network playing on a big television set. As we visit, they say to me, “Pastor, we don’t tithe to the Seventh-day Adventist church anymore. We send all our money to 3ABN.” I remind them, gently, that I’m paid with the tithe, and I’m the person who comes to visit them. “3ABN visits us every day,” they tell me. “All day long. From the time we get up, until we go to bed.” I’m doing some local pastoral work, they concede, but 3ABN is reaching the world. “They’re the ones who are finishing the work. Everyone around the world is watching it.”

I don’t have the heart to tell them that most 3ABN watchers are Seventh-day Adventists.

There’s more to their story than this, and it explains why they now worship at 3ABN. They had attended a shrinking church in a depopulating river town, and as it declined (and this isn’t an uncommon symptom of dying churches) began to be torn apart by theological conflict. The breaking point was a messy pastoral situation a few years ago that the conference simply didn’t address, preferring to move the problem on to another church and leaving this congregation without a pastor for several years. For the last few years of its life, they spent Sabbath morning watching 3ABN for the church service. Eventually the congregation couldn’t support itself anymore and was disbanded, the building rented to another congregation.

I see a couple of lessons here.

First, the decline and disappearance of small churches is a problem that the Seventh-day Adventist church has paid no serious attention to, at any level. You’d think that a denomination with such large resource generating capacity (which I saw on display in January at the Adventist Ministries Convention in Florida) could make that a priority. In fact, I’m not sure they’re really aware of how many small churches are out there. Although many church- and parachurch-generated tools can be used in the small church, church planners target bigger churches, those with people and money.

Why? Pretty simple, really. Six out of ten NAD members attend one out of ten of our congregations. Please, don’t skim past that. It is an astonishing statistic. Fewer than half of our church members are spread out among 90% of our congregations! In case you’re not processing that, that represents thousands of barely-there congregations. Of the 10% largest, some are successful suburban churches, but most are clustered around of an Adventist institution: a college, an academy, a hospital, an administrative office.

And where are the denominational decision-makers attending services? Yup. So 90% of our churches are off the administrative radar.

Ministry to small churches is thought of only as a problem, one to be managed when necessary, ignored when possible. But, church leaders, please hear me this time: the edges of the Seventh-day Adventist church farthest from where you are are flaking away, breaking off and disintegrating like the edges of Antarctic ice shelves. Small churches are getting smaller and less tolerable. Rarely can they grow, even with the most aggressive soul-winning techniques, because there is no fertile soil to grow in, and often it is poisoned by conflict. (A young person said to me recently, “I love the Adventist message, but there’s no way I could bring my college friends to a congregation like this.”) Unlike suburban Baltimore/DC, where you live, churches out here are spread far apart. Many of the leftover members don’t have any place to attend services after the local church closes (or becomes so conflicted that sensible people can’t stand it anymore). They are drifting away.

We’ve always had inactive members, but there’s a growing group that consider themselves true believers who have no contact with a local congregation. Now, I’m very aware that a small congregation, meeting in a run-down building, mostly old people, no children’s program, no music, and mostly lay preaching or a DVD, isn’t necessarily very appealing. So where are these people turning for community and inspiration?

Which leads to my second point: we have a church out there whose connection to the denomination is Seventh-day Adventist media like 3ABN.

I want to be fair to 3ABN. Some preachers on that network are good, solid Seventh-day Adventists, who preach to the middle of the church. I’m grateful that shut-ins can watch and listen to them. And at least 3ABN is doing something evangelistic, which is more than most congregations can say.

But there’s a less palatable side to 3ABN. From some 3ABN personalities you’ll get a heavy dose of the most extreme, most divisive Seventh-day Adventism, the kind that spends more time focusing on diet and eschatological enemies than on Jesus. And at a recent national pastors’ meeting, I got an earful from pastors who said that the theological conflicts in their churches were often fed by 3ABN.

I can guarantee you that 3ABN is receiving tithe money, and their only excuse is that people don’t tell them it’s their tithe. And, although the 3ABN board apparently wouldn’t agree with me, I have a hard time separating the continuing involvement of 3ABN’s founder and his family from the operation, because I happen to believe (as I do about Newt Gingrich, Bill Clinton, and others) that character does matter in leaders, and inevitably affects how an institution operates. The unwillingness of the 3ABN board to cut those ties, especially after having had to spend hundreds of thousands of donated money in legal fees on behalf of Danny Shelton, baffles me.

I don’t have the 3ABN video feed, but awhile back I was going through a small town and tuned in a local congregation’s low-power FM radio station that was rebroadcasting 3ABN. The preacher was trotting out the sensational accusations of Malachi Martin and some other discredited myths about the papacy. There’s plenty to disapprove of in the Roman Catholic church, and just as soon as our own denomination is faultless we should probably begin to throw large, jagged stones at them. But in the meantime, that’s not the “good news” I want broadcast to the public in the name of my denomination.

But what to do?

Perhaps we could become a media and institution church. Get rid of district pastors, and the scattered believers could follow the church through 3ABN, the way ditto-heads follow politics via Rush Limbaugh. Colleges and hospitals could continue to thrive under the Seventh-day Adventist name. We could keep, perhaps even grow, our conference, union and other offices. Occasionally we can have big convocations, where people would come to see Seventh-day Adventist celebrities and buy their books and recordings. We would certainly continue to use the mail and internet to collect offerings.

Or, we could make ministry to the scattered believers in small churches a priority, and insist our media truly represent the Seventh-day Adventist church of the NAD. (What makes that complicated is that the conflict we see out here is simply a reflection of the conflict among church leaders about what a Seventh-day Adventist is. Can we expect anything more from the believers?)

Or, we can just let things continue as they are, let the thin margins of the church crumble away, let the TV preachers shape the teachings and attitudes of a dispossessed segment.

I wonder if anyone will notice when we’re gone from vast areas of the country?


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