Where I live near the Rio Grande, ecosystems of desert, river, mountains, and urban mixes of concrete and lawn meet together—portraits of conflict, coordination, creativity and change.
Change, life’s only constant, is stirring and shaking our churches. And not just Seventh-day Adventist congregations. Denominations across the Christian faith (and perhaps also across Judaism and other religious traditions) are undergoing a more than the “normal” dose of disruption.
Disruption—the end of a climax stage and the beginning of a new series of successions in ecosystems—facilitates change (the death of some species and the birth of others) in a complex dance of creative conflict. A fire will do that. A fire will disrupt a forest’s pattern of existence, allowing shorter plants—grasses, flowers and shrubs—the opportunity to grow where once deep shade excluded their presence. Gradually trees will step in to fill the meadow, crowding out the view of sunlight, and the community of plants will climax again when a forest monopolizes the light.
Respected author and editor Phyllis Tickle says a similar phenomenon is right now happening within religious communities, calling it the “Great Emergence.” Others like Brian McLaren are calling it “Emergent Church.” Tickle theorizes that this pattern repeats itself reliably every 500 years or so, as seen with the Reformation in 1517, the Great Schism of 1051, the Council of Chalcedon and Fall of Rome in 451. Before that there was the Babylonian captivity and before that the Davidic Dynasty. And on and on, as far as human history can reach. Every half-century or so, the climax community encounters disruption, and the stable equilibrium is broken, igniting the process of succession yet again.
Observable through this sequence of succession, climax, and disruption in religion, is one consistent pattern: 1) A strong, hierarchical structure limits diversity and freedom within the church in order to protect the organization, to keep it unified and dominant. 2) Individuals or groups within the organization speak out against injustices or hypocrisies (such as the sale of indulgences, the ban on women’s ordination or the exclusion of LGBT individuals), and demand change. 3) The power of the religious institution is compromised and new religious groups, practices, and beliefs emerge.
Over time, these new groups must create structure to remain cohesive and to grow. Structure can take the form of codified dogma (28 Fundamental Beliefs), organizational governance, collection of membership dues (defined tithes), etc. Only those groups that are dominant succeed to a climax stage of stability. Yet that stage is always susceptible to a new disruption.
The momentum of change bends toward unity and harmony. This is objectively true in ecosystems, but not always obvious in the church. At the root of natural succession is the persistent trend toward life. Within Christian communities, this goal might be expressed as intimacy with and expression of Life, the Life of Jesus. In Jesus’ own lifetime we see the re-emergence of this basic truth as Jesus reminds Jews of the most central tenet of their faith—that God is One and God is Love. According to Tickle, every 500 years this truth must be pulled off the shelf from where it has been placed for safe-keeping, perhaps behind lock and key (e.g. the Bible mostly only available in Latin to the clergy).
The prophets said this same thing in their own ways, disrupting the status-quo in favor of making space in the meadow for light to shine on the little ones, the outcasts, the weak and vulnerable. Religion had become too limiting and restrictive. It was worth the risk of burning a few trees to allow that precious light to shine on those excluded by politics, doctrine, and tradition. All are welcome; all are beloved; there is a niche for everyone to contribute yet more life and love to the community, creating a thriving system filled with diversity.
Ellen White wrote in numerous ways and words that God “has light that is new to us, and yet it is precious old light that is to shine forth from the word of truth. We have only the glimmerings of the rays of the light that is yet to come to us” (Review and Herald, June 3, 1890, paragraph 2). There is always more light, and yet it is all a part of the original and only Light. Sometimes religious constructs get in the way of what they were supposed to be doing all along—showering the light “on the just and the unjust” alike.
Change is not a bad thing in and of itself. Disruption is not necessarily synonymous with destruction. In the natural environment, disruption simply means a new way of living, a new focus and direction always contributing to life. Disruption inevitably makes way for more life; the life forms will simply look and behave differently (maybe they’ll play drums or pray “contemplatively”). The most creative and adaptive species have the best chance of participating in this changed ecosystem.
And yet we resist change. I admit to fighting it. I go after invasive elms and the Tree of Heaven (ailanthus) with a vengeance. These species are filling the vacuum created when a natural climax cycle was disrupted by human intervention. The bosque along the Rio Grande is the largest contiguous cottonwood forest in the world. Yet, because we have tamed the river to prevent the flooding of the city and residential areas, the bosque increasingly consists of older trees. Cottonwoods require flooding to water the seedlings before sufficient roots develop to tap into the aquifer. Someday there will be no youngsters to replace the granddaddy cottonwoods.
Great effort is made to eliminate the invasive elms and ailanthus, to re-establish cottonwoods by transplanting seedlings into miniature floodplains. And that makes me happy—I love the cottonwood canopy, particularly at this time of year when it turns brilliant gold. Well-meaning park and wildlands management makes tries at “restoration,” bringing the bosque back to its original and purest form. But what are they restoring the land to? What stage do they choose? What part of a place’s history is its best, most authentic and healthy? Ecosystems are always changing, and there’s no easy way to judge what chapter in an ecosystem’s life is ideal.
What stage of church history should we try to keep the church at? Try as we might, it won’t work. Disruption is built into the natural pattern of things. Would we really want to keep the church in stasis? There is so much good in the cycle of life-death-life, as we see in Jesus’ experience. When we let go and allow parts of us to die, we open ourselves to new and truer life. We can trust that the basic desire and force of spiritual change is intimacy with God, with Life.
In poor and disturbed soil, pioneer plant species—often thought of as weeds, such as amaranth and chicory—help to stabilize soil, preventing bare ground from blowing or washing away. They also break down and draw up important nutrients to improve soil quality, making the way for other species that will eventually overshadow them. This stage in the church’s succession cycle is the opportune time for pioneers to forage into new/old territory, drawing up neglected bits of minerals from sequestered Rock, holding sacred soil together while the non-essentials fall away.
Today pioneer Christians are emerging within and alongside their churches and reminding their faith communities what life is all about—the One Love that Jesus taught and demonstrated. And whether you’re ready or not, here they come.
Joelle Chase is an external relations coordinator for the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico.