I was sitting on the front row of a massive constituency meeting last Sunday. People were queuing at both sides to address the president, department directors, all pastors and the nearly 500 delegates present. Suddenly I found myself taking a step back and contemplating the sheer brilliance of such a meeting. The South England Conference (SEC), where I have been working for over 4 years, had decided to call representatives from all churches to debate and critique the values, principles and methods applied thus far.
People were thrilled to have a voice, and directors were humbled and more focused in their future goals. I’d like to suggest that this total transparency can only come when the leadership is certain of their identity and calling.
I am the proud pastor of Wimbledon International church in South London (Tennis should come to mind). For the last nine months I have been challenging my community to discover a brand new theology that would give us a reason for which to die, as I felt the current mainstream Adventist Theology hasn’t been “Present Truth” for many years. It is important that you understand what I mean. I don’t mean getting a shinier box to package our message so that people would be attracted to it. I also don’t mean to try making our message relevant. I actually mean throwing the box away and reshaping our very theology – changing our very message. Can you imagine preaching on this?
If you are thinking of going into ministry, here is the golden rule all pastors should follow: You are almost free, after many years in ministry, to change the worship style, methods of evangelism and even how we do church, but DON’T TOUCH THE THEOLOGY. I have warned you: try to challenge Adventist Theology and your employment status might change!
Well, as I am still a pastor here you must be wondering – how? First of all, please refer to the title. My journey started last year when the SEC took a selected group of church planters to Athens, Greece. The unusual thing was that the president, exec. secretary, treasurer and half a dozen directors were all present. Through the week, amidst visiting Mars Hill, the Acropolis, Corinth and other sites, we were challenged to rethink what the eternal gospel was. It was following in the footsteps of Paul that my Conference gave us full permission to take our theology to the next level.
This transparency and biblical mandate to go further makes the SEC a unique conference worldwide. If I had stayed in Brazil, I would have been fired at least 3 times by now! Somehow we have frozen our theology, and deep down most administrators are not firm enough in their identity and calling to allow an open debate of what the eternal gospel we are preaching actually is.
At this stage I just need to clarify one thing – I don’t believe that Adventist Theology is wrong. Quite the opposite. I think it’s amazing. My contention is that it hasn’t gone far enough. Ellen White herself progressed four times during her ministry about what present truth was. She was willing to go farther – and I wish we were too! Maybe we’ll explore this in another post!
Anyway, how has it been? The revolution has begun. My little church is alive in ways we could never have imagined. We have discovered many reasons to die for. If you are into growth, we now have close to 70% attendance from under 35 year olds (in London!); we are starting a second service to accommodate the crowd and more people decided for baptism this year than the last 5 years put together!
If you are into memes, the local police are using us to bring a “respectful community” to our area – as we are from fifty-seven different nations and live in peace, they believe we have something to say. Local schools have experienced groups of students defending those being bullied because “we hear the cry of the oppressed.” Our youth are challenging others to follow “the way of Jesus as the best way to live,” whether they believe in God or not. Various atheists and agnostics are deciding to take a Sabbath to remind themselves that they are not a machine. But this is just the beginning, we’ve just scratched the surface.
However, we have come through hard times. I remember sitting and listening to my elders attack everything the pastor was doing. My assistant pastor told me afterwards that if those words had been directed at him, he would have quit that night! Growth requires the choice of living in the tension, but I was only able to go through that because I know my identity and my calling, much like my leaders at the SEC.
Our priorities at Wimbledon have changed to follow the way of Jesus as the best way to live because the kingdom of heaven is here, fully present. wherever we go. The point is no longer gathering every week, but serving every day. I could go on, but for now, let me just say that working with the SEC is like having the chains removed and been given permission to fly. I hope you will join us from wherever you are, as we discover where God is leading our flight to.
Samuel Neves is a pastor of the Wimbledon International Seventh-day Adventist church.