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The Inertial Church

I ran into a pastor friend a few weeks ago who I’d not seen for awhile. After greetings, “So, Loren, do you think we really can do it?” he asked. It sounds like a question out of the blue, but I knew exactly what he was asking. We pastors walk around with the burden that we have to preach the gospel—the Adventist version of it in particular—to everyone within earshot. That if we do it right, we’ll see that massive pan-cultural metanoia that prepares us to receive the desire of our hearts: Jesus coming and ending sin and suffering.

He asked the question because frankly, it’s not looking good here in the North American Division. The world has changed so much, just in my lifetime. The little church in which I grew up in rural North Dakota was thriving when I was a child. Back then, I thought that with our many churches, all the missionaries working elsewhere, our schools and hospitals, plus the Voice of Prophecy, Faith for Today, and It Is Written, it looked like we had a chance to win everyone over (or at least force the choice).

But now, not so much. Even while spiritual interest is increasing, interest in organized religion is declining. Those churches that have succeeded in a big way here in North America haven’t been Adventist churches.

So do you think we really can do it?

My first answer would be, “No, we can’t do it, but God can.” My colleague and I both believe that. Perhaps it’s been a theological miscalculation on our part to have acted as if finishing this work will happen because of our effort. If there is a reckoning of the size Scripture predicts about to take place, it will be because God sends another even more powerful rain of His Spirit on the earth.

What my friend was asking, though, had a bit more personal accountability in it: Are we Seventh-day Adventists, congregations, administrators and pastors, doing our part to keep the Seventh-day Adventist Church in play as a central actor in God’s plan?

We’re now a full-scale church. As Neil Wilson, the most CEO-like of our denominational presidents, often reminded us, we’re a major world business with enormous investments.

That sounds important, but remember that big investments are also a big anchor. The bigger you are, the slower you maneuver. And right now, most futurists say that the world is changing so tremendously fast, faster than ever in human history, that the winners will be those who are light on their feet and able to adapt quickly. Jack Welch, the iconic CEO of General Electric, once wrote, “We’ve long believed that when the rate of change inside an institution becomes slower than the rate of change outside, the end is in sight. The only question is when.”1

Look back over the history of religions. Rarely does an organized religious body make timely, constructive changes on its own. Denominations become so inertial that they have to be replaced, not reformed. The Roman Catholic Church couldn’t do it in the sixteenth century. (The word reformation applied to what Luther and Calvin participated in is arguably a misnomer.) In mainline Protestant churches like Episcopal, Methodist, and Presbyterian, membership has dropped steadily for fifty years, and newer, more flexible evangelical churches have taken their place.

We, too, are finding it difficult to adapt. And not just theologically.

Here’s one fairly obvious example. There can no longer be any doubt that whether we should or not, too few of us will send our teens to live in dormitories during their high school years to make boarding academies work. That’s why the majority of academies are barely holding on, and in many conferences they drain a lot of resources. Yet each one we have to close is as painful as an amputation. We will fund raise for years to prevent it, asking people to give sacrificially even as enrollment tracks steadily downward. We’ll hold long and antagonistic constituency meetings, bellicose alumni at the microphones.

When it finally ends, supportive church members are angry and disillusioned. I’ve seen instances where conference officers have lost their jobs over closing a school that had no chance of staying open anyway. (A conference president friend of mine was collared by one of his constituents at such a meeting, who shouted at him, “I don’t care if you don’t have a single student enrolled—you’re not closing our academy!”)

I’m not blaming, or even complaining. As I said, this appears to be how denominations operate. Still, if we can’t make changes to programs that are clearly failing, how will we ever plan proactively for the future? We have too many big investments to be light on our feet: buildings to do church as we’ve always done it, schools to teach pastors to pastor churches as we’ve always done it, administrative teams on four levels to make sure that we continue to do church as we’ve always done it. Our people, too, want church as we’ve always done it—at least enough of them to keep us doing it. Church as we’ve always done it isn’t bad. But will it be enough for us to play our part in a world of breathtaking cultural changes?

A few are looking beyond the present. Recently I heard Australian pastor Peter Roennfeldt talk about Fresh Expressions—a new, looser kind of worship with minimal churchiness and structure, and maximum spirituality and service. My friend Milton Adams has pioneered, Simple Church, a house church movement, in Florida. “This house church will never grow up and become a ‘real’ church,” says Milton.

Interestingly, he identifies precisely the elements that hold the denomination back as those that give a house church the chance to succeed: “Since there are no church mortgages, building funds, building maintenance, Bible workers, etc., our offerings help people in real, practical ways.” That’s more like what’s happening in places like Africa and Latin America, where Adventism is thriving.

But this is, again, less change than replacement. Should locally focused house churches become the norm (as unlikely as that appears now) some of our structure and institutions couldn’t survive. With the mindset we have right now our leaders would, I suspect, do almost anything to prevent that from happening.

So I come back to where I started: we can’t do this. Only God can. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that God will do it with us or without us. The only difference is whether we get the blessing of being part of it.

Notes and References

1. General Electric’s 2000 annual report.

Loren Seibold is senior pastor of the Worthington, Ohio, Seventh-day Adventist Church. He also edits a newsletter for North American Division pastors called Best Practices for Adventist Ministry.

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