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Lessons from the Lunatic Fringe

Sometimes I awaken in the middle of the night, for whatever middle-aged guy reason, and can’t get back to sleep. So I’ll put my earbuds in and listen to the radio. Apart from popular music (which I don’t care for) the choices are limited: a couple of shrill political shills, a station that takes calls from eerily impassioned sports fans who stay up all night critiquing athletic feats they themselves could never do, and (where I usually land) Coast to Coast AM with George Noory.

C2CAM (originally hosted by the retired Art Bell) is a soup of conspiracy theories and mysterious pseudoscientific and pseudo-spiritual ideas. Nostradamus, flying saucers, crop circles, alien abductions, contrails and weather control, perpetual motion, apocalypticism, angels and demons, numerology, the Illuminati and Trilateral Commission, how the big oil companies suppressed a car that runs on water—you get the idea. Think of a nutty fringe idea, and C2CAM has covered it, always with slack-jawed credulity. (One of Art Bell’s favorite guests was the late Malachi Martin, a self-proclaimed ex-Catholic insider who revealed the secrets of the papacy—and who, you oughtn’t be surprised, is also a favorite of Adventist conspiracist Lewis Walton.) There is little intellectual consistency and yet, for those who call in, that doesn’t appear to be an obstacle. The callers are intense and engaged—true believers.

There’s not much on C2CAM that I agree with. There is, in fact, little that isn’t ridiculous. But judged by the callers and the Arbitrons, many people appear to find it very meaningful.

So, some late-night reflections:

  1. People are hungry for meaning. We crave it. We in the North American Division assume that because our culture appears to be bailing out of religion, it has abandoned spirituality and mystery. Not true. Human beings are spiritual by nature: we will pursue an understanding of our alienation and transitoriness, even if the answers we find are silly.
  2. I don’t know how much of what he hears George Noory really believes, but one thing he does well is listen. He’s respectful: no matter how idiotic the idea, George seems interested. We Christians could learn from that. We might get farther if we listened, rather than only trying to get others to listen to us.
  3. I’ve heard Adventists say that the church isn’t growing because our beliefs are too unusual, the Sabbath and health message too difficult. Nonsense. There’s nothing too odd or too rigorous about this message. People are willing to believe and invest themselves in things much stranger than going to church a day early. We are too quick to accept excuses for why the North American Division church isn’t growing, or even holding its own in the Anglo segment of the market.
  4. We fail not because we’re too unusual, but too conventional, our churches and our lives merely typical of the culture. We are a pleasant bunch of people, but we’re also stuck, dull, busy investing in ourselves and our institutions rather than in anything of life changing or world changing significance. And our in-house conflicts and institutional timidity prevent us from doing the kind of innovating that might get us unstuck.

Don’t anyone accuse me of suggesting we should skirt the lunatic fringe, like C2CAM. But there are a few things we could learn. Something has to happen to make us appealing and interesting, or we’re going to be sitting here a hundred years from now wondering what happened to the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the country of its birth.

And if you’re counting on divine intervention to bring about what we’re not flexible enough to attempt, just remember this: it didn’t work for Israel.

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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