We are not happy.
We are not doing so well together.
We are dying.
Christians are so busy arguing about trivial internal matters that the world is swiftly moving on without them. Whereas church largely used to be a societal symbol for serenity, innocence, and morality, now it is a quick reminder of news headlines about financial shadiness, sexual abuse, and extreme divisiveness. The clergy were once reflexively respected and sought after for moral guidance; nowadays, they are often caricatured as models of manipulation, inconsistency, and lukewarm selfishness. As we keep on fighting, “outsiders” don’t care, think we are out of our minds, or hate us vehemently. In any case, we certainly are not making a difference — definitely not setting an example the world wants to follow.
It is not working, and we are in a crisis! We do not deal too well with diversity and most of us are dedicated to keeping our status quo (yes, even the fighting) out of fear. Thus, we must immediately recognize such an unfortunate reality and be honest about our role in its perpetuation. However, God’s church can also draw hope and strength from a knowledge (albeit imperfectly) of God’s dynamic activity from alpha to omega. The triune God was with us from creation’s beginning, is still with us through the sealed redemptive work of Jesus Christ, and will be with us eternally after the catastrophe has been completely reworked.1
Here is the crux of the problem. Christians and their churches are not only becoming increasingly isolated, but they prefer the status quo; familiarity or comfort gives us the illusion of safety, stability, and security. Through millennia of closing itself off, the church has forgotten how to relate with the world, and we cannot do much more than stay busy fighting for control within the church because — as individuals or community — this little territory is all we have left.
The starting point for our problem is a misguided worldview about the nature of evil. Witnessing the horrifying results of evil makes most humans question God’s goodness and omnipotence because church tradition has long taught them that evil is the exception in this world. Sadly and all too often, “evil” for many is misguidedly someone who does not agree with them, especially in theology and ecclesiology.
But why should evil and suffering be surprising? After all, the Christian message is fundamentally based on the belief that sin has separated all creation from its intended perfect communion with God, and that God in Trinity has an ongoing salvation plan intact until the glorious apocalypse when all wrongs will be right again. In this context, one can reasonably surmise that the exception is not suffering and evil, but goodness! Whenever we witness an inkling of human goodwill (in ourselves or others) or the tiniest instance of undamaged beauty in nature, the extraordinary — the exception — has occurred. The point is not why this world has evil, but how we are to relate to God and each other in a world that inevitably will have evil in it.
The Adventist Church suffers from spiritual and theological macrocephaly while the heart and spirit are grossly malnourished. The medicine, then, is not to surgically decrease the head size but to fill the heart with exuberance and nurture the spirit by making the whole life a witness to the world. In this challenging sense, a healthy faith community is indispensable. We must nurture each other for organizational survival as a minimal necessity but more importantly should look outward. The mission is to strive for making all humanity (and creation) whole again in gratefulness for what God has already done, in careful and current stewardship of Christ’s body, and complete joy in Spirit for what we know God will do in the hopefully near-future. This, then, is not a paradigm shift; it is looking deeper into a cleaner mirror to see ourselves for the blessed, privileged, and potential-laden people we have always been in God’s sight.
Diversity is having differences as the natural state of things, and we absolutely do not have a way of existing without it. Neither is unity the same as uniformity; by definition, one cannot unify two things that are the same. As such, harmony is not achieved with one note; again by definition, at least two notes are required, and more notes in the right chord make a fuller sound. One must also remember just having many notes and varying instruments do not necessarily lead to a beautiful symphony; cacophony can ensue without an able conductor, countless rehearsals, and plain hard work alone and together. Thus, our opponents are not people who hold different opinions from ours but distorted versions of ourselves that shut out those who do not know that the church is their safe-haven — because we have not yet told them.
Further, fear often manifests secondarily as anger, hyperactivity, and the need to control; the deeper this phobia is in one’s psyche, such emotions will grow and fester. What’s more, many Christians fear losing everything in their grasp (e.g., materials, status, and ideologies) largely because their status in the church seems to be all they have to place a mark in this world. Christians and their church, which is actually a name for a group of Christ-followers and not an illusory entity apart from them, become inseparably codependent. This dangerous set-up largely stems from three types of fear:
First, the fear of uncertainty is not just about what is unknown, but also toward everything that makes us question what we hold to be fundamental truths in our worldview. Even a hint of someone or something that might shake our false sense of security in social positions, theological beliefs, or material comfort becomes suspect.
Second, we fear losing scarce resources. Initially, they seem “scarce” because the Christian either believes they are limited — or because one is jealous of what seems to be readily available only to others. When Christians lose sight of God’s three-fold gift of abundance in primordial creation, redemption through Jesus, and future consummation with the Holy Spirit, they cannot help but grasp desperately (albeit futilely) onto temporal and temporary things.
Third, we fear ourselves either when we do not like the face that looks back from the mirror, or when we lack the courage to step out with the beautiful image of God already in us. In other words, we can shun our true selves from either inability to make the best of the self’s potential or bona fide self-hatred. Xenophobia also ensues when they remind us of these realities.
So what? How do we “get a life” in real life as one way of effectively managing diversity in the church for genuine vibrancy?
First, we need rehabilitative education to clear up the misunderstandings about God and ourselves. The end goal is re-identification — seeing all of us for whom we really are and the potential we have of making a real difference within and outside the church walls. We must first know what we have been doing wrong to start looking at a new future together.
Second, Christians pride themselves in having “cleaner” lives than does the general population, and Seventh-day Adventists especially are taught to hinge their whole identity on healthy living. Both in the church and at home, the commitment has to be made to raise emotionally and mentally — not just physically — happy human beings.
Third, church members need to support each other to be successful in “the real world.” Christian children first should be taught to choose a fruit-bearing career, train to be excellent in their fields, and to become exemplary citizens of society. All in all, we must teach each other to make a difference individually and communally in the world-at-large.
We need to be relevant.
We need to offer something to the world.
Good theology must have an (be an) answer to the all-too-apparent suffering in this world. For far too long, we have ignored the cries of our brothers and sisters who feel homeless on this earth because we have been too busy bickering and keeping the doors closed. We — as individuals, families, and congregations — need to be an answer to someone who doesn’t see a real reason to meet tomorrow. We are their answer, for we can point them to The Answer. Church attendance cannot be dictated (nor faith measured), but religious life must make sense and be enticing to non-Christians.
Humanity is very small cosmically, but our incomprehensibly big God cares about us and chooses to freely depend on us for a love relationship as if the fate of this world depended on human choices. We cannot bring God’s kingdom to earth; only God can do that. Our happy lot is to revel in the unity in which we do exist and to be ever-increasingly relevant to the world.
Will we be brave enough to let go?
Notes & References:
1. I am indebted to Dr. John W. Webster of La Sierra University for his lectures on the three-part Advent theodrama.
Jeeyoung Lee is currently finishing her MDiv (2019) and EdD (2020) at La Sierra University. As a former navy reserve officer and a hospital chaplain, she’s also been blessed to receive an MBA in General Management, MA in English, EDs in Brain, Affect, and Learning, MFA in Acting for Film, and MMin. In Jeeyoung's “other life,” she creates films and music that aim to instill hope in audiences of all backgrounds.
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