Two Models of Church: Which One You Choose Makes All the Difference

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Published:
May 24, 2019

Every Seventh-day Adventist has their own particular ideas about “how to be church.” The collective mental model a congregation adopts becomes the foundation for the values and priorities their church pursues. That mental model determines both the personality and culture of church life. It is therefore crucial that each member carefully examine their thinking to make sure it aligns with scripture.

The following graphics and text present my understanding of two of the most prominent mental models of church within Adventism: 1) the “Information Model” on the left and 2) the “Love of God Model” on the right. Which one you adopt will result in dramatically different dynamics within the local congregation.

Look over this first graph and then read the description and analysis that follows. Please refer back to this first graph as you read.

At present, many Seventh-day Adventist churches are operating under what I call the “Information Model” of church. This model, or way of thinking, says that the main purpose of our church is to teach correct biblical information around the globe. It says that the central reason our church exists is to make truth known. We often hear this expressed as, “The fundamental mission of our church is to spread the Three Angels’ Messages.” That is the root thinking that is in many people’s heads when you ask them what God’s overarching purpose is for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in these last days.

And out of that Root model and perspective flow a number of Fruits or consequences. There is a cause/effect relationship. Each consequence leads logically to the one above it up the sequential chain.

In this model, correct biblical information is given highest priority. It is central.

If information is primary, then we tend to depend more and more on programs and media for outreach because they can get the information out the quickest to the most people.

If information is paramount, then we will tend to focus almost exclusively on reaping. When you present information, people need to either accept it or reject it. There is little, if any, middle ground. They need to make a decision. Such decision-making is the very essence of reaping ministries.

Reaping ministries tend to rely on very few Spiritual Gifts, mostly those of evangelism and teaching. Members who don’t have those Gifts will feel as though they don’t fit in. They feel that their particular Gifts are not nearly as valuable.  

If information is central, members will tend to rely more and more on the professional clergy, because the pastors have been to seminary and know how to explain the information best. Average members will often avoid sharing the biblical information because they feel anxious that they might get it wrong or mess it up.

If ministry is more and more in the hands of the professionals, then the members will become spectators.

Because the members are not utilizing their Spiritual Gifts in ministry, the work of the church falls mainly on the pastor, who races around reacting to need after need. As a result, he/she is not able to fulfill their biblical role as an equipper.

All of these “fruits,” all of these consequences, flow quite naturally, and tragically, from people’s root understanding of church. Does this description of church life sound at all familiar to you? Perhaps you can now understand better where it all comes from.

The scriptures actually present an entirely different model of church, which I call the “Love of God Model.” It says that the main purpose of church is to build people who can live God’s love. It focuses on collectively revealing, as a community of faith, what the Godhead is really like. Very different fruit or consequences flow from this root understanding and church life changes dramatically.

In the “Love of God Model” people are central. Building people is at the heart of our mission.

And if we are going to build people, relationships become very important. By contrast, building close relationships is seen as “extra” or “optional” in the Information Model.

If we are going to grow all kinds of people, then we need to be able to meet all kinds of needs, not just reaping.

If we are going to try and meet all kinds of people needs, we must utilize all the Spiritual Gifts. They all have an important and special place.

In order for the members to activate their Spiritual Gifts, they need to understand that they are all ministers, what the bible calls spiritual “priests.”  They may not have the gift of pastoring, but they are gifted nonetheless. Their calling is just as important as that of the pastor.

If we are focused primarily on building people, then we will give disciple-making high priority.

Now that the members are involved in ministry, the pastor is freed to focus on fulfilling his/her biblical role as equipper.

The dotted lines on the graph above indicate which fruits or consequences relate to one another. In every case, they are quite different in the two models.

It is very important to realize that you cannot simply go from one of the “fruits” on the left side of the graph directly across to the corresponding fruit on the right side. For instance, you cannot go directly from “Few Spiritual Gifts” to “All Spiritual Gifts” simply by holding a Spiritual Gifts Seminar. You must first change people’s root understanding. There are no shortcuts. Without changing the root model in their heads, any change will almost always create unnecessary resistance and confusion.

You must first take people, in their hearts and minds, from the “Information Model” to the “Love of God Model.” You need to change the mind before you change the method. Otherwise any changes you make will simply be like a stretched rubber band that will snap back into its original form once you let go.*

This does not mean that correct biblical information isn’t important. Our doctrines are very important. Truth is vital, but it is not an end in itself. The main purpose of our doctrines is to help us understand God’s character of love and become a more loving people. The more truth the more potential for love.

Information is, in fact, part of the larger “Love of God Model.” The two models are not an either/or choice, they are both/and. They need to be integrated in the proper way as the following graphic indicates. The dashed line around “Information” indicates that it flows into the larger “Love of God Model.”

Jesus taught us about the proper relationship between truth/information and love. He said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” He then goes on to say, “On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40 RSV).

Our Lord reveals that all the information in the “law and prophets,” a typical Hebrew phrase designating the entire Old Testament, has one over-riding purpose: to enable us to love.[1] The stories, admonitions, laws, prophecies, psalms, and proverbs in the Old Testament were never intended to become an end in themselves. They were given to provide us with the insights and understandings we need in order to love like Jesus loves. The same could be said for the New Testament as well.

The Spirit of Prophecy goes so far as to say, “If the truth we profess to believe does not change the heart and transform the character, it is of no value to us.”[2]

Of course the Adventist church is given the sacred responsibility of shining a bright spotlight on the Three Angels’ Messages. But to think we have accomplished God’s intention by simply preaching external facts without exploring their deep connection to how we live is to do them a sad injustice and reinforce the Information Model. They must be placed within the context of God’s larger, holistic, relational purpose.

That’s why the apostle Paul wrote, “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge…but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2 NIV). That is why Ellen White wrote, “The last rays of merciful light, the last message of mercy to be given to the world, is a revelation of His character of love.”[3] Note that she is not talking here about simply sharing information. She continues that statement by saying, “The children of God are to manifest His glory. In their own life and character they are to reveal what the grace of God has done for them.”[4]

It is vitally important that we put aside our preconceived ideas and preferences and make time to carefully and deeply understand God’s model and plan. Such understanding comes not only as a cognitive exercise. We can’t learn about how to love simply by reading about it. That’s like trying to learn how to swim by taking correspondence courses. We also learn about love relationally, as we interact in meaningful ways within our family, our church, our workplace, and our community. From a biblical perspective, the most important goal any Adventist congregation can aspire to in fulfilling its end time role is to take all that we know and utilize it to become, by God’s grace, experts in love.

*The “Spiritual Body Building” small group lessons were specifically designed to take people from the “Information Model” to the “Love of God” model. See www.transformyourchurch.com (this website is run by the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists).

 

Notes & References:

[1] Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, Volume 5, Matthew to John (Washington, D.C., Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1956) 484.

[2] Ellen G. White, “Brotherly Love Needed,” Review and Herald, October 31, 1893.

[3] Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, D.C., Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1941) 415

[4] Ibid, 415-416. Emphasis supplied.

 

Kim Johnson retired in 2014 as the Undertreasurer of the Florida Conference. He and his wife Ann live in Maitland, Florida. Kim has written a number of articles for SDA journals plus three books published by Pacific Press: The GiftThe Morning, and The Team. He has also written three sets of small group lessons for churches that can be viewed at www.transformyourchurch.com (this website is run by the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists). He is also the author of eight "Life Guides" on CREATION Health.

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

 

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