Adventism is in need of a paradigm shift! An ideological shift with practical implications that will make it more responsive and relevant to an emerging generation and a dynamic world. While the growth of Adventism globally has been celebrated, disruptions that we have seen due to the COVID-19 pandemic have seismic implications for the Adventist Church. In every sector there is talk of a new way of doing business as some businesses have closed shop for good while the survivors have had to transform their way of doing business.
On the other hand, churches in response to restrictions around COVID-19 found themselves using various online platforms to deliver religious content and services. Even where there has been some gradual easing of restrictions, many churches have seen a significant drop in attendance as members continue to stay at home on Sabbaths. The usual explanation has been that with new cases being recorded, members are simply exercising caution.
There seems to be an anticipation that in a couple of months, things will return to normal, congregations will meet and continue like before. This, I say, is a fallacy. In line with Bible prophecy, the possibility of another pandemic is high, and we might as well brace ourselves for more. While businesses are proceeding to reinvent themselves and adjust to the new reality, churches seem to be in denial, expecting to return to the old way of doing things. In this article I try to contribute to the debate on exploring ways in which Adventism can transform itself to the new reality.
Handing back the Sabbath
If there is one positive change that has already happened due to COVID-19, it is the “handing back” of the Sabbath to members. Gone are the days when Sabbath was congested with programs and routines at the expense of personal spirituality. Now the most that the church can “program” on Sabbath is two hours, leaving the remainder with members. This is refreshing, it sends a message that Sabbath observance and worship should not and does not center around church attendance or a particular program script.
It is possible and normal to observe and worship on the Sabbath while being at home in your pajamas. Handing back the Sabbath to members has spiritual implications, as it allows members to experience God without the rigidity of programs or control that had come to characterize our Sabbaths at church. This level of independence and flexibility was long overdue, as over the years Sabbaths have come to be characterized by a program-centric model where programs and rituals are an end in themselves. From 9 a.m., there is an unhealthy hurry to keep time, a congestion of presentations, quick prayers, and long sermonizing, which are all cognitive with little or no space for individual spirituality.
As a result, members have come to expect that the church owes them a spiritual high. The 11 a.m. sermon combined with 18th century hymns have become addictive and very defining to our Sabbath experience. It is such rigidity that breeds an obsession with compliance rather than spirituality. Church leaders tend to focus on regulation, controls, and facilitating that members get their weekly high. But with the coming of COVID, traditional notions about Sabbath worship and church are being questioned, if not threatened. The fact that we can worship and experience the Sabbath without having to conform to a set program, a sermon, a particular dress style, is game changing. It means all the rules and standards we had imposed upon ourselves as an expression of piety and reverence are not necessary. The freedom we have experienced should not be seen as an exception or temporary arrangement, but the real deal. God has in the past moved with His people; the story of the Old Testament sanctuary is a clear example of this. Confining worship to a building or following a certain program is clearly misinformed. Members and leaders need to embrace this; leaders in particular need to let go and let God lead His children.
What is more concerning is that as lockdown and restrictions continue, there are attempts to “recapture” the Sabbath. This is seen in Adventist churches trying to run the regular/normal Sabbath program format from morning to evening online. In other cases, there is a marathon of sermons, all of which are an attempt to recreate an experience that only works when people are in one room. Put differently, the church is trying to recapture the Sabbath from members by recreating the same format which is rigid and congested. Leaders should let go, trust that the same God who calls members to Himself does not need the Sabbath congested for them not to forget Him.
Please note, I am not against online services, which really should be celebrated as evidence of the church moving with times and going to where people are. It is the excessive use that chokes our personal devotion and reflection by congesting the Sabbath with sermons. In any case, members have the option of simply logging off or attending elsewhere.
From attendance to engagement
Over time, going to church has been like going to watch the few talented and gifted perform while 90% of us are spectators. Churches have celebrated attendance with a large section of the congregation sitting like “passive viewers” in a cinema. They go to church to get an experience, and they hold the church leadership accountable if they don’t get that experience. Not only does it breed docility, it perpetuates the idea that the church owes members a certain experience every Sabbath. Their conception of church is based on what they get from it rather than what they give. No wonder some have the audacity of checking online to see if they can get a more powerful sermon.
But under the new way of doing things, emphasis should be on members going to church to engage, to add value, to contribute, and in a way make the experience worthwhile. With reduced attendance and home church, here is an opportunity for local churches and home groups to reconfigure themselves. The role of pastors and leaders will be to empower members to use such small platforms to connect with their communities and circles of influence.
The root of the viewer mentality syndrome is that many churches are program centered. Everything from prayer, to evangelism, to ministry of the poor is made into a program. Very little or nothing organically grows; it either has to be a directive from a higher office or compliance with an institutional calendar. Consequently, local church leaders become administrators of an already set agenda, their role focuses on implementing a set program and complying. Any attempts to deviate from an established program is unwelcome.
With the excessive love for numbers and attendance is a creation of what can be seen as Adventist celebrities who are always venerated by the church. Moving ahead, churches need to move away from an obsession with attendance to flexibility with more emphasis on engagement of members. Everyone should feel they have a contribution to make, rather than going to church and expecting a certain experience in return. This shift will see more emphasis being placed on connection rather than gathering, as church will be about people and relationships, rather than an obsession for programs and policies.
Adventism has always portrayed itself as a global movement where the order of service, production of study guides, and devotional materials in standardized. The advantage is that this creates a uniformity which is often celebrated as evidence of how much we are one big global family, studying the same thing, and doing church the same way at the same time.
But with COVID-19, and the proliferation of home churches and worship, isn’t this a better time to let go and let members simply become contextual in the order of service and which materials to use? Instead of making use of General Conference produced materials or taking the Church Manual suggested order of service as mandatory, let there be a flexibility for members and churches to come up with contextualized materials or lighter formats. What harm would it cause if a congregation decides to have Sabbath services start in the afternoon, or if they do away with the sermon every week or the Sabbath lesson guide? Radical as it may sound, it liberates members from an obsession with compliance at the expense of practicality. It makes church refreshing as it departs from the rigid and predictable way of doing things.
From prescriptions to principles
In many Adventist congregations Sabbaths are characterized by a lot of teaching. From Sabbath School until sunset, services are more cognitive exercises. There is more teaching in Adventism more than anything which often results in an information overload. We seem to be addicted to learning, and it is often remarked that it’s easier to organize a Bible lesson or study than a prayer session. This means our Sabbaths have been reduced to mental exercises, and Adventism then appeals to the smart, argumentative, and intellectual.
With COVID-19 and the limitations it imposed on church, we need to move away from a teaching centered approach toward equipping. Instead of members being overloaded with information or taught something deemed new, churches should rather invest more in equipping members to engage their neighbors, and run home worship and small groups. As a result, this will imply a shift from the teacher-student approach to a more apprentice approach as used by Jesus. Churches become centers where members are equipped for service in their communities.
Because home worship has brought about a degree of autonomy in worship for members, prescriptions on how to worship, which music to use, and which format should be done away with. Let the broad principles defined in the Bible be shared and leave the Holy Spirit to impress upon members which way to go. So, the church should be more hands off, more allowing with no obsession for uniformity and standardization. This course has implications on our “beloved” Church Manual, which over the years has gone beyond being an administrative tool at a global level. The church leadership needs to candidly reflect on the role and scope of the Church Manual in light of emerging opportunities and ways of “churching.”
Adventism’s greatest weakness has been that of complexity, little rules introduced gradually over time have become like “fence laws.” Though not of divine origin, these sets of rules are meant to ensure order, uniformity, and regulate behavior in a way. As a result, there is much complexity in Adventism, so much protocol and overwhelming ritual that can be devoid of spirituality. When compliance is taken excessively, it may lead to complex rules and procedures that undermine spiritual connection. Now is the time to let go and let God takeover. Even after COVID-19 we should not expect our churches to be filled and programs to run as before. Members who have tasted the liberating joys of home worship are likely to struggle with the old way of doing things. In fact, some will not even attend church regularly as they come to view home worship as normal.
However, as churches move to virtual platforms, deliberate investments are needed to ensure that this new line of ministry is properly resourced. If need be, let talented young people step in, and equipment be procured to ensure a professional way of doing things. The challenge with most of the platforms is that not only is the sound and lighting poor, but they are not interactive, and they perpetuate the viewer mentality. We forget that we are in a congested space; we are not the only ones running services online. If we are going to use it as a mission tool then there is need for professionalism and creativity.
In fact, instead of each church trying to set up its own platform, let churches pull resources together and collaborate in coming up with relevant formats and programs. Let our platforms move from indoctrination or churning our “church propaganda” to offering solutions to life’s questions on topics such as debt, financial management, single parenting, dealing with divorce, drug abuse, use of the internet, fitness sessions, car maintenance, gardening.
Our theology and doctrines need to be infused with life, to be able to find application in the situations people face today. The dry sermonizing and disconnected liturgy need to be abandoned as we prioritize engagement, equipping, and relationships. Gone are the days when having the right doctrines was celebrated and used as a way to accentuate our corporate ego. This is the time to go, throw away the excess baggage we had, and accumulate and cultivate spirituality in the truest sense.
Admiral Ncube is an Adventist Zimbabwean writing from Gaborone, Botswana where he is a humanitarian and development professional.
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