In my previous article entitled “Adventism at the Crossroads" (Part 1), in a provocative way I argued for the need for fundamental changes in the way church is done. This argument was informed by and in response to the disruption that COVID-19 has brought about in every aspect of our lives. Of course, most of Adventism is still in denial, such that whatever arrangements we have put in place, there is a sense that these are temporary, for a day is coming when COVID-19 shall be no more and church will return to what it was.
In this article, I candidly explore other areas with more focus on the structural implications of COVID-19 on Adventism and what could be our response to the changing context. But as much as COVID-19 has opened a world of opportunities for us, the greatest obstacle to change in Adventism is Adventism itself. We are and have always been a “waiting people.” It is our own addiction to the “Adventist way” of doing things, our obsession with ritual, uniformity and standardization, our fixation with policies and procedures, our inordinate love for the church building that may potentially deflate any attempt toward change. To expect that the General Conference, unions, conferences, and local church leadership will easily depart from what they are used to is a huge ask. Thus, the answer lies in members and leaders who through honest conversation at various levels can begin in simple ways to embrace a new way of “churching.”
Handing back the conversation
With the church building ceasing to be the primary center of worship, COVID-19 has ignited a more pronounced “conversation culture” among Adventists across the world. More than ever, Adventists are now more connected and engaging in conversations on anything across borders. This borderless church which is growing organically means the church is unable to regulate or influence what conversations members are having. A typical Sabbath in many churches was characterized by a marathon of programs from 9 a.m. until evening with a fixed agenda and no space for members to honestly engage on issues important to them. If ever there were questions, these were either left hanging, casually responded to, or not entertained. But with COVID-19, following the eruption of the Black Lives Matter Movement, members are gradually engaging in difficult conversations about race, identity, gender, social justice, church organization, and other contemporary issues that affect them openly.
The agenda is now in the hands of the members who through exposure and exchange are revisiting and revaluating old positions. This is significant. It places a challenge at the doorstep of leaders to engage and provide answers to these issues. Admittedly, some of the conversations are difficult and uncomfortable, but to dismiss them as baseless attacks on the church, trivial or non-salvific, is disingenuous and has serious implications for the young who are active members of the borderless church. I recall a few months ago coming across a recorded discussion on YouTube[i] on whether tithe is biblical and relevant for our time. Initially, I thought the panelists could not be Adventist because in my limited exposure I assumed that tithing issues are a done deal, and there is relatively not much to discuss. After listening for a few minutes to opening remarks from each panelist, I was dumbfounded. The depth, the nature of questions, got me unsettled and thinking of some of the difficult conversations that I had seen online among Adventists. Indeed, COVID-19 has not only handed back the Sabbath to members, but brought in a whole new experience in Adventist conversation.
The borderless church
Reflecting on the borderless church, our concept of church membership and attendance is now in disarray. Adventists now have the liberty to attend and engage in conversations across borders. There is an exchange and cross fertilization of ideas sweeping across Adventism and very soon questions that appeared to be obvious and settled will resurface as people seek a more contextual application. Regurgitating our fundamental doctrines is no longer enough; these doctrines should speak to the situation that the world is facing. With the borderless church, not only is the agenda unregulated, but new connections are formed as members across the world coalesce around issues that matter to them.
Instead of seeing this as a threat to church life, we must appreciate that the future church will not be about proximity but more influenced by genuine connections, open conversation, and relationships. In a sense, church leaders need to admit that they have lost control. Online churches have made church very fluid with exposure to diverse views and theology. The kind of loyalty associated with a particular church name or congregation is fading as options for church have increased. This means the church needs to brace for a possibility that some members will never come back. Church attendance will either drastically fall or become erratic as members embrace the idea that Sabbath worship does not need a church building or rigid program script. In parks, under trees, at home, and in unusual places church will happen. However, for some, church will be more for fellowship than anything else. Post COVID-19, leaders need to brace themselves for fluidity in attendance, especially among the young whose quest is no longer for doctrinal correctness only, but for engagement and genuine community.
Shut down or reshape
Church leaders occupy a special place in the life of the local Adventist church. Beyond the role of being administrators some have evolved into custodians of routine, guardians of orthodoxy, and facilitators of the Sabbath experience. For leaders, the church building becomes an important place where they exert efforts to deliver a memorable Sabbath experience. On the other hand, members trust that leaders will do all that is possible to give them a reason to attend. This reduces church to an event, a venue where they go to get something rather than a gathering of believers to give, connect, and engage. Departmental leaders join in to compete for space and attention on the church calendar to also “feed the flock.”
Now that COVID-19 has made it difficult for churches to congregate, many departments at local church, conference, union, and General Conference levels are paralyzed. Their planned programs were designed under the assumption that members can congregate in a building. Now there is a struggle to find relevance through online platforms, or some are simply waiting for that glorious day when COVID-19 will be history. The many departments set up over the years in response to the growing needs of the church are now unable to function. Since their life was centered around people gathered in a church building, which won’t be possible for a long time, the issue to consider is whether there is need to shut down some of these or reshape them to meet the needs of the hour?
Instead of filling all the local church positions stipulated in the Church Manual, churches could consider “shutting down” or merging ones which are no longer relevant and functional. This will enable directing of resources toward the real needs, realigning mission and efforts to the current situation. The same approach can be cascaded to conferences and unions where we need to reprioritize, redefine their roles, and direct efforts where the needs are. I foresee local church pastors, elders, and deacons increasingly taking on the new Testament model of roving deacons like Phillip, rather than waiting for members to come to the church building. The proliferation of home worship and small groups should not be seen as a threat, but instead an opportunity for leaders to go out to meet people — an approach that will inculcate deeper connection.
It is quite refreshing that the General Conference launched a global mission initiative (“I Will Go”).[ii] But how aligned is it to the barriers and opportunities we now face in the context of COVID-19? Our concept of mission has traditionally largely focused on evangelistic campaigns characterized by bringing people to a certain venue (hall or tent) so that we preach to them. This is now a hard sell as fears around COVID-19 compound the situation. How then should we do mission at a time when there is a lot of competition for attention from our target audience? Online platforms are congested, so much is happening, and to use them for mission purposes requires a fundamental shift. This entails an overhaul of our approach to mission covering both the methodology and the content.
Today, our platforms have more sermons than anything, and the language and content is all Adventist. Some of the presentations are replete with criticism of other denominations, loaded with “adventese” or Adventist terminology like spirit of prophecy, investigative judgment, our pioneers, the lost, three angels’ messages, etc., which are not only exclusive but may sound condescending to those who are not Adventist. Much of what is available on Adventist platforms is “cringe-worthy” and potentially repulsive for someone without exposure to Adventism. Our world now requires us to shift from being doctrine-centered, proving the correctness of our position, to being more practical, relevant, and relationship-orientated.
How do we move from an intellectual conquest approach to mission to attracting people to Christ for who He is? Could it be that we need more presentations on topics that speak to issues communities are contending with, such as running educational classes for kids in places where schools have been closed for a long time? Such topics may appear secular but go a long way in connecting with people by talking about things that matter to them in language they understand. Sermons have their place, but in excess they can portray an insensitive detachment from reality. It’s high time Adventism starts genuinely paying attention to things that matter to people not as a church program or a way to ambush them with our doctrines.
A related question is on whether we need to continue spending millions on large church buildings as centers of worship? In the global North this has been a recurring discussion, but in the global South this is now more relevant where resources are limited. If we are returning to the New Testament model of more home churches, then the location and purpose of our church buildings needs redefinition. We need more community friendly spaces where there is more equipping, more connection, more rehabilitation, and less sermonizing.
Since COVID-19 has meant less opportunities for our esteemed pulpit celebrities in the form of preachers, musicians, and “certified” teachers, mission is now in the hands of everyone in their small corners of influence. The challenge is finding ways to do it like Jesus by going where the people are rather than ambushing them in a church building. Maybe COVID-19 has come to disrupt our obsession with the church building so that we occupy our rightful place in the community! Sadly, many have been adversely affected by COVID-19, from job losses, to illness and death of loved ones, but what greater opportunity for Adventists to reconfigure and be more responsive. Our churchy concerts, seminars, retreats, weeks of “xyz” had their place and time, but now we need more resources geared toward adding value to the communities around us. Youth and children’s ministries, both vital arms of the church, seem to have lost their compass in the face of COVID-19. The passing of each Sabbath betrays a sense of defeat among us and if I were a prophet I would say, “a revival of true innovation is the most urgent of all our needs, to facilitate this should be our first work!”
In all this, our conferences, unions, and divisions have also entered the virtual space by running services. As much as they benefit from a wider Adventist audience, they have the net effect of crowding out local church initiatives. The question is whether such an investment is necessary — why not equip churches with the resources and tools to effectively operate in the new normal? These administrative structures have in the past played an oversight role, but with the local church dispersed into smaller groups, what is the role of these multiple layers? The worry has been on reduction in tithe remittance which is normal especially with job losses and uncertainty. Our emphasis on stewardship in the current situation should be sensitive to the effects of COVID-19. It should balance between the needs and welfare of church workers but also ploughing back into local churches, assisting them to set up media ministries, sustaining collapsing projects, defraying local expenses, and more importantly supporting local welfare initiatives. What is worrying is that in some parts of the world the church structures would rather enter into unnecessary legal battles to address internal disputes but fail to support churches, communities, and members affected by COVID-19! Indeed, we need innovative approaches to ensure that our stewardship approach does not appear narcissistic or cannibalistic but more responsive to emerging needs among members.
The changes I am provoking do not need a General Conference Session to take place. It is upon local churches, pastors, and their leaders to prayerfully start where they are. Let open conversations begin on how to seize COVID-19 as an opportunity to sharpen and refocus Adventism for effective mission. I agree some of the propositions are radical and ambitious, but nevertheless necessary and refreshing to engage in.
The answers will not come from Silver Spring but locally where we all are members — context is key! Instead of investing time and resources in more uniformity and standardization, on the contrary, there is need for more letting go, decongesting Adventism to make it more contextually relevant for mission. As they say, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step: one small change will have a ripple effect across all the spheres of church life given the level of interconnectedness in everything Adventist.
That Adventism is in need of a paradigm shift is indisputable, but the question is who has the WILL to make it SO? May the words in Luke 16:8 not find fulfilment in us: “… the people of this world are much more shrewd in handling their affairs than the people who belong to the light.”
Notes & References:
[i] “Is tithe biblical or relevant for our time?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q4rzzJkrPMI&feature=youtu.be
Admiral Ncube is an Adventist Zimbabwean writing from Gaborone, Botswana where he is a humanitarian and development professional.
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