There is a deconstruction taking place among many in Adventism, a questioning of one’s religious experience in search of meaning, authenticity, and relevance more than truthfulness. While COVID-19 has been significant in disrupting almost every aspect of our lives, it has proven to us that many of the very things we thought were definitive to Adventism are inconsequential. The post-COVID church needs to recognize change and embrace the task of remaining relevant and responsive to a society whose priorities and attitudes toward religion are shifting.
For many of us in Adventism who are over the age of 25, the world into which we were born no longer exists anymore. The problem is not in change itself but becoming comfortable in our ignorance of what’s going on around us. The danger with Adventism is being out of touch, continuing to operate under outdated assumptions, developing products that no one consumes, speaking a language that no one understands, and answering questions that no one is asking. More than ever, the local church finds itself pressured to reinvent or sink into irrelevance. Long held traditions are being questioned, beliefs reframed in a quest for relevance or else the church risks being repulsive. Sacred cows need to be barbequed as we explore some areas in which a local church can reinvent itself to speak to a changing world.
The Complexity of Our Problems
A generation is emerging that is yearning for a brand of Adventism that goes beyond doctrinal correctness to genuine connection. Unfortunately, Adventism is reluctant to change especially with increased institutionalization over the years. We have continued on our path of tightening compliance, legislating uniformity, and increasing centralization that has done more harm to the local church. Visit any Adventist congregation around the world and you will meet an institution running on “1901 software” in a context that has changed. This is characterized by religious exclusivism, emphasis on doctrinal correctness, and external behavior before one can belong. Despite having yielded good results in the past, there are voices calling for Adventism to recalibrate itself and candidly confront some of the downsides and problems that will potentially stifle mission in the post COVID-19 world. These include the following:
• An anglo-centric liturgy whose suffocating formality, congested, and heavily cognitive order is misconstrued for reverence.
• Churches that run on a program and building centered-model, whose existence centers on implementing programs and priorities set by some “higher” office regardless of their local irrelevance.
• A worship format that is more of a performance led by a few venerated pulpit celebrities while the rest are reduced spectators.
• Churches filled with more consumers than disciples and overly dependent on “experts.”
• A contentious approach to systematic benevolence that places too much emphasis on tithe and works like systematic compulsion.
• An approach to mission that is deeply eschatological and often focused on proving how other groups are wrong.
• Pastors functioning more like CEOs than shepherds due to the heavy reliance on numbers and metrics to measure success.
• Local church leaders who operate like mere administrators, simply coordinating some prescribed agenda which they don’t own.
• Youth and children’s programs based on an outdated curriculum with a focus on competition rather than cooperating.
• Turning every demographic group in the church into some kind of ministry or department.
While traditional program-centric churches may offer some spiritual connection and community, the full cost of operating this machinery and the exhaustion and burn out among officers often outweighs the benefits. Despite the overdose of presentations, many of us have become addicted to this never-ending round of learning, lessons, and studies, many of which are no different from religious entertainment. As our churches increasingly rely on packaged materials in the name of uniformity, Bible studies are reduced to a regurgitation of the same, shifting the focus of our faith to our beliefs rather than to the basis of our beliefs. No wonder we have become content in emphasizing our beliefs via memorized lists rather than teaching members how to study Scripture verse by verse. With surveys showing a large portion of members heavily dependent on secondary materials in the form of study guides, Ellen White’s writings, and devotional handbooks, it might suggest that many Adventists are unable to study the Bible on their own. Our challenge is to shift emphasis from producing content to fostering connection and participation in our churches.
Trends We Cannot Ignore
Others in Adventism, while agreeing that the church needs to change, expect someone in some office somewhere to drive the change. Church is local, but as long as local churches operate like franchisees of the General Conference, they will simply exist to comply rather than impact their communities. Uncomfortable conversations are needed on the future of the local church. A generation is emerging whose needs, worldviews, and attitudes pose both challenges and opportunities for the church. This is an existential issue and, compounded by COVID-19, change is being propelled by a number of trends which include the following:
• A borderless church: The emergence of a borderless church, where Adventists across the globe are coalescing around issues of common interest. There is an exchange of ideas and subtle influences that will permeate in and affect the local church. Debates and conversations via online platforms are unregulated and open in many ways, influencing how members engage in their churches and interact with their leaders.
• Engagement over attendance: Church attendance is no longer a determinant of commitment. With the many online options available, many now see church attendance as a fringe activity that has no bearing on one’s faithfulness to God or commitment to the church. This means people no longer feel guilty about not being in church on Sabbath, but they will tell you they LOVE the church. Gone are the days when leaders relied on guilt as a motivator to get people to church. Even preaching and music no longer attract church growth. People are looking for community, belonging, and acceptance. So, even if churches can invest in colorful and powerful programs, if people don’t feel accepted or engaged, they will simply visit for the show.
• Online as the new default: With the rise of the online church, people can now access church without being there. All they need is a phone and access to the internet. This means church leaders need to be aware that anyone who attends their church has free access to any online ministry or church. People have options sometimes more powerful, better organized, and managed than your church. So, while you are speaking, they can be googling and exploring other options! This is not about competition but a call to relevance and community.
• Conversation is key: Preference for churches that value engagement over attendance. If someone merely attends church as a spectator there are chances that attendance will decrease. The challenge is for ensuring that members engage through serving, giving, and participating actively in church life. People want to talk not just sit and listen for the whole day. A church without a conversation is a church without converts!
• Declining trust in authority: Trust is now rare, there is more suspicion and less confidence. With growing criticism of the church, worsened by an unwillingness by some leaders to engage and respond to questions, many are becoming more skeptical of the church as an institution. This leads to self-directed spirituality where people increasingly explore other options to be “spiritually fed.” Unfortunately, leaders seem oblivious to the fact that trust nowadays is earned slowly and lost instantly depending on how authority is exercised.
• Trust in user reviews: No matter what Adventism says about itself, or how much it self-defines as the remnant no longer has weight. Our approach of reading ourselves in the book of Revelation and building our brand by criticizing others is becoming repulsive. Just like the distrust that people have of advertising, were they check user reviews on your product, the same happens to churches. Online comments of what people say about Adventism cannot be ignored. Even Jesus asked, “Who do people say I am?” The danger is for a church to be so wrapped up in its vision and mission that it fails to listen to what its constituency is saying.
Slaves of Tradition
One of our greatest obstacles to change in our churches is an inherent fear of the new. We may agree that change is necessary but our captivity to tradition makes us so hesitant. Rather, we look at the past with nostalgia, longing for a return to where things were. This makes us see the present as representing apostasy while the past represents commitment and faithfulness. The careless use of words like historic, old time religion, or the good old days are a mere glamorization of the past while failing to embrace opportunities to reframe in contextually relevant ways. With nothing growing organically in our churches, we find ourselves head-over-heels in love with a past era, doing everything to replay it, and rigidly clinging to tradition at the expense of practicality. Phrases like “I miss the good old days of the church” or “I wish we could go back to the way things were,” according to Marcos Torres, betray a nostalgic fantasy with a bygone era often misconstrued as evidence of our faithfulness to God.
While traditions have their benefits, our danger is when we venerate them as though they were God himself. When allegiance to tradition is misconstrued with faithfulness to God, there is a refusal to evolve and adapt. When we venerate and exalt the former ways, we run the risk of thinking God is not here today, right now, in this new generation and doing a new thing. An idolatry of a past era turns the church into a museum trying to simply regurgitate or replay history at the expense of her current mission. No wonder we are still forcing outdated mission approaches borrowed from a generation that no longer exists. Why can’t the church be a living organism, recognizing God’s guidance in the past, learning and evolving to embrace new opportunities rather than being enslaved? As long your local church expends resources trying to mimic the past it robs itself of the opportunity to be relevant and experience God. We always forget that God has always moved with His people, and He will manifest Himself where we are today if only we let Him.
A Compartmentalization Problem
Because our current model is dependent on drawing crowds and keeping people loyal to our brand, we must ask ourselves, what are we truly discipling people into? If we need pastors, leaders, and buildings in order to have "church," then what are we communicating about what it means to BE the Church? If worship is only meaningful inside a building, then we need to ask ourselves what are we worshipping?
The fundamental challenge is that we have compartmentalized the sacred from the secular in people’s lives. Hugh Whelchel calls it the “besetting sin of the church in the 21st century” where we have become double-minded, seeing a false divide between what would be called spiritual and secular. This toxic belief implies that our lives are divided into two realms, one sacred and one secular, whereby every Christian does some sacred things and some secular things. According to Kim Allan Johnson, tragically this results in, a) the church building being regarded as more sacred than the home, mall, park, or office, b) a perception that one’s Monday to Friday job is more secular and going to church on Sabbath is sacred, and c) a belief that the pastor or elder on the pulpit is doing a more sacred work than an accountant, plumber, or homemaker (contrary to 2 Corinthians 10:31 and Colossians 3:17).
This divide is responsible for the popular misconception that our relationship with God can be reduced to church-related events and activities. This compartmentalization problem means that members identify church as a location and event where they go to meet God and venerate those on the pulpit as doing God’s work more than them. Compartmentalization makes us venerate the pastor or church officer while looking down on those whose occupations are nowhere near the pulpit. It gives pastors unbridled power to control consciences and impose their preferences on congregations. Many are reduced to consumers whose spiritual satiety is dependent on what is produced on the pulpit. Church leaders exert their energies in delivering a product to be consumed. Sadly, God is reduced into a commodity that is consumed in church.
Consequently, we have turned the work of ministry, which is supposed to belong to everyone, into an industry that markets and sells the religious products, services, and expertise of a select few. By turning God into a commodity, we have created a whole economy based on religious gatekeeping and hierarchy. As long as our churches act like businesses competing for market share, they will continue to be top-heavy, obsessed with the institution’s reputation and financial position more than souls. It is by demolishing this false dichotomy that we realize God cares about everything we do.
Admiral Ncube is an Adventist Zimbabwean writing from Gaborone, Botswana where he is a humanitarian and development professional.
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