Prior to COVID-19, the church building had evolved to become an important part of religious practice. This has been the place where rituals, sermons, communion, funeral services, matrimonial services, prayer, religious music, baptism, and various aspects of religion find their expression. As a liturgical church, Adventists have had a special relationship with the church building which is often regarded as the central hub of worship. In the same church building emphasis is on an Anglo-centric liturgical format characterized by suffocating formality, 18th century hymns, a mid-morning sermon, and in some places a Bible study in the afternoon. Added to this are Division, Union, and Conference structures increasingly playing a regulatory instead of facilitatory role, consequently reducing the local church to something similar to a franchisee. Locals are forced to focus on regurgitating programs and content produced elsewhere, often divorced from local needs. Unwittingly, this uniformity has been celebrated as a demonstration of global unity within the church, but the danger has been in creating churches that are more compliant than connected.
From Global to Local
In reinventing itself, the local church needs to move toward localization: an expression of the Adventist faith in ways meaningful to its context. Localization means letting go and letting God impress upon His people how to connect with Him. If we agree that no culture is perfect, they all contain good and bad elements and are in need of redemption, then we should allow each community to interpret and experience Adventism in culturally meaningful ways under the confines of God’s word. Adventism needs to move away from creating one mega way and rather provide space for local churches to reconfigure what is contextually relevant. Localization will not rob Adventism of its universal or global nature but rather it will help celebrate diversity by making it relevant to the people who embrace it. An example to buttress this would be the early Jewish Christians who were allowed to continue observing Jewish customs and feasts most of which were no longer necessary after the death of Christ, while Gentile Christians were exonerated as confirmed in Acts 15. Uniformity has its place, but it should never be misconstrued with unity. What is needed is a flexibility that allows local churches to explore how best they can be more relevant and attractive in their mission to their communities.
In practical ways, localization will enable Sabbath observance that does not center on church attendance at 9 a.m., a “divine/worship hour” at 11 a.m. climaxed by a sermon before lunch, all which are borrowed from Anglo-centric tradition. Churches would be free to congregate any time of the day and freely use locally composed songs and instruments that speak to their experience genuinely. Instead of burdening themselves to sing in a KJV-language of things so foreign in their part of the world (in some places that includes anchors and lighthouses), they will contextualize worship to that which is comprehendible to them. The notion that reverence is best expressed in Anglo-centric dress styles and worship formats fades away as communities unleash a refreshing worship experience where members participate, connect, and experience God in their “own skin.” Localization also means doing away with a program-centric model where everything from prayer to mission is made into a program. Local church leaders are empowered to own the agenda and allowed to reject what may not be relevant for them.
From Behavior to Belonging
With increased institutionalization, much has been invested in ensuring controls to safeguard the reputation of the church. As a result, many in Adventism are in a defensive mode, looking out for anything that could damage the reputation of the church. Unintentionally, this has meant a religion of prescriptions, if not conscience control. We find ourselves placing greater focus on behaving rather than belonging, with an emergence of self-appointed gate keepers. Understanding that doctrinal correctness is no longer enough to convince someone to join us, we need to step back and start working on building genuine relationships. Our church spaces need to be places where people are loved, despite their failures, and given another chance. This means our churches need to move away from regulating behavior to embrace people from all backgrounds in ways that make them belong first before offloading on them our beliefs and behavioral standards. A church that cannot make “social outcasts” feel loved, or a church that has no space for the addict, the broken, and despised is an insult to the gospel!
In many of our churches, there is a congestion of presentations, sermons, and Bible studies replete with Adventist jargon of little value to visitors. Our “love for visitors” starts and ends with us parading them in and singing welcome songs for them, after which we do our own thing. Because everything is turned into a program, there is an unhealthy congestion of activities that choke individual meditation and spirituality. Leaders feel obliged to congest the Sabbath with programs as if without them, these members would be unable to “keep the Sabbath holy.” But the fact that members have been observing the Sabbath while churches were closed means that Sabbath observance does not depend on the church building or particular program format. Understandably, local church leaders are under pressure to balance between compliance with directives from some higher office and giving the congregation a worthwhile Sabbath experience. But post-COVID, it’s hands off. If members have survived and thrived in the absence of control, why reimpose upon ourselves the same yokes?
From Industrial to Intimate
When church buildings were closed or had to do with reduced attendance, some ordinances and traditions became impossible to conduct. These include holy communion service, baptism, camp meetings, and even evangelistic campaigns which had become a regular feature on church calendars. That we have survived a full year without most of these and still remained Adventists is significant. It brings to the fore the idea that God moves with His people: in our small groups, on our screens, and in our families, He continues to speak and work. The notion that church is a fixed location, an event, or that God works through a particular program script has been dismissed. As local churches brace themselves for reduced attendance, they need to invest in ways of rebuilding a genuine church community that celebrates connection and not numbers. This means checking up on each other during the week, being vulnerable and open, embracing each other not as part of a program but a lifestyle. We should be ashamed that, as a church, we have turned friendship into a program, which betrays how unfriendly we have become. Controversially, we created the concept of “small groups ministry” which is not really about genuine friendship but an insidious plot to gradually convert people into the Adventists.
With the proliferation of online services, many are spoilt for choice even though these offer no sense of community. We need to understand that those who are going back to church buildings are not in search of sermons but community. This is an opportunity for churches to be more intimate where ordinances such as the Lord’s Supper can be small scale and even happening in homes. Since membership is no longer about regular attendance, churches should explore ways to serve and connect members who prefer worshiping from home. Having experienced the freedom of worshiping in pajamas around a fire, their coming to a church building will be sporadic. This group should not be neglected, but instead equipped to serve others in their neighborhoods.
From Consumers to Disciples
Because worship has been turned into a performance, the inevitable result has been the relegation of members to consumers whose spiritual experience is defined by what happens on the pulpit. The emergence of venerated pulpit celebrities whom leaders excessively depend on to deliver what has become religious entertainment to passive congregants means that the pulpit area is now sacred territory. Instead of equipping members for service, focus is on indoctrination through an endless series of presentations whose value is more cognitive than practical. As a result, we have churches that are run on and through departments trying to fulfil some prescribed agenda for reporting purposes. These same departments are a reflection of what is found at conference and union levels and in a sense, they have become mere conduits for these structures to impose their agenda. An unhealthy competition is created when departments exist to deliver programs via the pulpit. The setting aside of days for each department in a church calendar means the very same departments prioritize alignment with priorities set by higher offices. Members have no space here except to be consumers on whatever is set before them.
The “departmentalization” of the local church, while premised on noble intentions, has done unintended harm in choking local church capacity to be relevant. By turning every demographic group and issue into a department or ministry, church leaders are simply increasing the administrative burden. Accompanied by the use of prescribed materials and formats, local churches are, in a sense, robbed of the opportunity to be innovative and relevant. We spend too much time in church being taught, we are overfed, and held hostage in buildings as each departmental program exploits us for reporting purposes. Mission is discussed, but does not happen, approaches are agreed but not implemented, strategies are debated but not actioned due to this classroom approach which creates a theoretically informed but practically inept membership. What is needed is a departure from this classroom approach and an apprentice model instead. Let departments move away from holding members hostage in church buildings to equipping them through practical involvement in the communities.
Away with Commercialization
How can Adventism meet the needs of a generation that is increasingly seeking meaning and authenticity more than truthfulness? In a church where every demographic group or issue has become a ministry or department, the danger is a commercialization of religion. No wonder a whole economy has emerged made up of connected vendors of “churchwares” such as publishers, regalia (t-shirts and caps), digital media, venues, providers of catering services targeting church events, overpriced seminars, and paid experts who exist to fleece the saints. Sadly, they exploit church infrastructure to market their products and services, when these should be the responsibility of the church. This scandalous arrangement is a symptom of how the local church is being crowded out by gospel merchants who exploit their membership to become “official” service providers.
Not only does this work against a church being a place to be vulnerable but commercializes the gospel in that those who can afford it will get help. By allowing the creation of separate ministries for every demographic group and issue there is a risk of alienating members and creating opportunities for gospel merchants to fleece vulnerable members. Rather, let the church explore ways in which the already existing platforms can be expanded to address topical issues such as pornography, drug addiction, and sexuality directly without leaving that to some well-connected experts whose interest is profit and not community.
Reworking the Evangelism Equation
In as much as our Fundamental Beliefs occupy a special place in Adventism today, early Seventh-day Adventists were fiercely anti-creedal. Understandably, the discomfort and hostility toward creeds among early Adventists can be traced back to the early days of the movement when there were fears that at some point those who disagree with that statement of beliefs may be excluded or the same might be used to prevent making new discoveries from Scripture, or afterward a new truth might be stifled by appealing to the authority of an already established creed. However, with the passage of time we changed and began spelling out our beliefs so as to clear up misperceptions on our identity.
While it is important to articulate our identity, the problem arises when this becomes the primary occupation. Whenever we place inordinate attention on being us, we start making projecting and protecting our identity our core mission. We become fascinated with preaching how correct our position is compared others. To present God as morally and relationally beautiful has been a challenge for many in Adventism. For too long, we over-emphasized knowing and believing the right things which inevitably has seen spirituality based on superiority and being right about everything. In a world of plurality and complexity, such an approach is untenable. Our success will lie in us stopping behaving as if we are always the smartest group in the room. Let’s acknowledge that there are many belief systems besides our own that have valuable perspectives to offer. Mission should be recalibrated away from defending what we believe in while criticizing others to be about compassion, connection, and community.
Church is local. This is where the agenda, the texture of Adventism is felt and expressed. The future of Adventism lies in a local church that is unshackled from institutional chains characterized by rigidity at the expense of practicality and compliance with tradition to the detriment of mission. But as long as church is seen as an event or a building where we flock to consume a product with no engagement, then its relevance will be increasingly questionable.
Admiral Ncube is an Adventist Zimbabwean writing from Gaborone, Botswana where he is a humanitarian and development professional.
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