The COVID-19 pandemic brought a trail of disruption that has not spared Adventism. As church buildings were closed, our notion of church and Sabbath worship was challenged. The pandemic left us shaken such that even as churches in many areas have reopened, things have not been the same. Physical attendance and financial contributions remain low in many places. Even the online platforms set up by churches to deliver religious content are having to contend with what appears to be a case of “virtual fatigue.” There was an expectation that as churches reopen, there would be a scramble, a grand return for the few available seats in church buildings. But the unprecedented apathy is confirming that the pandemic is more than a mere interruption but a disruption whose effects the church will have to deal with for a long time. Instead of candidly confronting this new reality, much of Adventism is in denial, trying to recreate the pre-COVID church. Buildings may have reopened, but the biggest disruption is in the hearts and minds of members.
Delivered from Tyranny
For Adventists, the church building has always been an important part of religious practice. Being a place where rituals, sermons, communion, funeral services, matrimonial services, prayer, worship, and various aspects of religion find their expression, we have had a special relationship with the building. No wonder as a liturgical church, the closure of the church building brought more discomfort than the pandemic itself. Because our Sabbaths had been characterized by going to a building to get an experience, we found ourselves not knowing what do to with the newly found freedom. Undoubtedly, COVID-19 not only showed us that God moves with his people but also that rest is indeed worship spent in our homes on Sabbath in pajamas. The closure of church buildings rendered useless much of the baggage we associated with the Sabbath, leaving us to experience God in more authentic ways. Deliverance from the tyranny of the building gave us the room to adapt and develop lighter worship formats and intimate connections in small groups without reference to some externally imposed program script. Now even as churches are reopening, this freedom is being withdrawn as we see imposed programs hijacking our Sabbaths again. But many who have tasted the joys of being unshackled from congested program-centric services are not keen to hand over their newfound liberty. No wonder church attendance remains low, despite church leaders trying to lure members with powerful speakers and performances. What will it take for us to accept that physical attendance is no longer a measure of commitment? Some feel they have been delivered from the tyranny of the building, and it’s now up to churches to design inclusive programs whereby those not regularly coming to the church building can still belong.
Community over Content
That many are finding it not crucial to always be in the church building every Sabbath should not be seen as a problem. It represents a positive change in thinking. Gone are the days when the church played a custodial role over our religious experience. The church dictated how we spent the Sabbath, and the congestion of programs left us exhausted. During the early days of the pandemic, when church buildings were closed, there was a proliferation of online platforms under the assumption that members needed a regular supply of religious content to remain spiritual. But surprisingly, not everyone who had access to this content has returned to the church building. Also, those who did not have access to online platforms did not abandon the faith or backslide as some feared. COVID-19 made us learn to thrive and survive in the absence of centralized and institutionalized religiosity. In our small groups and small spaces, we had an encounter with God. Churches that will thrive are those whose focus is not on delivering content but rather building a community of people who care for each other. Those returning to church are not really looking for content. Attendance is now being driven by a sense of belonging rather than compliance or guilt. It is not mega performances, powerful sermons, and music that members miss, but rather a place where they belong. Churches that will reconfigure their approaches to be more communal, more inclusive, will enjoy a more sustained attendance than those that rely on powerful performances.
Reclaiming the Agenda
The pandemic also disrupted many of the traditions we had made definitive to our spiritual experience. This also extended to ordinances such as the Lord’s supper. Instead of demystifying these ordinances, empowering members to conduct the same in their homes and small groups, leaders seem to be in denial. That the Passover meal in the Bible was a literal family meal where everyone participated is something no one will consider. Members are now held at ransom—either church leaders conduct the ritual or nothing happens. This compartmentalization robs members of agency over their spiritual lives. On the other hand, it reveals the effects of a consumer mindset where members will not do anything unless it’s turned into a church program. In trying to be seen as orderly and unified doing the same thing at the same time globally, church administrative structures have encroached into local churches, imposing programs and special days to be commemorated. As a result, churches are choked and congested, fuelled by programs that are often divorced from their local needs. There is simply little or no space for a local church to be local, as efforts are spent trying to comply with an externally imposed calendar. From Sabbath school lessons to special days, prepacked materials are regurgitated with little reflection on their relevance. However, emerging out of the pandemic, some churches have been bold enough to reclaim the agenda. They are deliberate on what to pick and what to ignore on the calendar. These churches enjoy refreshing liturgy where things grow organically rather than being imposed.
At the peak of the pandemic, as the church building was disrupted, members started having time to reflect on various aspects of their religious experience. Now there was time to question and critically reflect on what really matters in the Christian walk and what it meant to be an Adventist. A wave of deconstruction emerged as Adventism found itself confronted by uncomfortable questions from its members. Social media made it easy for many to coalesce around issues of common interest and have unregulated conversations in search of meaning and authenticity. Questions covered church traditions, doctrinal beliefs, church governance, white supremacy, identity, and practices within Adventism. Now Adventism is having to deal with critique and questions from its own. Sadly, some of these uncomfortable conversations have been misconstrued as “theological threats.” As if God himself is under attack, the reaction has not been engagement but rather labeling those who question as reckless liberals and victims of postmodern thinking. Instead of seeing some of these questions as a manifestation of a Protestant spirit, an Adventist heritage of continually seeking meaning, we have exposed our unconfessed struggle with creedalism. By labeling questions and those who ask them as threats, Adventism has lost opportunities for conversation. The pandemic has ignited a need to reevaluate our baggage to understand what really matters in the Christian walk.
Coming out of an embarrassing disappointment in 1844, Adventist pioneers were quite aggressive in telling the world that theirs was a movement rooted in scripture. As they went about preaching, they took a defensive tone to show how different they were from the other churches they considered part of Babylon. We inherited the same defensive attitude, and even the presentation of our doctrines sounds like a rebuttal to certain questions in the background. Added to this, our self-definition as the remnant has meant we have a duty to warn the world about the second Advent. Consequently, defending Adventism has been synonymous with defending God in the minds of many.
After COVID-19, loyalty to the church is no longer demonstrated only by how much one defends it but also by how much one questions it. Many are realizing that the church does not always need defending, but rather in many cases, it is members who need to be defended from the church. The danger is in idolizing Adventism as a representation of God rather than a system or community of human beings continually searching for God. Increasingly, the church is being seen as a product of the truth rather than the source of the truth. While extremes need to be avoided, the church needs to move away from portraying itself as an end. That we are the remnant is not the subject of the debate here but rather the implications of this self-definition in a world where religious exclusivism is not tolerated. So, the quest is for a church more sensitive to mission, shifting from being defensive and seeing everyone as an enemy to engaging—being inclusive and relevant.
The World around Us
As people notoriously apocalyptic, we often see our world with an eschatological lens. When the pandemic hit, some Adventists found themselves a new hobby of trying to decipher actions by governments to contain the spread of COVID-19. Even though we saw death and destruction around us, our concern was what this means to our much-awaited trip to the mountains. Not only did we complain about the closure of church buildings but about restrictions on movement that reminded us of our anticipated crisis ahead, where the whole world would hate us. But questions started emerging on if and how we can be part of the solution. Should we remain indifferent as politicians grapple for solutions?
COVID-19 made us start thinking more about the world around us and how we can be relevant in the present. The Black Lives Matter movement brought about a renewed awareness of white supremacy, racism, and the role of the church in social justice. Though we don’t have a consensus on what to do, there is a consciousness that racial problems do exist that permeate into our church structures as well. Instead of seeing Babylon as a mere doctrinal mess, we now see the injustice, exploitation, and corruption as evils worth calling out. There is an expectation for the church to become visible in confronting social injustice. While leaders seem wary and slow to act, members are organizing themselves and speaking out. The pandemic has shown us how much we are connected to the world around us. Our self-definition as the remnant, the salt of the earth, creates an obligation to be sensitive and responsive to the issues around us. Members are expecting the church to do more rather than benefit from the actions of other religious organizations and groups.
Post-COVID-19, Adventism finds itself in a precarious position. The world is less interested in an eloquent defense of dogmatic positions and rather in the “meaning of life.” This means our relationship with the church is no longer driven by what we get from it but how much we belong. The pandemic has not been a wasted crisis. In subtle ways change is happing, but instead of seeing this as an opportunity, we are fighting to maintain what we are used to in a world that has changed. Whatever label we attach to these changes, the fact is that many Adventists now view and now relate to the church differently. Could this disruption be the beginning of what Ellen White termed a revival and a reformation?
A revival and a reformation must take place under the ministration of the Holy Spirit. Revival and reformation are two different things. Revival signifies a renewal of spiritual life, a quickening of the powers of mind and heart, a resurrection from the spiritual death. Reformation signifies a reorganization, a change in ideas and theories, habits and practices. Reformation will not bring forth the good fruit of righteousness unless it is connected with the revival of the Spirit. Revival and reformation are to do their appointed work, and in doing this work they must blend. (The Review and Herald, February 25, 1902)
Admiral Ncube is an Adventist Zimbabwean writing from Gaborone, Botswana, where he is a humanitarian and development professional.
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