3 Must Have Elements for a Thriving Adventist Church

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In my last few years in full time ministry, first as a youth pastor and now as a senior, I have discovered that there are three must have elements to having a thriving church. The first two, I am sure you have all heard of at some point but the final one I honestly have never seen anyone address before. So, I would like to take some time to do so today. 

So here you go. The 3 must have elements for a thriving Adventist church:

1. Inter-Generational Worship. 

Inter-generational worship aims to foster intimacy and unity between all the members in the church regardless of age/ generation. Its about allowing the gospel to knock down those "baby-boomer VS millennial" walls by bringing us all together to nurture and empower one another.

Growing up, my church always felt like it lived in a perpetual state of "youth VS adults". Any church that has this kind of culture simply cannot thrive. However, there is hope! Research has shown that "warm intergenerational relationships... involving young people in every ministry has allowed... churches to thrive."[1] So how do you achieve this? Kaleb Eisele, founder of Humans of Adventism and social media manager for the Orangeburg SDA church, shares how his church worked to foster this inter-generational connection:

We started out by addressing the age gap first. We dedicated several sabbaths to exploring each living generation and what formed them, then had a Q&A where we got to talk with the members that belonged with each about things we didn’t understand. It was all about understanding each other better, not about who was morally superior. That opened up a ton of dialogue and relationships.

[We had five gatherings], each dedicated to a different generation: Silent, Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z. We used available statistics from Pew Research and the Barna Group, and a few books like James Emery White’s “Meet Generation Z.” There was a section for each on historical events that happened as they aged, a second section on trends and tendencies (political views, income trends, employment trends, religious affiliation, etc.). The last section was an open discussion...

The real key here was that it was intentionally open to the value of each generation and their skill sets. We went into this with the mindset that we wanted to work together as a church, but didn’t know how to do that effectively. In the end, a majority senior citizen church decided to support a lot of newer methods, even though they didn’t themselves want to carry them out. That support changed a lot for us.
— Kaleb Eisle

2. Multi-Cultural Community

Multi-culturalism in the church is also about allowing the gospel to break down the cultural walls that divide us. It's about people from all over the world being able to gather together and love one another unreservedly regardless of their diversity. Africans can worship with Asians, and Asians with Middle Easterns, and they in turn can worship with Europeans, Australians, Latinos and so on and so forth. While all of these cultures are diverse multi-culturalism in the church means that we can celebrate our diversity and honor the flavors we each bring to the family of God.

Before I move on allow me to say something I believe is important. A Multi-Cultural church is NOT the same as a Multi-Colored[2] church. Multi-Colored churches happen when a bunch of different cultures exist in one church and tolerate one another. In these kinds of churches, the diversity is not celebrated it is simply endured. Most of the time, the dominant culture ends up setting the tone for everyone else and you are considered a good member if you comply with that dominant tone. This is cultural negation at best, and the residue of colonialism at worst. Multi-Culturalism is about celebrating one anothers diversity, not tolerating it. Churches that are mono-cultural or Multi-Colored will never thrive because they are driven by a sense of cultural supremacy that has no place in the family of God.

Ashlee Holmes wrapped up the value of a multi-cultural church best when she wrote,

Though uncomfortable at times, the pursuit of multiculturalism in the Church isn’t just nice—it’s necessary. We ultimately develop richer, more wonderfully complex views of God and a deeper love and appreciation for one another when we choose to actively participate in one another’s stories that are different from our own, that originate from different places.[3]
— Ashlee Holmes

3. Poly-Expressional Culture

Remember what I said above about the one element that often gets ignored? Yeah, this is the one. So what exactly is it?

Every culture has subcultures. For example, in the USA where I am from there are a myriad of sub-cultures. There is the preppi, upper class culture, street culture, country culture, back woods culture, beach culture and on and on. Here in Australia there are the bogans, the bikies, the surfies and on and on. The point is that each of these subcultures express themselves in diverse ways. They may be from the same overarching culture, but they express themselves differently according to their sub culture. Those subcultures are what I refer to as "expressions".

Why does this matter? Because I have been to churches that have amazing inter-generational worship and are as multi-cultural as they come. It's amazing. The youth groups are strong. The worship service is inspiring. Everyone loves it! Unless...

Unless you are the young emo girl with black lipstick and piercings and people at church keep their distance because you are weird. At that point your multi-cultural and inter-generational gathering becomes exclusive. "You are welcome here, so long as you aren't too odd". Is the message that this girl receives.

Last week, I sat down in McDonalds with a bikie. He wants to follow God and loves the Adventist message but has stopped coming to church. When I asked him why his answer was clear, "I don't fit in". People at church were nice to him, but he was a bearded, tattooed guy with piercings all over his face and hair as long as Rapunzel (OK, I'm totally exaggerating but you get the point). But the real issue is that he came from a totally different world unfamiliar to most Adventists. He came from a world of drugs, women and violence and when he left church in the morning he was looking at another six days of that kind of environment. He eventually concluded that, while church was nice, he just didn't fit in with all those nice people.

Sometimes I feel like our churches are designed to assimilate anyone who is middle class and belongs to a sub-culture that is not too left of center. But the moment someone is, they no longer fit in.

A poly-expressional church is a church that is intentional about embracing and loving on anyone, regardless of their subculture. The preppies don't sit in one corner with the other preppies while the geeks sit in the other side of the room and the hipsters in the sound booth. The bogans don't hang out in the back row while the seasoned Adventists sit at the front. A poly-expressional church breaks down the dividing walls of sub-cultural expressions and makes everyone feel valued, welcome and loved not just "allowed".

So how do you foster this kind of culture in your church? I believe its the same way you foster all the other ones - intentional conversation. You have to name the elephant in the room and have healthy discussion on it. Host a series of afternoon talks on how to build truth seeking relationships with a diversity of subcultures and even highlight some of them and explain what their value structures are. That way people are informed and its no longer the unspoken thing floating around.

These 3 elements I believe are must-haves for any Adventist church that wants to thrive. I pray we can all have the conversations necessary in our local churches to foster this kind of space.

Questions for the Comments

  1. Which of the above is your church doing the best in? And which one needs more work?
  2. If your church has succeeded in one of the above elements (or more) tell us how!
  3. What do you think about the Poly-Expressional element? Do you agree that it is important? Or disagree?

[1] Embree, Christina. "Why Intergenerational Worship? And Why Now?", [Web: https://refocusministry.org/2015/08/17/why-intergenerational-worship-and-why-now/]

[2] Holmes, Ashlee. "Why Multiculturalism Is a Must for the Church" [Web: https://relevantmagazine.com/god/church/why-multiculturalism-must-church]

[3] ibid.

Quote by Kaleb Eisle: Posted as a comment in the Facebook Group "Adventist Evangelism & Church Optimizers Group" [Web: facebook.com/groups/pomopastor]