Why are Local Adventist Churches Stuck?
Adventism has a weakness.
Not Adventism as in the theological narrative, but Adventism as in the culture. It is a fatal flaw which damages our ability to make any real, meaningful impact.
Before I expose it, let's take a quick look at a story Jesus told in Matthew 25:14-30. In this story a wealthy man goes away and entrusts three of his servants with a sum of money. Two of the servants invest the money and double it. But the third servant hides the money. When the master gets back he is furious at the third servant who, rather than putting the money in the bank to at least score some interest, decided to hide the money. Here is the servants defense in verses 24-25:
“Then the servant with the one bag of silver came and said, ‘Master, I knew you were a harsh man, harvesting crops you didn’t plant and gathering crops you didn’t cultivate. I was afraid I would lose your money, so I hid it in the earth. Look, here is your money back.’
Notice everything the servant says is negative. Every word he speaks drips of pessimism, criticism and melancholy. He has nothing uplifting or exciting to share. Everything is doom and gloom. His entire focus was on what was bad and none of it was on what was good. Instead of possibility he saw danger. Instead of opportunity he saw hazard. Instead of blessing he saw threat. So he acted out of self-preservation by playing it safe.
This description of the servant sounds an awful lot like many local Adventist churches. Driven by a negative outlook and fuelled by a fear-based approach to life, these churches end up stuck in the mire of undue caution. They wont let their youth lead for fear. They wont adapt their evangelism for fear. They wont reach out to the community for fear. Some alienate themselves from conference leadership for fear. Sermons are fear based. Conversations are critical and judgemental; nagging ideologies which are nothing more than symptoms of - you guessed it - fear.
This fear based approach is best illustrated in the world play used by Lisa Standeven in her inspirational blog "Beware... Behold: There is Beauty in Every Challenge." (You can read it here) There, Standeven plays on these two antique words as she describes journeying through a desert filled with danger, but also beauty. Her message is simple,
This same message is communicated by Ellen White in her correspondence with a depressed woman whose outlook was overcome by negativity. In her letter, Ellen writes, "Do not listen to Satan's lies, but recount God's promises. Gather the roses and the lilies and the pinks. Talk of the promises of God. Talk faith. Trust in God, for He is your only hope." (Click here to read the whole letter)
Ellen's advice is the same as Lisa's, there is much to beware of, but we cannot get stuck there. We need to behold instead, for in beholding we overcome. And this, I believe, is why so many SDA churches are stuck. Instead of beholding the beauty of Jesus they are weighed down by a "beware" mentality that permeates their approach to mission.
Beware VS Behold
Let's be honest here people. "Beware!" is the modus operandi of many of our churches. "Beware!" is the default psychological platform of many of our board meetings. "Beware!" is the war-cry of many of our leaders and members. The most popular voices in Adventism are the ones who cry "beware!" and the largest Adventist social media communities are the ones who nurture a focus on the narrative of "beware".
But here is the thing about a "beware-consciousness" - it saps our life and power. Are there things to beware of? Of course! There are deceptions and delusions everywhere. But the existence of evil should not become our focus. Sadly that's exactly what has happened and the practical outcome is this: missional impact is limited because fear creates limits.
So how do we turn this around? The solution is simple, we have to replace our "beware-consciousness" with a "behold-consciousness". While a focus on "beware" produces a spirit of undue caution and fear, a focus on "behold" calls us to a spirit of adventure, opportunity, optimism and belief. A culture of "behold" is a culture that has its eyes fixed on Jesus. In every opportunity we see him, his kingdom, his gospel, his love, his promises and his presence with us. "Behold, I stand at the door and knock" (Revelation 3:20), "Behold, I am coming quickly..." (Revelation 22:12), "Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us..." (1 John 3:1), "Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29).
So here is my point. The difference between a church that is thriving and a church that is stuck is this: one cries, "behold!" the other, "beware!"
Once again, there are certainly things to beware of and as followers of Jesus in these last days, we have a message of warning to give to the world. I am not knocking or downplaying that at all. What I am saying is that our warning message should never become our foundation. Our hope message is our foundation. We warn only because we have a hope to proclaim. Without that hope, all our warning is meaningless. And the downside of focusing on "beware" at the expense of "behold" is a culture fed by fear, nurtured by fear and accustomed to fear. And like a cancer, this fear seeps into our theology, our leadership, our relationships, our mission and even our interactions with the community. But when we focus on beholding the opposite happens. Life pours in with resurrection power. The practical outcome is this: missional impact becomes limitless because faith demolishes limits.
John Bradshaw once said, "some people focus so much on the coming crisis they forget about the coming Christ." Today I invite you, let's nurture a behold-consciousnesses in our churches focused and centred on Jesus and let's allow that spirit of beholding to transform us into a community that connects, loves and embraces those around us. Let's reject the temptation to be like the wicked servant who managed his masters resources by fear. Instead, lets be dreamers and visioneers moving on faith and positivity, gathering the "roses and the lilies and the pinks". I believe this is possible, for we are promised that by beholding we become changed into his image (2 Corinthians 2:18).