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.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://spectrummagazine.org/views/2022/adventisms-great-disruption
This! Thank you for expressing my heart. The pandemic church shutdowns were like a breath of fresh air for my soul. I finally had a valid reason not to “attend” church. But no mistake, just saying that aloud brings with it the instilled guilty feelings that I must be in rebellion if I feel that way.
Having been raised steeped in the traditions, programs, customs, and “we are the remnant” messages of the church of Adventism, I have often felt inner discomfort over our church program script. I cannot forget the day I took a guest to church and it happened to be communion Sabbath. During the portion where the suit and tie attired men stood up front and performed their carefully rehearsed distribution of the plates of bread and juice to the approved deacons, my guest leaned over to me and whispered, “Why are they all so sober?” I had no answer. But inside, I agreed with her assessment. My own readings of the biblical communion experience have never once felt at ease with how the churches I have attended “do communion.” But as a mere lay member, I am not to question it. After all, the brethren of the hierarchy, through decades of study, have figured this out “through much prayer,” right?
The whole organized church experience has been empty for me for years. Immediately there will be some who respond to that comment by judging that I am not involving myself in the church. So I’ll rebut with a list of the various positions I have held over the years: church treasurer, kindergarten Sabbath School leader, primary Sabbath School leader, home and school leader, pathfinder assistant, deaconess, Sabbath School superintendent…
The thing is, to hold those positions means to perform those duties within the “script.” I no longer have it within me to keep that up. However, to examine the process after a lifetime of functioning within the blessed boundaries of the structure, and to realize that I no longer fit, is like condemning myself as a lukewarm rebel. Because that is what the brethren will say. And I find myself in an uncomfortable position of asking myself, “Am I lazy and becoming lukewarm?” “Am I rebellious?” Or… am I on the verge of becoming a New Testament Christian—one who really does find that being a follower of God requires stepping aside from the approved structure, though it brings much discomfort and judgement from within to do so?
The structure, from the top down, is so busy protecting its hard-drawn lines that it has clearly become a business model. I find no hard-drawn lines in the New Testament. I find no indication of twenty-seven fundamental beliefs to be adhered to before one is worthy enough to be baptized. What I do find is people meeting Jesus through his followers and immediately demonstrating that through baptism. And yet, from the top down, to bring up discussions like our ceremonies performed around communion or baptism, ignites immediate explanations of why we have to do it the way we do it. Don’t question the sanctity of the club!
But this article, this!
That reminds me of a question that occurred to me the better part of a century ago!
Within the main pavilion at the Gladstone camp meeting the caution was displayed, “Tread softly. The Master is here.”
I wondered if the Oregon Conference was asserting that He was less present elsewhere.
Another fantastic essay! There is hope for the future with thought from individuals like this person. Thanks!!
23 months ago I experienced sabbath rest for the first time in decades. No, I’m not returning to any church building nor am I interested in any online programming. Every week I get emailed the weekly online programming schedule, and just looking at it is enough to make me feel exhausted.
While some people prefer having a Saturday full of scheduled programming, this is most certainly not for me.
Thanks for a good critical piece with some precise and pertinent analysis. I concur with much that’s been said here. One observation nonetheless: the author seems to use the term “the church” rather indiscriminately. sometimes for buildings, sometimes for leadership, sometimes for an institution, sometimes for local congregations or faithful believers. as in the sentence “the fact is that many Adventists now view and now relate to the church differently.” what about the old saying: we ARE the church (the one we like or dislike)? i don’t see as much us-and-them here, which doesn’t make things easier …
I find it striking that so many adventists experience true sabbath rest during lockdown of churches and describe past church life as exhausting.
From my point of view, this reveals the fact that there is actually a significant pressure in adventism to “perform”. Adventist pastors teach righteousness by faith from the pulpits, but at the same time local congregations are frequently told that numerous people in their neighborhoods get lost unless the members push harder and contribute more to church activities. The positive side is that adventism put forth an amazing lineup of “high performers”. It is really impressing to see how many educational institutions, medical facilities and media companies are operated by adventists worldwide, be it as official church institutions or independent supporting ministries. On the other hand, I see an alarming number of pastors and lay members that have experienced a kind of burn-out. Church activities are voluntary and salvation is for free, so what is the problem? Well, numerous church leaders are running guilt trips that push members to further increase their activities. These guilt trips are so common in adventism that most members are actually unaware of them.
I cannot deny the fact that it is part of our human nature that we sometimes need a bit of pressure to do the right things. But I do not think that pressing congregations to work more for the church is part of the true gospel.
The pandemic had the effect that the guilt trips were paused and that many church members became aware of them. These people are now immune to that kind of pressure and are not willing to give up their newfound freedom in Christ.
The SDA church of which I am a member, decided several years ago through an edict of the church board that there would no longer be any adult SS classes. Everyone would have to meet in the sanctuary. One of the church elders would go through the lesson, and anyone who had a question or wished to make a comment would have to wait for a deacon to race over with a microphone, since the program was being live-streamed. This was several years before the pandemic. Our class decided this was not the experience we wanted. We needed the fellowship of sharing our praises, prayer requests and spiritual journeys in a smaller group. We asked to use a small room at the church facility and were denied. So, much to the outrage of the pastor (who refused to let us have quarterlies) and the elders, we moved to a public library nearby which allows groups to reserve one of the small rooms at no cost. We finished our SS class in time for folks to make the short drive to church for the weekly service.
When the pandemic hit, it was an easy move to Zoom, and now we have folks from other states and time zones who join us every week. We are not going back to church. It is no longer relevant to our needs or Christian experience. We buy our own quarterlies, immerse ourselves in the lesson with a deep dive into bible study, fellowship together in person when it is safe enough to do so at someone’s home. Each quarter, one of our class members chooses the charity which will receive our offerings on the 13th Sabbath. And we are preparing to share in the ordinance of humility, as well as communion soon, among ourselves. We are of different political persuasions, but we have a close fellowship and do not judge one another. This is, I think, a prime example of what Mr. Ncube is describing.
Your small fellowship group is the church! You are not second class church or wanna-be church. You are church. Thank you for sharing, Linda! Excellent example of being mature Christians.
Maybe you send @Ruthlynette your Zoom link for a healthy fellowship?
Kate…of course you are right. What I should have said is that we are not going back to the church building for Sabbath services. We do feel like we are the church, in verity. Thanks for your response!
Here is the link…all are welcome. We’re on Eastern Daylight Time.
Join us at 10:00am on Sabbath for our study of how Jesus fulfilled His mission… use the link below…
Join Zoom Meeting
Launch Meeting - Zoom
Meeting ID: 814 5671 3728
Yes, I know that you know. But sometimes it’s just good to share affirmations.
Maybe you and Ruth could connect and she will have a heatlhy fellowship eventually for the time you are still on Zoom? I don’t know if she wants this (@Ruthlynette), but this idea showed up when I read your post. (edit: You were faster. Thank you! Be blessed!)
I am sure this has an echo to many of us. Several years ago our SS class was shut down similarly. We found a restaurant/pub that opened at 10 am but didn’t really have that much going on until noon. If we bought coffee and maybe an appetizer they were more than happy to accommodate us. We sometimes used their DVD played with the screen on the wall for videos that would jump-start discussions.
I don’t know you, your deacons, or your guest.
However, this aspect of your communion service sounds very similar to the ones I’ve attended in my church.
I think the answer may be this: The deacons are so sober because, by their actions, they are commemorating the sacrificial nature of a brutal Murder on their behalves.
Reflection on this Killing, and on its heedless, unnecessary character, moves them to act with sobriety, as a form of humility and respect, in light of the Act and its greatness.
Said another way: One might look at this ceremony, below, and ask, “Why are these ‘deacons’ so sober?”
A similar reason might be offered.
Thank you Admiral for this exceptionally well written article.
@Kate @juge Thank you for suggesting the Zoom and providing the link. You are both so kind. I am part of a small local group that meets once a week and, and even though I have the feelings that I expressed in my response, I still do attend my local SDA church once or twice a month. The struggle for many of us, I assume, is that we realize the need for change, but we grapple with expressing it to our local congregations, knowing that some or many will make it a mission to “correct” our thinking. The pastor of a church I attended several years ago, made the point of preaching about those who question…his ending appeal was for us to “stay with the ship.”
And therein lies the problem. In leadership’s traditional stance of “stay with the ship and don’t question the captains,” they often refuse to notice that the ship is sinking and that a course correction does not necessarily mean rebellion.
Thanks for your feedback!
@Harry_Allen. I appreciate your feedback, and as the daughter of a former army soldier, I also appreciate the solemnity of the ceremony around the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Respectfully, though, I think you missed some of my point.
A few weeks ago, my young adult son was ordained as a deacon in our local church. As part of his “speech” around the ordaining, the pastor said that J would now be able to assist in administering the communion service. So apparently, the week before, J would not have been worthy of doing that task.
The communion service that was given as our example in the New Testament has zero comparison to the communion services in our churches now. First of all, Jesus gave no words about the worthiness of those who should administer communion. One didn’t have to rise up through the ranks to be able to handle those bread and juice plates and pass them to others. Our biblical example was a group of often struggling believers, gathered around a table of bread, wine, and food, sharing, talking, communing.
I feel strongly that if I were to gather a group of my SDA and non-SDA friends around my table for Bible study and as part of that we broke bread together, shared juice, and washed each other’s feet, and that meeting was reported to the leadership of our local churches, I would receive a visit. You see, I don’t qualify as being “worthy” of administering communion.
I am not against solemnity. I am against how we have created rules around the proper way to do communion, baptism, Sabbath School, praise (by all means don’t let your body express praise by raising your hands!). We do calisthenics around the Scriptures to make them fit ideals that were put in place decades and even centuries ago (pre-Adventism) and we refuse to entertain the idea that maybe there is another way.
That’s one of the excellent benefits of using Zoom…those of us who teach often employ the ‘screen share’ function to introduce illustrations or quotes for the class to view and discuss.
It’s not just Adventism which has been disrupted. The health message was the right arm of the Adventist gospel but now the CDC has become the left arm. The CDC says when to enter “the house of God” and the CDC says when to leave. All religions have had their rituals, rights, and temples disrupted but there is a fix in preparation. The “common good” of the papacy is tying all religions together under the banner of global public health. Adventist, Buddist, Baptist, Mormons, Hindu’s, Muslims, all alike are being assembled against one common foe.
Hmmm…much casting about, but no comprehension of thought can I find.