“I’m a very good man. I’m just a very bad wizard.”
In part one of this series, I reminded us of the sad reality of the decline of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America. And I suggested that the traditional Adventist evangelistic model was increasingly incapable of reversing that trend and bringing new people into relationship with God and our denomination because of two flaws, one primarily methodological and one deeply spiritual:
Methodological Problem: Adventists continue to depend upon an evangelistic method which requires people to have an appreciation for scripture so that we can educate them with our more-inspired interpretation. North Americans in large numbers no longer believe the Bible is an authoritative source of truth. Continued use of this Bible-based method assures increasing evangelistic ineffectiveness.
Spiritual Problem: the Adventist evangelistic method promises that our “products” — our understanding of God, our prophetic insight and our scripture-based doctrines — will transform the lives of anyone who becomes a baptized member of the Adventist church. This, often, is not true. Our marketing is misleading. We over-promise and under-deliver. Toto has pulled back the curtain. We’re not the great and powerful Oz. We’re just a jittery, frumpy, and weak man. So it’s no surprise that almost half the people who join the Adventist church leave.
So where do we go from here? Is there a solution?
Can we go back to the Land of Oz for a couple minutes? Last week we left our four intrepid travelers standing in the presence of the little man who was no longer behind a curtain. Realizing the terrible reality that there was no great wizard, and therefore, no hope of seeing their deepest needs fulfilled, Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion angrily confront him for his horrible deception. And Dorothy says, “You’re a very bad man!”
But here, the not-so-great-and-powerful Oz says something interesting. “Oh no, my dear! I’m a very good man. I’m just a very bad wizard.”
But this only exasperates the others’ anger. They interrogate him: “What about Tin Man’s heart? What about Lion’s courage? What about Scarecrow’s brain? What about getting Dorothy back home?”
Here the story takes a fascinating turn. He says to Scarecrow, “You don’t need a brain. You already have one. You just need a diploma stating that you’re smart and educated. Here it is.” And Scarecrow does some quick trigonometry and realizes he had a brain all along.
Then Oz turns to Cowardly Lion and says, “Sometimes running away from danger is the wise thing to do. You’re not cowardly, but wise. And I know you have courage because you boldly faced and defeated that Wicked Witch of the West.” And he pulls out of a bag a large medal of bravery and pins it on Lion’s chest and welcomes him as the newest member of the Legion of Courage.
Tin Man, convinced he lacks a heart, steps forward to see if the wizard has anything for him. Oz tells the Tin Man that the people who are applauded for their philanthropy and good deeds don’t have hearts any larger than the Tin Man’s. The difference, the wizard says, is that no one had yet to stand up and give a testimonial about the Tin Man’s good deeds like they had for the others. So Oz reaches into his bag of goodies and pulls out a heart-shaped pocket watch and presents it to the Tin Man, thanking him for all his years of loving service to others. Tin Man beams with the joy of having someone finally see him as a person with real heart.
Dorothy celebrates with each of her companions as they each find their longings fulfilled by the kind words and gifts of the little man. But then she looks back at Oz and his now-empty gift bag and sighs, “I doubt there is anything left in that bag for me.”
The frumpy little man confesses that Dorothy’s need is more difficult to fulfill, but that he knew how to return her to her home: he, the unwizardly wizard could take her back to Kansas himself. And Dorothy asks, “Can you actually do that?” And he replies, “Why, I’m from Kansas too! We’re from the same place. And I know how to get back there!”
And then Dorothy, Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion realize the irony: this silly little man is, indeed, the Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
I don’t know if anyone can pinpoint the moment when, or unpack the sociological impetus for why it happened: a combination of Protestant Reformation + Enlightenment + Burgeoning American Exceptionalism, maybe? That’s not my area of expertise. But whenever and whatever it was, Adventists became convinced that it was our sacred calling to present an image to the world that we had cornered the market and owned the trademark on the ALL CAPS truth. We branded ourselves as, “The Peculiar People of the Book.”
So here’s my stab at why our evangelism won’t grow the Adventist faith and why people will continue to run for the exits: hardly anyone needs ALL CAPS truth. Whether it was the deepest human need of the past, it’s not the case now. A person’s deepest need can rarely be fulfilled by a prophecy seminar or a 28-lesson correspondence Bible study.
Adventists love being right. We love our calling to be truth-tellers and truth-defenders. We have loved the truth, believing our truth would set people free. And that’s the problem: we have been loving the wrong thing. We’re supposed to be loving a who instead of a what.
To poorly channel Dr. Seuss: Who’s the who whom we should love? You might think the answer is Jesus. In my opinion, it’s not. I’ll explain why in a minute.
I suggest our highest love should be for One Another. More than anything, people need to be loved for who they are. People with hearts, with brains, who do good, who deserve a home like the rest of us. Please don’t be tempted to check out at this point because of what sounds like another person penning a corny, superficial movie script. I am suggesting that we are called to grow a love for others that is willing to play the fool, scandalize societal norms, torment the intelligentsia and undermine all decorum and order. We need a love that looks like this:
“When I came to you, brothers and sisters,[a] I did not come proclaiming the mystery[b] of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom,[c] but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.” -Paul, 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, NRSV
Paul chose to be ignorant about everything except the crucified Jesus. Some of you are saying, “Exactly. Paul loved Jesus first.” But may I suggest something a bit different that may not be a disagreement, but a reframing? What is it about the crucified Christ that was so important for Paul? Could it be that for him, the very thing that exalted Jesus in Paul’s mind was that Jesus was willing to, as Philippians 2 describes, give up the privileges of divinity and dignity and become fully-incarnated into the human communal existence because he loved others so much? That when those that Jesus loved were threatened or attacked, he would do anything to protect them, heal them and restore them? That their finding their dignity and joy in God was so important to the incarnate Christ that he was willing to give up any hope of maintaining a good reputation for himself?
Perhaps for Paul, he needed to keep who Jesus was first in his mind so that he would not forget that he was called to love others above everything else. For him, maybe the paradoxical truth of divinity dying was the clearest understanding for him of what life was all about.
The paradoxical truth of the Wizard of Oz was that it was the moment when he stopped being something he wasn’t — a great wizard, and went back to being what he truly was – a good man, that he was able to give Dorothy and her crew exactly what they needed: his love.
What if we Adventists shut down all the machinery that we have developed to keep our wizardry myth alive? What if we just started to be ourselves, our good, spirit-filled selves, and started loving people as Christ’s new creation? What if we began the process leaving the safety we found behind the curtain and reincarnating ourselves into the communal human experience in the spirit and power of the Crucified Jesus?”
And here’s the kicker: Adventist doctrine provides a fantastic roadmap to living out that reincarnated-and-crucified-Christ love. That’s what we’ll begin to look at next week.
Todd J. Leonard is senior pastor at Glendale City Seventh-day Adventist Church and president of Glendale Communitas Initiative, a local non-profit organization devoted to families working their way out of poverty. He shares life with his wife, Robin, and three daughters, Halle, Abigail and Emma.
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