Drop the Mic: Reincarnating the Adventist Faith Part 2

“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.

If you respond to this article, please:

Make sure your comments are germane to the topic; be concise in your reply; demonstrate respect for people and ideas whether you agree or disagree with them; and limit yourself to one comment per article, unless the author of the article directly engages you in further conversation. Comments that meet these criteria are welcome on the Spectrum Website. Comments that fail to meet these criteria will be removed.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8024

Surely Christ gave us the key in the new commandment that He gave us just before He went to the cross. We are to love one another as He loved us. This is why Paul’s centrality on the crucified and risen Christ is the answer. To love the way Christ loved in the context of this article is the wisdom and power of God revealed in the crucified and risen Christ. It’s new covenant love that is the ministry that we have been entrusted with.

9 Likes

I intended the following to be inserted before the last two paragraphs of the article and failed to submit it with the final draft:

“I can hear some of you asking, ‘But can’t we love scripture and love others at the same time?’ My answer is yes, but we are incapable of loving them equally. We have to choose which one we will love more. Since Adventists have usually placed our love of scripture above our love for others, there have been times when we have chosen to passively neglect or actively condemn people because we loved a verse of scripture or a systematic theological concept more than we did that person. We have also de-emphasized ministries of compassion and justice in order to prioritize our proclamation of the scriptures. What I believe Jesus modeled, and Paul honored, was prioritizing active, street-level love for people over anything else, including The Holy Bible itself.”

16 Likes

Beautifully said, Todd. Bibliolatry (worship of the Bible) is so often a mistake people don’t even realize they are making. And thus the Bible has been a barrier between God’s children, and between them and God.

How unfortunate that the 3-Angels Message has become a symbol of Adventism, even depicted in stained glass windows behind the chancel, or on signs in front of churches. That sends an unfortunate message about our priorities.

7 Likes

Smile . This article was written by a pastor (SDA ).It is amazing that we think that we are so important to God / Jesus / Heaven . Sorry to inform you , that we are not Jesus’ number One Priority. Some of you are now crying , thinking that I am so wrong, but I’m not .Like the pastor who wrote this article , I see our problem . We are telling too many stories , instead of preaching the GOSPEL. How dare you say that love for one another is the greatest priority that we should be focused upon .EGW, in PP states that it was not merely Jesus’s priority to come and die for this dark world . But His number one priority for coming to this world was to VINDICATE THE NAME OF GOD . We are caught up in wizardry . There are moral people, who are kind , loving and compassionate .But unless someone is born again , they shall not see the kingdom of God. For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ , for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth : to the Jew first ,and also to the Greek . ( Nothing else is the power of God, but the gospel ) . I do agree with the topic, "We Have Dropped the Mic . " We are lifting up man ,psychology , psychiatry , or wizardry. Everything but the name of Jesus Christ. Yes , We do have problems in the SDA church , but the solutions to our problems has to be Christ .Jesus is Lord. The three angles message must go to all the world , the seventh day is the Sabbath , the sanctuary truth is still true , the end of the 2300 days brought us to 1844 , the investigative judgment is going on in heaven , and yes we are to love our neighbor . But the example of love is seen in Christ . That to mend the broken heart of God , at the lost of Man, Jesus offered up Himself. What love. What great love. Go tell that to the world. That is the gospel .Don’t be tricked into thinking that in order to save the world , we must give up the word of God. That theory comes from the father of lies.

1 Like

Todd. somewhere I remember hearing that:
"The best writing is not the writing that thinks for you but the writing that makes you think"
This second installment is excellent writing and has stirred my thinking in positive and creative ways!
Please consider putting all these good thoughts into a book which I will stand in line to buy.

7 Likes

What I most like with the Wizard of Oz as a metaphor for the future of Seventh-day Adventism today is that it gets past the misperceived need for members to become, and confirms the reality that what we may so want for members and prospects, they already have and are.

Jesus, Paul, John, and Peter are consistent in focusing not on who people need to become, but on who they are just as they are because of who God is and always has been and ever will be.

I also like the confirmation that the Wizard himself is who is transformed, not Dorothy or her friends.

Who’d have thought?

Standing by for Part 3!

4 Likes

Are you sure Adventist are capable of doing that? For Adventism, the “machinery” is the message. I’m pretty sure Adventism isn’t the only religion that has made a religion about itself, but this is the only one I know.

On second thought, there are the Hebrews.

8 Likes

Adventist first distort the Bible and then love the distortion.

9 Likes

I completely agree that we as Adventists have been dysfunctionally obsessed about ourselves. It was never supposed to be about the triumph of Adventism, but the gospel. My pushback on your conviction that we need to preach the gospel would be that we need to live the gospel instead. This is how the love of God will be vindicated: not by defending God (who doesn’t need defending) but living out God’s love fully.

Where I’m headed in the next four articles is on how Adventist doctrines, especially a number of our unique ones, actually teach us how to love as Christ loved. I’ll be looking at the loving missions of Sabbath, Sanctuary, New Earth and one to be determined by a vote by the congregation I serve. There’s powerful, transformative action that is shown in our doctrines!

2 Likes

I would say that it’s possible, but certainly yet to be determined. And yes, it’s not just us. I’m friends with pastors in my city who serve in a variety of denominations, and all their churches are nearer to death’s door than mine. We are all desperately aware that our denominations, who were birthed for mission to the time and place where they began are no longer living out the mission of Christ in our current setting.

5 Likes

Thank you Sam. I am a novice writer who is using this series for my writing development as much as for communicating what I’m passionate about. Your kind words are an encouragement to keep working on this!

Bill, I agree wholeheartedly! So often, we overlook the active work of the Spirit in people’s lives because they aren’t Adventist or believe the same as us. In fact, when I’m with people of different backgrounds, I’ve been trying to shift my mindset to one of expecting to be ministered to by the Spirit in them rather than watching for the opportunity for me to minister to them.

In our post-worship discussion, one person pushed back on the idea that it’s always the case that people already have what they need and it’s we just need to help them see it. She agrees with you and me that often, that can be true. But sometimes, there truly is a lack in others’ lives that we may have the opportunity to meet or help connect them to other Spirit-led people who can minister as Jesus and fill that need.

3 Likes

At first retention summit, leaders look at reality of church exodus
1 in 3 members lost over past 50 years; personal support is key way to help members
Nov 19, 2013 | Silver Spring, Maryland, United States | Ansel Oliver/ANN

Veteran Adventist Church researcher Monte Sahlin said the reasons people drop out of church often have less to do with what the church does and its doctrines than with problems people experience in their personal lives—marital conflict or unemployment, for example. What the church does that contributes to the problem, he said, is not helping people through their tough life experiences.

“The notion of people dropping out because of something the church does or a doctrinal disagreement is not apparent in the data,” Sahlin said. “It’s been shown that a member of a church board is just as likely to disagree with one of the church’s 28 Fundamental Beliefs as someone who’s been disfellowshiped.”

Might it be people leave for the same reasons they joined the church in the first place? That they were loved into the “truth” and it’s why they will choose to stay? John 13:35 "By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” Many Adventists I know would first try switching from one Adventist congregation to another. Then, some would eventually join another Christian church, mostly those without any denominational label attached to them.

Needless to say, love for one another is not enough. Scriptural basis is still a factor and in some cases might play as big a role in retention as well as accession to the church.

http://www.hartfordinstitute.org/Summary-Report-Large-Churches-500-1,799-in-Attendance.pdf
Open the Doors and See All the People: Profile of Large Protestant Churches 500-1,799 in Attendance
By Scott Thumma, Ph.D
pp 6, 7

I suggest the above scenario is true for the vast majority of “enculturated” second and third generation Adventists from immigrant families.

1 Like

We are told that the last messages of mercy that will lighten the earth with its glory is a revelation of the character of Jesus. This will happen not only by words which are important, but by actions. We Adventists, like many other Christians, tend to build walls that define who is in and who is out. By contrast, Jesus risked reputation by associating with people deemed suspect by polite society. The people Jesus would entrust to our care are people who would fail our entrance requirements. We do not yet reflect Jesus’ relinquishing of power. Those in positions of power are immune to challenge because of a lack of an appeals process so only their position on the ordination of women is deemed to be in harmony with Scripture. Lesbian and gay people can only be serving members of our church communities when they cease to be gay or lesbian. For a denomination that professes to value education, we seem reluctant to be educated on issues of gender or sexuality. We are not evil people. We are just bad reflectors of Jesus’ character. We revere a tidy house more than messy people.

6 Likes

That you can say our highest goal should be to love others is difficult to understand! It’s only through our relationship with Christ, that brings us to love others. If Adventists would focus more on Christ, and less about the rules and doctrines you need to adhere to, to be acceptable to God, they would not be losing members! The churches who focus on Christ and him alone are alive and growing! Your church cannot be alive without a constant focus on Jesus! Fix your eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of your salvation. The first time I went to a non-denominational church, the difference was striking! The people were greeting each other with Praise the Lord, instead of Happy Sabbath. Without Jesus, there is no life, there is no desire to serve!

2 Likes

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.

WHO told you that? In over 55 years I never heard of such a thing. It is utter and complete nonsense. Did Christ’s message and methods fail because one was a traitor, one denied Him with cursing and another had put his fingers into the wounds that Christ suffered?

1 Like

I have to ask, when quoting 1 Cor 2 to downplay evangelism by human wisdom, why not focus on the demonstration of the power of God as Paul did? Is it, still, that we as adventists simply are afraid of the power of God demonstrated I wonder?

Ah, I see. This paragraph changes the conclusions in your text.

1 Like

Good question. I believe God’s power is demonstrated when we move from verbal exhortation to love in action. We don’t worship Jesus because he was the Word. We worship him because he was the Word made flesh.

1 Like

We may not say it explicitly, but we imply it through everything we teach.

we imply it through everything we teach.

How? We don’t even believe that all SDA’s will be saved. Did you run your idea past any profs (more than one) in the seminary?

Interesting! A post of mine has disappeared, along with your response!

DJC: Same with thieves, liars, child molestors, murders, etc., etc…
TJL: To place LGBT people in the same category as these others that clearly harm others is a false equivalency. I would encourage you to revisit your understanding on this.

When one harms others, whether physically, or emotionally, or morally, or spiritually, one is also harming one’s self (that is bad enough). To revisit our understanding, all one needs to do is to recall Paul’s remark in Rom. 7:7 (KJV)"… Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet." All sin harms us first and then others, especially when we act on it. Just thinking about our sin harms ourselves and others,