In his February 19 article titled “The Ungathered Church," Pastor Loren Seibold wrote:
Is there such a thing as an ungathered church, a church that doesn’t require people sitting together singing and praying in a building anymore? That day may be coming whether we like it or not. The little churches in the Ohio conference, the ones in small cities, are disappearing. And our conference isn’t alone. I’ll go out on a limb here and make a prophecy: within ten years a fourth or more of the NAD congregations will have melted away. I see the signs of our reaching a tipping point, where the church-supporting, church-attending generation dies and there are too few young people left to create a new generation to keep small congregations going. It could happen quickly. We’ll need another model if Seventh-day Adventist congregations are going to survive in places where there’s no Adventist hospital or college."
I am not an Adventist but am humbled to belong to a group organized and run by Adventists and which, I venture to suggest, may offer some pointers to the model Pastor Seibold seeks.
Please let me explain.
For three years I have awoken at 3 a.m. Hawaii State Time in Summer months and 4 a.m. in Winter to attend, via Skype, the 10 a.m. EST weekly meetings of a religio-philosophical discussion group at Oakwood Seventh-day Adventist Church in Taylor, Michigan. Officially, it is known as a Sabbath Bible Study class. It was founded and has been led for the past 30 years by church elder Dr. Donald W. Weaver. The current class discussants include not just Seventh Day Adventists but several Catholics, a Hindu or two, an Episcopalian, some who tend to atheism or agnosticism, and yours truly.
Oakwood Church went to extraordinary lengths to reach out to me and facilitate my participation from Hawaii, by installing an Internet-connected computer and ceiling-mounted projector in the room used for the class so that I could “Skype in” and be virtually present in the room. Since the system was installed, we have had participants join us from Saudi Arabia, Palestine (Bethlehem, no less!), India, and Finland; not to mention from other states and towns in the U.S. The average attendance is about 10 (a size that gives all the opportunity to share their views in the one hour available) and occasionally there are more people on the wall screen than are sitting at the round table in the meeting room.
When Don introduced me to his class I was personally more inclined to Process Theology—the theory that God is both a Being and a Becoming—and to the ancient religion-cum-philosophy of Daoism than to any organized body of religion. I remain so inclined. At Daoism's core is the belief that the Dao—the Way—is an unfathomable source of and force for ultimate Good. The Good of the Dao is no different from the Good of the Christian God. The biggest difference, as far as I can see, between the Dao and God is that the Dao is not made in Man’s (or any other) image; in most other respects (the ones that matter to me) they are not nearly as far apart as people brought up in a singular religious tradition might think.
It was thus a delightful surprise to me to discover that Don and the Oakwood church leaders and congregation are similarly inclined to seek spiritual enrichment and enlightenment in part through discussion of other faiths and philosophies and their ideas, rather than exclusively through the exclusionary practices typical of most organized religious bodies. It is something at least worth getting our of bed at 3 or 4 a.m. for. But I should not have been surprised, given (as Don has explained to me) that:
1. The Seventh Day Adventist Church has no creed excepting the Bible itself;
2. It has a set of beliefs, but none that cannot be changed if challenged by new understanding–which is to be actively sought; and
3. It grew out of a misguided prediction of the second coming of Christ “on or before 1843.
Because of this “Great Disappointment” of prediction, says Don, Adventists of all people should be open to new ideas and new understandings. In theory, they are, because of facts #1 and #2 above. But in practice, the Church and its members as a whole tend to get set in their ways, like all communities and all of us do.
At the same time, I too must admit I was happy to find that the Bible had something to teach this old Daoist, after all. For decades I had dismissed most of it (especially the Old Testament) as inconsistent, invalid, unreliable, and unbelievable mythology passed down by fallible, imperfect, and ill-informed men of ancient history. Not least, I discovered a whole passel of spiritual brothers and sisters I never knew I had, and I found them in a place that (forgive me) is among the last places I would have thought to look. Our class uses the Bible as the source for the spiritual and existential questions we seek to explore, but we also look to all sources, including science, other faiths, and even non-faiths for inspiration and ideas to expand our understanding.
Our meetings serve as an outlet for discussants to express and to hear divergent and, perhaps, novel and enlightening views. They may not appeal to people who are comfortable in their beliefs; we would be mortified to disturb the serenity of anyone's faith. At the same time, they are not the place to challenge every point of view that may disagree with or diverge from orthodox beliefs. Difference of viewpoints is welcomed; discord is discouraged; expansion of ideas is encouraged.
The Interface and Its Products
After my first year as a regular member of Don’s class, and growing increasingly inspired by the quality of the discourse and the insights it produced, it occurred to me that they deserved to be shared among a wider audience. I therefore began to record and transcribe the discussions and posted them on a blog we call "The Interface" (www.donweaver.org). We named it so because essentially the class discussions are about the interface between heaven and earth.
Not only has this facilitated our discussions by enabling us to catch up on meetings we may miss and to prepare for the next meeting, but it has also provided a rich resource of material for publication. On two occasions since The Interface was launched two years ago, the happy tranquility of our group was deeply disturbed. First, in December 2012 came the tragic loss of the daughter, Fay, of one of our group members to cancer. Second, in September 2014 we lost one of our longest-serving members, Harry, to a stroke. Fay and Harry were extraordinary individuals whose contributions to our discussions sounded very much like the Spirit of God speaking the Word of God through them. And it was the Word of not just any God, not just the Christian God; it was the Word of the God of us all.
The eternal seeds Harry and Fay sowed through their contributions to the group sprouted and grew into two books that will, we hope, spread the Word to a wider audience. The seed sown by Harry resulted in publication of the book "Harry’s Homilies: Heart & Soul." It consists of comments Harry made on such topics as goodness, evil, faith, doubt, truth, and other topics of discussion at our weekly meetings. The seed sown by Fay grew into the book "Fayth," which brings together the group’s discussion of the topic of Evil, Fay’s response to it, and a New York Times article showing that the Word of God does not always need to be spoken out loud.
A book still in preparation, tentatively titled "Next Question?" will serve to supply the context within which Harry’s Homilies and Fayth were compiled by summarizing the content of our weekly discussions. But it will also seek to achieve new insights, based on an analysis of that content, into the great mysteries and questions about life now and hereafter. Like Don’s class itself, the book makes no pretense to offer answers. What it (and the class) hope to do is to open the mind to deeper and even more wonderful mysteries and questions.
To Pastor Ariel, the Elders, and the entire flock at Oakwood I am sure I must appear to be somewhat heretical; and yet they have shown me nothing but tolerance, understanding, welcome, kindness, and fellowship—surely, the love of Christ. I am deeply grateful for their warm embrace and deeply respectful of their readiness to accommodate views that differ in form (though not, I believe, in substance) from theirs.
If you would like to join our community you can participate:
In person, in church at 26300 Goddard Rd, Taylor, MI 48180; or via Skype to Skypename docs_class (the underscore is necessary) between 10 and 11 am every Adventist Sabbath (Saturday).
You may also participate via The Interface at www.donweaver.org. Feel free to browse the entire content of our discussions and add your own comments to the discussion if you wish (you will be prompted to register for a login ID. It’s free, of course; registration is just a way to stop the spammers and others from posting bad things.)
We would love to hear from you, one way or another!
David Ellis is the founder and president of Health Futures Management Corporation and an amateur philosopher.
Dr. Donald Weaver, the creative mind behind the events described in this article, is Penberthy Professor and Chairman, Wayne State University, Department of Surgery and Chief of Surgery at the Detroit Medical Center. He holds a BA from Andrews University and an MD from Loma Linda University.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6657