Reimagining Adventism: Baptism and Absurdity, Part 3

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Reimagining Adventism: Baptism and Absurdity, Part 3

Every institution that we trust lies to us. – Dave Chapelle

In the previous article, we touched on the nature of inclusivity and exclusivity in the church. We saw that the church can be passively exclusive while imagining itself actively inclusive by nurturing structures, cultures, and systems that are designed for one kind of demographic. In Adventism, our erroneous Anglosacral aesthetic is one such underlying current that perpetuates a kind of monosyllabic approach to mission. By Anglosacral, I am referring to the historic tendency in our church to elevate the aesthetics, style, and expressions of European/ Anglo culture to the realm of the sacred. In doing so, our churches perpetuate a myth that the only right way to relate to and approach God is the “white” way. Consequently, we unintentionally alienate emerging generations that find value in multi-cultural expressions by fostering church environments that are inclusive of anyone who identifies with Eurocentricity but excludes those who do not.

 

Things like “hymns-only”, preachers who use the King James Version (and who preach with the same vernacular and prose as the KJV authors) even though no one talks like that, suits and ties, the intellectualization of scripture at the expense of relationship, community and experience, sheltered youth who know little to nothing of the real world, tone-deaf sermons and members whose attempts at relating to a post-church guest are about as awkward as a suburban kid hanging out with a gang of bikers, judgmentalism and ignorance of anything not compatible with their sophisticate-isms, finances and energy put into ministries that attract no one, and our proverbial disconnect from the suffering of our communities – all of it coalesces into a kind of quietly repulsive symphony that hums in the background, barely discerned at first, until a few months in the sincere seeker is finally awakened to the realization that while she is accommodated, she is not integrated and while she is welcome, she won’t be missed. The church just isn’t designed for her.

 

In light of this, I proposed we need a complete shift in the way we design church. We need new churches planted and watered for the misfit, not the saint. But when we do such a thing, we must bear in mind that it comes at a cost. There is no such thing as infinite inclusivity. Who you include determines who you exclude. Therefore, if you aim to include the misfit you must embrace the fact that you will exclude the religious ideologue. But what does a church that includes the misfit look like? No formula exists. I mentioned a few possibilities in the previous article but prefer to leave such a question in the hands of the local missionary to discover and determine, through cultural contact, the best approach forward. However, there is one element that will cause tension regardless of geography and it is this element I want to explore today.

 

The Necessity of Institution

I have already touched on the necessity of institution as it relates to accountability. However, allow me to expand on this a bit more. It’s no lie that the culture today has very little trust in institutions. To quote comedian Dave Chappelle in his latest show “8:46”, “Every institution that we trust lies to us”[1] – a statement met by the crowds’ glossy approval. The culture today sees institution for what it is – a self-perpetuating organism that acts primarily for the preservation and conservation of its own existence. Yes, it may do good here and there and it may have a degree of usefulness in society but when it comes down to it, institution cannot be trusted. Pitted between the truth and its own existence, institution will always vote for its own existence at the expense of said truth. This tragedy is what philosopher Donald Schon refers to as “dynamic conservatism” which is to say, “they fight like mad to stay the same”[2]

 

As a result, more people today are suspicious of becoming a part of an institution and instead, opt to live “perpetually on the margin, resisting the encroachments of formalization,”[3] as author Maurice Punch described. If they are on a truth-seeking journey, they may, in fact, want to dedicate their lives to the truth, be baptized and become a part of the family of God, but ask them to join your church—to become members of the global Adventist institution—and you might be in for a headache. Sure, not everyone will give you a hard time, but there is certainly a rise in anti-institutional consciousness that we must be prepared to engage in the realm of secular outreach.

 

When it comes to contending with this issue, I have found three scenarios to necessitate a diverse approach. Some people will forgo their anti-institutionalism if they have come to trust you and your church community. For such people, relationship and authenticity is enough to lower the defenses and convince them to be a part of the church. Other people need a bit more convincing. The way I have engaged these discussions in the past is to avoid defending the institution altogether, admit its limitations and wrongdoings, but make a rational case for its necessity. For example, emerging youth in both the church and the world have a similar distaste for institution. This translates into a romanticized picture of a non-institutionalized faith that is supposedly pure, uninhibited, and authentic not by virtue of its narrative but by its sundering from institutional oppression. In this conceptualization of faith then, there is a kind of vision or dream of a simple expression of truth in which boards and business meetings are non-existent as well as all vestiges of bureaucracy.

 

I must admit, I admire this vision. If only the world worked this way, how wonderful it would be! But sadly, it does not. For those who struggle to see this, I present a simple analogy. Imagine for a moment that you discover the goodness of God in scripture in a way that radically heals and transforms your life. You share it with friends and soon a cafe Bible study begins. Over time, your friends invite their friends until the group grows to about 15 people. Meeting at the cafe is harder with this number so you decide to host a dinner at your house in which you can all gather, celebrate, and learn more about God. But as the word spreads, your little group grows to 20 people and is pushing the limits of your living room’s seating capacity. It becomes obvious to you that if more people find your message to be meaningful and want to be a part of your community, your home just won’t cut it. So, you decide to split the group into two by equipping someone else to host a group in their home. But this is only a band-aid solution, eventually, they run into the same problem as well as you and re-multiplying seems unavoidable. But at this rate, re-multiplying is obviously going to take some organization and training. It’s obvious that you need a system to manage this. However, this is only the beginning of your problems. As the group spreads you discover that some of the groups are beginning to teach ideas that are damaging and some of the people are coming to you for direction. What should you do? Then a member of one of the other groups gets in trouble with the police for having too many people over at his home, breaking local council limitations. As a result, you now have two problems. The first is obviously your friend who likely has to pay a fine now. The second is the local government who now wants to know what you are up to. But let’s push the analogy a bit further. The following weekend a child breaks their arm at one of the local gatherings. Then, someone gets food poisoning from another. Then, a member who was allowing the group to use his property in the country for mass gatherings gets disgruntled and leaves, leaving you with no place to host your communal festivals. Then, a member of the group tells you his traveling friend came along to one of the gatherings, loved it, and now wants to start her own in her home city. But she needs resources, guidance, and training to do it well.

 

These are but basic problems that a community of faith seeking to impact the world will face. We haven’t even touched on what happens when this group decides to engage in local social/ humanitarian work. And faced with such catastrophes, you as the catalyst for this movement must make a decision. Will you disband all the groups and keep spreading your message in a low key way, keeping your group small and refusing to let it grow? But then, does that not mean what you have to say is not that important? Perhaps it is important but you simply have to allow people to start their own groups with no connection to your own. But then, where is the unity? Where is the camaraderie and network that will help take this message to the world? And won’t this risk the integrity of what you have to say? And won’t these approaches still leave you vulnerable to civic red tape when it comes to issues like injury, lawsuits, and safety – all of which are significantly more difficult to navigate without an institutional layer to protect you.

 

It’s obvious in this scenario that institution is necessary. You simply cannot function in any meaningful capacity without it. The real question is not whether an institution should be discarded or not, but rather how do we keep it in its proper sphere so that it serves the movement rather than abdicate it? This is a topic for another time. But for now, I want to turn to the following pragmatic question: If secular culture is increasingly anti-institutional then what do we do about seekers who want to be a part of our family through baptism but don’t want to join the institution? Do we exclude them for their anti-institutional convictions? Do we lie to them about the supposed virtue of our institution? Or do we include them anyhow by separating the act of baptism from institutional membership?

 

The answer to this question is going to depend on whether you see the institution as supreme to the narrative, or the narrative as supreme to the institution. If the institution serves the narrative, then baptism into that collective idea is to be celebrated even if it doesn’t translate to institutional brand loyalty. But if the narrative serves the institution, then anyone unwilling to tether themselves to the institution by legal membership will find themselves unnecessarily excluded or stifled in their spiritual journey – unable to participate in the ritual of baptism – until their institutional hang-ups are either compromised or discarded.

 

But the question is also slightly more complex than this. For example, if you separate baptism from church membership, don’t we introduce a dichotomy that is unscriptural? After all, in scripture baptism is always into the church. It’s one thing to be baptized into some ethereal body, it’s a whole other thing to be baptized into a tangible, local community of believers who are building the kingdom. To simply vote for a “separate baptism from membership” betrays the reality of the local church and reeks of Greek dualism more than the physical, historical perspective of church as incarnate.

 

However, even in the New Testament baptism into the church was not the same as baptism into an institution – not as we define it today. This then leads us into a rabbit hole of theological and pragmatic hair-splitting that can last for centuries. I for one am not interested. On the contrary, I engage the tension in the following way: I believe that the institution is a servant to the story we have been called to tell. What I am interested in is a person finding meaning in that story and dedicating their lives to being a part of the story. If a person is in that headspace but is not interested in being part of an institution, I make it clear that I am baptizing them into the local church, to belong to it and serve it, to nurture it, and live for it. Without institutional membership, I am clear that this limits their capacity to participate in certain aspects of church governance but that is in no way abdicates them from volunteering time and energy into serving the community and telling the story we have been called to tell. If, after all this, the seeker is still unwilling to become part of the institution I baptize them anyways knowing that perhaps, in due time, they will come around. And while I am clear and direct, challenging them along the way, I also refuse to allow the servant of the story to dictate how much of the story a person can embrace.

 

Bringing it all together

A missional approach to baptism necessitates a dynamic tension between inclusivity, exclusivity, and institutionalism. While there is nothing wrong with institution and it is, in fact, needed, an institutional priority over a kingdom one can lead us to discourage sincere seekers by placing unnecessary barriers in their journey of faith. Likewise, a disproportioned level of inclusivity can actually cause harm to our mission just as much as exclusive structures and ideas do. There needs to be a triangular tension between these three that keep each pole in its place thus maintaining the missional shape necessary for forward movement.

 

In light of this, I have found it necessary to foster and nurture structures that are geared toward the sinner, not the saint. In doing so, we engineer a church culture and discipleship process for the secular, post-church sojourner, and not for the comfort of the already saved. In this sense, the question “Who are we here for?” needs to be clearly answered because who you include determines who you exclude. If you include secular, post-church seekers, you will naturally exclude many religious conservatives and traditionalists because such an environment will demand a ritualistic redesign that historic believers may find off-putting. This includes putting energy into training and empowering each member of the church to connect with the secular mind through appreciation of its unique categories. But it also involves purposefully focusing on ministries and tasks that they will find meaningful. This differs from place to place, but in some settings, this may mean putting more energy into addiction recovery than a slick worship program or investing more funds in social justice efforts than fancy retreats. It may also mean hosting less Sabbath morning gatherings by placing a higher focus on small groups, fewer evangelism events by focusing on discipleship pathways, and even church gatherings would look different – aiming to capture an aesthetic and stylistic expression that is of value to the secular mind rather than the religious one.

 

In all of this, the objective is to nurture a pathway that is meaningful for the unchurched, and this includes the rite of baptism. While the situation may remain rare, the increase in anti-institutionalism means at some point someone you love will want baptism and even church commitment, but not necessarily institutional church membership. My personal approach is simple: baptize them anyways. As already stated, the institution is a tool for the gospel, not its lord. This final option is not one that will work everywhere. You need a leadership team that will support such a move. But I am of the opinion that a person should not be denied baptism because they carry pathological or rational hang-ups with institutionalized religion. If, in due time, they decide to join the church as a member, great. If they don’t, we must celebrate the fact that they are, nevertheless, part of our heavenly family.

 

There is certainly more that can be said about all this. I have not touched on the broader, systemic issues surrounding Adventist institutionalism. Instead, I have focused on that area that is of most use for those of us on the ground, in neighborhoods and communities, serving and searching for the lost. In that space, I trust the above words may provide value and direction as you seek to fulfill your mission and create spaces of healing and journeying for the secular mind.

Click here to read the rest of this series on Reimagining Adventism.

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Notes.

[1] Dave Chapelle. “8:46” [Web: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3tR6mKcBbT4&t=2s]

[2] Margarett Attwood, et al. “Leading change: A Guide to Whole Systems Working,” (p. 55)

[3] Maurice Punch. “The Sociology of the Anti-Institution,” (The British Journal of Sociology Vol. 25, No. 3 (Sep., 1974), p. 312), [Web: https://www.jstor.org/stable/589397?seq=1]

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About the author

Marcos Torres

Marcos Torres is a pastor in Western Australia where he lives with his wife and children. He loves talking about faith, culture and Adventism. You can follow his blog at www.thestorychurchproject.com.