We must cultivate our garden. – Voltaire
For decades, church leaders have been attempting to unravel the complex reasons why young people leave church. In recent years, the task to understand why the church fails to retain millennials or reach emerging, post-church culture has also amplified. And now, new reports are indicating that unlike older generations, millennials who leave church are not coming back when they have children or face other life-altering events. In an attempt to discover a solution to these increasing problems faced by the western church, however, we have merely found the problem to be overwhelmingly complex with no one size fits all answer or solution. However, there is a simple pragmatic paradigm that can give us a necessary platform from which to operate and which I believe can afford us a greater level of success.
Throughout the years, many youth leaders and well-meaning members have assumed that the problem with the church is it’s just too boring, outdated, and irrelevant. Consequently, great effort has been put into making church fun, hip, and relatable. It usually involves introducing elements such as a contemporary worship band, sermon series based on popular movies, pastors in skinny jeans who use lots of buzzwords, a more relaxed dress code (or no code whatsoever) and replacing pews with modern seating and sometimes round tables. Now granted, none of these things are bad in and of themselves. However, the tragedy of this scenario is—after decades of upgrading the church this way, youth are still leaving and the surrounding culture is still hiding from us. It appears the makeover hasn’t worked, which can only mean one thing—something deeper is at play.
And what is this “something deeper”? I will return to this at the close of the article. For now, I want to return to the previous article where we explored a conceptualization of church in three layers—ontology, mechanism, and manifestation. The ontology, we discovered, is the very character of God. When we see who he is and what he is like, church then becomes an extension of his heart and not an independent institution or doctrinal detail. Sadly, in the modern age, church is treated as an event or program when the truth is, church is much deeper. Others have captured this vision of the church by returning to the Greek word ecclesia which means “group of people”, “assembly”, or “called out ones.” Such thinkers argue that the church is not a building or event but rather a group of people. Church, in this sense, is not something we go to but rather something we are. “We don’t go to church, we are the church” is the mantra, and with this rediscovered vision of the church, we set out to be the church in every facet and moment of life. Church is no longer confined to a weekend service but instead is liberated from those constraints to once again become our identity.
However, the concept of church is deeper still. The return to the Greek ecclesia may be a huge step in the right direction but the journey is far from over, for church, at its very core, is not simply something we are. Instead, church is an extension of who God is. It is a manifestation of his desire to be with us so that, as the church, we enact the very heart of God on the earth. In this sense, the transcendent becomes immanent—the ethereal, real. God is no longer a thing to be philosophized but a being to be experienced in his ecclesia, for his ecclesia is an extension of himself. Thus, it’s not simply that we are church but that the church is God’s heart in motion through the brokenness and absurdity of what it means to be human.
In this sense, the pattern for how church should function is not to be found in the book of Acts alone but in the life of Jesus who is God in human flesh, immersed in social action. The way in which Jesus conducted himself while on earth then becomes the very real pattern for how the church ought to conduct itself in its community because the church is the hands and feet of Jesus, which is another way of saying that the church enacts the heart of God in the world. Such a task gives new meaning to Jesus’ words, “If you have seen me you have seen the father” (John 14:9) as having missional application for us rather than just theological implications for Christ’s life. This brings us back to the importance of understanding the heart of God for in it the church finds its ontological source and purpose.
From that ontology, there then emerges a mechanism and manifestation to which I will now turn.
Think of a human body. It has a heart-beat which gives it life (yes, it’s much more complicated than that but just go with it for the sake of illustration). However, what if the body had no muscular-skeletal system? How would that life which the beating heart gives be of any use? The muscular system of the human body is what enables you to do something with your life. Without it, you would just lay there and have nothing else to do but think all day. With it, you can now maneuver yourself through time and space and conduct yourself in a way that impacts the movement of the human story. In other words, the muscular system is like a mechanism that enables you to do something meaningful with the life you have. Without it, you would be unable to conduct yourself with any level of significance.
The church is much the same. It has an ontology—or heartbeat—in the character of God. This ontology then grounds our purpose and mission, but without a mechanism, the mission will go nowhere. In the gospels, we see the mechanism for Jesus accomplishing his mission involves not simply himself but 3 core friends, another 9 disciples, and 70 committed followers. We see that one of the 12 was a treasurer (John 12:6) indicating a level of organization and that the 12 saw themselves as playing significant roles in the ministry of Jesus. We see the same in the book of Acts with the church being led by Apostles who established churches that were then led by elders and pastors and served by deacons, administrators, and teachers. What we are seeing here from early on are examples of mechanisms—systems that were put in place so that the church could conduct itself in time and space in a way that would reveal the heart of God to its surrounding communities.
In our modern-day, the mechanism is global and so it has a higher level of complexity to the New Testament church. For Adventists, this mechanism involves a General Conference, Divisions, Unions, Local Conferences, Districts and local churches. Then, within the local church, there is a business meeting, board meeting, and ministry teams. All of this is necessary and part of the mechanism that enables the church to enact its ontology in the world. The mechanism thus emerges from the ontology as a necessary tool to give the ontology practical function and leads us to the final element of the church—its manifestation.
A human being might have life and strength to enact that life, but when these two come together there emerges a manifestation of that life. This manifestation involves—among other things—a person’s unique expression. The way they style their hair, wear their clothes, etc. Their hygiene patterns and fashion choices—all of these might seem minuscule but they are also inevitable. As a person enacts their life in the world, they naturally come to reflect the world in which they function either by rejecting that world, embracing it, or adapting it. And all of this is reflected in the way in which they manifest themselves through their appearance.
The church, likewise, functions the same way. From its ontology and mechanism, the church then manifests itself in its culture or community in a way that reflects its movement in that space. Thus, a church in India will look different than a church in Ohio. A church in the 21st century will look different than a church in the 19th century (or so it should) and so on. In short, the manifestation of the church flows out of its ontology and mechanism acting together in its local setting—whatever that setting might be. It emerges in the way in which the church expresses itself through art, style, and appearance.
Now that I have defined the ontology, mechanism, and manifestation of the church, allow me to return to my initial proposal that something deeper is taking place which is preventing millennials and post-church culture from connecting with the church. That something deeper is this. Somewhere along the way, the church disconnected from its ontological source—the heart of God. As a result, it became more obsessed with preserving than with advancing. The church was no longer a movement but a relic—a museum—with the express purpose of protecting itself and its orthodoxy. As a result, the mechanism of the church went from the tool through which the heart of God is enacted in the world, to the tool through which the church’s orthodoxy is preserved and maintained.
Thus, the business meeting went from a missional gathering to move the church forward, to a complaint session where members come to whine about the things they don’t like. The board meeting took on the same flavor—from missional to preservational—and the ministry teams went from an outward focus to an inward one. As a result of this missing heartbeat and atrophic muscular structure, the church’s manifestation moved from communicating the heart of God to the world to maintaining its traditions and customs. Thus, many churches today feel like time capsules from the 1950s. This has not happened in a vacuum but is rather the result of a church with no heartbeat and whose mechanism now exists for its own self-preservation. The end result of these two interactions is a manifestation of irrelevance in the world today.
In the midst of this tragic development, well-meaning members and youth leaders—tired of seeing the young and unchurched increasingly excluded from church—decided it was time to do something. Unfortunately, rather than return to the ontology of the church and seek to reconstruct a vision of church from there—many focused exclusively on the church’s manifestation. Their aim was to change the church’s style, make it more fun and up-to-date so that the youth would stay. Thus, bands, trendy youth pastors, and round table gatherings became the thing. But decades have passed since these experiments began and the church is still losing youth in droves. Shifting the manifestation of the church has done little to lower the youth exodus because once the euphoria of a new and hip church wears off, the youth are able to discern that the church is just as dead as ever—only it’s had a makeover to give the appearance of life.
I am not against the modern expressions of worship and faith. In fact, I am quite modern myself. I don’t like dressing up for church (in fact, I disagree with it), I am not a big fan of hymns, pews, liturgy, or all of the behavioral trinkets that come with conservative Adventism. I like contemporary bands, I wear skinny jeans myself and if I could grow a massive hipster beard, I would. I say this only to emphasize that this is not some anti-contemporary Christian article. I am very much in favor of all this. Instead, my objective is deeper—I want to call the church to do more than merely adapt its manifestation. Instead, we need to go back and rediscover our ontology. Because until we do, our churches will either be dead traditional museums, or dead traditional museums with a contemporary makeover. Either way, we are still dead. Until the church rediscovers its essence as an extension of God’s heart where each member is called to use their gifts as part of a mechanism that enacts that heart in real-time, it will continue to hemorrhage youth regardless of what clever things we do with its style, art, and appearance.
I want to close this present article with the words of the French Enlightenment writer François-Marie Arouet—more commonly known by his stage name Voltaire—when he wrote at the conclusion of his novel “Candide, ou l’Optimisme” the famous line: “We must cultivate our garden.” Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker explains Voltaire’s sentiment saying what the Frenchman aimed to conceptualize was “that our responsibility is local, and concentrated on immediate action.” When we take into account that much of Voltaire’s work was in protest to the established church which perpetuated suffering and injustice in the name of God, it becomes apparent that despite his animosity toward Christianity, Voltaire’s words can actually guide the modern church toward a recapturing of its intended essence.
The church as a garden must not simply be beautified with a new assortment of lilies and roses but must, of necessity, be stripped back to its soil, re-fertilized, and watered, all with the aim of cultivating a garden that contains only the seeds of love, mission, and truth. We must get rid of the weeds of human tradition, the vines of human customs, and the overgrown brush of irrelevant programing. We must cultivate our garden, yes, toward a rediscovery of the heart of God of which we, the church, are but a mere—albeit immeasurable—extension.
 Christine Emba, “Why millennials are skipping church and not going back.”
 Voltaire, “Candide, ou l’Optimisme,” (1759).