Reimagining Adventism, Part 3: Evangelism, Church, and Absurdity

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Reimagining Adventism, Part 3: Evangelism, Church, and Absurdity

“If we distance ourselves and our point of view, a culture will always look peculiar to us.”

– Shahar Fisher

We are nearly ready to begin reimagining Adventism. So far, we have seen three very important points that call us to reimagine our evangelistic approach. The first is that the secular mind is immersed in absurdity—an experience most people of faith are entirely unfamiliar with. When we fail to recognize this immense distinction we perpetuate an evangelistic narrative that answers questions no one is asking (more on this below). The second is that the absurdity of life is generally escaped via amusement, duties or transcendence. These approaches were initially introduced by the father of existentialism, Soren Kierkegaard in what he referred to as “stages on life’s way.”[1] The idea here is that the secular heart is often only ready to engage biblical faith when the chosen method of navigation collapses. Nevertheless, even though the culture seeks to escape absurdity it is simultaneously a thing to be celebrated, not lamented. Therefore, just because a person’s navigation system has collapsed does not mean that they are suddenly open to consuming traditional Adventist orthodoxy. They would much rather return to the absurdity for at least there is autonomy in it—a virtue absolute truth proposals threaten with annihilation. This leads us to the third point: that the secular person speaks a different language of being to the person of faith. When we fail to recognize these divergences we foster a missional approach that essentially attracts people who are already sort of like us. Anyone outside of that narrow box is tragically excluded.

Related Article: Toward a Theology of Beauty

Each of these points are important to note if we wish to begin reimagining the way in which we share faith at a conceptual level and also at the level of being because the truth is, our present system does not speak to the secular mind but rather to the religious.[2] As a result, most of our evangelistic campaigns and local church cultures attract the already religious and conservative.[3] Very few secular people—especially those most impacted by post-modernity—walk through our doors, and even less stick around. The same is true of our Bible study resources, most of which are designed for people with some sort of religious background.[4] To meet the culture where it is and lead them to Christ, therefore, requires a contextualization that goes deeper than surface methodology and into the very heart of who we are and what we say.

 

In this article series, I want to focus mostly on what we say because I believe that once we have contextualized our message to speak meaning to post and meta-modernity, then how we say it and what methodologies we use will emerge authentically and naturally. Therefore, I want to visit each of our 28 fundamental beliefs as Adventists and reimagine each of them for secular connection. However, before we officially begin that journey there are three more points that need to be clearly made relating to societal fragmentation, evangelistic elasticity and finally, the redesign of the local Adventist church.

 

Societal Fragmentation

 

In his classic book “The Case for Christianity” C.S. Lewis made an interesting observation about forward progress. “We all want progress.” he writes, “But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turn then to go forward does not get you any nearer.”[5] As a result, Lewis suggests that, when on the wrong path the only way forward is to actually go backward, return to the right road, and then we can finally move forward. “Going back”, he summarizes, “is the quickest way on.”

 

In the same way, we cannot go forward as Adventists unless we first go backward. This is why, in a series on reaching the culture, we arrive at article three and find that there are yet another three things we need to settle before diving into the fun stuff. We are effectively walking backward here. We are undoing what is done, retracing our steps back to the missional highway so that, once there, we can, at last, pursue our cause with success.

Related Article: The Founder of “ThatChristianVlogger” is Pushing the Boundaries of Adventist Evangelism

On this regress that I speak of, social fragmentation is the next key that must be understood alongside the absurdity of life, its escapes and the kind of soul-language that this experience creates in the cultural psyche. By social fragmentation, what is meant is that western culture is scattered wildly across the ideological plane. Thus, in his book “Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World” the late Dutch priest Henry Nouwen could say,

 

Our society is so fragmented, our family lives so sundered by physical and emotional distance, our friendships so sporadic, our intimacies so ‘in-between’ things and often so utilitarian, that there are few places where we can feel truly safe.[6]

 

What this means, in part, is that even when the culture shares its post or meta-modern foundations, no two secular communities are ever truly the same. One way of understanding this is to return to our perceived escapes from the absurdity of life. While some pursue amusement, others duty and others transcendence it is a gross error to assume all secular people engage with these perceived “escapes” or “navigations” in the same way. In addition, it’s important to also recognize that many secular people do not fall into any of those categories in any strict sense but rather bounce between all of them at varying degrees.

Related Article: A Critique of the Antimodern Quest

As a result, gone are the days where one evangelistic blueprint or local church model could be copied and pasted without any critical thought. And yet, this is precisely what we continue to do! It’s a lazy model really. Church plants simply copy and paste the model from the old church, engage in outreach using the same worn-out parameters and follow the church manual like the Ten Commandments. The same is true of our evangelism. Our doctrines are presented using the same frameworks and language from city to city—oftentimes utilizing phrases and idioms that are impossible to appreciate without some sort of religious background. Little effort is put into any kind of local contextualization either at the level of conceptual language or at the level of being. This may account, in part, for the common complaint that most of the people who attend our evangelistic series are “already-Adventists” who, to make matters more awkward, come alone! Perhaps there was a day when, in the absence of a wildly fragmented society, a copy and paste model could work relatively well. But those days are long gone. Consequently, when it comes to the local church and evangelism, each body of believers must commit to knowing and understanding their immediate context. You can’t read a book—or even this series—hoping for some magic blueprint. There is none.

Evangelistic Elasticity

This leads us to the theme of evangelistic elasticity. Elasticity is the capacity to constantly adapt to the changes around us. In order to bring home the necessity of a locally contextualized evangelistic approach, allow me to introduce you to one more method of navigation that secular people use to interact with the absurdity of life: equilibrium.

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Where the amused navigates absurdity though amusement, the duty-bound man through responsibilities and the transcendent through spiritual experiences, the path of equilibrium seeks to create a kind of balance between all three. Thus, a healthy dose of amusement, coupled with a balanced approach to life’s duties and sprinkled with the occasional spiritual experience can lead to a satisfying and meaningful life. In truth, this is the path that most well educated secular people pursue and it works quite well. Perhaps this is why Alan Cooperman, director of religion research at Pew Research Center, stated that an “overwhelming number of people who were raised religious but now have left report being pretty content.”[7]

 

The existentialist philosopher Albert Camus gives us a helpful glimpse into this path of equilibrium. Despite life’s absurdity, Camus argued that meaning and beauty could still be found in relationships, connections and beautiful experiences. That is to say, life is meaningless and heading nowhere in particular, but we press on nonetheless and make the most of it. We don’t clamor after answers that don’t exist by obsessing over questions that cannot be satisfied. We don’t appeal to some greater reality in order to escape our current circumstances. Instead, we simply look around us and learn to love and appreciate what we have. In doing so, we live with enthusiasm even though we recognize the cynical center of it all. This perspective is echoed by Yale philosopher Shelly Kagan who, in his debate with Christian apologist William Lane Craig, conceded that in atheism life has no ultimate meaning and yet, it still has meaning.[8] This perspective was also emphasized by Friedrich Nietzsche in his disdain for religion which he hated as much as alcohol in that he saw in them both an escape from being present in the here and now and thus making that here and now better despite its brokenness.[9] The best approach to life, therefore, is the path of equilibrium.

 

Now, suppose you are surrounded by a secular culture that values this path. This places the church in a very bizarre position because the man who crafts a life of balance between amusement, duty, and transcendence guards that balance with jealousy. And nothing threatens this balance more than a group of people who make total claims about reality. Thus, in the experience of the secular, “Christianity” and “church” are ideas that are anchored in oppression, irritation and obsessive “warnings” of judgment. Judgment for what? For not believing in some 2000-year-old figure? For working hard to provide for my family? For doing my best to balance life’s absurdity? For not going to the building full of hypocrites and mindless rituals? If that’s who God is, I’d rather burn in hell than worship him. Thus, the Christian becomes an enemy and coupled with the history of the church, the injustice of the church and the hypocrisy of many so-called “believers”, the secular man finds himself well within reason to diminish his contact with the believer, to never attend his church and—instead—to keep life reasonable and balanced. A bit of amusement to pass the time, a commitment to life’s duties in order to secure a better future and the occasional spiritual experience to satisfy the inner longing for the beyond. That’s the path of equilibrium and you had better not mess with it.

 

Failure to comprehend these issues leads to errors in our evangelistic message. A brief look at the materials offered on Adventistevangelism.com shows marketing language like “Prophecy Awakens…”, “Hope in Times of Uncertainty” and, “Jesus for Today, Hope for Tomorrow”—all approaches that are not only extremely cheesy to a post-modern society that values cynicism and irony but also assumes that people are clamoring after hope when in fact, they aren’t.[10] And herein lies the insanity of it all—that despite the absurdity the culture is not despairing. They are not lying awake at night wondering if there is any hope, what the future holds for America, the need for deliverance or how they can be prepared for the crisis to come. Consequently, the traditional Adventist evangelistic focus—such as “Revelation of Hope”, “Searching for Hope” or “New Beginnings: Discover Hope in a World of Terror” continue to address needs secular people don’t really feel. Even worse are the handbills and flyers utilizing language like “Unsealed”, “Revealed” or “Shocking Bible Truths”—copywriting techniques that feel more like an online clickbait funnel than a meaningful and authentic gathering.

Related Article: Bible Prophecy for Atheists

To make matters worse, it’s not just the tag lines used to advertise these series but the list of topics covered such as creation and evolution, archaeology, the “lost day of history” and “why there are so many denominations”—all addressing questions that few people are asking all the while claiming to be the “truth” that people need to hear while packaged in religious jargon and images of preachers holding threatening black Bibles while donning a cheesy smile with politician style suits complete, no less, with those fat, out-of-style neck-ties. Is it no wonder it isn’t working?

 

But it’s not over! Think also of the artwork these flyers often use. It’s not simply that the beasts are bizarre to a post-church culture but that the style of art overall reeks of 1950’s American suburbia, is cheesy and tastes “airbrushed”. None of the images we use interact with the absurdity of life. They don’t question reality, invite introspection or protest injustice. To make matters worse, we often resort to phony stock images to depict various themes. Australian Adventist artist Shelley Poole expressed her aversion to this approach as well when she noted “The North American shampoo model wearing a bathrobe and a beauty sash—flawless skin to boot!”[11] These “airbrushed images,” she continues, “have become synonymous with ‘fake’ and ‘inauthentic’ in the emerging first world ‘glocal’ culture.”

Related Article: Are Inauthentic Christians Responsible for the Rise of Atheism?

Shelley concludes by adding that the images are not necessarily bad, they do represent “real cultural trends” that were “popularised in post-war North American culture”, a time in which, “[t]he culture genuinely valued the ‘ideal’ as a mark of thriving [and] affluence.” However, as she keenly notes, they are “50 years too late.”[12] As a result, our artwork comes across as… well, cheap, lackluster and disengaged. In light of this, I am compelled to agree with the authors of “Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church” when they stated that “[m]any of yesterday’s evangelism tactics sit like awkward lawn decorations in the front yard of American Christianity.”[13] These outdated approaches, the authors conclude, “often [feel] about as winsome as gaudy yard art.”

 

So what images should we use? Both Poole and fellow UK based Adventist artist Daniel J. Blyden agree that there is no formula. Instead, we must commit to contextualized art that speaks to our surrounding cultures and their respective fragmentation as opposed to using a one size fits all model. Daniel notes that “context” in which we “adapt to particular demographics” that surround us “is key.”[14]

Related Article: An Unconventional Look at Theodicy

I would like to conclude this portion on evangelism by adding that this contextualization is needed at all levels if we wish to reach secular culture—this would involve our artwork, our marketing and copywriting taglines and certainly the list of topics we aim to cover.

 

Redesigning the Local Church

The American anthropologist Horace Minor tells of a strange society whom he refers to as the Nacirema—a tribe of people whom he described as mysterious and secretive.[15] In time, Minor writes that he was able to establish enough rapport with the natives to observe their rituals and beliefs. What made this society strange, Minor explains, is that its people believed they were plagued by a disease that degenerated their physical bodies. In order to counteract the disease then, shrines of marble were erected within their living spaces, and it was here where they stored a vast array of magical potions and charms which, combined with the right rituals, were said to reverse the effects of the decay.

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But this was only the beginning. Minor goes on to tell of how the members of the tribe were obsessed with their mouths and would often endure ritual torture which—almost like an exorcism—was designed to remove anything undesirable from their mouths in order to increase their social desirability. During this process, Minor observed what he referred to as “the holy-mouth-man” employing “a variety of augers, awls, probes and prods” a ceremony which, despite what he also described as “unbelievable ritual torture”, most tribal members repeated every year notwithstanding the fact that it did nothing to cure their disease.

 

Minor goes on at some length describing other oddities of the Nacirema including their temples, the rituals observed in these temples and the fact that for some strange reason, many of the Nacirema who enter the temple are never seen again. In fact, among the young, it was said that the temple was the “place you go to die”. Minor continues by exploring some of the more bizarre practices such as women placing their heads in ovens for up to an hour, their witch doctors whom he referred to as “the listeners”, and their curses and “counter-magic”. In the end, Minor concludes that he is surprised these “magic-ridden people” have “survived so long under the burdens which they have imposed upon themselves”. But of course, the biggest surprise comes when we discover that the Nacirema are merely every day modern Americans, that the disease they fear is the natural process of aging, the shrines are their bathrooms, potions and charms their beauty treatments, the “holy mouth-man” their dentist, the “temples” their hospitals, the ovens, beauty salon hairdryers, the “listener” witch-doctor a psychologist, and so on.

 

What Minor has simply done is examined American culture from the perspective of a person who is entirely unfamiliar with it. In this sense, Shahar Fisher of The Cultural Reader explains that “if we distance ourselves and our point of view, a culture will always look peculiar to us.”[16]

 

Understanding the above scenarios should then lead us to distance ourselves from our customs and thus experience the peculiarity in a typical local Adventist church from the perspective of a secular mind. That which we find normal and wonderful is—to a world drowning in absurdity—obscene. While I will explore this in more detail when we touch on the doctrine of the church, for now, I would at least like to suggest that connecting with secular culture calls us to a complete redesign of the local church—one that distances itself from obscene traditions and approximates primitive biblical faith. Francis Chan captures the obscenity of the modern-day local church when he wrote,

 

Church today has become predictable… You go to a building, someone gives you a bulletin, you sit in a chair, you sing a few songs, a guy delivers maybe a polished message, maybe not, someone sings a solo, you go home.[17]

 

Chan then asks, “Is that all God intended for us?” To which each of us should shout, “No!” However, the difficulty is that we have gotten so used to the greeter (whose face is aching from all the forced smiling), the droning liturgy, the “over-the-top” King James English, the grizzled songs, the quaint instruments, the flat, harsh pews and have gotten so comfortable with the long, boring and unsurprising that we never stop to think just how obscene the whole thing really is. We need to distance ourselves from our customs long enough to observe just how anomalous and unnecessary they really are. Only then will we have the foundation necessary to redesign for mission. And perhaps then we join in the poetic strains of contemporary musician David Crowder who once sang, “I’m so bored of little gods, while standing on the edge of something large, while standing here, so close to You, we could be consumed.”[18]

 

In conclusion, Adventists seeking to reach secular culture must begin via the path of regress in which we learn to appreciate the absurdity of life, understand the beauty in navigating, escaping and celebrating this absurdity, and learn to connect with the conceptual and soul-language that this experience creates. From there, we must understand the fragmentation of contemporary society and how evangelistic elasticity and a redesigned local Adventist church are the foundations for crafting a meaningful approach to connecting with the culture.

 

With these introductory elements now out of the way, we are ready to begin reimagining our message to the culture.

Read the rest of Marcos’ series on Adventist doctrine!

______

Notes.

 

[1] Note, Kierkegaard did present these stages differently. He referred to them as the aesthetic, ethical and religious and saw them more as a progression in life. The model of amusement, duties and transcendence that I introduced is different in the sense that it is not necessarily a progression. Nevertheless, this model is inspired by Kierkeggard. For more see: Soren Kierkegaard. Stages on Life’s Way: “Kierkegaard’s Writings, Vol 11,” [Web: https://www.amazon.com/Stages-Lifes-Way-Kierkegaards-Writings/dp/0691020493]

[2] See research project “Millennial perceptions of Adventist public evangelism” by Alan Parker and Emily Charvat. The research found that the traditional Adventist evangelistic series is more effective at reaching politically conservative and traditionally minded people than it is at reaching those impacted mostly by the emerging post to meta-modern secular ideology. [Web: https://www.slideshare.net/parkersda/millennial-perceptions-of-adventist-public-evangelism]

[3] See Podcast interview with Pastor Nathaniel Tan “Is Traditional Evangelism Dead?” [Web: https://soundcloud.com/pomopastor/is-traditional-evangelism-dead]

[4] For example, Bible study sets like “Search for Certainty” are geared toward answering questions asked by people impacted by dispensational theology which is why it includes a whole study on the “Secret Rapture” – a concept unfamiliar to secular post-moderns. Amazing Facts study guides along many others also include proof text defenses of varius doctrines like the Sabbath which assumes their students have been exposed to anti-Sabbath arguments. Secular post-moderns would likewise be entirely unfamiliar with any such argumentation.

[5] C.S. Lewis. “The Case for Christianity,” [Web: https://www.amazon.com/Case-Christianity-C-S-Lewis/dp/0805420444]

[6] Henry Nouwen. “Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World,” [Web: https://www.amazon.com.au/Life-Beloved-Spiritual-Living-Secular-ebook/dp/B011H5ISKA]. As quoted in: Goodreads.com [https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/622948-our-society-is-so-fragmented-our-family-lives-so-sundered]

[7] As quoted in: Faith Hill. “They Tried to Start a Church Without God. For a While, It Worked.”, [Web: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/07/secular-churches-rethink-their-sales-pitch/594109]

[8] “Is God Necessary for Morality? William Lane Craig vs Shelly Kagan” [Web: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SiJnCQuPiuo]

[9] As summarised in: The School of Life. “Philosophy – Nietzsche,” [Web: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wHWbZmg2hzU]

[10] It must be kept in mind that “people” in this context is contemporary secular culture. There are still many other people groups in the pre-modern (primarily migrant) and modern (primarily baby-boomers and Gen-X) milieus that will respond more favorably to older approaches.

[11] Shelly Poole. (Personal Communication, August 5, 2019)

[12] ibid.

[13] by Kara Powell, et all. “Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church,” [Web: https://www.amazon.com/Growing-Young-Essential-Strategies-Discover/dp/0801019257]

[14] Daniel J. Blyden (Personal Communication, August 5, 2019)

[15] Horace Minor. “Body Rituals Among The Nacirema,” [Web: https://www.sfu.ca/~palys/Miner-1956-BodyRitualAmongTheNacirema.pdf]

[16] Shahar Fisher. “‘Body Ritual Among the Nacirema’ / Miner – Analysis and Explanation,” [Web: http://culturalstudiesnow.blogspot.com/2017/07/body-ritual-among-nacirema-miner.html]

[17] Francis Chan. “Francis Chan: Church Today Not What God Intended,” [Web: https://www.christianpost.com/news/francis-chan-church-today-not-what-god-intended.html]

[18] David Crowder Band. “How Great,” from the album “Illuminate” [Web: https://genius.com/David-crowder-band-how-great-lyrics]

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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.