Reimagining Adventism: The Gifts of the Spirit and Absurdity, Part 1

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Reimagining Adventism: The Gifts of the Spirit and Absurdity, Part 1

Most Seventh-day Adventists and Adventist churches I know are functionally binitarian. – David Hamstra

In his book “The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated”, authors James Emery White makes a remarkable observation about contemporary mission. In the olden days, he argues, a church could reach its community by following a simple progression. First, they proclaimed the gospel at a revival meeting that drew the masses. Then, those who accepted the proclamation would become part of the church community. Once baptized, the church could then assign them a cause or ministry for them to serve and participate in. The progression went something like this:




However, around the 1980s a shift in the culture took place. People no longer responded to propositional truth claims. The impact of postmodernity was in full swing. And the church moved into what has been commonly referred to as the age of “belong before you believe.” This meant that in order for a church to reach its city, it first had to engage the city in community. Once trusting relationships were established, then the church could proclaim its message. Those who accepted the message were baptized and then given a cause to invest their time and talents into building the kingdom.




Both of these models of outreach are well known to us Adventists. The first model takes us back to the days of tent revivals. This was a time in which traveling evangelists would set up a tent in a busy part of town and invite everyone along. People would flock from everywhere to hear the proclamation of the gospel. But in time, our church saw the need to shift by placing community before proclamation. Churches that follow this model engage in all kinds of community engagement projects like Cooking Classes, Dinner with a Doctor, Depression and Anxiety Recovery programs, Addiction Recovery, and so on. These churches also tend to place a high emphasis on small groups, especially interest-based ones like cycling groups, photography, or really anything that would enable the church to engage its neighbors and build trust with them before hosting a “harvest campaign” in which a series of sermons would be preached to “reap the harvest” the church had sown through its community engagement.


Today, most missional Adventist churches engage the world around them using the later model. A few still aim for the former model, but it is rarer and rarer due to its obvious ineffectiveness in the meta-modern age. However, the keen observer will also note that while the “belong before you believe” model works better, it too has begun to slow in terms of impact. This is where White suggests something profound and radical. The culture, he insists, has shifted again. Where a church could once grow via “proclaim – community – cause” which then shifted to “community – proclaim – cause”, the church can only grow today if the pattern begins with cause, moving toward community, and finally proclamation.




What this means is that in our contemporary milieu, people are only drawn to communities if they are seen to be doing something meaningful in their sphere of influence. If your community is not engaging its sphere of influence meaningfully then your community is simply not worth anyone’s attention. And if your community is not worth a person’s attention, why should anyone care about what you proclaim? So, while it is true that people still desire to belong before they believe, the added layer is that people only want to belong if you are a meaningful and consequential community. Being a friendly church with nice food doesn’t cut it anymore. The question is, are you doing something meaningful? Because if you don’t have a relevant cause, then your community and proclamation are simply ignored amid the chaotic noise of life’s absurdity.


At a very basic level, such a shift demands the church to engage its culture in relevant, meaningful service. It must stand for something significant and valuable and it must be seen to invest and sacrifice its own comfort and privilege in order to fulfill its cause. If your church does this, then it has a higher chance of connecting with neighbors who see its active, useful, engagement. As the connection blossoms, neighbors then become a part of the church community perhaps even supporting them in their cause and growing in relationship. As this experience deepens into bonding, the seeker finds themselves prepared to lend an inquisitive ear to your proclamation.


If White is correct (and I believe he is) then this means that the things we emphasize most in the church are actually the least important. The preacher, for example, only enters the above picture at the tail end of the journey and even then, a classical preacher is not needed for proclamation. In fact, you are more likely to succeed in a relational proclamation than in a programmed approach. But even if you did go the classical route, the guy at the front is still at the tail end. This means people experience the gospel through service, acts of compassion, and relationship first. Consequently, the quiet member with stage fright who prefers to organize service and social events is more important for your church’s growth in the meta-modern era than the public evangelist. And the good news is, this member of yours doesn’t come with a triple-digit price tag.


However, if the above scenario is true then we as Adventists find ourselves in an awfully uncomfortable predicament. And perhaps few have articulated this predicament as well as pastor David Hamstra when he stated that “Most Seventh-day Adventists and Adventist churches I know are functionally binitarian.”




The Futility of Functional Binitarianism

Hamstra suggests that while Seventh-day Adventists are theologically Trinitarian we are practically Binitarians. What he means by this is we place such little emphasis on the Holy Spirit, that in practical terms we cannot be said to be Trinitarians. The divine Trio is subsumed, in pragmatic experience, to a divine Duo in which Father and Son occupy experiential real estate while the Spirit sits on a shelf somewhere, only to be pulled down during our debates with anti-Trinitarians before we hastily place him back. It appears that our fear of Pentecostalism and emotivism is so strong, that we have settled for a hyper-intellectualized, rational faith that shies away from experience. As a result, our churches and discipleship model is tilted heavily toward academic and propositional concepts that we can measure and control. But what we hide from, the thing that scares us the most, is to not be in control. The Spirit has little room to move in most Adventist congregations. And that’s OK with us. I mean, we have our 28 Fundamental Beliefs ironed out quite well, a manageable list of lifestyle expectations for our members and converts, and of course, a church-manual to tell us how to run the show. In a scenario like this, who needs the Holy Spirit? We can preach about him from time to time, but that’s about as much range as he gets.


Now in this article, I am not going to go on a long, drawn-out exploration of why we should depend on the Spirit. I think most of us get it. Anyone who has read their Bible ought to know, without a shadow of a doubt, that what we call church today is nothing like what we see in the New Testament. We know it because we talk about it all the time—in sermons and Bible studies about the outpouring of the “Latter Rain”. In those conversations, we betray the inner-truth we fight against on the surface—that we know, deep inside, that something is way off. We know the work of the kingdom will not be accomplished with church manuals, pews, organs, and preachers. We know the work of the gospel will never be accomplished with buildings, centers of influence, professional evangelists, flyers, banners, mass mailing copies of the Great Controversy, or $50,000 public campaigns. We know the mission of the church will never be fulfilled by depending on boards, committees, and sub-committees. We know that even if every Adventist church on the planet became a successful mega-church we would still be reaching less than one percent of the cities we inhabit. In fact, we know that no building could ever be built to fit all the people we have been called to reach—literally every human being. Our global mission alone tells us that all our real estate would be incapable of doing the job. We also know our impressive global institutional model can’t do it. At best, our institution can merely support or nurture the mission of our church. It can never secure its accomplishment. And if we are honest, our institutional tendrils have gotten so tangled and widespread that in many ways, the thing intended to support the mission often gets in its way. And we know it. We know it awfully well.


But what can we do about it? For starters, I would say forget about the institution for a little while. Instead, look at your immediate context. How can we nurture a non-geocentric, non-program centric, non-clergy centric church culture that awakens the priesthood of all believers? One in which every person is using their spiritual gifts for the growth of the kingdom? I believe the answer to this is both simple but radical. To simplify this journey though, I would like to divide our exploration into three categories: The Spirit’s Experiential Utility, Scriptures Volitional Spirit-Mystery, and finally, The Ecosystem of the Spirit. I will begin with the first in this article and turn to the others in the next article.


The Spirits Experiential Utility

We all talk about the importance of using our spiritual gifts all the time. In fact, most of us have probably been subjected to one of those horrendous spiritual-gift inventories (OK, maybe I’m being too harsh). But despite all our talk on spiritual gifts, the vast majority of our church members manifest a fairly idle spirituality that revolves around programs instead of people—a compartmentalized church experience that doesn’t go much further than a Sabbath morning event. And yes, despite how interesting or even potentially useful a spiritual gifts inventory might be, we must wonder how in the world the New Testament church got along without them. Perhaps it’s because they actually had the Holy Spirit so they didn’t need a cleverly designed algorithm to reveal the mystery of God’s workings to them? I don’t hate the inventories, but I do believe that something is way off when discovering a transpersonal, supernatural calling is relegated to an abstract and artificial questionnaire engineered along the same codes as a secular career aptitude test.


I will revisit this theme when I touch on the Ecosystem of the Spirit. For now, I want to keep our attention on the purpose of the gifts of the Spirit. Why are they there? And why are we called to use them? Not just some of us but all of us? I believe the answer is simple. It is through the manifestation of the gifts of the Spirit that we can most effectively lift Jesus up before the world. Not through elegant buildings, complex discipleship pathways, industrialized conveyor-belt models of spiritual development, charismatic evangelists, air-tight propositional arguments, or well-tuned, high-budget attractive events. To the contrary, the church in the New Testament grew through the manifestation of agape love and the collective use of spiritual gifts.


Perhaps an illustration would help bring this point home. In the Old Testament, we encounter the highly dramatic story of Joseph and his coat of many colors. Joseph, as we all know, was the spoiled child of Jacob and Rachel. He received special treatment that Leah’s sons did not receive and over time, it appears he became a narcissistic goody-two-shoes who would spy on his brothers in order to tattle-tale to his father. Long story short, the brothers hated Joseph and when he received the coat of many colors, it is likely that they felt in due time the father would make Joseph the new patriarch of the family instead of the eldest, Ruben. Joseph, of course, would report dreams he saw in which all of them—father included—bowed to him. The family interpreted these dreams as offensive, the narcissistic rummaging of an imagination diseased by self-aggrandizing fantasies fueled by the father’s misplaced attachment. The hatred intensified to the point that the brothers plotted to kill Joseph but instead ended up selling him as a slave to an Egyptian caravan.


Of course, this is not what they told their father. Tearing his coat and covering it in goats’ blood, they returned to the father with the deceptive news that the boy must have been mauled by a wild animal. Then, for the next 20 years, they kept their dark secret to themselves.


When the famine came, the brothers traveled to Egypt to get grain. It is here that they encountered Joseph as second-in-command of all Egypt. To simplify the complex events that followed, let’s skip to the moment of Joseph’s disclosure. The brothers see him, weep with him, and hold him. They experience reconciliation and forgiveness and a new chapter of their lives is opened. They then return home and in doing so, must confront their father with the truth. After 20 years of agony, the father is told his once dead son is now alive. It is, from his vantage point, a resurrection. The boy he thought dead was alive again. But how can this be? Incredulity sets in. He cannot believe it. He will not believe it even though he wants to with all his heart. The news itself is just too good to be true. He will not go to Egypt to see his son. It simply cannot be.


The story would end in tragedy at this point if it isn’t for what happens next. Notice how the story unfolds from the moment the brothers leave Egypt to return to the father:


The sons of Israel did so: and Joseph gave them wagons, according to the command of Pharaoh, and gave them provisions for the journey. To each and all of them he gave a change of clothes, but to Benjamin he gave three hundred shekels of silver and five changes of clothes. To his father he sent as follows: ten donkeys loaded with the good things of Egypt, and ten female donkeys loaded with grain, bread, and provision for his father on the journey. Then he sent his brothers away, and as they departed, he said to them, “Do not quarrel on the way.” (Genesis 45:21-24)


Don’t miss what has happened here. Joseph sends his brothers home to get their father and return to Egypt. The invitation is redemptive. The famine is killing many but in Egypt, there is life and provision. Hope lies to the south of the promised land in Africa. This parallels the absurdity of life versus the redemptive promise of heaven. But notice what happens next:


So they went up out of Egypt and came to the land of Canaan to their father Jacob. And they told him, “Joseph is still alive, and he is ruler over all the land of Egypt.” And his heart became numb, for he did not believe them. (25-26)


Once again, this is the point in the story where the potential for redemption is confronted with incredulity. Tragedy lingers on the edges. In his unbelief, the father will not merely condemn his family to more suffering but will also miss out on the chance to experience the greatest joy of his life. But the next verse says:


But when they told him all the words of Joseph, which he had said to them, and when he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to carry him, the spirit of their father Jacob revived. And Israel said, “It is enough; Joseph my son is still alive. I will go and see him before I die.” (27-28)


Notice the dynamic of the story. When the father encounters both the words and the gifts of Joseph, his incredulity collapses, hope springs forth in his heart, and he declares, “my son is alive.” The story then moves into its most emotive scene in which father and son are reunited. The father migrates to Egypt, but when he is still a ways off Joseph arrives in his royal chariot and together they weep—a new beginning is birthed.


But why are we focusing on this story? It’s really quite simple. I have come to believe that the gifts of the spirit, together with the words of Jesus, are the experiential evidence that Jesus is alive. The words alone are not enough. Just look around you—as a church are we not good at words? Are our sermons not polished? Are our presentations not eloquent and clear? Adventism has no famine of good preachers and useful resources that communicate the words of Jesus. But what we lack in our functional Binitarian state is a true manifestation of the Spirit—gifts that emerge as the evidence, gifts which when other see them, the walls of incredulity will melt away, hope will spring forth from within, and they will declare “Jesus is alive”.


The gifts of the Spirit are not merely important, they possess experiential utility. We don’t prove Christ with apologetics or philosophy or even prophecy. We prove him with the gifts. When he is alive in us, not in a mere romanticized sense, but in a real active sense, others will see him in us and know, the son is alive.


But of course, this raises many questions such as, “What does this manifestation look like?” And “How can we experience it?” We will turn to these and other themes in the next article.

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

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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