Reimagining Adventism: The Gifts of the Spirit and Absurdity, Part 3

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Reimagining Adventism: The Gifts of the Spirit and Absurdity, Part 3

“Love one another…” – The New Testament

 

In the previous articles, we explored two main themes. The first was the Spirit’s experiential utility. Here we discovered that the active presence of the Spirit among us is not merely a nebulous theological concept but rather a tangible reality that has practical use in the realm of post-church mission. In fact, the utility of the Spirit is absolutely central to an effective post-church mission. However, Adventists struggle with this because we are a people of systems, explanations, and rational discourse. The mystery of the Spirit is uncomfortable for us. The fear of fanaticism and emotivism thus robs us of the opportunity to immerse ourselves in a self-abandoning pursuit of the uncontainable one—a mystery that defies systematics and restraints. And nested within this anxiety lies the second theme we explored: scriptures volitional Spirit-mystery. That is to say, God keeps a part of himself enigmatic, and he does so on purpose. It’s as if he wants to stretch us beyond that which we can control and invite us into an experience with him that we cannot script. And that is scary. But without it, that is in the denial of this experience, there arises a spiritual boredom that is as awful as it is suffocating. And it is in this Laodecian malaise, this spiritual banality, that we currently find ourselves.

 

In this final article, I want to bring home this exploration of the gifts of the Spirit and absurdity by turning to what I refer to as “the ecosystem of the Spirit.” What I mean by this is that while the Spirit may resist our reductionist instincts, while he may remain ineffable and mysterious, there is a kind of ecosystem that he enacts—an ecosystem upon which we can depend and in which we can thrive. When Jesus spoke of the Spirit being like the wind he hinted at this ecosystem. For while the wind has mystery in that you cannot know where it comes from or where it is going, the mystery is also accompanied by observable corollaries. The wind refreshes soothes and calms. We can inhale its cleansing fragrance and enjoy its gentle touch. The wind, in fact, is essential to the natural process of life. It disperses seeds and pollen, helping plant populations spread as well as “passing on the legacy of the tree”.[1] So while the wind may in fact be mysterious from an individual standpoint, it is also essential to the vitality of the natural world. In the same way, inherent within the Spirit’s mystery is his consequential urgency—without the Spirit, there can be no vitality, no life. He is the church’s ecosystem and in him, the beauty of what church is manifests most fully as a complex network of divine love, an interconnected system of healing, grace, and redemption. And it is within this complex network, these patterns, postures, and interconnected manifestations of the Spirit that we can both discern his mystery and celebrate his presence.

 

But what exactly is this ecosystem? How can we define it? How can we experience it? And how can we recognize it when we see it? To answer this question, it is perhaps best to compare and contrast what we see in the New Testament (NT) church versus what we see today. In doing so, the beauty of the Spirit’s ecosystem will become self-evident. To do this, I will highlight just three tenets of modern Christianity—rationalism, individualism, and commodification—accompanied by a biblical analysis that contrasts each of these with what I believe God truly has in mind for us.

 

Rationalism

 

Adventist Church gatherings today are characterized by one main ingredient: the lectern. This is where the preacher stands and teaches. The lectern – a symbol of academia and intellectualism—has risen to the heights of church culture prestige. Everything revolves around it and in the absence of a good sermon the crowd leaves with an air of disappointment, almost as if they had just witnessed one of those hyped-up movies with an anti-climactic ending. Something cool was meant to happen at church on Sabbath, but the preacher wasn’t on point so, I feel a bit let down that the thing for which all energy is oriented, the moment which is so important all other aspects of the worship experience emerge as mere “packaging” for this main crescendo, was fundamentally lacking.

 

The lectern is indeed the hero of the sacred hour. While this centrality can be traced back to the Protestant reformation, it can be traced back further than this to the enlightenment and western culture’s quasi-worship of academia and rational discourse. This is why lecterns feature in university classrooms—because they metaphorize this facet of western thought, that is the adoration of the intellect. And when this idea swept into the church during the reformation, the lectern came to take the place of the Catholic mass as the thing around which all other things orbited.

 

Now, this isn’t necessarily wrong. After all, following decades of theological darkness, the masses were hungry for intellectual and rational explorations of the scriptures and we certainly need this. But over time, the lectern claimed a place in the gathering that was not intended for it. And so today, it is assumed that going to church is synonymous with going to a “learning” event. People expect to be intellectually stimulated. If the preacher is good, they are satisfied. If he is not, they complain. And everything in church gathering is oriented to revolve around the central demand to learn something new.

 

As stated before, learning is a good thing and is certainly a part of Biblical Christianity. However, what we don’t see in the Bible is this centralization of academic discourse. Instead, we see the early church meeting in homes, eating together, praying together, and immersing themselves in the apostles’ teaching. This immersion, however, did not look anything like it does today with people sitting in static rows week after week while one man or woman talks for forty minutes. Instead, it looked a lot more like family—a community gathering in intergenerational synchronicity to share with one another and celebrate the word. The modern lectern-centrist approach then owes more to western rationalism and the enlightenment than it does to scripture. This is why this model is so difficult on families with children who cannot sit still during what amounts to little more than a “spiritized” university lecture. Non-western cultures who prefer storytelling and mutual sharing (such as indigenous tribes) over monodirectional discourse also struggle to assimilate into this model. Again, Christianity in the Bible is certainly rational, but it is also practical and kinesthetic. Gatherings do not emerge as primarily learning events; there is no lectern and there is no lecture. On the contrary, learning takes place in daily discipleship, patterns, and practical obedience to Christ’s commands—that is, redefining your everyday life according to the rhythms that Christ is moving to. In the midst of this experience, a more holistic and organic learning takes place that our modern churches rarely ever approximate. Families are included, a more generationally and culturally inclusive environment emerges and church moves from a two-hour intensive to an everyday rhythm.

 

But here is the part that’s hard to swallow. The ecosystem that the Spirit brings to church life is a kind of spiritually biotic experience in which the realities of relationship, intergenerational connection, and village culture emerge as a celebration of God restoring his other-centered heart of love in humanity. And this ecosystem is organic, not artificial—it is meant to thrive in the natural rhythms of life, not in forced systems. This means that our modern church model, heavily artificial and systematized, is not merely a place where the Spirits ecosystem cannot thrive but is itself a threat to that ecosystem. So long as church is a place to go to and not who I am, so long as church is a building or an event and not an us, so long as church revolves around academic lecterns and hired clergy, I find it difficult to imagine that we will ever experience the Spirit’s ecosystem in any real, nurturing way.

 

In short, I believe our structures— while administratively brilliant and logistically useful—are likewise a systemic source of Spirit-strangling in our churches. Members don’t serve, reach out, or connect with one another not because they are unspiritual but because they inhabit a system that is anti-spiritual. We must stop blaming our supposed “noncommitted” members and begin to consider that perhaps we have collectively become too dependent on structures that damage the ecosystem of the Spirit by introducing too much artificiality and thus, banality, to the spiritual life.

 

Individualism

 

Scripture teaches that Jesus is a personal savior. He knows and cares about each of us by name. But in the modern church, the notion of a personal savior has gone beyond this basic biblical foundation. In church today, accountability is foreign, members rarely know each other deeply, and spirituality is essentially privatized. This is because we have come to see spirituality as primarily personal rather than communal.

 

In scripture, the personal salvation experience is always in tension with the social impact of that salvation. There is no such thing as a lone-ranger Christian. Faith is done in community. This is why the old adage “come to church for God, not people” is so foreign to the New Testament. In fact, the statement is incredibly bizarre to the New Testament consciousness. Church is people. Why would you go to the people if you’re not there for the people? Church is not a building or an event. It is a people. Church is not an it, church is an us. It is to be lived every day, and this belonging reorients our life’s postures. In short, we don’t go to church; we are the church—every day. Therefore, when a person comes to church they most certainly come for the people, because the people are an extension of God’s heart. But today, it’s easier to excuse the injustice and abusive constructs of the “people” by telling victims of their toxicity to come to church anyway because it’s about “God” rather than rebuke the “people” who scare seekers away from God. No, we must stop shaming victims of church toxicity with “it’s about God” nonsense and instead, begin to hold the church accountable for its hypocrisies and pathologies. Only then, can the people finally become who they are meant to be—not perfect of course, but sensible, balanced, lighthearted, kind, and well… loving. Is that too much to ask?

 

And while I am in the question asking mood, allow me another. How did we get so far from the communal picture of church in scripture? How did we go from gatherings of Jesus-lovers to events and programs where people come together once a week despite not having any connection the other six days of the week? How did church end up as a 2-hour event detached from the other 166 hours of the week? How did Jesus become a privatized ideology for my own personal consumption when the New Testament commands us, more than 40 times, to “love one another”? It has less to do with biblical teaching and more to do with the impact of individualism which is also one of the central features of the enlightenment. And this individualistic feature is yet another element of western culture that is bred and fed in our artificial systems.

 

Commodification

 

In the same way, church today is treated as a compartmentalized aspect of life. As mentioned above, few see themselves as the church and instead perceive of church as something they attend. In the same vein, when they do attend, they attend with a consumer mindset. Church is seen as an event or program that functions like a product intended to provide a particular service to my family and me. If the church does not provide the service, I complain until it does or I find another church that meets my needs.

 

The fairly recent development of age-segregated learning makes this even more difficult. Church is expected to mimic secular learning institutions by providing age-segregated ministries. These age-segregated ministries must then be staffed by volunteers. Year after year, the task gets harder, volunteers get tired, and families come to expect the tired volunteers to do the bulk of their kid’s discipleship rather than that discipleship taking place in non-programmed intergenerational connections, relationships, and daily home/life rhythms. In the end, our amazing kids, teens, and youth programs continue to fail at retaining our youth. The youth exodus continues like a ruptured artery.

 

But of course, this is merely a symptom of a bigger problem. That rather than seeing church as a community to which I belong on a daily basis—as a new humanity that God is birthing into the world—church has become a mere commodity. And commodities might be nice, but they never provide existential value. On the contrary, they merely amuse.

 

Now, of course, the church in the NT was not perfect. Just read the letters Paul wrote! But if there’s one thing that is true it’s this—church then was a lot more reflective of God’s original intent than modern churches today which are, to a large degree, constructed on these secular rather than spiritual pillars. In the NT, you didn’t have 100 people sitting around watching one guy week after week. Everyone used their gifts. Families were integrated rather than segregated. Intergenerational worship wasn’t a buzzword being pushed by experts in seminaries. It was the norm. Homes were filled with the Spirit rather than special buildings. A gathering often consisted of food, communion, and on occasion—a letter written by one of the apostles would arrive. They would spend time in prayer and discussing the word. There was no lectern, no consumerism, no privatized spirituality. Church was the gathering of the called-out ones, an alternative community reflecting the way of Jesus and oriented toward the kingdom of heaven.

 

I don’t know about you, but I long for this kind of church. And in fact, I have come to believe that unless we see a catalyst of new churches emerge with this neo-primitive DNA, we will never see the work of the gospel complete. It’s time we stopped blaming people’s lack of spiritual commitment for the failure of the church and admitted that the problem is us—our model, our system, our inherently limiting structure. It’s time we stopped calling for revival and reformation in people’s private lives if we aren’t willing to revive and reform the structures that are strangling the Spirit’s ecosystem leaving a trail of broken seekers in its collateral wake.

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

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Notes.

[1] Julie Crick. “Wind is essential to natural processes,” [Web: https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/wind_is_essential_to_natural_processes]

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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.