By Nicholas Zork
The United States’ presidential election is over a year away, but the race is of course well underway. With memories of the Adventist Church’s General Conference Session in San Antonio fresh in my mind, the parallels between national and church politics are too obvious to ignore. An unfortunate number of resemblances could be noted, such as the growing polarization on issues or the heated tone of debates.
But what interests and concerns me most is the underlying conviction on which everyone seems to agree—at least as far of public statements suggest. In national civic politics, the underlying conviction is American exceptionalism—namely, the often repeated axiom that “America is the greatest country in the world.” The statement takes various forms, but the underlying message is the same: we are exceptional, special, categorically better. On this, American politicians across the political spectrum seem to agree. For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard similar claims made by Adventist leaders about the Adventist church, all of which can be basically summed up with the common assertion that “we are God’s special people.” Such declarations and their ramifications are almost never publicly challenged or critiqued. San Antonio was no exception.
My Christian ethics professor offered a profound insight that frequently comes to mind during most conversations about politics—Adventist or otherwise: we are surprisingly comfortable making statements in the plural “we” that we would never make in the singular “I.” Many who might say “America is the greatest country in the world” would never say “I am the greatest person in the world.” And “we are God’s special people” would not be met with rousing applause if changed to “I am God’s special person.” But the individual boasts are not categorically different, just less palatable. “We” sounds more gracious but only to those who identify with the speaker.
This common way of talking about the Adventist church betrays what is perhaps the central obstacle to fulfilling our stated mission, envisioned by John in Revelation 14:
“And I saw another angel flying in midheaven, having an eternal gospel to preach to those who live on the earth, and to every nation and tribe and tongue and people; and he said with a loud voice, ‘Fear God, and give Him glory, because the hour of His judgment has come; worship Him who made the heaven and the earth and sea and springs of waters.’” (Revelation 14:6, 7 NASB)
Adventist mission is closely tied to worship of the one true God. As Adventists, we see ourselves, in a real sense, as worship leaders, inviting all “those who live on the earth” to join in the liturgy of redemption. We know true worship can only be inspired by the work of Jesus Christ as He is lifted up and draws all people to Himself (see John 12:32). We know true worship of Christ cannot be mandated by church leaders; it is not the fruit of political maneuvering; and it will never well up in response to the exercise of ecclesial authority, majority votes or human power. For true worship cannot be coerced but is a response to the creative and re-creative power of the One “who made the heaven and earth.” Yet, despite all these realities, we so often fail to sing our note in the global song of salvation because we are too busy talking about ourselves. We are called to proclaim that “we have this hope,” but our rhetoric often suggests, wrongly, that we think “we are this hope.”
Fortunately, every Sabbath as we gather to worship with our congregations, we have an opportunity to flip the script and enjoy the privilege of participating in God’s mission. Here are three practical ways we might do that:
1. Resist the urge during the welcome or announcements to tell visitors and remind members that they’re currently worshipping with the greatest church in the city/Conference/tristate region/nation/world. I’m sure I’ve done this many times. I love my local church family. But this well meaning claim misses the point. People have come to meet God. Preach the Good news of how great God is and what God has done for all of us through Christ. That’s the reality worshippers need to hear and experience. Talking about how great we are is contradictory to the Gospel at worst and unnecessary at best.
2. Ask whether the sermon is Christ-centered or church-centered. Call me old fashioned, but I still think following Jesus will generally lead to involvement in the community of Jesus and a local church—despite all the deterrents we create. But the reverse is not always true. It’s quite possible to talk about the church without lifting up Christ at all.
3. Design worship as a response to God. It’s possible to be on the right side of the wrong discussion. In the wake of any church political meetings, it’s natural to import unfinished debates into our local worship services. This is understandable. And, of course, our services should engage with the world around us, including the church world. But the primary conversation in worship is between God and the people God loves—those gathered on Sabbath morning and the rest of God’s human family alike. Internal Adventist debates, while sometimes important, won’t do much to further that primary conversation. Talking about ourselves in San Antonio was necessary to a degree. And many of the discussions that began are far from over. There are many areas of needed growth, and we have a lot to learn from one another. But as disciples of Jesus, we have much more to learn from Him and from the world we are called to serve and love and with whom we have the joy of sharing our hope. Indeed, “we have this hope,” and thanks be to God it is not hope in ourselves but “hope in the coming of the Lord.”