Reprinted from PlusLine at http://www.plusline.org/article.php?id=4316
Why Bother with the Denomination?
By John McLarty
Reliable polls indicate Americans are interested in spirituality but not in the traditions, teachings and commitments of denominations. Church growth specialists have suggested that a strong denominational identity may actually retard the growth of a congregation. So why bother with the Adventist denomination? Why not simply focus all our attention on our own local congregations and ignore the denomination? What are the benefits of participation in a local church which is part of the Seventh-day Adventist denominational structure?
Adventism and Diversity
Among the regulars at my church on Sabbath morning, you’ll find contented life-long Adventists, recent converts excited about Adventist doctrine and life, and returning Adventists back in church after years away who still have major questions about aspects of Adventist doctrine or culture.
Then there are the “non-Adventist members,” people who have found a home in our congregation but have no intention of formally joining the Adventist church, refugees from the breakup of the World Wide Church of God, individuals from the Church of God Seventh-day and the Shepherd’s Rod movement, Messianic Jews, a couple of “off-brand” Sabbatarians with ministerial training but no congregation to pastor.
What holds us together? Adventism. Given the diversity of our congregation, if we tried to develop our own detailed statement of doctrine we’d either splinter into a dozen or so factions or we would have a theology so vague and generic, it would be impossible to give significant instruction to new converts.
By embracing Adventism as our doctrinal center, we are able to be passionate about theology without self-destructing in the collisions of personal viewpoints. We are able to welcome a very wide diversity of theological perspectives without losing the definition that is essential for effective outreach to non-Christians.
In “community churches,” the theology and spiritual life of the church either narrows to reflect the pastor or has very little definition. Many of these churches train their own pastoral staff in-house so there is very little theological cross-fertilization. There is no real connection with the larger stream of Christian history. Being part of a denomination works to increase the theological and spiritual diversity in Adventist congregations.
While Adventists have done poorly in race relations, being in the same denomination with congregations with differing racial identities pushes us to recognize our failures and to address them. Denominational connections can also assist congregations bridge generational gaps.
Adventism and Pastors
The pastors in the local clergy association I belong to have a very high view of the privileges and authority of the clergy and a correspondingly low view of the competence and trustworthiness of the laity.
Their perspective is not atypical. Recently, along with other Adventist pastors in my region, I attended a leadership seminar based on the work of John Maxwell, a prominent speaker among evangelicals. According to the presenter, pastoral leadership is the ability to get church members to accept and support the pastor’s vision of where the church should be headed and how it should get there. The laity do not play any significant role in determining the direction of the church. Their job is to support and implement their pastor’s vision. This approach to leadership is evident in all of the large community churches I’m acquainted with. The pastor has almost unlimited authority.
The Adventist system does not assign pastors that kind of authority. While our structure often limits the effectiveness of creative, innovative pastors, it also limits the impact of incompetent or misguided pastors. American Adventist culture sees an essential parity in the authority of laity and clergy.
Parity of spiritual authority does not come from some formal vote by the General Conference; it comes from the broader Adventist culture. If you’ve gone to Adventist schools, been a member of different Adventist congregations and have friends and relatives in other Seventh-day Adventist congregations, you have an almost instinctive yardstick with which to measure your pastor and congregation. If the pastor gets out of line, you know it. The greatest check on the abuse of pastoral power is the sense of history and tradition that lives in the minds of long-time Adventists, people who have enough history and breadth of contact with Adventism to resist (and correct) an erring but charismatic pastor (or administrator).
It’s easy to see the effect of local congregations. It’s more difficult to gauge the value of other Adventist institutions such as schools, summer camps, and media. We could tell personal stories of how a particular teacher touched us, how summer camp scarred or charmed us, how a media program was our first contact with the Adventist Church. These individual stories are compelling, but the principle value of these institutions is in their function as the connective tissue of the body of Adventism. These institutions create the mental and social linkage among Adventist congregations. They connect the three kids in a twenty-member church in Kansas with the thousands of Seventh-day Adventist youth across the country (and world). They give meaning and hope to “church” when a local congregation or pastor is dysfunctional. Potentially, they limit the impact of the failure of a particular congregation. (And congregations do fail.)
Some would argue that we should be content to see ourselves as Christians and not give much emphasis to our Adventist identity. But “Christian,” in America, for many people means belief in the god of eternal torment. In the minds of many non-Christians, Christians are people who hate homosexuals and bomb abortion clinics. In the South I grew up in, “Christian” meant “separate but equal.” And not a few Americans are aware that regions of the country with the most pronounced “Christian identity” are the places with the highest incidence of child abuse.
Given this misunderstanding of the real meaning of “Christian,” I gladly embrace my Adventist identity. My secular neighbors are much less prejudiced against Adventism than against Christianity. So calling myself an Adventist or an Adventist Christian actually helps me in my evangelistic efforts among those who are not already born-again Christians.
Being an Adventist connects me with believers in New Guinea and Botswana. It connects me with Urdu and Korean-speaking believers here in the U. S. It connects me with the evil in Rwanda, where my people were both killers and victims. The denomination is not the same as the Body of Christ, but it reminds me of my spiritual connections with believers who are very different and very distant.
(On a practical note: While early evidence found that a strong denominational identity could hinder the growth of a congregation, later research reversed those findings. A strong denominational identity may well facilitate the growth of congregations.)
This is the real reason why I’m a booster of Adventism. For all its flaws (i.e. humanness) Adventist theology is the form of Christianity best suited to reach the modern, educated mind. In conversations with Buddhists, Jews, agnostics and garden variety non-religious Americans I have found repeatedly that the Adventist understanding of God and humanity elicits their respect if not their agreement.
The Adventist understanding of how “inspiration” works makes sense to modern people. We believe God inspired the writers; he did not dictate the words. Properly understood, this view encourages both scholarship and the meekness of classic Christian spirituality.
Adventists (even the fundamentalists among us) believe in the intelligibility of God. We are driven to interpret what the Bible says in a way that does not violate human intelligence and sense of justice. God himself, we believe, is a being of law. He is not capricious or arbitrary.
This idea of God’s intelligibility and lawfulness underlies our doctrines of judgment (decisions are made in the open, not in the secret heart of God), the fate of the wicked and the salvation of individuals in pre-Christian societies. It undergirds the Adventist educational enterprise.
The other pole of Adventist thought is the essential goodness of creation. We are obligated to show respect for God’s artistry through the way we treat our bodies. Nature is valued among us as a resource for spiritual life. Sabbath afternoon walks in the out-of-doors are a common feature of our life.
You will find some of these things in other systems of Christian theology, but no denomination has a theology that is as holistic and respectful of humanity as Adventism. No other theological culture does a better job of balancing reverence for the Bible and God’s transcendence and majesty on the one hand with a high regard for creation and humanity on the other.
Do we have problems? Of course. But when you consider the strengths of Adventist theology and culture, I believe you will be impressed with its usefulness for building a healthy life here and now and preparing for eternal life with Christ.
John Mclarty is pastor of North Hill Adventist Fellowship, near Tacoma, Washington and was, until recently, editor of Adventist Today.