Sunday, September 20, 2009

Egocentric mission or inclusivist gospel?

Clipart_Work_Together_IdeaI've just finished reading an article in Adventist World about the "Roadmap to Mission" draft document to be edited and presented at the Annual Council of the General Conference Executive Committee in October 2009.

According to Mark Kellner's report, the document affirms that

"[t]he goal of Seventh-day Adventist evangelistic and outreach work among adherents of world religions is to bring people into a saving faith in Jesus Christ..."

Near the end of Kellner's report, he quotes from the draft statement:
"In some situations,Adventist mission may include the formation of transitional groups (usually termed Special Affinity Groups) that lead people from a non-Christian religion into the Seventh-day Adventist Church," the document notes. However, such groups must operate with a deliberate timeline "to lead the people into membership."

The problem

The overall message of these two statements seems to be that bringing people into a saving faith in Jesus Christ is equivalent to bringing them into membership within Adventism. If this is the case, then there are a number of consequences which, in my opinion, we see illustrated in much of the denomination's media. Here are just a few of those consequences:

    An inordinate burden in saving the whole world

    If bringing people into membership of the denomination is the overall goal of evangelism and that is equivalent to bringing people to Christ; and if the commission to preach the gospel to all is considered to be our responsibility; then it follows that the burden on the denomination is to bring all people into membership of the denomination. This is an incredible burden to bear and one which is impossible to achieve. As an interesting exercise, when you next listen to a Mission Spotlight or read Adventist World, see how many times other denominations or Christians are mentioned in relation to their work of spreading the gospel and helping those in need. If all you had to go on was our own media, you could be forgiven for thinking that we were the only ones doing anything to save the world! Why don't we hear more phrases like "there is no Christian presence in ..." rather than "there is no Adventist presence in ..." Are we alone in doing all this proclaiming and helping?

    Leads to an exclusivist mentality

    By this phrase I mean that there is a tendency to see one's own denomination as being the only one doing the work of the Great Commission. For example, here is a quote from the South Pacific Division's website, which includes a statement of the overall vision of the Church:
    The mission of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is to proclaim to all peoples the everlasting gospel in the context of the Three Angels' messages of Revelation 14:6-12, leading them to accept Jesus as their personal Savior and to unite with His church, and nurturing them in preparation for His soon return.
Notice the ambiguity of the word "church" in this statement. The first occurrence refers to the denomination. But what does the second one refer to? Given the whole paragraph, it seems to also refer to the denomination. The process seems to be:
This process has, as its ultimate goal, membership in the denomination on the assumption that it is the one church (denomination) that has the truth regarding the preparation needed for the return of Christ. Most other Christian denominations would probably express the third box as 'unite with a local church' that preaches the gospel rather than necessarily have their goal a person joining their particular denomination. To a great extent, this is why we have worked so hard to proselytise other denominations throughout our history.

Prevents authentic learning from others

When there is a deep-seated view, however subtle, that we are the "true"church, it makes it very difficult to authentically, and openly, learn from others. As I was growing up, I can only ever remember being taught the answers to objections and the marking of my Bible in such a way as to support Adventist belief. Most of my engagements with others had beneath them the idea of conversation to persuade to my point of view. Sabbath School Bible Study Quarterlies are rarely, if ever, inductive study guides. They most often come at the text from the perspective of Adventist doctrine. They rarely draw, in any significant way, on the thinking of non-Adventist scholars. This leads to a very narrow view which tends to merely confirm what is already known.

The solution

In my view, what we need is a fundamental shift in our understanding of identity. I often hear people say that, if it wasn't for Adventism's distinctive beliefs, there would be no reason for it to exist. But this attitude towards identify makes the denomination an end in itself. It's own existence is the purpose of its belief system and institutional processes and structures.

The reason any denomination should ultimately exist is solely because it wants to bring people to Christ — not to itself. For me, if a person comes to Christ it matters not what denomination they join. Like everyone else, I am enamoured by the thought that someone else might agree with what I think. But this is to place our own egos at the end of the process of conversion rather than Jesus.
To shift away from this organisational egocentrism would lead to at least three benefits:
  1. We could genuinely begin to work with others on the fulfilling of the Great Commission — to make disciples of Jesus. We would be relieved of the burden of taking the gospel to the world on our own and see ourselves as supporting, and being supported, in the proclamation of the Good News to all people everywhere.
  2. We would be able to genuinely celebrate the advances made by others in spreading the gospel. Our media would need to change and, instead of things like Mission Spotlights talking about the presence or absence of Seventh-day Adventists in countries around the globe as if that is the sole purpose of our mission, they could talk about what we are doing in the context of a greater work being done by all Christians.
  3. We could genuinely engage in conversations with others by which we actually learn and grow in our own understanding rather than seeing ourselves as the proclaimers of the most advanced understanding of truth for this time.
In writing such things, it is inevitable that someone will respond with a caution that we might lose our identity or dilute our unique contribution. This is an appropriate caution because authentic humility will always run the risk of leading us to the conclusion that we could be wrong about some things. And it is appropriate to be cautious. We always need to test all things and retain those that are proven to be true and right. But it also means that we might need to discard or modify some things. So be it. The reality is, however, that the more we try to protect our identity, the more disinterested they will become in listening to us.

I look forward to the day when our missions statements will read something like:
The mission of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination is to bring our unique perspective to the work of all Christians, to proclaim to all peoples the everlasting gospel in the context of our contemporary times, leading them to accept Jesus as their personal Savior and to unite with His church, and nurturing them in preparation for His soon return.
These might be subtle refinements. But they might produce enormous changes that could make us more effective at spreading the gospel to all. In the process, we might ourselves become better representations of that all-inclusive gospel.