Wednesday, November 02, 2011

God, Rocks, and Souls

The address that follows is an introduction to John McLarty’s book in progress, GOD, ROCKS, AND SOULS, a memoir of an “old, white, liberal Adventist pastor”.

What follows is a “chapter…not in its final form” from that book in progress.

Chapter 53 Church of the Advent Hope

My first six months as Elder Roehn's assistant went smoothly enough. I scheduled meetings with him and listened to his stories which he was increasingly happy to share. He never gave me assignments, but I made sure to cast everything I did as a support of his ministry. He was the boss; I was the assistant. It worked. I preached every other week and endured Kurt's simultaneous translation the other weeks.

Then Herb retired and I began preaching every week in English at 11:00 a.m. Herb preached in German at 9:00 a.m. The German language Sabbath-school class continued. It was taught on a rotating basis by several of the German members. A trickle of new people (non-Germans, of course) began showing up for Sabbath school and church.

For the next six months, I continued to devote significant energy to including Elder Roehn. I consulted him on everything. I deliberately worked to make him feel important. And he responded well to my efforts. Then it was time to move on.

First up: a new name. I dreaded the conflict. These people had built this church. They had carried the full financial weight of its support for thirty, forty, even, for some of them, fifty years. It was their church. They were deeply proud of their German heritage, their culture of hard work and disciplined spiritual life. They were the German New York Seventh-day Adventist Church. The Brooklyn German Church had already transitioned to a multi-ethnic congregation. The Swedish, Norwegian and Danish churches were faded memories. Even the Italian Adventist churches no longer had any European ethnic identity. They were the last. With my coming as pastor, they had lost German as the primary language of worship. And now I was going to ask them to change their name?

But the change was essential. In the Yellow Pages we were listed as the German New York Seventh-day Adventist Church. Since German immigration had dried up decades earlier, there was no way we were going to grow a church by appealing to Germans. That meant the name in the phone book needed to appeal to English speakers. But logic seldom controls our emotional response to change.

I played with names that I thought would convey the idea of a warm, open community of friends, a respite from the pressure-cooker environment of the business and cultural world of New York. I toyed with names that included Fellowship or Community. William (husband of “the queen” in chapter 51) argued that “Fellowship” did not convey adequately the dignity of what we aspired to. It was too casual, too undignified for Manhattan. “Community” could imply some kind of cultish environment. I was persuaded. But that didn't leave me any bright ideas.

Then I remembered the words carved in stone over the front door: Haus der Advent Hoffnung, German for House of Advent Hope. Elder Roehn explained to me that in Germany, Adventist congregations, like many other non-Lutheran Protestant groups, had refused to use the word kirche, in their name. Kirche, the German word for church, referred to the state supported Lutheran and Catholic churches. The more radical Protestant groups saw this government connection as a spiritually-corrupting entanglement. These radical Protestant groups used the word “haus” or “house” for their buildings to convey the more spiritual ideal of the church as the family of God in contrast to the Lutheran and Catholic conceptions of the church as an institution in civil society.

“Church of the Advent Hope” was a translation of the German name already carved in gray stone facade of the building. William thought it fit. When I presented the name to the board, I emphasized the fact that this name would achieve twin goals of making us more welcoming to non-German speaking visitors and reminding people of our German heritage. It would be a permanent memorial to the sacrifice and service of the congregation who had built the building and carried forward the Adventist work in this part of New York for decades.

The Germans were not excited, but they agreed.

So we changed our name. Painted the front doors Episcopal red. Built planters around the trees in the front sidewalk and filled them with impatiens. With our red doors, gray stone exterior and formal name, we fit right into our Upper East Side neighborhood.

* * *

My dream was to develop a church that appealed to young adults with an Adventist heritage and to their friends. More specifically, I hoped to reach Anglo and international young people. The natural development of every English-speaking Adventist church in the New York City area was to become a predominantly West Indian congregation. This was a simple fact of demographics given the vibrancy and numerical strength of Adventism in the West Indies the patterns of immigration.

How could we structure our church life so that we especially drew Anglo and international young adults without ever making anyone feel unwelcome? Our approach was to simply focus on doing church exactly the way Anglo young adults would do it if they were not constrained by tradition.

Adventists had deeply ingrained traditions about the flow of meetings on Sabbath. The day at church began with a “song service” at 9:15 a.m. This part of the service was led by a “song leader,” someone with a strong voice and lots of enthusiasm. The Sabbath school program began at 9:30. This included a secretary's report (information about attendance and donation numbers) and a mission story (a report about Adventist foreign missions read from a collection that was distributed by the denomination). There was often a “special feature” which could be almost anything the Sabbath School Superintendent came up with—Bible quizzes, skits, slide shows, guest speakers. Then at 10:00 people went to their classes which were typically small groups. These classes ran until 10:50. There was an intermission before worship which began at 11:00 a.m.

In almost any established congregation deviation from this schedule would have been highly controversial. Graciously, the old Germans allowed us to experiment. We dispensed with all of the program elements of Sabbath School, and started at 10:00 with Sabbath School.

Young adults were thrilled to be able to sleep a little later on Sabbath mornings, and many of them voiced their appreciation for our elimination of the program. It was something they did not miss. the program. On the other hand, Adventists who had grown up in the West Indies were appalled at our innovations. Visitors would ask with a straight face how we could call ourselves an Adventist Church since we didn't start Sabbath School at 9:30.

About this time five young adults showed up. They did not know each other, but they immediately connected. The old Germans welcomed them as they did all guests. But there was a special chemistry among the young people. Over the next few months more young adults came through the doors. Most of them found the warmth of the congregation and the appeal of a community of young Adventists in the heart of the City irresistible. They returned and brought their friends. Within a year or so we were a decidedly young adult congregation.

In addition to Anglos we attracted people from everywhere. We had sizeable groups from Madagascar, Brazil, the Philippines. Individuals from various African countries, a few from European nations, Chinese, Venezuelans. In addition to Adventists who had come to New York from elsewhere, we also drew increasing numbers of New Yorkers who had no Adventist background. A number were not Christian. Still they considered the Church of the Advent Hope their spiritual home.

As we grew, people with Adventist backgrounds would visit for a week or two then ask to have their memberships transferred to our church. Then we would scarcely ever see them again. My impression was that at least some of these people were joining our church simply because of the cache of our location. We were a few feet off Park Avenue in the wealthiest residential section of Manhattan. These folks were not interested in becoming part of the ministry of our church but they liked to be able to claim membership.

I consulted the board and we instituted a congregational policy that was completely outside denominational norms. The only way a person could join our church through transfer was to become a member of one of the Sabbath School classes. They had to attend Sabbath School most weeks for several months before we would consider any request for transfer.

Some visitors were incensed at this departure from denominational tradition. They tried to cite the denominations “Church Manual.” We just smiled and explained we did it differently.

The church board was made up of old Germans and young people, about half and half. The present congregation had not built this church. There was no way we could have funded the purchase or construction of a church in Manhattan. We regarded the church as a trust. We were trustees of this House of Hope, responsible for making sure it lived up to its name.

The church was not democratic. We did not hold elections. The board worked to make sure the church served all the people in the church—Germans, young and single Anglos, families with kids, Brazilians, Africans, and Filipinos. But after a couple of years our congregation included so many cultures and so many regulars who were not Adventist, it seemed impractical to operate in the customary Adventist fashion with quarterly business meetings and an annual nominating committee. How do you explain to people who are in church every week that they are not welcome in a congregation meeting because they have not yet been baptized. But if we did not restrict participation to formal members, you could have people with marginal connections with the church voting on major decisions. It was easier to hide the governing structure and work behind the scenes to be as inclusive as possible

Attendance on Sabbath morning continued to increase. Our Brazilians began holding their own services in Portuguese on Sabbath afternoons. We ran health classes and a prophecy seminar. We endlessly wrestled with the question: how could we meaningfully impact people in our part of the City?

We took pleasure in serving as a sanctuary, as a tranquil, safe place for many. If what people told us was true, we were, in fact, a house of hope.


Post a Comment