I saw a church. It was not a code of beliefs, nor the property of preachers. There were many ministers.
It was a church on a restless earth. The time was the end, and the Sabbath was outlawed. Money and property holdings by Sabbathkeeping organizations were illegal and therefore either confiscated by government or bought out by conforming entities. No Sabbathkeeping leader had legal authority.
till, I saw a church. Kneeling members proclaimed their total inadequacy for their work of reaching all the world, yet they eagerly anticipated the realization of those dreams. Perhaps because of this individual and corporate admission of powerlessness, I saw great energy spent toward accepting and affirming one another. No one seemed bent on controlling or changing another.
Honesty and affirmation
I saw honesty in that church, each member striving to understand the underlying life laws of his or her own experience. Not having to diagnose the motives of others freed immense energy toward personal growth and group life.
On the local level, this church worked together after the spiritual gifts model of church life with affirmation of each other, room for mistakes, and communication through the obstacles.
Although I saw leaders go out and start other groups, they quickly transferred the decision power from themselves to the people they served. Leadership roles took the appearance of facilitator, communicator, servant.
Evangelism planning focused more on training and support network for lay preachers in the process of groing. Of course, when a newcomer preached in his or her former church enough to be disclaimed there,growth did happen, along with those who had no previous church affiliation.
I heard members urging newcomers to choose mentors. A mentor could be anyone who had something in his or her spiritual journey that another could respect and with whom he or she could build rapport for ease in sharing. Service as a mentor included listening nonjudgmentally, telling one's own story, encouraging, but never seeking to control another's life. The continual admission of each person's powerlessness appeared to be crucial to the success.
I saw the worship service, easily recognized as Adventist by its order and atmosphere. Yet there were definite windows within that structure where I felt special openness and real presence with one another. I saw many different people serve during the worship service, some reading Scripture, some praying, some singing, some opening doors, and many shaking hands. There seemed little distinction between audience and leaders; apparently even newcomers could help almost anywhere.
The worship service fit well with what the members understood as the group's mission. It was stated quite clearly that the mission of the group was to make the Adventist Christian message relevant to the needs and emptiness of the surrounding culture and people. Visitors who came in contact with the need-oriented programs of the church felt powerfully attracted. They returned again and again.
In studying official structure, I found a lean officer's list but a large base for involvement and decision making. Even people who couldn't qualify as officers or as members felt they were making a contribution. In fact, membership itself apparently operated on two separate levels. A simple desire to belong easily got one in and accepted, but to hold official membership and any office, one was expected to be making certain lifestyle choices that define Adventism.
I watched the local group work through a painful situation in which trusted leaders had chosen behaviors out of line with the voted definition of Adventism. I saw the meeting where other leaders led the way in tears and prostration before the Lord over their own deficiencies and stumblings, the meeting where the decision was made, haltingly and prayerfully, to ask the unfaithful to relinquish their official membership. It was clearly stated that this was not a punishment or judgement, but merely a clarification of behaviors that do not fit the official stance of the group.
I did my best to follow all interactions in this case, and in every instance saw only acceptance and respect for the choices that had been made. I did see many individuals visiting personally with those asked to separate. Some found opportune moments to share their own story, their own choices and reasons, in relation to the behaviors in question. Those who could hurdle the emotional pain maintained ongoing friendship.
Although the group recognized the presence of certain absolutes, they also recognized that a specific behavior is sinful to an individual only after conviction occurs from the Holy Spirit.
Each person felt his or her impurity on coming closer and closer to Christ. Group purity, they believed, rested in the hands of God and the mediation of Jesus Christ, probably to be recognized only by Him and the universe in the end. Never claiming absolute purity, they were content to think continually of Christ.
Yes, I saw a church. I have tried to report accurately what I saw on the local level. I did investigate the broader, world affiliation, also. That was more hidden, given the illegal status of any organization keeping the Sabbath.
Most obvious of what I saw in my survey of the world church was the surrender, the admission of powerlessness for any of the goals or functions desired. This seemed aradoxical, however, since the church's confessed helplessness seemed to be the foundation and stimulus of its great successes. Despite legal suppression, this church added new members and congregations even in inaccessible places at a rate hardly believable.
Several other observations stand out. Each congregation developed its own mission. The mission related to which spiritual gifts were present among the people of the group as well as to where they could find their niche in the needs of the local community. This meant great differences between congregations in terms of programs and projects and even worship atmosphere. These differences received affirmation and support from world leaders.
In fact, the facilitator model of leadership prevailed even at the world level of this church. The leaders considered themselves but servants, always acting in awareness of their accountability to the members and the local groups. Because of their responsible approach, an atmosphere of trust flourished, allowing them enough authority to carry out the necessary decisions for support of world activities.
Although most activities of this church proceeded with little movement of moneys, still the flow of funding, beyond what was used locally, went from the local groups to the world organization. Funds passed on in this way maintained broad support services, on too large a scale for a local group to surround.
At this level, as on the local level, decisions were accepted when a majority consensus could be reached as individual members voted their consciences. I saw that minority desires and dissenting views did mold, the majority vote as the Holy Spirit clarified the issues. Certain parameters were accepted as defining Adventist lifestyle throughout the world. These were respected, welcomed, and adopted by the local groups in the spirit of trust that prevailed.
Triumph out of tragedy
In one way, things progressed from bad to worse for this church. It went from illegal to search warrant to death decree. But in another way, triumph is the only word to describe the events. Although some frightened ones abandoned fellowship, innumerable others linked up every day.
One day God declared His affirmation, the universe agreed, and the church went home to live happily every after.
Wiltna Zalabak is a personal growth consultant living in Berrien Springs, Michigan