Reimagining Adventism: Absurdity and the Lord’s Supper, Part 2

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Reimagining Adventism: Absurdity and the Lord’s Supper, Part 2

God creates everything out of nothing. And everything which God is to use, he first reduces to nothing. – Soren Kierkegaard

In the previous article, we explored three interconnected themes. The first is that emerging generations find value in the ancient. Therefore, in seeking to connect with contemporary seekers, the church should not be driven by a pathology to dissolve any and all tinges of primordial faith expressions. Rather, the focus ought to be in celebrating the former ways with present utility. This requires us to uphold the timeless elements of premodern rituals but allow these elements to be re-discovered and re-expressed in dynamic ways that incorporate the experience and values of contemporary sojourners. With this foundation set, we shifted toward a specific focus on Adventism’s central ritual of communion. Here, we explored the Last Supper from the Biblical foundation of Hebraic materiality and challenged its present-day, dualist-infused expression. The objective of this second point was to demonstrate how modern Adventist communion services fail to celebrate the timeless elements while perpetuating a paradigm rooted in Greek Gnostic/ Dualistic philosophy. The tragic result of this is that the ritual has moved from a dynamic, material celebration that all cultures can adapt and derive meaning from to a static, ethereal sacrament that relies on set structures, traditions, and rigid frameworks in order to unfold. In the end, the ritual moves from a deeply human, liberating, and redemptive celebration toward an industrialized form that feels more like a kind of conveyor belt spirituality than the simple and communal feast Jesus demonstrated for us.

 

These two points then led us into the third and final point which is simply an invitation to return to the biblical view of communion which is built on a Jewish conception of the material world (as opposed to the Greek Dual views) as a beautiful, consequential, and good thing. However, the final question in the article led us toward the pragmatic obstacle that can derail this entire discussion. That pragmatic question is simple: How can a truly material expression of communion be celebrated in the typical Adventist church numbering 1-200 people? Aren’t the logistics simply impractical?

 

To answer this question I want to enter into the final category of this search which is “reframing the ritual for meaning in the contemporary age”. Because I believe the answer to this question is precisely the answer to restoring existential utility to a ritual that has lost touch with the world beyond church walls.

 

Transplanting Communion to the Contemporary Age

 

In order to transplant communion to the contemporary age, I must remind the reader that the objective is not to dissolve the ritual under the assumption that it is primitive and incapable of contemporary relevance. As already noted, the ancient has a lot of value to the mind of late modernity. To the contrary, I believe the objective is to rediscover what is truly ancient in communion – that is, its underlying themes – and then ask, how can these themes be most effectively celebrated in the here and now?

 

The themes have already been explored within the heading of materiality. But of course, to return to a celebration of these themes does not seem practical given what many Adventist churches look like today. It appears then that we are left with no choice but to affirm a theoretical ascent to communion’s material essence while in practice, celebrate communion in a way that is entirely detached from that material essence. That is, we simply cannot return to a full meal. We must maintain the wafer and shot glass despite their disedified tragedy.

 

However, what if we dreamed a little? What if, instead of settling for this we went even further and considered the following question: What if reframing communion is not possible unless we reframe church altogether?

 

This is the question I mentioned in the previous article as perhaps calling modern-day Adventists toward an exploration that is perhaps too big to consider. But allow me to unpack this a little more. There is clearly no debate that the way churches operate today is not mandated or prescribed in the New Testament. This doesn’t make modern church models evil or wrong. It simply means that they are not divinely mandated or ordained. On the contrary, they are the product of human thought, culture, and structuring. Again, this does not make the model inherently wrong but what it does mean is that changing this model will come into no conflict with God’s desire for his church as outlined in scripture.

 

The model that I speak of, of course, is the modern “program-centered” model. This is the church that revolves mostly around a set program that takes place at set times. The objective of this model is to host a program and fill the room. As attendance to the program increases, the church is seen as successful. As attendance declines, the church is seen as “in decline” as well. Energy, resources, and talent are pumped into the program to ensure it is running at tip-top shape. Music, sermons, audio and visual aids, skits, bands, and clever “order of service” innovations are brought in to “keep things fresh” and “creative” and “fun”. In best-case scenarios, the program runs like a well-oiled performance with set start times, a strictly paced order of events, culminating in an interactive and relevant sermon followed by a song to wrap things up at the end. Then, the mass of attendees heads out the door and the program is over.

 

I don’t mean to criticize or offend anyone who puts their heart and soul into this model of church nor do I intend to enter into the endless debates over whether such a program should even exist. All I want to do in this article is to suggest one thing: it doesn’t have to be this way. And in fact, alternative models of church make it easier for people to experience the timeless elements of Christ’s message than large, program-centered ones. This is because as the program grows there is a need to industrialize the process for the sake of logistical and administrative concerns. Church boils down to an 80-minute program once a week that you spectate (unless you are one of the lucky few with the “right” talent and can get involved). As spectatorship grows to 100, then 200 or more, a communion meal that captures the materiality inherent in the Last Supper (as an actual meal and not a wafer/shot-glass) becomes an impossible thing to organize.

 

But what if we did church differently? What if we moved away from the program-centered model and toward a people-centered model? For new church plants, this could mean centralizing your discipleship and growth process as a network of micro-churches/home groups that meets collectively once a month or perhaps even every twice a month. In this model, the church revolves around homes and people rather than a large program. Communion then is taken out of the hands of clergy, elders in stuffy suits, and deaconesses with white gloves and given back to the people. In these home groups, the Last Supper can actually be a supper and the material act of celebrating life together, life secured in Jesus, can reclaim its centrality.

 

In churches that are established, getting rid of the big program may prove an impossibility. However, the program can still be decentralized by turning energy, resources, and talent over to a small group network in the church. It would still require some major changes in the way the church is structured, but it would still retain much of what members are familiar with. Nevertheless, in this model, you either move away from a centralized communion meal and allow these to be hosted in the small groups, or you can allocate each small group to prepare a portion of a larger church meal and move completely away from the wafer and shot-glass, celebrating communion instead as an actual meal. Grant it, this is my least favorite approach but for those in very conservative environments, it may be as far as you can realistically get.

 

But how will this shift have more value in the secular age we inhabit? For starters, it gets rid of the stuffy religious antics. But this is not in itself where the value lies. Rather, the value lies in what you reclaim rather than what you reject. The original communion service was a very simple meal with a transpersonal focus on the material life Jesus redeemed through his physical sacrifice. And this celebration, material in its focus, celebrates family, connection, intimacy, and life. It points forward to the day of final restoration, in which the family of the redeemed will feast together by bringing people together, as one, in Jesus.

 

In short, the original communion was a communal or “family” experience. It was not an individual ritual in which a person was isolated in the presence of other detached personages, all chewing slowly on a tiny wafer, heads bowed and eyes closed, trying to think of what bad thing they had done recently they should ask forgiveness for. On the contrary, it was a room with a meal that celebrated life and family, physical realities secured for all eternity by the sacrifice of Christ. In communion then, you and I celebrate this one reality: that our communion, our connection, our family is forever because he is forever.

 

As we observe the world around us, we find that this feast celebrates values that secular culture itself already celebrates and that it does so in a way that is simply human, free from cultish rituals and structures. For example, according to “The Deloitte Global Millennial Survey 2020”[1] which, “explores the views of more than 27.5K millennials and Gen Zs, both before and after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic…”[2] a leading value of younger generations that featured repeatedly was the “desire to help drive positive change in their communities and around the world.”[3] This included high regard for themes such as “putting people ahead of profits”, diversity, inclusivity, and equality in society and business. According to the research, these values have only been strengthened by the pandemic with “[n]early three-fourths” of the survey’s respondents stating that “the pandemic has made them more sympathetic toward others’ needs and that they intend to take actions to have a positive impact on their communities.”[4]

 

But the results of the research hit home on the topic of “reputation”. According to the data, “[c]ompanies in general have better reputations among millennials and Gen Zs than the leaders who guide them”[5] (both political and religious). Religious leaders did not come dead last (politicians did) but they also did not rise to the top of positive reputation. That glorious and enviable pedestal was reserved for “leaders of nongovernmental organizations, as well as activists” whom they hold in the “highest regard”.[6]

What are we to make of this data? I would suggest, in keeping with the present article, that churches focused on individual spirituality at the expense of community, family, and social significance stand very little chance at reaching emerging generations. And the way we celebrate communion is just a small slice of that significantly bigger problem. But what if we dreamed? What if we dreamed of a church where truth was consequential? Where faith had a social impact? Where our beliefs resulted in healing? Where our celebrations actually brought us together, not further apart? What if communion took place in homes and small groups, as full meals celebrating the redemption of materiality, and were accompanied not merely by the nurturing of our immediate family and community, but by the intentional including of the other? And what if this inclusive vision opened doors for relevant social impact, moving us to pour into our neighborhoods and communities with relevant acts of compassion and restoration?

 

If this was our experience, if we tasted this just one time in our entire life, who of us would fight and claw to get back to the dualistic wafer and shot-glass we have grown up with? Who of us would miss the white gloves and stuffy suits? I am willing to wager that not a single person whose heart beats with God’s missionary heart would miss the old order of things. And of course, the best part is this: that we can celebrate communion in a way that tears down walls, inspires healing, and reaches out to the world around us. For this, we ought to be willing to trade anything.

 

To conclude I leave us with a simple question: who among us is willing to take the journey back toward a decentralized, people-centered faith that revolves around community and not program, connection and not event, incarnation and not performance? Is it too big of an ask? Too difficult a call? Perhaps. And so being, I am reminded of the words of the father of existential thought, Soren Kierkegaard, when he noted that “…everything which God is to use, he first reduces to nothing.”[7] Perhaps it is the case that God will have to reduce our modern structures to nothing before we are prepared to truly inhabit the deeply material, communal, and consequential spaces he has designed for us to occupy in this world. But until then we must continue to agitate, to inspire, and to prophesy not with arrogance and condemnation, but with an invitation to that One thing infinitely better than the something we have settled for.

Click here to read the rest of this series on Reimagining Adventism.

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Notes.

[1] Deloitte. “The Deloitte Global Millennial Survey 2020: Millennials and Gen Zs hold the key to creating a ‘better normal’” [Web: https://www2.deloitte.com/global/en/pages/about-deloitte/articles/millennialsurvey.html]

[2] ibid.

[3] Ibid, preface.

[4] Ibid, 3.

[5] Ibid, 20.

[6] ibid.

[7] Soren Kierkegaard. As quoted in: Ann Spangler. “What About Unbearable Suffering?” [Web: https://www.christianity.com/blogs/ann-spangler/what-about-unbearable-suffering.html]

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About the author

Marcos Torres

Marcos Torres is a pastor in Western Australia where he lives with his wife and children. He loves talking about faith, culture and Adventism. You can follow his blog at www.thestorychurchproject.com.