Teach me, O God… to breathe deeply in faith.—Soren Kierkegaard
Imagine a scenario with me. You are an allied lieutenant during World War II. Your platoon is part of an assault on France aimed at liberating the country from its German occupiers. As the raid begins, you find yourself with a small company of stranded paratroopers. Radio checks indicate you are miles away from the nearest allied reinforcements and the Germans are pushing back. You know there is no way you will survive alone, so you direct your troops to carefully make their way toward the rest of the allied forces. As you maneuver under the cover of darkness you discover that your way is blocked by an enemy patrol. Your platoon prepares for a surprise attack but then, a frightening sound fills the air. It’s the sound of thick, steel tracks crushing the ground beneath them. You glance toward the German troops just ahead and your worst fears are confirmed—a Panzer tank—arguably the most powerful mechanized weapon in the Reich’s arsenal—has just entered the scene.
Your platoon sergeant approaches with an alternative plan. You both know there is no way you can engage the tank in combat. Sitting atop the tank is a long barrel 75 mm canon joined by two fully automatic machine guns. Directly underneath them is a layer of armor so thick your bullets and explosives will be unable to penetrate it. And then, of course, the metal tracks beneath the tank enable it to move across the roughest terrain. The chances of sneaking past without being spotted are slim, and if you are discovered that Panzer guarantees most of you won’t live to tell the story.
There is only one possible scenario in which you and your men can make it past this insurmountable roadblock and push ahead to friendly territory. Your platoon sergeant unravels the wild plan. “Somehow,” he says, “that tank has to be disabled. We cannot destroy a Panzer, we don’t have the firepower, but if we render it inoperable, we can outmaneuver it and push ahead.”
Your platoon sergeant gathers all the explosives in the teams’ possession. “Set this up where the tank will pass and detonate it,” he says. “It won’t destroy the tank, but it will destroy the tracks that enable it to move. If it can’t move, it can’t fight and we can get out of here.”
The above scenario is far from an imaginative game but a common occurrence during World War II referred to as a “Mobility Kill”. Rather than destroy the tank, you destroy its mobility using landmines or other explosives. Of course, the tank is still dangerous and can cause lots of damage, but it can no longer complete its objective.
And this is precisely what Satan is doing to the church. The Adventist church is like a tank. It has a top-level with powerful spiritual warfare tools (resources, media, leadership, etc.) and a lower level with impenetrable armor (lawyers, administrators, policies, etc.). However, none of this is what enables the church to move. Like a real tank, the armor and weapons are not what makes the tank effective. Rather, it is the tracks underneath. Likewise, the Adventist church moves into the world via its tracks—the local church. It is the local church that moves the tank into action. Without the local church, the tank sits still and goes nowhere. With the local church, the tank is in motion.
Which means something very simple. If Satan wants to stop the Adventist movement, he doesn’t need to destroy its weapons or attack its armor. That’s too much work. All Satan has to do is execute a “Mobility Kill” by destroying the tracks (the local church). Once he has done this, the church itself is still intact and dangerous, but it can no longer complete its objective. With the tracks gone, the Adventist movement grinds to a halt and the enemy outmaneuvers us on his way to seduce and distort the culture.
Look around. It’s happening everywhere. Our church has remarkable resources, finances, and logistical capacity but Adventism—especially in the West—is dying. It is not moving the way it should but is like a tank without tracks—it can still do some damage but overall, the tank is useless. Satan hasn’t had to destroy the conferences, unions, or divisions. He hasn’t had to go after publishing houses or media ministries (although he certainly attacks those as well).
All he’s had to do to stop Adventism’s movement is render the local church inoperable. Demolish those with division, dissension, and fanaticism. Deconstruct them with preservationism, legalism, and cynicism. Dismantle them with traditionalism, conservatism, and liberalism and you end up with a church that runs hospitals, schools, book stores and aged care centers, universities, satellite channels and publishers yet remains—for all intents and purposes—completely irrelevant in the contemporary battlefield. It has stopped moving, stopped learning, stopped listening, stopped growing, stopped loving, and stopped serving because it has fallen victim to the enemy’s guerrilla tactic designed to render us inoperable while leaving us otherwise intact.
The Danish philosopher and father of existentialism Soren Kierkegaard contended with this very tension in his day in what has been referred to as his “sustained attack on all of Christendom”.1 Kierkegaard’s context was different in that he was combating the state-religion which he felt turned Christianity in a “mere fashionable tradition”2, but despite that contextual difference, the fundamental issues he protested are still alive today.
For Kierkegaard, true faith “was not a doctrine to be taught, but rather a life to be lived.”3 This living, active faith is something Kierkegaard increasingly felt absent in the established church which he regarded as neither biblical nor Christian. On the contrary, Kierkegaard described the church of his day as “a forgery, a falsification”4 which he contended was “brought about over the centuries, whereby Christianity has gradually become just the opposite of what it is in the New Testament.”5
Consequently, Christians had become “lazy in their religion”6, were merely “playing at Christianity”7 and lacked in “unconditional religious commitment”—all of the building blocks for what can be regarded as “empty religion”.8 In the end, Kierkegaard felt the state of the church was a primary contributor to the condition of the age in which man had become indifferent to faith. Kierkegaard summarized this best in what can be metaphorically regarded as his eulogy of the faith when he surmised, “the human race has outgrown Christianity.”9
As Adventists, we have historically regarded ourselves as heirs of the reformation and in some ways, the remaining movement that carries that torch to the end of history. And while this may be true of the message we proclaim, it is not difficult to see that our churches are, to borrow from Kierkegaard, spiritually “empty”. Rather than active communities of faith that live out the gospel in tangible, meaningful, ways our churches tend to be established clubs with preset rules and rituals that we mindlessly repeat week after week with very little thought given to how any of this translates into the absurdity of life.
Consequently, we become just another institutional drum that produces lazy religion, conditional religious commitment, and empty faith. And as we conduct ourselves this way in the world, we give the culture every reason to regard us with indifference and to bypass the church as though it is a relic of an age long past. This has been Satan’s tactic, and the results are impressive. Adventism remains large, wealthy, and well branded while simultaneously, unable to reach the emerging culture that surrounds it. For all our mechanistic power, we are impotent in reaching the millennial next door. The local church is broken. The tank has stopped moving.
So then, how are we to contend with this? How can we reach a culture and invite them into the experience of the church if we are so lost ourselves? I propose a solution, while complex, that begins at reframing what we mean by church and exploring its purpose in three separate levels which I have come to refer to as the ontology, mechanism, and motion of the church. I will cover the ontology in this present article and then dive into the mechanism and motion in the next installment.
The Ontology of the Church
What is church? This is a question that has given birth to countless books, sermons, and articles. Historically, church has been an institution in either the social establishment tethered to government or as a self-standing entity fettered to its constituents and layered with policies and governance. This has led to a modern reaction toward a more organic, untrammeled expression of church in which “Jesus but not religion” and “church without the hierarchy” are the mantras. However, the ontology of church cannot be unraveled either in its historical makeup nor its in its modern reactionary expressions. The ontology of church is essentially other, and must be understood as originating in the heart of God.
In this sense, we can only understand the ontology of church if we have grasped the ontology of God. And herein the problem begins. For much of Christianity, God’s ontology has been rooted in imperial frameworks that revolve around power, control, and authority. Thus, church comes to be a manifestation of this supposed axiom. In historic Christianity, the church becomes a means through which empire is controlled. In protestant Christianity, a similar manifestation unfolds among the magisterial reformers for whom church was likewise united to state which enforced its dogmas and acted out its coercive picture of God.
These churches naturally trended toward what Kierkegaard protested as “fashionable tradition” in that, everything they were meant to be eventually boiled down to what they had become—mindless rituals, repetitive liturgies, and missionless entities with rules for membership that did not transcend the external formalities that had been agreed upon. Even today, decades removed from Christendom’s state-church, we find that new, untethered expressions of church are facing the same dilemmas.
At the root of all this, I echo that for many the church is an extension of the imperial God they worship. As a result, the church comes to reflect this God in its activity and priorities. And for most Christians, God has historically been seen as an emperor with a specific set of demands. Whether it is the God of Catholicism, transcendent and distant, cold and cruel, or the God of the early reformers, rooted in Augustinian thought and the bed upon which the Calvinist conception of God—replete with all his dictatorial and coercive qualities—was conceived, most people then and now perceive of God as the great bully who can only be pleased through the right conduct of a people who have committed themselves to meet his demands.
And the result of this subconscious view of God is that regardless of what model of church you employ—be it tethered or untethered, organic or institutional, house churches or seeker churches—you always end up with the same problem. Your church exists for the pacification of this divine totalitarian which means your church must uphold a certain image to please his sensibilities. In this context, it doesn’t matter what model you use, your church will always be trending toward preservation rather than mission. Thus, it is only a matter of time before the enemy creeps in under the cover of darkness, plants the necessary explosives and cripples the local church. Years pass and the church continues on. Its services, rituals, and practices intact, but its missional impact is nil. The mobility kill has worked.
In light of this, I contend that there remains good news. A mobility kill is just that—a mobility kill. It is not a kill in the classic sense of the word which means rather than a resurrection what the church is merely in need of is restoration. And this repair, I contend, must begin at our conception of God for regardless of what strategies, methodologies, or policies you put in place the church will always revert back to incarnating the image of God its members embrace.
Thus, if we wish the ontology of church to move from preservation to mission—from self-protection to self-abandonment—then we must of necessity recapture an image of God that is actively other-centered. Our theology must be rethought and our false ideas exposed and expelled. Because it is only with a right understanding of who God is and what he is like, that we can then engender a church that reflects his heart in all its beauty and charm.
In a sense, the heart of God must be the heart of the church. Without this, the church will always remain vulnerable to Satan’s mobility kills. Division is easier to instigate when rules are the center of our religion for this fuels an environment of judgment and accusation. Fanaticism is always easier to inspire when the letter of the law is the obsession of a people who, like the Pharisees, have read the scriptures but missed Jesus. Detachment is always easier to engender when theology and head knowledge matter more than people and service.
But if we center ourselves in the heart of God and allow church to become an extension of that heart everything changes. No longer is church a program, for the heart of God is not a program. No longer is church an event for the heart of God is not an event. No longer is church a museum for the heart of God is not a museum. No longer is church an exclusive club for the heart of God is neither a club nor exclusive. Rather, the church becomes love incarnate in its community for the heart of God became love incarnate in Jesus. The church becomes a living community for the heart of God is both living and community. The church becomes an active healer of its neighborhood for the heart of God is active in healing the wounds of the world. The church becomes a movement, an everyday experience, a people who walk and talk in love and for love and whose entire mission is love to the end of time.
Thus, church goes from institution to motion, from bureaucracy to relationship, from detached to incarnate. From a group of people who pray “teach us, O God more doctrine”, to a community that cries out, collectively and individually, “Teach [us], O God… to breathe deeply in faith.”10
Is there much more to this conversation? Undoubtedly yes. I do not mean here to oversimplify the challenge of the modern church. Neither do I mean to reject the institution which I believe is both necessary and unavoidable. All I mean to say, however, is that if we wish to repair the local church it begins with reconstructing what we believe of God.
For so long as our church perceives of God primarily in terms of strictness, standards, and rules our local church will always trend toward an exclusive club obsessively focused on defending those ideals. But when we come to see God primarily in terms of love, incarnation, and mission our local church will then be ready to reflect his heart by enacting its essence among its neighbors. And it is this conceptualization that we need if we are ever to repair and restore the tracks and get the tank back into motion.
- Theopedia, “Soren Kierkegaard.”
- Wikipedia, “Theology of Søren Kierkegaard.”
- Owen C. Thomas, “Kierkegaard’s Attack upon “Christendom” and the Episcopal Church,” p. 5.
- Theopedia. “Soren Kierkegaard.”
- Christianity Today, “Soren Kierkegaard, Christian Existentialist.”
- Theopedia, “Soren Kierkegaard.”
- “Soren Kierkegaard, Christian Existentialist,” Christianity Today.