The reason most people don’t go to church is because they’ve already been. – Mark Twain
Before moving on from the concept and practice of church, there is one more angle I must encroach upon which would be imprudent to ignore. The angle that I speak of is the contemporary overarching motion of the church which, while transcending Adventism itself, nevertheless involves our movement in a very profound way. In this final article on the church and absurdity then, my objective is to revisit the ontology, mechanism, and manifestation of the church but to perceive this from the broader cultural visage and gain a contemporary appreciation for the rise in post-church ideology and the age of what philosopher Robert Pasnau refers to as “after certainty.”[i]
As previously explored, the church is an extension of the heart of God in time and space. It is his metaphorical hands and feet. As an extension of his heart, the church must then divest itself into knowing and exploring that heart, for only with a true understanding of it can the church enact that heart upon the world. A false conception of God then will lead to patterns of church governance and life that reflect the false rather than the true. Thus, to know the heart of God is not merely a matter of theological pontification but rather, a matter of practical living and being “in” and “among.”
The more the church approximates the heart of God, the more it can conduct itself in harmony with that heart. The church then becomes a reflection of what it beholds, whether it be good or evil. The mechanism of the church emerges as the pragmatic methodology by which it will direct itself in its sphere of influence toward the goal of being the heart of God in that space and this will naturally pave the way the church is manifested in its neighborhood, community, and culture.
Practically speaking, what this means is that a church must first revisit its ontology if it is ever to develop a meaningful mechanism and thus manifest itself in a redemptive way. We cannot start the conversation at manifestation—as so many have done—which then leads us into decades of debate over style, silly traditions, and drums (debates which release a flurry of books, seminars, sermons, articles and DVDs), which in turn fuel division and the death of mission—the expected end of what Constantine once referred to as “the fruit of a misused leisure.”[ii]
But once the ontology is revisited and the church aims to pattern its movement and action after the heart of God—that is to truly be an extension of himself in the world—the church then naturally becomes what Jesus became. In order to explain what this is and its significance in the context of secular outreach, allow me to lay the foundation for what I have already referred to as the contemporary overarching motion of the church.
The Contemporary Overarching Motion of the Church
It is not surprising or even controversial to suggest that the contemporary overarching motion of the church—at least in the west—is increasingly split in two polarizing directions. These two directions are so antithetical to one another that for the first time in my life I am beginning to see the words of Jesus come closer to their realization, that in the last days, “many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other” (Matt. 24:10). Of course, the polarizing theme that I am referring to is none other than the unification of the church with the human empire.
While this is a topic on which many sincere and honest Christians differ and one which is replete with complexities and nuances, I would like to paint as broad a picture as possible and give the reader a conceptualization of how many secular western minds perceive the current tensions taking place in the church and government. And that broad picture is simply this: the church is currently reaching out its hand to take hold of political power in order to legislate its moral compass and coercively enforce it on the world. To put this in Adventist jargon: evangelical Protestantism is stretching its arms out to metaphorical—and eventually literal—Rome.
It is in light of this present reality that popular evangelical influencer Beth Moore could say that “evangelicalism has, broadly speaking, ‘colossally blown it.’[iii] By “it” Moore is referring to the church’s mission and witness which she surmises is in “humiliating need of reform”.[iv] This same sentiment is shared by poster boy of evangelicalism pastor Matt Chandler who, in his Vice interview titled “What is the Future of Evangelicalism?” bluntly stated:
You’re going to see what we’ve already seen probably three or four times in Christian history. There are going to be those that try and reach the world by becoming like the world and then there are going to be those that try to, by the grace of God, hold fast to orthodox Christian faith in a way that’s compassionate and kind and they’re going to have to weather the backlash of all the wrong that’s been done in the name of Jesus the last 50 years.[v]
In short, Chandler has just introduced two evangelicalisms in the contemporary age. One which compromises with the world (by which Chandler is referring to politics, coercion, and power struggles), and one which tries to be like Jesus. And as we move further along in history, the true church will not only be in conflict with the false but will also find itself in conflict with a secular world that accuses it of the same wrongs committed by its apostate counterpart.
Adventism as a movement has long held to a similar view known as “remnant theology” in which the final struggle is depicted as a conflict between true and false Christianity. Ellen White expressed this concept best in her book The Great Controversy when, speaking of the latter days, she revealed that “apostate Protestantism” would emerge “when the Protestant churches shall seek the aid of the civil power for the enforcement of their dogmas.”[vi] In this act, White elsewhere states that “when Protestant churches shall seek the support of the secular power” for the purpose of what the White Estate refers to as the “enforce[ment of] oppressive measures”,[vii] there “will there be a national apostasy which will end only in national ruin.”[viii]
In short, Adventism’s end-time vision is that “apostate Protestantism” in the contemporary age “will pursue a similar course”[ix] to that of the ancient Roman church. Thus, in harmony with Chandler’s analysis, White states that “all Christendom will be divided into two great classes.”[x] This division will present to the world a church thirsty for legislative authority, hypocritical, judgmental, and rooted in a coercive ontology. The sad result of such a course, White reveals, is that the church itself shall “become the sport of infidels and skeptics because so many who bear its name are ignorant of its principles.”[xi]
And it is this sad reality that marks the contemporary overarching narrative of the church as seen through the eyes of the unchurched. Regardless of the authenticity of faith and the narrative of scripture, what most see is a church in which “81% of White Evangelicals voted for Trump”[xii] with the goal of amassing state power to themselves as they combat what they perceive as the threat of “liberalism”. This act has been likened to Esau selling his birthright for a pot of stew in that the modern church has sold its values, morals, and soul for access to the Oval Office.
The most compelling part of the whole debacle is that despite the ways in which the church has undergone a makeover to brand itself as modern by adapting its manifestation to the cultural milieu, the culture now sees through the mask and finds that beneath the external manifestation of the church there nevertheless lies a distasteful ontology. Thus, former evangelical Levi Rogers could state,
While on the surface, many of these churches sport tattoos, rock music, and a trendy hipster exterior, underneath this flashy veneer often lies the same foundation of conservative fundamentalism.[xiii]
Rogers goes on to state that “when the ideals of brotherly love, grace, and mercy are traded in for the gods of power, theological dogma, and nationalism, I feel like I can no longer recognize the faith I grew up with.”[xiv]
In her article titled “11 Former Evangelicals Talk About What They Left Behind,” author Dani Fankhauser quotes former evangelicals on the reasons they left the church. One theme to emerge is what one interviewee refers to as the teachings of Jesus being “in diametrical opposition to the popular teachings of the well-known evangelical celebrities of today”[xv]—teachings which Paul Prather referred to as “stances [that] repel millions.”[xvi] Prather goes on to state:
[Y]es, young people are leaving the pews in droves because too often the person facing them in those pews is a fraud … anytime you replace the spectacularly good news of God’s love, grace and mercy with fury, condemnation and political gamesmanship, you turn people away from the very kingdom of heaven you think you’re promoting.[xvii]
In recent weeks, the drama has intensified with Christianity Today—the magazine founded by legendary evangelist Billy Graham— responding to Trump’s impeachment by calling for his removal from office. Mark Galli, author of the editorial, summarized his position well when he wrote that “Christians have a responsibility to call out Trump’s immoral behavior. Otherwise they risk damaging their ability to share the Gospel with the world.”[xviii]
However, in the eyes of an onlooking generation, the damage has already been done. What were once anecdotes of judgmentalism and hypocrisy in the church is now a display— a theatrical exhibition into the soul of a movement intended to usher in— not the rise of human empire— but its ultimate demise brought to be by the arrival of a kingdom that can never be unified with the principles and substrate of human governance. A kingdom so fundamentally other that neither the left nor the right could ever enter into harmony with it. But this kingdom is not being proclaimed because the contemporary overarching motion of the church is steeped in a political power grab fueled by false theological constructs rooted in an ontology of God that is more authority than mercy, more power than servanthood, and more judgment than love.
So how does Adventism fit into this milieu? I believe that our movement is a prophetic movement and as such we have a responsibility to prophesy against the unification of Jerusalem with Athens— of the kingdom of God with the empire of man. As a church that was born, bred, and birthed with the mission of understanding the heart of God we are therefore in a position to enact in the world the heart of the Father in a way no other church is doing—particularly as churches align themselves with partisan agendas and consequently exclude and demonize those who oppose them. And before the conservative readers of this article head to the comments section to accuse me of pushing liberal propaganda, allow me to be clear that the position I espouse applies as much to the left as to the right.
In summary, it appears the contemporary motion of the church has brought new meaning to Mark Twain’s adage, “The reason most people don’t go to church is because they’ve already been.” Twain—a vociferous critic of the church and religion— was no stranger to the hypocrisy and failure of the religious establishment. In his mind, those who had been to church had found, in that simple act, all the reasons necessary to bypass its continued attendance.
In the modern age, I would say that the reason why most people don’t go to church is because the church has already come to them and it was angry. As this reality continues to sweep our world, Adventism must—as a global prophetic movement— speak out against it and allow the culture to know that the God of apostate Protestantism is not the God of scripture but rather a fabrication intended to maneuver its proponents into dominance over others. If ever there was a time to reveal the heart of God to the globe, if ever the final manifestation of his character is needed on display, it is now.
As we live out the character of God in the midst of this complexity we then have the opportunity to not simply speak of God’s character in verbal or written form, but to become a living landscape of his kingdom, a socially complex organism with moving pieces, priorities, policies, and ministries which ebb and flow through the grind of daily life and need, incarnating with the broken and the oppressed, and reflecting in this living, tangible way the very heart of God. In other words, my prayer is that Adventism would differentiate and disassociate itself from the contemporary overarching motion of a church vying for temporal power, and become a counter-cultural harbor for those whose hearts are in tune with God’s heart of other-centered love.
If there was ever a way to reach the emerging secular mind, a church as an extension of the very heart of God is it. If there was ever a time when this mattered most, it is now.
[i] Brice Ezell, “Is There Hope for Knowledge? On Robert Pasnau’s ‘After Certainty’.”
[ii] Roland Herbert Bainton, Christianity, p. 95.
[iii] Relevant Magazine, “Beth Moore: ‘Evangelicalism Is In Humiliating Need of Reform’.”
[vi] Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, p. 445.
[vii] Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, (vol 5), p. 7.
[viii] Ellen G. White, The Spirit of Prophecy, (vol 4), p. 410.
[ix] Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, p. 615.
[x] Ibid., p. 450.
[xi] Ibid., p. 463.
[xv] Dani Fankhauser, “11 Former Evangelicals Talk About What They Left Behind.”