A (Missed?) Moment of Spiritual Possibility
Getting past the buzzwords
On a recent holiday I picked up my old copy of Steps to Christ and read it again. As it always does, it encouraged my soul, lifted my heart, and challenged my thinking. But, perhaps in some new ways, it also led me to reflect on my own experience of faith and the spiritual journey of our church, particularly in the past few years.
My small hardback copy of this Adventist classic of the spiritual life, growth, and re/formation was inscribed and presented to me by my parents on the day of my baptism, more than 25 years ago. But neither my parents nor I could have anticipated that the principles and practices set out in Steps to Christ could have become, recently, some of the most contentious and even divisive questions in the Adventist Church.
As we begin the 2015 Year of Adventist Meetings, there will be many plans and strategies, elections, and looking forward to the continuing mission of the church in our world. Naturally, there will also be various reports and reflections on the church’s progress in the past quinquennium. But we need more than just success stories. We should also be alert to the possibilities and opportunities we might have missed during this time as a dynamic, growing, and diverse community of faith. And one of these might be found in the questions raised in my rereading of Steps to Christ.
Our “Newest” Belief
This version of our recent history goes back to 2005. At the General Conferences session in St. Louis a new fundamental belief was added for the first time since the current format of our statement of beliefs was voted in 1980. This was an important step, demonstrating our ability to adapt and grow in our doctrinal understandings, particularly in response to perceived needs in our faith community. It was also the first time in the history of our church in which the transformative experience and practice of our faith was formalized in a statement of belief.
The new statement of doctrine—now fundamental belief 11, Growing in Christ—“officially” recognized and affirmed many established and perhaps assumed aspects of Adventist spirituality. After reflecting on the victory of Jesus, we (now) believe that we are filled with the Holy Spirit and freed from the powers of evil in our lives. The statement goes on to affirm many of the principles and spiritual practices found in Adventist writing (such as Steps to Christ), continuing:
“In this new freedom in Jesus, we are called to grow into the likeness of His character, communing with Him daily in prayer, feeding on His Word, meditating on it and on His providence, singing His praises, gathering together for worship, and participating in the mission of the Church. As we give ourselves in loving service to those around us and in witnessing to His salvation, His constant presence with us through the Spirit transforms every moment and every task into a spiritual experience.”
Of course, the development and adoption of a statement of belief such as this does not happen in a vacuum. It begins in response to questions and issues existing in the church. The issues surrounding various forms of spiritualism and syncretism in different cultures of the world, the challenges of nurturing new converts after successful evangelism and the loss of so many young people from the church are relevant examples. And the formulation and consultation of such a statement of belief focuses further attention on these topics.
But similarly the voting of the Fundamental Belief and its incorporation into the understandings, study, and life of the church further highlights the importance of these themes. For the first time in our history, for example, we “officially” believed in prayer, which must raise the priority and role of prayer in our individual and corporate lives of faith—or at least our thinking about it.
In the name of Jesus, and with the Holy Spirit living in us, we are called to live above mere suspicion and fear.
Following the formalization of this “new” belief, there seemed a new energy in those church departments, ministries, educational institutions, and publications especially focused on these aspects of church life. There was a renewed language of discipleship, nurture, revival, spiritual experience, spiritual growth, spiritual disciplines, and spiritual formation.
And this was something with which the whole church could be engaged. Drawing on the resources of our spiritual heritage, this was a collective project that could transcend many of our traditional but often artificial divides across cultures and generations, between academics and practitioners, evangelists and humanitarians, conservatives and progressives,1 pastors, leaders, and church members.
It was a moment of spiritual possibility. In the lead-up to the 2010 General Conference session, our church had an opportunity to take a significant step forward in our spiritual development and our practical unity. Many church leaders and members were recognizing anew that our faith is not only doctrinal knowledge, but a growing, living relationship with Jesus. Of course, this sense of revival found different expressions in different communities and cultures, but it seemed that most of us were seeking the same things.
Divided by Words
That we have allowed ourselves to have been somewhat distracted and diverted from this momentum is one of our collectively missed opportunities of the past five years.
Instead of uniting around the importance and practice of spiritual growth and re/formation, we have divided ourselves by words, labels, and suspicions driven from the extreme fringes of the church. It began with an external attack launched against the Adventist Church, which, it seems, some were enthusiastic to make their own.As the talk and teaching of spiritual re/formation began to grow, some of this criticism was beginning to ripple in from the edges of the church, asking legitimate questions perhaps, but less likely to listen to the answers and explanations.
Then came Ted Wilson’s inaugural sermon as president of the General Conference in Atlanta in July 2010. While Wilson’s sermon briefly touched on a number of reasonable cautions in relation to various religious trends potentially impacting our church, some of his words were taken from their context and used by both supporters and critics, spawning a new divide and a new genre of Adventist publishing and online skirmishing. It is easy for any of us to make too much of what we do or don’t want to hear.
All of these influences coming together pulled us apart. For some—borrowing from the external and internal critics on the church extremes—the language of spirituality, spiritual disciplines, and spiritual formation became a red flag for a new kind of deception. For others, the language of revival and reformation became a caricature for neofundamentalism and the quest to raise our own righteousness in order to precipitate the Second Coming.
We forgot that most of us were actually talking about and seeking the same thing. That we have begun using this divergent language to attack each other might well be one of the devil’s greatest victories in our church in the past five years, especially in light of our obvious need for spiritual growth and re/formation.
In an increasingly polarized church community it is too easy to listen with growing exclusivity to voices, Web sites, and publications that fit with our assumptions, prejudices, and suspicions, risking the fragmentation of the majority center of our church. Our failures to be united in seeking and serving God and others, choosing instead to criticize each other for our respective “dangerous and deluded” spiritualities, is a division of words more than of substance.2 This is why we have to learn from and practice encouraging each other. It is also why we have to pay less attention to the theological extremes of the church, as well as stop yelling at and accusing each other.
Stifling, Scoffing, or Discerning?
It begins with learning to listen better, to hear in that other church member, pastor, or leader the desire to seek God and to live faithfully for Him. In what they say and how they live, hear what their hopes and fears are for the church we are all part of. Living as faithful people of God is challenging. But we can help each other in this, if we choose.
There are countless traps, temptations, and entanglements in seeking spirituality. But the impulse of the Growing in Christ fundamental belief is that Jesus gives us victory over the forces of evil and their deceptions, offering instead the joy of worship, mission, service, and living all our lives in the presence of God. In the name of Jesus, and with the Holy Spirit living in us, we are called to live above mere suspicion and fear.
Nevertheless, one of the calls of Adventism—among other believers—is that there is a lot of nonsense and even evil pushed and pursued in the name of religion and Christianity in particular. It’s hardly news to say “Babylon is fallen” (Rev. 14:8)3 when the failings and perversions of religion are among the strongest arguments for atheism today. But even the best-intentioned followers of Jesus—that includes us, at our best—are fallen. We don’t get it right all the time. We are human. We seek shortcuts. We fail to live up to what we say we believe. And we just make mistakes. There is no pure church, and there are no pure people.
Living in a world of so much spiritual noise—new and reheated beliefs and philosophies, many of them good, many of them unhelpful, some of them dangerous—we must be discerning. We are served a constant stream of information, invitations, and ideas, each with someone urging them as important. We can’t afford to swallow ideas whole. We need to dissect, reflect, examine, sniff, and then perhaps taste. But neither can we simply push the plate away and refuse to eat anything at all.
The Bible gives us warnings about being too selective, too picky, too critical. In Paul’s exhortations to the early believers, he expected that faith would not be static, that the church would always need to be discerning about new and different ways of looking at and practicing the life of faith. But this was not his warning to his readers. Instead, he says, “Do not stifle the Holy Spirit. Do not scoff at prophecies, but test everything that is said. Hold on to what is good. Stay away from every kind of evil” (1 Thess. 5:19-22).
In Paul’s summary our first task is to test, to seek, and champion that which is good and positive. Only then do we discard and distance ourselves from the dross of evil. In undertaking this difficult but necessary task, we should be glad of the contributions and challenges of other faithful and thoughtful believers. We understand that these other voices have different starting points and sometimes different directions. But in our “testing everything,” we should be careful with our “stifling” and “scoffing,” and should be particularly alert for the good.
In my reading this is consistent with President Wilson’s much-quoted Atlanta sermon. When he urged Adventist Church members to “stay away from nonbiblical spiritual disciplines or methods of spiritual formation that are rooted in mysticism,”4 he was reminding us of our need to test spiritual practices presented to us, discarding that which does not fit with biblical spirituality. This should be a call, not to inquisition, but—in the broader context of the call to revival and spiritual re/formation—to embrace the spiritual practices that are most likely to lead us to “the true, joyous life of the soul [which] is to have Christ formed within, the hope of glory.”5
Such a life project requires not only discernment but intentionality, perseverance, and surrender to the working of God in our lives and in our church. Ultimately, this is God’s work in us and is always a work of His grace. But we partner with Him, making daily choices, and establishing healthy spiritual habits that make space for Him to form, reform, and transform us into His likeness (see Gal. 4:19).6
As a church we have the resources for a healthy, growing, vibrant, revived, and transformative spirituality. Of course, we expect to learn new things from each other and from others along the way, but our newest fundamental belief seems a worthwhile place to start. While it will be expressed, practiced, and explored differently in different personalities, places, and cultures, we must recognize that this desire for God and His presence in our lives is our most unifying impulse. We can disagree on many things, but worship and serve together if we accept our mutual servanthood for Christ, our love for each other (see John 13:35), and submission to His work in our lives.
Based on this foundation, we can be honest in our disagreements and, in that honesty, we can better determine which of our differences are really most important and what we can work on or work with, rather than those that are the trend—or alarm—of the day. To help us do this, we have to give less attention to the loud voices from the extremes of the church. These tend to pull us further apart, they are rarely helpful, and they often come with agendas or motives other than that of the body of the church. Pandering to these extremes serves only to divide many of us who seek the center of the church in Jesus. We might listen respectfully for a time, but we also have to be discerning, embracing the good and discarding the nonsense, suspicion, and sensationalism.
We cannot afford to be divided by words and other people’s labels, when we might be united in seeking the spiritual re/formation we need. The Bible is clear that we should seek each other’s help in this: “Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near” (Heb. 10:24, 25).
We have not missed this opportunity (see Rev. 3:20)—we’ve just made something of a mess of it over the past few years. But God is with us still, inviting us still, and many of us are still working on the essence of this endeavor, whatever we might call it. As a starting point, we could just get back to talking about following Jesus and seeking to be like Him in all the fullness and practicality that entails. It might even make our Year of Adventist Meetings more useful.
And perhaps it’s worth all of us reading Steps to Christ again, or for the first time. My parents were onto something important all those years ago. It might yet be the revival and spiritual re/formation of our church and each of our lives.
- Articulating these “divisions” is done only with reluctance. While somewhat useful and generally understood shorthand, these terms are also used to divide, dismiss, and misunderstand in ways we must constantly resist. I recommend Chris Blake’s article “In Christ There Is Neither Conservative nor Liberal,” Adventist Review, Jan. 16, 2014, www.adventistreview.org/141502-16.
- For all the different language used, and various alarming reports circulated, there seems to be little evidence and few examples of Adventist churches using or promoting unbiblical or otherwise aberrant spirituality. “Spiritual formation” does have various meanings in different contexts and in other faith traditions, but this does not invalidate either the principles or the terminology in the context of Adventist spirituality.
- All Bible quotations are from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
- Ted N. C. Wilson, “Go Forward,” July 3, 2010. (Italics supplied.)
- Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1956), p. 47.
- Steps to Christ contains numerous references to being “restored,” “renewed,” or “transformed” into the likeness of Christ (see, for example, pp. 22, 43, 60, 70-73).