We’re off to a great start here in Dallas. My day began with a 255 mile drive from Houston, followed by registration and trying to check into my hotel room. There’s a cheerleader convention in the hotel, too, and as I was standing in the hotel registration line the father of one of the cheerleaders started asking us what we were here for. As it turns out, his father is an elder in an Adventist church in Illinois–and I went to church school in Rockford with his aunt! We started singing, “It’s a Small World after All.” That’s even more true as we start to mingle with our fellow IGNITION participants, and learn of mutual friends. I heard a familiar voice and turned to see what looked like a familiar face–it happened to be the brother of one of my AUC classmates. At a booth in the exhibit area I met Carroll Grady, with whom I’ve chatted on the Spectrum blog. All these incidents go to illustrate an important point, that gatherings such as this aren’t just conventions, but have the air of a pilgrimage, a holy convocation, joining together with members of a spiritual family who have come from many distant places.
Two items from today’s agenda have served to set the tone for me, whetting my appetite for what is to come over the next few days. One was a presentation this afternoon by George Barna, the other, supper with some other campus ministry leaders.
In his second presentation of the day, George Barna summarized themes from his book, Revolution. People are experiencing spiritual transformation today, he says, but instead of this transformation coming from traditional churches, it’s coming through connection with what he calls “spiritual mini movements.” These are small in numbers at present, but are suggestive of a revolution in spiritual life. These movements take many forms, including mothers’ groups, 12 step groups, house churches, home school networks, men’s groups, and many more. They have a vitality that is too often ignored by those he calls the “gatekeepers,” including leaders in the conventional churches as well as journalists who think the only legitimate spiritual movements are those which take place through the mediation of traditional forms of religious life. But the Spirit of God cannot be bound to old forms; “the wind blows where it wills,” and the new wine must be placed in new wineskins.
Those who participate in these new forms of spiritual life are revolutionaries–they place God first, and want more of Him, and will not be satisfied with having spirituality dished out to them by churches that act as if they are necessary mediators of the divine life. These are not passive recipients of institutional grace, but are taking responsibility for their own spiritual growth.
These revolutionaries see that they are not called to go to church, but called to be the church. To be a Christian, for them, is not a matter of showing up for programs, or knowing where a building is, but of following Christ as disciples.
“Is your church producing such revolutionaries?” Barna asked. “If not, you are in the wrong business.”
Today’s revolutionaries are united by passion for a faith journey that is centered in the family; they crave intimate worship experiences; they are comfortable with having faith-based conversations in the marketplace and on the sports field; they seek intentional spiritual growth and opportunities for compassionate servanthood; they want to invest their resources in mission; they yearn for genuine spiritual friendships.
They are doing all those things that the institutional church has said it wanted them to do, but it has turned its back on them because they’re doing it in ways the institutional church can’t control. And so many pastors dismiss the transformative experiences they are having because they didn’t come from “the right sources.”
These revolutionaries are living out a wide variety of new models of the church, including the house church (actually the oldest model), cyber church, participation in free-standing worship events (coordinated by “worship gypsies” who travel around the country putting on worship experiences for people), marketplace ministries (including corporate chaplains), and intentional community (moving from the comfort of the suburbs to go into distressed areas to be the presence of God in their community) … and so many more.
This is not a phase, he argues, but a sign of a radical shift in American religion. In the year 2000, 65-70% of born again Christians in the US said the congregational church was their primary means of experiencing and expressing faith–by 2025 this will have dropped to 30-35%, and an equal number will be in alternative churches. Media arts and culture will pick up the rest. A practical consequence of this is that churches would be foolish to invest in building programs now–these elaborate campuses will be redeveloped as shopping malls in another 15 years.
Revolutionaries are not flakes on the fringe, Barna insists, but are serious about their faith in Christ. They donate twice as much money as born agains, despite lower income. They are three times as likely to study the Bible every day and to have family Bible studies. They are twice as likely to believe in absolute moral truth, twice as likely to use different types of Christian media to grow, and twelve times as likely to say faith is their top priority.
Barna described seven features of enduring revolutions throughout history: they have a distinctive ideology, provide intimacy, have a clear identity, make an impact (through both personal and social transformation), are characterized by intensity and immediacy, as well as inefficiency (they are messy, valuing results over form). The early Christian church was such a revolutionary movement–and so, we might add, was the early Advent movement.
He cautioned that we must realize that not everyone who is in an alternative faith community is a revolutionary. Nor is every revolutionary in an alternative community. Many have a foot in both the conventional and the alternative church.
He asked us to contrast the early church with the churches of today–there is little resemblance. We’ve added so many cultural and theological accretions to New Testament Christianity. These can’t be absolutes. We can’t call holy what we’ve created, only what God created. (This provoked lots of amens and clapping).
Today’s revolutionary Christians are not angry, nor are they anti-church; rather, they are pro-kingdom.
They don’t want to tear down something that exists, but to build up something that doesn’t exist.
They don’t neglect gathering for worship, but in fact worship together more often, intimately, and intensely than most “born again” Christians. But worship for them is not a nice hour each weekend, but a lifestyle.
Some say they don’t have accountability; in fact, they have a different accountibility, that is at once vertical, with God, and also organic and relational–they are accountable to people who know and care about them, rather than to people that have offices and titles.
Some are concerned that such a diffuse movement will cause heresy to proliferate, but Barna is not worried, because the Bible is their guide, and we must believe it is sufficient. Heresies crop up when this Biblical foundation is missing, as we see in the fact that there is no shortage of heresies in seminaries and pulpits today, especially where there is a devaluing of Scriptural authority.
The challenge for us is simple–will we join this revolution, or will we be the establishment that is rocked by it?
For Seventh-day Adventists, I think we can interpret this as a call to return to our roots. We’ve tried to move from “sect” to “denomination,” according to an outmoded typology, yet in doing so haven’t we joined instead this rush toward the cliff? Perhaps we can best move forward by moving backward, and recapturing the revolutionary faith of our fathers.
Many of the youth and young adults at this gathering are part of this revolution. They have a hunger for God, and will seek him wherever they are fed and nurtured. They long for community, for sacred times and sacred conversation. They want the intimate worship and meaningful outreach Barna describes. That’s what’s brought them here. They have stories of being touched by God, and they want more.
That’s what this can be about.
For supper tonight I joined a group of campus ministry leaders to talk about the future of Adventist Christian Fellowship, the new North American Division outreach to secular colleges and universities. I’ll write more of this tomorrow. We ended the night with a cafe, a comfortable place to reflect on the day and unwind with our new and old friends.
I invite you to join the conversation in this blog. The different contributers will share their experiences and reflections, but it won’t be complete until we hear from you.