Adventists and the Emerging Church

My latest column at Adventist Today.

I’ve been following the series by AToday blogger Herb Douglass on the “Emerging/Emergent Church” with interest, and would like to offer some of my reflections on the subject.

Like Herb, I’ve seen enough fads come and go that I have become a little cynical. And he’s right–a lot of the fads that are becoming popular within Adventism today passed their prime years ago in the churches where they originated. It just goes to show that we need to restrain our desire to grasp excitedly at what seems new to us, and take time to examine how these things have played out over time. “By their fruits you shall know them,” Jesus said.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I think any discussion of “the emerging church” has to start with a consideration of the world around us. I wrote about this in my last column. The world is changing rapidly. We find ourselves in the situation of the earliest Christians as they stepped out into the frightening pluralism of the Mediterranean world of the first century. Like them, we have to assume that the people to whom we are called to witness don’t share our worldview, our sacred texts, or our religious and philosophical beliefs.

This has tremendous implications for how we do evangelism. The evangelistic methods used by Adventists in America for the first hundred years of our denominational history assumed that our target audience shared our Christian (and Protestant) worldview, knowledge of the Bible, and interest in Biblical prophecy. That is no longer true. Today’s religiously pluralistic world does not speak our language, and the answers we propose do not necessarily relate to the questions it is asking. We must start our conversations as Paul did on the Areopagus, taking time to understand the desires, hopes, and fears of those in our audiences-proclaiming to them “the unknown god” whom they may worship in ignorance.

The “emerging churches,” as I define them, are those that recognize this gap in worldviews is real and are seeking to find new ways to live and witness as disciples of Jesus so as to bridge the gap. But they are not united themselves, they do not preach a single message, and they do not share a common story. That’s why I’m using the plural, “churches.”

More than merely recognizing the existence of the gap, though, the “emerging churches” also join in confessing that some of the problem is of the church’s own making. Paul may have addressed audiences that had never heard the name of Christ, but our audience has two thousand years of Christian history to consider. Non-Christians often say they like what they see in the life and teachings of Jesus, but these are often at variance with the lives and teachings of Christians. So the “emerging churches” sometimes intentionally seek to distance themselves from Christianity as it has been lived and practiced through history (something Seventh-day Adventists have also done).

Now, as I’ve already said, there is no unity of belief among the “emerging churches.” They agree on the problem, but not on the solution. Some who are identified with the “emerging churches” are indeed embracing spiritualism; others are offering revarnished liberalism, spouting metaphysical and philosophical mush and subjectivism. But then there are folks like Mark Driscoll who think that Paul, and Augustine, and the Reformers can speak in new and powerful ways to today’s world.  If we dismiss all the “emerging churches” because of the heresies of some, then are we not acting just like those who dismiss Adventism as “just another 19th century American cult,” like Mormonism, Christian Science, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses?

I think there are things we can learn from the “emerging churches.” At the very least we can agree with the questions they raise, even if we may offer different answers. And I would disagree with those who say the movement is “dead.” Sure, it’s in a different place than it was ten years ago. Obviously, something can’t “emerge” forever. These churches have already changed the life of many others, and the way they speak of mission and engage in it. So this isn’t so much a fad that we are jumping on belatedly–it’s a conversation that some Adventists have been involved in for some time, and that more Adventists are being drawn into. And now you and I are part of that conversation.

Let’s talk about mission for a moment. That’s the central thrust of the “emerging churches.” And let me speak of it in concrete terms. I’m writing this while sitting in Taft Street Coffee House, on the premises of Ecclesia, one of the leading “emerging churches,” located in the Montrose district of Houston, and pastored by Chris Seay. They are part of this neighborhood; their ministry here looks different than it would in another city, or even another part of Houston. They seek to be the presence of Christ in this specific neighborhood, living in its midst, responding to its cries, sharing its joys–that’s what they mean by “incarnational” or “missional” living.

There used to be a Seventh-day Adventist Church some blocks from here. As the neighborhood changed, and became the heart of Houston’s “alternative” community (with art galleries and coffee houses and vegetarian restaurants and gay bars) that church  relocated to the suburbs. The Adventist churches that remain within the 610 loop (and within the Beltway) minister to specific ethnic groups. We no longer have churches in the neighborhoods where the majority of Houston’s young adults live (including Montrose, the Museum District, the Medical Center, Westchase, and the Heights). We expect Adventist young adults in these neighborhoods to make the trek out to the suburbs. Some do. Others do not–or cannot.

We could learn from Ecclesia and the emerging churches about this love for the city–for they have learned of Christ. They have learned that as “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us,” so must we. It’s not enough to merely offer old-style evangelistic series–not even with the addition of “felt needs seminars.” We need to grasp their vision that mission means becoming the presence of Christ within the many diverse neighborhoods of cities like Houston.

We’re planning a city-wide evangelistic thrust next year. We’re just starting to talk about what it could mean. I hope it will be more than sermons. I hope the meetings our churches hold will include instruction on prayer and on how to enjoy the Sabbath rest. I hope they will include not only talk about prayer, but authentic, heartfelt prayer, and the joy of Christian fellowship. I hope we won’t just advertise meetings and ask people to come out, but that we will go to them, and serve them, planting ourselves again in the very heart of the city.

Another point. The “emerging churches” don’t only talk about mission. They also talk about spirituality. They see that the unchurched and searching young adults in the postmodern metropolis have a hunger and thirst for meaning and spirituality. Spirituality is nothing complicated for the “emerging churches.” They teach about prayer, and about other spiritual disciplines like simple living, fasting, community, and reading the Bible. This is where the “emerging churches” part company with the “seeker friendly” churches of prior decades. The folks behind those imagined that the world wasn’t interested in spirituality–they thought seekers wanted something that was closer to what they found in the business world. And here they failed–spiritual seekers don’t want us to reproduce what they already have and know–if that were sufficient, they wouldn’t be seeking! They don’t want banal entertainment–they seek transcendence. And the “emerging churches” realize that old Christian practices still have power.

I don’t think we need to be afraid of talk of “spirituality”–we just need to be clear what we mean by the phrase. I think those who say Adventists are in need of spirituality are wrong, as I’ve discussed elsewhere ( We have a rich heritage of spirituality, and we would do well to remind ourselves of its strength and vitality. It is rooted in Jesus, in our understanding that God is interested in our whole person, and in the affirmation through our worship that we belong to God. It includes the Advent hope that burns within our hearts, embodied in our early writings and hymns. It includes not merely the truth of the Sabbath, but the experience of it. It includes the health message, not as a list of dos and don’ts, but as the awareness that spirituality includes the body and how we treat it. It includes the spiritual guidance that Ellen White gave to the church and to individuals, especially in Steps to Christ. It includes our practice of baptism and foot-washing and the Lord’s Supper. It includes the “morning watch” and prayer meeting and camp meeting. It includes the exhortation to “spend a thoughtful hour each day in contemplation of the life of Christ.”

I think much of this would resonate with the “emerging church.”

Herb and I agree about many things. We agree that the truth must be spoken with clarity–and charity. We agree that the “good old Seventh-day Adventist message” still has meaning and needs to be heard. We long for the day when it will return to the cities of the East with power.

For that to happen, we need to feel its power again ourselves. And we need to boldly go once more into those cities we’ve neglected, striking up conversations by today’s wells with the hurting, the lonely, the searching. We need to invest our evangelism dollars planting churches next to university campuses, in the neighborhoods dominated by young singles, and in the barrio–abandoning what I might call our preferential option for the suburban middle class. We need to transform our hospitals into mission bases, recovering Kellogg’s vision for urban outreach. We need to open vegetarian restaurants, not only to serve delicious food, but to be centers for teaching about lifestyle and spirituality. We need to get our books into neighborhood bookstores, where searchers can find them as they are browsing the shelves. Most importantly, we need to become vulnerable, stripping off the robes of respectability we’ve so carefully woven the past fifty years, to kneel and wash feet caked with the city’s grime and aching from the quest.

Thanks, Herb, for initiating this conversation.

One thought on “Adventists and the Emerging Church

  1. Bill: You have been my Morning Watch, catching me by surprise and delight! Nothing above could be said better. You have caught the essense of both the emergents and where Adventists can do more to engage them without giving up our basic essence. I rejoice in your skillful thrust of the written word. Cheers, Herb

Comments are closed.