Epistle to a Local Church
by Josh Wood
To the Local Church,
I praise God for the opportunity to minister here for the past few years. It certainly hasn’t been easy and there have been many hurdles to overcome. I’ve been very careful to choose my words today because it hasn’t been easy, not even close. There will be times in this letter some of you rejoice and agree with what’s being said and other times where you may squirm, uncomfortable with what is being said. I don’t say any of this to shame any individual or to bring glory to anyone by God. Part of my role as pastor, shepherd, steward of this church is to speak as God calls me to speak, not as you might want me to speak.
As a Pastor, one ordained by God, even though I’m not ordained by man, I came to you in a time of exile. For many years we had been ‘doing church’ in a hodge-podge of buildings that hadn’t really been planned but were used out of necessity and availability. This ‘fake it til you make it’ mentality isn’t new to Adventism, in fact it’s practically how our pioneers started this denomination some 155 years ago.
Whilst in exile it became evident that this was a broken church, or, more specifically, broken churches. The history of two worship services was more than just two worship services, it was two completely different cultures. Initially these seperate worship services were able to cater to the preferred worship ‘needs’ of the more traditional and the more contemporary cultures, but it soon turned into a badge of honour to be associated with either ‘Us’ or ‘Them.’ Quickly ‘my’ culture was better than ‘their’ culture, ‘my’ worship better than ‘theirs.’
The same cultures that clashed then still do today, even though we now hold one combined worship service. We, your pastoral team(s) have worked hard to use new language but the old strains still ring out even today, perhaps not as publicly, but they’re still there.
This is evidenced not only through general congregant conversation as we ‘harken to a better era’ with thoughts that the ‘good old church is long gone’ but even through the reports produced by the Nominating Committee over the past few years. We’re getting better at seeing everyone as ‘Our people’ rather than ‘Us’ or ‘Them,’ but we’re not quite there yet.
This clash of culture isn’t just about worship styles (although it is) but also about general church operations and the way things are done. There seems to be amongst you a spirit of distrust, a spirit that began long ago. This spirit is one that:
Doesn’t trust those outside your peer group to be able to do anything
Doesn’t trust that those outside your peer group even care for the Church
Doesn't trust that those outside your peer group might have the best interests of the body at heart
Doesn’t trust those that you, as a church have appointed through the Nominating Committee process, to be working for the betterment of this community
Doesn’t believe anyone outside your peer group is seeking God as much as you are
Doesn’t believe that those newer to the faith have much to offer for fear that they don’t yet behave the way we want them to
Doesn’t believe that those Pastors appointed and chosen to lead this congregation have anything valuable to contribute
I’m here to call out that attitude as it’s not from God but a ploy of the devil to distract us and for too long we’ve enabled that distraction to continue, but we can’t afford to any longer.
In focussing on our culture, our interests our desire we don’t allow ourselves to enter into communication, into communion with the body of Christ here at church. We begin to attend ‘church’ instead of ‘be the church.’
Worship is something I’ve spoken to you about on more than one occasion so I’ll be brief in this regard.
The style of one’s worship should have little to do with the music used. Music is but a conduit through which we can worship. Our heart should be prepared and focused on Jesus rather than on our wants and desires. We don’t all need to be uniformed in our worship style but we do need to be united in our desire to worship.
The role of the Pastor is varied. I’m often asked ‘what does a typical week look like for you’ and to be honest, I’ve never really been able to answer that question. There are consistent elements but sometimes their consistency is fortnightly, monthly, quarterly, annually, but rarely weekly. Having said that I wish there were more consistency. Even today many still think, some in the church, that Pastors only work on Sabbath. Whilst this is the time most of you see your pastors, trust me, sermons don’t just get spoken off the top of one’s head. Yes, at times the week can be so busy that the sermon has been written the day of preaching or even changed the morning of because of prompting of the spirit but this isn’t and shouldn’t be the norm.
I don’t believe that I am the best preacher, nor do I think that God has necessarily gifted me with great preaching skills. I do believe he has gifted me with good communication skills and extensive administration skills. However I also believe that God does equip me to preach even if my game is not always strong.
2 Corinthians 12:9-10
9 And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.
There have been times where after preaching some of you feel as though you haven’t been ‘fed’ enough or that you didn’t get anything out of the sermon. If your spiritual food is only coming from the sermon on Sabbath you’re never going to be satisfied.
Other times you think it was a great sermon if only ‘so-and-so’ was here to hear it. This judgmental nature that you are somehow part of a spiritually elite group and ‘so-and-so’ isn’t tells me more about your spiritual health than theirs.
Still other times some of you feel the need to criticise because you don’t feel the sermons are affirming of you enough. Yes there is a time for affirmation, but my role as Pastor is not to pat you on the back but to challenge you and to equip you.
And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ;
You see sometimes in order to build up we need to challenge our habits and traditions in order to build up with a more solid foundation. One of there many and varied reasons we aren’t comfortable with preaching is that it isn’t telling us what we want to hear. Sermons that call out behaviour are not often seen as helpful by the church member who wants to be constantly affirmed but sermons calling out behaviour are often noted by fringe dwellers or visitors/new christians who have struggled with the ‘perfectness’ of church.
1 Peter 2:1-5
Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. 2 Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, 3 now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.
4 As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— 5 you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ
It’s more than Sabbath Morning
One of the difficulties we all face in this modern world is the busy lives we need to balance. From work to family time, school commitments and church there seems to be an increased number who are just getting overwhelmed.
For some we think that busyness is a spiritual gift, far from it. Busyness is a ploy the devil uses to distract us from our mission. We get busy with work, with family, with school, with everything that there simply isn’t time for us to commit anything to the church. Yet some of us get so busy at church that we struggle to be heading in any direction.
We need to get on the same page when it comes to church and recognise many things:
The church is not a place it’s a people
(Acts 7:38; Acts 19:32; Acts 5:11; Acts 20:28; 1 Cor 10:32)
The church, in being a gathering of people needs a reason to gather
That reason could be many things, all of which could constitute an act of worship BUT our reason for gathering need not be limited to 2 hours on a Saturday morning.
Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” 38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” 40 And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation!” 41 So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. 42 They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
The Church is a place where every believer participates, not just a select few
43 Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. 44 And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; 45 and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need.46 Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.
There is a growing acceptance of the myth that when it comes to church ‘we need a break from responsibility.’ If you are part of the church your role is never finished until all the world has heard the gospel. The reason we burn out when it comes to church is that we make church about Sabbath morning rather than a posture of the heart.
I wonder, and this is a challenge to me too, when was the last time you intentionally brought someone into the fellowship of Jesus? I’m not talking about putting on an event like Road to Bethlehem or Big Camp and measuring that as an intentional act to bring someone to Jesus (as much as it may be), I’m talking about when you last deliberately journeyed with a known individual and showed them through your life, through studying the scriptures the beauty that is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords?
This question was recently posed to the representatives at the South Queensland Conference constituency meeting and the results were...interesting. If we posed the same question to this Church what percentage of this gathering of people would be able to honestly raise their hand and name someone they are or have led to Christ in the last two years?
You see church isn’t about waiting for people to come into our midst on a Sabbath morning, it's about us going into theirs all the rest of the week. When we do this we become zealous for the cause and continuing in ministry because God sustains us when we work for His cause. I wonder if you’re burning out is because we aren’t working for God’s cause but our own? I wonder what would happen if we worked as God instructs us rather than just to the level we are comfortable?
And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
Mark 6:7-12; 6:30-31
Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits.
8 These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. 9 Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. 10 Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. 11 And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”
12 They went out and preached that people should repent. 13 They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.
30 The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. 31 Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”
Mentoring the Next Generation
Many of you have grown up as Seventh-day Adventists, many in this very location. You’ve gone from childhood to adulthood in these very walls. You’ve raised your children and your grandchildren in these very halls. And for many of you those children and grandchildren are no longer here. The God we serve gives us the option to choose or reject Him and increasingly there are more and more who are rejecting Him. I don’t believe there are any clear answers as to why this is the case, for as many people have have chosen to walk away from the Church there are likely as many different stories and reasons, but let us not neglect this next generation. Children and young people are often forgotten about in our churches. We provide Sabbath School programs that are under resourced and understaffed and then wonder why young people are not sticking around? I’d hazard a guess it might have something to do with the fact that silently, and perhaps not quite so silently, we’ve told them that they don’t matter. We’ve told them we, as adults and as their spiritual examples, don’t care to spend time with them, to provide spaces for them to be children learning about Jesus, to provide platforms for them to ask questions. We’ve silenced them so that we might hear our own voices. This isn’t the Christian way. Instead of shoo-ing and silencing children we need to honour and accept them
2 He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. 3 And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
One of the clearest indicators to children that they have no place here is not just our behaviours towards them, but our language. Too often I’ve heard many of you cry out in relation to the way things are done, from the greeting to the singing from the carpark to the technology something along the lines of
“I’ve been here [insert number of years here] years, this is MY church and I won’t be told to change.”
If this is you let me apologise profusely. I haven’t been wanting to tell you to change, I’ve been wanting to journey with you so that you might get a glimpse of a bigger picture. A picture where all can come to Jesus bringing their individual gifts, their individual personalities, their individual burdens and be welcomed into this space as the bring glory and honour to HIM.
The reality is; however, this isn’t your church. Perhaps that’s the biggest battle we have as a congregation. This isn’t unique to this group either, this attitude is one that is present in church gatherings right across Australia, and, I’d suggest even the world. This is God’s Church. One that you have found many years, weeks or days ago. And as it is His Church He asks us to come as we are, but He also challenges us, moulds us and continues to work on us that we might become the masterpiece He designed. When we try to take ownership of the church as though it is ours, rather than God’s we are doing something that require our repentance, we are sinning in the most diabolical of ways because:
We are elevating ourselves into the position God rightly holds.
We are willing to listen to ourselves when it comes to how things should be done and we are ignoring the prompting of the Holy Spirit.
As He continues in this task of refining us there will be things that change and challenge us that we don’t like, but we need to trust God and recognise that He called us here not for our benefit but for the benefit of the Church...that is the benefit of each person who chooses to be part of this gathering, of this assembly. One of these ways in which we need to expand our trust in God is in the treatment of our children and young people.
The Bible tells us in the gospel of Matthew
Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them.
14 Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” 15 When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there.
Are we behaving like the disciples? Rebuking the faith of these people and these children or are we recognising the special place children have in God’s kingdom. Youth, young people, children are not the future of the church...far from it, they are as much the church now as anybody else and it’s time we, as adults, start recognising this fact, stepping alongside them, mentoring them and journeying with them. How God’s Church would grow if only we did our part instead of trying to do God’s part.
I recently became aware of an Adventist Church that have recognised this truth. They’ve actively mentored their young people to know God and love the Church. So much so that they were brave enough to do something no other Adventist Church that I’m aware of has done in recent history, they elected a new Head Elder...a Head Elder who is grounded in his faith, who loves Jesus, who is passionate about mission and who is under the age of 25.
This bravery isn’t really that brave when you recognise the years of mentoring and training in the faith this young man has received. And so as I close this epistle to a Local Church and close my time with this Local Church I want to leave you with a picture. A picture of a church full of people young and old, worshipping together. Not just here on a Sabbath morning but in the breaking of bread in each others homes on a regular basis. A picture of a church so fixated on Jesus that we can’t focus on anything but His goals and objectives for us. A picture of a church that lifts each other up, yet knows each other so well that when a rebuke is necessary it can be done out of the overflowing love of the relationships you have with each other and with God. A picture of a church that upholds and affirms the potential in their young people and those new to the faith. A picture that doesn’t see generational Adventism as something to attain but rather a daily surrendering to Jesus. A picture of a church that knows and loves its children, just as Jesus did, affirms them, prays for them, provides space for them and staff their spaces, not as a babysitting exercise but as an opportunity to participate in the greatest work we can be called to do...make disciples.
Josh Wood is a Pastor in the Victorian Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and lives in Melbourne.