Mission Catalyst directional leader Ron Gladden was recently asked by a friend “Would you
ever consider coming back [to the Adventist denomination]?”￼￼￼ His response made the cover story in the Fall 2013 edition of Adventist Today. Here is the article.
It’s been eight years since I abandoned my calling, left the truth, and became the ringleader of apostasy.
I’m being facetious, of course. But those are a few of the exciting labels plastered on my forehead by spirit-led people when I made the decision in 2004 to continue the work of starting churches – although independently. (Someone actually gifted me a T-shirt in the early days of Mission Catalyst that boasts, Ringleader of Apostasy. It’s folded up in my drawer next to the one that reads, If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.)
Those were the days. As soon as the word hit the Adventist grapevine that I was launching a ministry to start non-denominational Sabbath churches, the Mission Catalyst phone lines smoked like Johnny Cash after he shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. All of the callers were beside themselves; half were elated that someone had the guts to do what was long overdue while the other half predicted God’s wrath to descend immediately, gradually, or certainly at the end of the 1,000 years.
It was a difficult decision. I was fully aware that the powers-that-be would not throw their hats in the air in celebration. I knew I would no longer be invited to speak in Singapore, Slovenia, or South Carolina. During every one of my 27 years of ministry employment, I fought as hard as Sonny Liston to help people find Jesus and encourage them to join the church and it felt strange to be so strongly vilified by some of my former friends.
I have a rich Adventist heritage. My father heard Ellen White speak at the Kansas camp meeting when he was a little boy; he later became a pastor who baptized so many people that they had to build a new church in every city where he served. And now, according to some, I had thrown God under the bus, dishonored my dad, and tossed the baby out with the bathwater.
So what was I smoking? Why did I do it? I had one motive: More people in heaven. I decided that the message is too important to hide under a bushel. The denomination had become too parental (healthy denominations are grand-parental), too top-heavy, and far more concerned about control than with reaching normal, decent people like my son-in-law or my neighbor who had nothing against God, but had no time for a church that nitpicks about whether it’s OK to serve beef on the pizza at a church picnic.
My tongue-in-cheek mantra has always been, If you can’t make a difference, at least make a mess. My ministry hero is Paul. When I read his mantra – “I do all things for the sake of the gospel that I might by all means save some” – something stirs in my spirit. Invitations to speak at camp meetings, frequent articles in Ministry, and a conference healthcare plan are no longer tempting compared with the thrill of helping more people find Jesus. (And yes, I’m convinced that Paul would do the same.)
All of this brings me to a phone call from a good friend (who happens also to be a denominational celebrity). “My perspective is that the Advent movement is much larger than the denomination,” he purported. “I see Mission Catalyst as part of the Advent movement. What’s your view? Is that how you see it?”
My answer was easier than a one-piece jigsaw puzzle. “Yes. The movement was building steam for twenty years before the denomination was organized – which means the movement and the denomination are not one and the same. And the movement was all about merging love for Jesus with grace and truth. It’s absurd to imagine that only people who work under one particular label are part of God’s movement.”
Then my celebrity friend fired the big question. He couldn’t resist asking what a hundred friends – and several foes – have wondered out loud: Would you ever consider coming back to the denomination?
“Would you like to elaborate?”
“Sure.” I shared three reasons.
First, the denomination has drifted like a cork in the ocean from the priority of the local church.
There was a time when everyone was clear that God’s design to reach a city is a healthy, unselfish, growing church. Local leaders were trusted to make ministry-altering decisions. (Those were the days, my friend. We thought they’d never end.) Not any longer. Today, the local church is viewed as the collection point for a massive transfer of wealth from the place where soul winning actually happens to the “higher” levels of church structure. There is no baptistry or pulpit in denomination offices, yet the local church scrapes by on the crumbs that are left.
Why are pastors paid less than administrators? When our goal is to help young people spiritually, why don’t we provide highly-skilled and thoroughly-trained youth leaders for every church instead of investing hundreds of thousands of dollars on staffing and maintaining a conference youth camp that affects young people for one week each year? When we want to reach far-from-God people in a city, why don’t we pull out all the stops (a little pump organ lingo) to create a healthy, unselfish, growing church that builds bridges and relationships, and shares and lives the truth, instead of bringing in an evangelist to preach to strangers (under the assumption that what people lack most is information)? Because we think institutionally. We misunderestimate the power and design of the local church.
And then there is the issue of control. For way too many administrators, control is more important than obedience to the Gospel Commission (which, of course, is the real G.C.). Union and division officers shout loudly about souls from constituency-session podiums, but their deeper concern is compliance. Like ghosts at a séance, a simmering paranoia haunts every conversation, committee meeting, and discussion. (How else do you explain why a conference committee is not allowed to meet without a union officer in the room? And union committees never convene unless a division rep is present? And a G.C. administrator must be part of every division committee meeting?) Of course many administrators care about the mission, but they are swallowed up by a system that assumes that leaders at the “lower” levels cannot be trusted to decide the final destination of the charitable dollar or whom to hire.
Second, the world we live in is increasingly post-denominational.
Denominations were formed to provide four services: keep everyone together doctrinally, train pastors, hire and assign pastors, and send missionaries. Each of those can easily be done today by a local church.
If you want to go deep in theology, I recommend the seminary at Andrews. If you want to learn how to create and lead a healthy, unselfish, growing church, you don’t abandon the harvest for a couple of years and sit at the feet of people who have never done it. You read books, attend conferences at prevailing churches, and engage in webinars led by people who are doing it even as we speak. You build the plane while you fly it. You lean on a coach who is light years ahead of you. And when it comes to missions, local churches all over the planet are changing entire communities through their Matthew 25 initiatives.
Fewer leaders find value in denominations that don’t focus like a laser on resourcing local congregations with the prayer that they achieve their maximum redemptive potential.
Third, God’s movement in the world is broader than just one denominational label.
Allow me to be frank. (I know I’ve been holding back until now, but I can’t any longer.) I am disappointed at the attitude of so many Adventists toward other brothers and sisters in Christ. I believe it is somewhere north of absurd to believe that it’s safe to learn from Uriah Smith because he was Adventist, but dangerous to read John Ortberg or invite T.D. Jakes to speak at Oakwood University because neither is Adventist. Only a mind as narrow as Roy Rogers’ tie could jump to such a conclusion.
When Jesus is our reason, not just for the season, but for everything we do, when the good news of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and return is paramount, I am proud of the Adventist theological niche. I learned it at my mother’s knee, and I am not tempted to sweep it aside. But when God raises up a Christian leader who inspires thousands to follow Jesus, why would we even try to keep him away from the saints? Why are Adventists still arguing over these issues at pastors’ meetings and in church publications when all-too-many of their own churches are a heartbeat away from a coma?
I love being a Christian first – without a label. It’s like a breath of fresh air after a deep-sea scuba dive to be part of the broader church with a capital “C”. To respect, and pray for, and learn humbly and enthusiastically from today’s spiritual pioneers, regardless of what tribe they do or do not represent, should be a no-brainer. The freedom of not having to explain a label is wonderful. A huge barrier is gone. And the result is more people in heaven.
So, would I ever consider going back to the denomination? If the highest priority – not just in words, but in structure and in DNA – were to create healthy, unselfish, growing churches that accomplish the Great Commission, I would go back on a high-speed train. But following God’s call to serve independently of a parental denomination has resulted in a higher level of joy and more fruit for the kingdom than ever before. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, the Hebrew prophet wrote, there is freedom. I am irretrievably addicted.