Why Adventist Ministers March

Why Adventist Ministers March

It was 6 am Monday morning. I was dog tired, but on a plane to Washington D.C.  For a moment, I wondered if I’d made a smart decision. Classes just started and I was also conducting a 2- week revival. I only had time to fly in and fly out. But it turned out to be a day that I won’t soon forget.

Al Sharpton and the National Action Network had invited 1000 ministers to celebrate the 54th anniversary of Dr. Martin King’s March on Washington. They wanted to bring attention to a number of issues, including:

  • A nation still struggling with issues of race and class.
  • The racist “tiki- torch” march in Charlottesville and the murder of Heather Heyer.
  • The growing problem of voter suppression.
  • The plague of mass incarceration and a broken criminal justice system.

The plan was for 1000 Ministers to march from the King monument to the steps of the Department of Justice, with a rally to follow. The number of registered ministers had grown to over 3000 well before the march even began. The sight was amazing. There were ministers from numerous faith traditions. Some in robes, some in collars, some in suits, some came casual.  There seemed to be almost as many Anglo ministers as ministers of color. And the number of Adventist ministers was obvious and impressive.

That’s right. The Adventist ministers were out in force. Ironic, because the Adventist community has a well-earned reputation for avoiding social justice issues. A younger generation has brought a different sensibility and things are changing. But let me give you a few reasons that Adventist ministers have marched in the past and continue to march today.

Because We Missed Too Many Marches

In the spring of 1999, I was the director of a steering committee addressing police misconduct in Southern California. I was asked to participate in a press conference conducted by CNN.  When the moderator identified me as a Seventh Day Adventist, the CNN reporter said something I’ll never forget. He said, “The Adventists are involved? Everybody must be on board!!” That was Not a compliment.

There are dangers when justice is your passion. The actors and issues and camps change at lightning speed. Sometimes you can find yourself on the wrong side of certain ethical issues.  But the danger of being written off by the community as selfish and unconcerned is just as bad, if not worse. We were largely on the sidelines of the civil rights movement and our reputation will never fully recover. We can’t make that mistake again.

Because We Honor Those Who Did March

I am excited about a new generation of social justice activists in the Adventist church. But it’s clear that many of them don’t know their history.  At a time when the church was as racist as the crowd that King marched against, we had a “remnant” that spoke truth to power inside and outside the church. The names Frank Hale, Randy Stafford, Earl Moore, Jacob Justice, J. Paul Monk, Warren Banfield, Mylas Martin, and Charles Joseph are a few that come to mind.

Because Marching Can Still Make A Difference

Charlottesville proved that. It’s hard to get the images out of your head.  Marches can still make a powerful statement-positively and negatively. They are smaller and less meaningful today than in times past, but that’s understandable. The issues have changed.  When you are marching for concerns that affect you personally and painfully, like desegregating schools and ending the Vietnam War, then you can expect larger, more passionate crowds.

Marches aren’t the only way to make an important statement, and in many cases, not even the best way. I think local activism, voter registration drives and targeted economic boycotts are more effective. But when they are carefully connected to future plans, marches can still be the catalyst for lasting change.

Because Jesus Was At The March

How do I know?  Because the theme lined up with His mission. In Luke 4 and Matthew 25, Jesus made his priorities clear. He came to heal spiritually and physically. Follow Jesus and you find him:

  • Defending the oppressed.
  • Feeding the hungry.
  • Standing for women’s rights in a sexist culture.
  • Identifying with those behind prison walls.
  • Speaking for widows, orphans, and immigrants….I mean strangers.

I repeat. There are real dangers for ministers and churches involved in social justice issues. Your witness can be weakened when people lump you into a particular party or movement. Your time can be consumed by never ending problems. It’s not for the faint of heart. But Christ’s simple charge to us is, as the father has sent me into the world, so send I You. John 17:18

My plane hadn’t landed at home before the predictable criticism began.

  • “That’s not what Adventist ministers do.”
  • “Why are you involved in secular fights? Let God take care of it.”
  • “It’s just a lot of race baiting.”
  • “Let’s not get involved in politics.”

I appreciate the counsel. That’s the beauty of America. We can agree, disagree, or agree to disagree. I support your right to criticize marchers. In fact, if anyone ever tries to take away your right to criticize marchers…..we’ll march against that!

When Should We Close a Local Church?

When Should We Close a Local Church?

It’s a sensitive topic. It’s an unpleasant reality. But many local churches seem to be dying right before our eyes. What was once a thriving center in a vibrant neighborhood is now a decaying island in a neighborhood long gone.

The signs are usually there.  Some of them I mentioned in the blog, “What To Do When Your Church Is Dying?” and others can be found in works like Thom Rainer’s, “Autopsy of a Deceased Church.”

  • There has been no appreciable growth, numerically or financially, in more than 5 years. Let’s make it 7 for the prophetic crowd.
  • The neighborhood around the church has drastically changed but the church has not.
  • The average age of the membership has risen sharply.
  • The bills and the building are becoming harder to maintain.
  • The goal of the church has become survival and maintenance rather than mission.
  • The membership is not willing to change.
  • The membership is not willing to accept their responsibility for the decline.

All is not lost. There are very few churches who have not struggled with some or all of those characteristics at some point. Dying churches are regularly revived but not without great sacrifice. These are some of the general characteristics of churches that survive:

  • A crisis arises that forces the local congregation to face its real condition.
  • The church engages outside, objective counsel to work through the crisis.
  • The church admits that it is in crisis.
  • The church confronts the problems and persons who contribute to the crisis.
  • A gifted local leader arises or is appointed and takes the church through a radical restoration process.
  • The church identifies a ministry or missional “niche” that allows it to make an ongoing contribution to the kingdom regardless of its size or age. Examples are: elder care ministries, social media ministries, child care ministries, legal aid ministries, Christian education ministries, etc.

But it seems to me that there is a point when some churches just need to be closed. Now, if you’re looking for some biblical instructions for closing a church, you’ll be disappointed. But living organisms, and a church is a living organism, go through predictable life stages: birth, adolescence, adulthood, old age, and death.

I believe that’s true of churches also. At some point the best of churches will crumble. Looking for Ephesus? You’ll have to go on an archeological dig. Time will tumble some churches. Others are victims of geography. Some fall prey to apostasy.

There are many churches that have found ways to not only survive but thrive.  Ultimately a church should be judged on its ability to fulfill the mission of the local church, which is to make disciples-developed and devoted followers of Christ. So, I believe we should consider closing local churches:

  1. When the local membership has not grown for 5-7 years and resists plans to change.
  2. When they refuse to submit to a thoughtful restoration process.
  3. When the local church is more successful at running souls off than bringing souls in.
  4. When other local churches are close enough to reach the souls the church in crisis refuses to reach.

Churches should be closed as a very last resort, but in some cases, they should be closed nonetheless. Church closures can actually be the grain of wheat spoken of in John 12 that dies but then brings forth much fruit. Churches can combine their memberships and resources for greater impact. Churches can resource new church plants and continue to live in other locations. Some churches can stop their perpetual search for the sixties and do a new thing. Some churches can stop reminiscing about the glory days and begin to tell a whole new story.

It’s a lot easier to talk about closing churches than it is to close them. Lives are impacted. Feelings are hurt. Hopes are dashed. But that’s also a description of what’s happening every week in many unhealthy churches.

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens, a time to be born and a time to die….” Ecclesiastes 3:1-2.

Is this true of local churches? What do you think?

3 Words That Could Cripple The Race Crisis

3 Words That Could Cripple The Race Crisis

It was a year ago tomorrow that I wrote this blog about Charlottesville, race, and the church. Any change? Yes. Thing have gotten worse!

There is something strange about the Charlottesville incident. It’s not as if any of this caught us by surprise. The alt right has been growing. The Klan has been moving from behind the masks and into the mainstream. Donald Trump has never made a mistake that he’d admit. But something about the Charlottesville incident just seems different.

  • Perhaps it’s because it shattered our stereotypes about the face of extreme racism. They were younger, wealthier, and more educated than many realized.
  • Perhaps it’s because the hatred was so aggressive and transparent. So unwilling to hide.
  • Certainly, it’s because a young life was lost.

To me it feels a bit like Bill Murray in Ground Hog Day. Every day that the alarm clock rings on race in this country, we seem to jump out of the same side of the bed, relive the same old scripts, and fight the same old battles.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers. This is a blog, not a Bible. But I am convinced that there are 3 words that could cripple the race problem.  What are the 3 Words?

Christians With Courage

I didn’t say cure the race problem, I said cripple it. In other words, there are some problems that defy easy answers and quick fixes. At times, we forget how recent our sordid slave history in America actually is. The Emancipation Proclamation was just 154 years ago and it took an additional 2 years before Texas got the message and freed the last slaves…and it seems like they’ve been trying to get them back ever since.

But I’m the eternal optimist and I think Christians can do what no statehouse can ever do. But it will take courage. A particular kind of courage.

Courage to admit you’re living in a glass house

The church can ill afford to throw stones about race. The only group that came close to the Klan’s support for Trump and his “make America great again” campaign were White evangelical Christians. They supported him at the rate of 81%. Given the racial divide on both sides of the Trump campaign and presidency, the church walked headlong into a racial buzz saw.

As Adventists, we need to clean our own house. We are a remnant with a race problem.  We have never addressed racism on an appropriate scale or in the appropriate forum. It’s negatively impacting our structure, it’s the elephant in the room in Christian education, and it’s hindering our mission.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about E.E. Cleveland and his amazing contributions to the Adventist church. I didn’t write about his lifelong struggle with the church to address its unfairness to minorities. Even the meeting he did in Trinidad, which stands today as the first Adventist campaign to baptize 1000, was marred by racism.

I was reminded me that Dr. Cleveland was actually sent to the island as punishment. The brethren switched his assignment from Jamaica to Trinidad, an island that was heavily Catholic. The idea was that he could have no real success there, but God had another idea. He always does. Have things improved? Certainly. But we have a way to go. And God can’t fix a problem that we won’t face.

Courage to confront the man in the mirror

Peter was a courageous disciple of Christ, but Acts 10 revealed that he had a race problem. That’s not surprising. We are all works in progress and dealing with racism is hard work. But it starts with the man in the mirror. What are your feelings about “others?” Better yet, what are your actions toward “others?”

At times a clearer referendum on your racial attitudes is who you listen to, agree with, and disagree with. When I lived in Southern California, a friend of mine sounded more like Rush Limbaugh than Rush Limbaugh, because that’s all he listened to. Whether you are a Limbaugh devotee or not, you must admit that he’s an extremely polarizing figure in the area of race. So, what does your fascination with Limbaugh or any other flame thrower say about you and the race issue?

Courage to say something if you see something

The reason the Klan and Neo-Nazis are so comfortable in public is because they are not being challenged in private. What do you say to the racism you hear in private?  Nothing throws cold water on a racist joke quicker than dead silence. How many of those tiki- torch bearing young men in Virginia could have been diverted if a courageous Christian friend had confronted them in private.

I cringe at the thought of how many times I’ve been silent in the face of evil and I’m not alone. Racism has to be confronted and corrected in the context of relationships for it to be effective.

Courage to stop blaming the victim

Perhaps Donald Trump’s greatest mistake in speaking to the Virginia tragedy was his “many sides” remark. “There were good and bad people on both sides”, he said.  It’s a false equivalence- describing a situation as if there is a logical equivalence on both sides of an issue, when there is none.

Even if you accept Trump’s statement that there was “bad” on both sides, the sheer numbers and degree of evil on the right was far greater.  Not to mention the fact that they were “bad” enough to take an innocent girls life. It allows the President to criticize the alt right and avoids alienating some in his base -but it blames the victim.

Racism in the United States has been a blight on the soul and psyche of this nation. It has infected blacks and whites alike- but not to the same degree.  By any objective and reasonable measure, the negative impact of racism has been far greater on people of color, particularly black people. Slavery, Jim Crow laws, redlining in housing, discrimination in college admission, and a list of other evils have unequally impacted black people.

And the negative impact of racism continues to this day. Recently the Corporation for Enterprise Development released a study that showed it would take black families 228 years to amass the same amount of wealth that white families have today.  The argument that racism is an equal opportunity offender is a lie that stalls honest discussion.

Even in the church there are those who never miss an opportunity to remind black people that they must deal with racism in their own ranks. I accept that. But it you lead with that, or if you don’t accept the reality that one side has been damaged more and is in greater need of resources, the discussion is dishonest.

Courage to vote

I didn’t plan to but I’ll throw this in.

I woke up this morning to Donald Trump twitter bombing his critics and doubling down on his earlier statements about the Virginia tragedy.  Now he’s arguing that the,” culture of our great country is being ripped apart by the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.” Confederate monuments. Whether you agree with him or not, you must agree that statements like these and others are terrible for race relations.

Listen, I believe in the sovereignty of God. He has worked out his will in seasons far worse than this. The tweets of Trump are nothing like the madness of Nero and others and we’re instructed to pray for them all. But you don’t just get the government you pray for; you get the government you vote for.

I’m done.

Ministers Who Marked My Ministry III

Ministers Who Marked My Ministry: Dr. E.E.Cleveland

He was no more than 6’3, but to the world he seemed larger than life. Dr. E. E. Cleveland. I actually heard him before I saw him. As a child, we’d listen to the recording of his 1966 evangelistic campaign in Port of Spain, Trinidad. At the close of that meeting over 1000 people were baptized – a first for the Seventh Day Adventist Church.

Born in Huntsville Alabama in 1921, he was a man of amazing gifts and scholarship. He authored 15 books, lectured regularly at prominent universities, trained over 1000 ministers, and served the church effectively at several levels. He was the most prolific evangelist in the SDA church, baptizing over 16,000 people.

He had a passion for people-especially people of color. He organized a campus chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. at Oakwood College when he was a student. He participated in the historic March on Washington in 1963. He crossed paths with Dr. Martin King and Dr. Ralph Abernathy during the civil rights movement and he was clearly the equivalent of Dr. King to the Adventist Church. He was the co-founder of the Human Relations Committee for the General Conference of SDAs. He was a tireless champion for social justice inside and outside the church.

But the personal encounters and connections are what marked me. Four of them influence me to this day.

Encounter Number One

Dr. Cleveland left the General Conference and came to Oakwood University in 1977. His class on Public Evangelism was probably the most popular class on campus. Attended by religion majors and non-religion majors alike, it was literally standing room only in the classroom. The class was already full when I registered in 1979, but they told me to just go to class and perhaps someone might drop out.

I could hardly get in the door for the press. Somehow I was able to enroll in the class and everyday was amazing! It was part revival, part evangelistic campaign, part college class. The stories, the testimonies, the humor, the passion, the insight. I had never had a classroom experience like that and I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to reproduce it in my own classroom ever since.

Encounter Number Two

As a religion student, I got to know Dr. Cleveland well. Frankly, I was in awe of him. I would soak in every suggestion and hang on every word. In the late 70s the campus and church community were always struggling with some legalistic teaching or off-shoot group- Shepard’s Rods, Brinsmeads, you name it. I set up an appointment to speak to Dr. Cleveland about salvation and sanctification.

He spoke about grace in a way that I’d never heard it before. Tears rolled down his face as he told me:

  • “We are justified, before we are qualified.”
  • “We are accepted, before we are acceptable.”
  • “We are trusted, before we are trust worthy.”
  • “We are declared perfect, while we are being perfected.”

This from a man who preached passionately against sin and who many felt was amazingly arrogant. They didn’t quite get him. As powerful a figure as he was, he was sensitive, almost overly so. What I saw was a man who was so grateful for what God had done, that he had no filter sharing it. He was so confident in his salvation, that at times it could be mistaken for overconfidence in himself…… and he could be a bit arrogant.

Encounter Number Three

When Dr. Cleveland retired from Oakwood, I was the Director of Church Growth and Discipleship in the Southeastern California conference. For a couple of years, they split his courses across the faculty, but in 2007 they asked me to join the Religion faculty of Oakwood University. My concentration is Church Growth and Evangelism, so I was effectively Dr. Cleveland’s successor. I taught his classes.

That year, I accepted the position after the class schedules were printed. Dr. Cleveland’s name was still on the class schedule when the students came back from summer break. In short, the students came to class expecting to see E.E. but instead they saw me! It took a minute or two for the students to realize the cruel switch, but when they did….it was Not pretty!!

I knew how they felt. There was no way anyone could fill Dr. Cleveland’s shoes. Certainly not me. But he was always there for encouragement and counsel. I spent hours listening to him. Even as his steps slowed, his mind remained sharp and he was a blessing until the time of his death in August of 2009.

Today

This year I became the Director of the Bradford, Cleveland, Brooks, Leadership Center on the campus of Oakwood University. Our lives intersect again.  Today we are teaching a changing church the unchanging principles that marked these men’s ministries. There will never be another E. E. Cleveland, but his contributions live on. I’ll make sure of that.