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June 9, 2012

Concentricity for Adventist Church Communities

I am a thirty-something Adventist someone. I have been a regular church attendee all my life, have worked for the Adventist denomination for several years, and even spent time abroad with my wife as missionaries. Still, today, it is not easy for me to be a part of a church community.

There are significant issues with Adventist presence in the city of San Francisco (I take care not to speak to the presence in the greater Bay Area, of which I’m not informed), but the greatest problem that I face in becoming an active participant in church is not being able to finish what my participation has started. My current life and career require me to be nearly always prepared for relocation; in this globalized world we create for ourselves, situations like this are increasingly common.

Yet even without the threat of leaving abruptly, there are difficulties in leaving projects in progress. My wife and I had just accepted positions in our local church and formed a foundation for the young adult group when we moved to the other side of the country. Before that, leaving our church meant leaving the many kids that called us “kuya” or “ate” (older siblings). And when we left South Korea, even though our leaving was known and planned, things like our english-language Sabbath School class, personal counseling and rooftop sunset parties were almost certainly doomed to languish, if not die immediately.

I can’t be the first person to have felt hesitancy to be involved because I wasn’t sure how long I’d be around. And has there been a church that never felt the sting of losing a dedicated church member? Why haven’t we thought of a way to ameliorate this painful yet persistent process?

Every church should operate under a design that accommodates for turnover and attrition.

New people come in, and old people go. People lose their focus and return with newfound fervor. These undulations create the pulse of a living church, and a body is designed to the rhythm of a heart’s beating. Additionally, every church should operate under a design that accommodates for overwork and undercommitment. There may never be a time that all church members exert the same amount of energy; it’s the nature of a house of healing. And those who are so dependable, pastors included, are worked to depletion—with no opportunity for rejuvenation. And since not all in a church’s community are the same, having one pattern for all church members is unsatisfactory.

In the Bible, the early churches were established by missionaries, maintained by locals and frequented by brothers/sister of faith as they travelled here and there. As the apostles spread the Christian faith around the known world, they used letters to encourage and advise the communities they left behind. They sent their own disciples to check in at a church and help for a bit, and they visited when they could. The church was built to accommodate for such fluctuation.

Today, I suggest three concentric circles of an Adventist church:

  • those who form the church community
  • those who improve the church community through participation, and
  • those who espouse the idea of a church community

Those who form the community bear the heaviest responsibility to the church. While even here there may be occasional change, these people have committed not just to the Adventist community but to the specific Adventist community of a precise location. The development of the church community in this area, the relation the church community has with the larger community of which they are part, and the longevity of both the community and its relationships are paramount.

Those who are not committed to the specific presence of community of a precise location but are convinced to apply their talent and resources to the development and preservation of the Adventist community wherever they are make up a larger circle that encompasses—with love and support—those who establish and maintain a specific community. Their work improves the church community but are modular additions to the core. In fact, I see this group’s approach to the work manifest in a way not unlike agile development. A backlog of needs can be assigned and addressed in short “sprint-like” periods that allow for occasional reorganization as people’s involvement levels change.

Then there are those who support the idea of community. They like going to church, raising their kids in a Christian environment, being inspired through fellowship and study, and generally thing the whole process has value they can draw from. It is important to note this group as it is the least likely to contribute value to the church. They are courting the community and looking for a reason to take a step of commitment. This group is important not just to keep the pews filled but to provide replacements for outgoing talent—sometimes finding the void left by another enough to convince them to commit. Finally, it provides a buffer for regular attendance without obligation to a specific church role.

These three circles are anchored with the same center: the physical church building.

Thus a church is truly a community center—not just a place to hear a good word. With three different types coming in and out of its doors, with differing contributions and varying needs, it cannot be open for a couple hours on a single day of the week but must be a continual place of refuge for those who are seeking comfort, shelter, hope and healing.

With this structure, anyone (myself included) could:

  • arrive in a new area and find familiar fellowship
  • visit a region for a short period and coordinate opportunities for sharing talent and contributing to a cause
  • establish a desire to be involved as well as tentative terms of engagement in case their life plans change.
  • acquaint themselves with a new church community without excessive pressure to participate

By providing a method for short term committed individuals to be contributors without being abandoners, for a try-before-you-buy that reduces the barrier for walking into a church, and potential ease of burden for long-standing pillars without relegation, this mimics early Christian church development while accommodating for modern-day obstacles.

Additionally, it allows for a focus that we haven’t looked at with much precision: The number of Adventist churches relative to coverage rather than to number of baptisms and membership. For a global church with a membership of 17 million members to have a total active community of 35-50 million is indicative of a church with poised to grow—but that kind of fertile ground is not attainable if our focus is merely on long-term commitment which comes after the baptismal pool and a name on the books.

We are a global church. We are one community striving to share a message with everyone. This is a process that requires people to actively participate as active missionaries, not as merely passive members, and this system of concentric Adventist church community speaks to that need.