State of the Church Address

It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that, though this address normally focuses on the state of the church over the past two years, I find myself thinking of the past eighteen. I am remembering convention week 1997 in Knoxville, Tennessee. Among other happenings, Church Renewal Ministries was challenging the Church to spiritual renewal and evangelism, calling her to become the Christ-centered, grace-oriented, Sabbathkeeping church for which the world waits. Either the Church was ready to embrace this new vision for her future, or she simply handed me the keys to the joint out of frustration. But the torch was passed, and I became president.

So eighteen years ago with the Lord as my guide, and convinced that one of my primary responsibilities as the organization’s new CEO was to cast a compelling vision for the future of the G. C., I began bathing my heart and mind in prayer in preparing the Big Picture Vision of a Vibrant 21st Century Church of God (Seventh Day).

Remember, this was 1997. A new century and millennium had begun; Y2K loomed on the horizon. Books such as The Coming Economic Earthquake (Larry Burkett) and A Church for the 21st Century: Bringing Change to Your Church to Meet the Challenges of a Changing Society (Leith Anderson) were bestsellers. Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation” had grown tired, and boomers and busters were taking backseat to Gen-xers and millennium kids. If you’ll allow me a little folly (as the apostle Paul says), I’m the president who walked the Church across this new century and millennium, and it will be a long time before another one does.

And so it was that the Big Picture presentation was first made to the board of directors during its winter 1998 meeting was met by the board’s enthusiastic endorsement, and we hit the trail.

While preparing this address, I came across a letter I wrote to our church’s ministerial body in preparation for the 1998 Council meeting in Des Moines, Iowa. It was a reminder of some of the finer details of the months and years following my appointment that had become vague in my memory. In it I addressed several problems of miscommunication, fear, and mistrust: the Ministerial Forum being distributed to lay members in an effort to expose alleged efforts to change the doctrines of the Church; tension over grace and law, including rumor that a pending resolution was to be offered at the Des Moines Council to do away with the Church’s stand on the Ten Commandments.

My admonitions further reveal the state of the Church back then. I reminded our members of the proverb: “When elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.” I quoted John Maxwell as an admonition to leaders: “People do what people see.” I called upon all to preserve the unity of the Church, to put things in right perspective. I assured the membership that there are no plans to throw out the Sabbath and Ten Commandments. There are no plans to bring about organizational ties with the Worldwide Church of God.

I further reminded the Church that change is painful, but that all living things change, and that we must raise the standard of our ministry and mission by embracing the new vision for the Church’s future.

Then came Council week in Des Moines. My task was to sell the vision to the ministry, which turned out to be a difficult one. I’ve described that week as one of the most painful experiences of my ministry. The vision was put to the test. Fears were revealed about this being the vision of one man, and there began the journey that brings us here today.

It’s been said that a vision in progress goes through stages: birthing, casting, testing, and owning. I am grateful that the board of directors took ownership of the vision by writing it into the goals section of its policy manual, making it the vision of the General Conference of the Church of God (Seventh Day), not Whaid Rose’s vision. As just a refresher, this vision is about who we are and what we do.

Who are we? We are Christ-centered, distinct, not exclusive, Sabbath-observing, Bible-based, and Spirit-formed.

What do we do? We are passionate in worship, compassionate in service, aggressive in witness, strong in fellowship, and committed to discipleship.

The Big Picture vision was more than what has been described as a set of theological statements; it had tangible and practical components. Here are some of the things it proposed:

  • development of strong Conference presence in the field;
  • establishment of congregational expectation for Conference affiliation;
  • bridging the gap between the G. C. and NAMC;
  • development of a Philosophy of Ministry statement;
  • new member orientation program/member training;
  • expansion of writing staff and Publications ministries;
  • printing services available to the whole Church;
  • addressing growing ministry diversity;
  • translation of all major publications;
  • development of radio program;
  • strengthening our connection with other Sabbathkeeping entities;
  • Pastoral Care Services – Focus on the Family;
  • redesign of Missions Ministries, with three divisions (Foreign Missions, Home Missions, and Church Planting);
  • redesign of G. C. Ministries (Department of Church Administration, Department of Leadership Development, Field Ministries Department, department focused on demographic development).

We haven’t achieved all of these goals and dreams.

Someone has said that “Broken things take time to mend; new things take long to grow; historic things are hard to build.” But have we made progress over these eighteen years? Have we moved closer to that preferable future? Is our church more Christ-centered than it was eighteen years ago? Are we giving greater priority to Spirit formation and worship? Have we become more committed to discipleship and missions? Are there more churches wanting to break out of their four walls and minister to the deep needs of people? Is there a greater understanding of what it means to be distinct but not exclusive — that the kingdom of God is bigger than the Church of God (Seventh Day)? I’ll let you be the judge. But if my opinion counts, I would say we’ve made monumental progress in the right direction.

And yet if I were to stand here and speak as though all is well, I would be untrue. The past few years have been beset with challenges and difficulties. Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities opens with those famous lines that describe the atmosphere in England and France before the French Revolution:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness.

And so it is within the General Conference: These are the best of times and the worst of times.

But please note that, whereas eighteen years ago the struggle was over doctrine and theology, today the tension is over organizational structure and polity — so much so that our church finds herself standing at a crossroads with these two choices: Will we be a loose fellowship of congregations that choose to come together for fellowship every two years and then go home and do whatever we want to do? Or will we be a strong affiliation of congregations with a structure that fosters accountability and collaboration, where membership matters, and where leadership means something?

It is no accident that as we were preparing for this convention, the Supreme Court legalized same sex marriage in all fifty United States. In a timely message from the pulpit of the Moody Church in early July (my wife and I were privileged to participate in that service), Dr. Erwin Lutzer shared seven certainties — things that do not change — despite the Supreme Court’s ruling (not all of the following are direct quotes):

  1. The Supreme Count is limited in what it can do.
  2. God was grieved by this decision, but not surprised.
  3. At the end of the day, the real victims will be the children in these relationships.
  4. The next battle will be freedom of religion.
  5. We must prepare for the expanding mission field.
  6. We are called to bear the reproach of Christ, not to render evil for evil; don’t bow to the cultural narratives of our day.
  7. The church is partially responsible; it is easier to repent of our sin than to repent of our self-righteousness.

Dr. Lutzer’s comments are a reminder that this is no time for organizational fragmentation. If there’s ever a time when the Church must hang together or hang separately, it’s now. The bylaws revisions we will consider this week are to prepare Conference-affiliated congregations to defend themselves in a court of law when, not if, confronted with these issues. And I’m convinced that by the grace of God we will make the right turn during our business sessions this week.

I’m pleased to report that, despite the challenges and setbacks of recent years, I believe in the Church! I believe in her promise and potential! And if her children are her future, that future is brightened by the presence of the millennial generation in full bloom all around us. They’re described as forging a distinctive path into adulthood. Now ranging in age from 18 to 33 (they were born around the time I became president!), they are relatively unattached to organized politics and religion, linked by social media, and basically optimistic about the future. I’m hopeful that they, along with us, will muster enough convictions that are bigger than our fears, believe in a vision that is clearer than our doubts, possess a spiritual sensitivity and discernment that are louder than popular opinion, will feel a dissatisfaction that is more forceful than status quo, and will feel a desire to see potential reached that is greater than protecting our past (adapted from John Maxwell, INJOY).

This, my eighth and final “State of the Church,” is really about the state of the dream, particularly in light of the present transition and tension. So I conclude by calling attention to Dr. King’s final speech given the evening before he was assassinated (April 3, 1968). In what has come to be known as the Memphis Speech, Dr. King spoke to his audience about the likelihood of not making it to the Promised Land with them, but insisting that “we as a people” would make it to the Promised Land. He reminisced about being taken to the top of the mountain (like Moses) and given a glimpse of the Promised Land, and then crescendoed, “I’m not worried about anything . . . Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

These reflections are a reminder that the greatest spiritual leader who ever lived (apart from Jesus) didn’t live to see the fulfillment of the dream he cast. Moses led the Israelites to the brink of the Promised Land and was given a glimpse of it from the top of the mountain, but wasn’t allowed to enter it. Perhaps this is God’s way of underscoring that the fulfillment of the dream doesn’t depend on the dreamer. Dreamers come and go, but the dream lives on. God promises that as He was with Moses, He will be with Joshua.

I couldn’t be more pleased with the choice made in the appointment of our new Conference president and will be honored to pass the baton to him at the end of this convention. I consider Loren Stacy and Jody McCoy men of character and integrity, and I believe that God will honor their leadership and service with great blessings upon this ministry. So it will not be my privilege to lead this church into the full realization of the dream, but I’m convinced that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.

Meanwhile, let’s keep the dream alive. Let’s continue on the path to be becoming that Christ-centered, Sabbath-observing, grace-oriented church we strive to become. Let’s empower that dream. Let’s “rise up, O Church of God, the world for you doth wait; her strength unequalled to her task, rise up and make her great!”* — till Jesus comes, amen.

* My paraphrase

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