During the good old days of the American pioneers, the Oregon Trail was the best route to the great Northwest. But not for long. Better roads and vehicles provided new ways and means of transportation, ultimately resulting in travel on Interstate 86 and Interstate 84.
The mission never changed: “Westward ho!” But methods of achieving it needed constant updating and upgrading. Last year when moving to North Pacific Union from Mid-America Union in Nebraska, Darlene and I didn’t rent a covered wagon. We cruised across the Cascades in our Camry.
History buffs identify places where the old wagon trail once existed. These ruts of our pioneers are profoundly special. But not sacred. Because what used to be the best way to go can become, over time, a hindrance rather than a passage.
When it comes to fulfilling God’s purpose for Adventists today, blindly following the methods of our pioneers causes the church to be stuck in ruts. And when we imagine those ruts to be sacred, we entrap ourselves ever deeper in them.
Stewardship Demands Progress
Our divine mission never changes, but methods of fulfilling it must continually be challenged and improved. Acknowledging this reality does not disrespect our pioneers. It’s just good sense and responsible stewardship. Paradoxically, to maintain the spirit of our pioneers we must continually transcend their methods by pioneering new ways of fulfilling God’s unwavering mission.
Consider the role of technology in the history of the church. Spirit-filled apostles of the first century traversed Mediterranea and beyond on roads constructed by Roman engineers, planting churches in places otherwise unreachable. Adventist pioneers likewise exploited the limits of technology in their day, publishing Present Truth. Whenever I visit Pacific Press, I wonder what James and Ellen White would say if they saw what God has wrought there. They would be proud of the press, I’m sure. I'm involved with this transition daily in my retirement ministry, seeking collaborative relationships with Pacific Press and other Adventist publishers to serve pastors, elders and churches with the latest mission-centered technology.
The purpose of high tech is to facilitate high touch, sharing our digitized message on cutting-edge websites and via social media such as Facebook or Faithlife. Harnessing technology is a practical way to love God with all our minds. Clinging to past methods makes us faithful unto death — the death of our mission — secure (and smug) in our sacred ruts. Meanwhile, God says, “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:19, NIV).
Long ago I graduated from a beautiful rural academy, since shuttered due to shifting demographics. They closed the school not to destroy Christian education but to preserve it. Other academies could better serve our young people — for whom educational institutions exist, to prepare them to take their place of ministry within local churches, here and abroad. This is the grand purpose for which our now-departed pioneers established Adventist Christian education.
Everything in this world has a shelf life: “To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck what is planted” (Eccl. 3:1–2, NKJ).
Past Anchors the Future
Yesteryear’s hot technology gathers dust in 2014. Even beloved saints come and go, and the church must move forward without them. “David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers” (Acts 13:36, ESV). His former subjects mourned their loss even as they laid their beloved king to rest. It was time for transition, preserving fond memories of the past as they fulfilled God’s purpose for the present. Only thus could they have a future.
The alternative is cowardly paralysis, blind sentimentalism stuck in the ruts of our past. Godly leaders put purpose above politics. They empathize with the inevitable suffering that comes with necessary change, but they cannot pander to the pain.
Sometimes you must lose your life to save it — personally and institutionally, not only in Adventist schools but in our churches. Some congregations with a century of history have shrunk to the place where their favorite Bible promise is “where two or three are gathered ... ." Amen, Jesus is there, but the challenge remains. Can trained local elders represent Him rather than a salaried pastor? Should conference executive committees assign professional pastors to lead mission-focused congregations?
Tough questions. No easy solutions, even when the answers are self-evident.
Remember the ruts of the old Oregon Trail. We respect their heritage while realizing that we cannot ride them into God’s kingdom.