Building the Next Church was sponsored by the International Bible Learning Center (IBLC) on June 30 to July 2. About 100 people (including children) attended the conference—most from independent congregations, though there were several who normally attend UCG-IA. One of the greatest concerns I heard before the conference was, “Are they going to try to build a new church organization?” That concern turned out to be unfounded as none of the speakers or other participants tried to do this. The emphasis seemed to be on each group learning to do what the Eternal wants, and being willing to work with other groups when it makes sense to do so.
The conference was divided into 11 speaking sessions and two interactive sessions. Most of the speakers took a few questions and comments after they spoke. There was also a congregational singing and special music hour, a family dance, and four fine meals. There is not space to fully summarize each session, so this writer will attempt to give the overall impact and list one or two points that seemed especially helpful.
John Merritt spoke on The Church as a Family. The church should grow like a family—slowly and steadily, not like a mass-marketing campaign. At a Church of God Seventh Day conference, brethren whose congregations were growing believed these points were important: 1) Everyone in the congregation needs something to do—whether it be a small or large responsibility. 2) Be involved in the local community. 3) Invite friends and family. 4) Make sure everyone learns something in every service—teach the young people. 5) Keep services enjoyable. One group went door-to-door surveying people, asking them where they went to church. Later, they contacted the ones who said that they did not go anywhere and a substantial congregation grew from it.
Roger Sandsmark presented Toxic vs. Healthy Churches. We used to have an overly negative opinion of “the world”—those not in the WCG. Unfortunately, some people are now extending that approach to everyone who is not in their tiny splinter group. Non-Sabbatarian congregations of all sorts are growing in many places, while many of ours are not. We need to put aside a lot of insignificant differences and be ready to respond to what Christ will do next.
Ray Wooten conducted an open forum discussion, focusing on making Christ the center of what we do. A poignant comment by Harry Curley: The King James Bible mentions “unity” 3 times and “peace” over 400 times. Too often, we have striven for unity in all things, and have lost peace, the more important thing.
Wes White spoke on The Church of God Mindset: Historical Fact vs. Fiction. In the early 1800’s, William Miller (a Sunday-keeper) traveled the country teaching that Heaven is not the reward of the saved, but that Christ was returning for a millennial reign. Without a big organization or budget, he taught millions of Americans. He taught Christ would return in 1843/1844—which became known as “the great Disappointment”. Some dropped out, but many went to their Bibles to see if they were lacking something.
The Seventh Day Adventists, the Church of God Seventh Day and the Church of God, Anderson Indiana (Sunday keeping) emerged. All these groups grew after this. The Church of God Seventh Day suffered from divisions in the 1930s and shrunk. During this confusion, Herbert Armstrong began his work.
By 1950, the Feast of Tabernacles attendance was only 90 people. Growth was greatest during the 50s and 60s—when hierarchical government and fleeing in 1972 were preached. Quickest growth appears to come when there is one strong leader and when a definite prophetic message is preached—but a large decrease in membership usually occurs within a few years after the leader dies or when the prophetic interpretation fails.
In both big hierarchical groups and small scattered groups, local leaders (either “ordained” ministers or “pillar” brethren) make a major difference. When many local leaders are serving and caring for the brethren, that congregation often grows when the organization is in decline. An uncaring spirit in local leaders can produce local decline even when the organization is growing. Completely isolated local groups have grown steadily over generations when there are kind and caring local leaders present.
David Havir gave a presentation titled Deconstructing the Myths: What the Church Should Be and Do. He distributed the drawing (shown here to the right) which can be seen as an old lady looking to the lower left, or a young lady looking away to the upper left. The hair and coat is the same for both ladies, but the chin of the young is the nose of the old and an ear of the young is an eye of the old, etc. Doctrines are like this. We get used to certain scriptures meaning certain things to us, they all fit into our view of a topic, and we often never take a “second look” to see if there is any other possible meaning.
David Havir went over many scriptures explaining exactly what is the church and what is a minister. He mentioned that a lot of his acquaintances were mean to him when the Big Sandy Church of God separated from the UCG-IA, but like Joseph’s captivity, they meant it for evil, but it worked for good. He learned that when problems like these arise, it is important to focus on the issues: what the Bible says and what it does not, not upon who does or does not have God’s Spirit.
In the comments portion, Allie Dart pointed out that we should not find it strange that there are inconsistent definitions of “the church”, the WCG taught it was the “one True Church” and at the same time taught that the Church of God Seventh Day was the “Sardis Era” of the true Church. Dixon Cartwright said that organisations are not “churches”, nor are they “members” of the True Church; people are members of the one True Church.
Ronald Dart spoke on Building the Next Church. He clearly stated that the Church of God refers to 1) a local community of believers or 2) the entire body of believers throughout all ages. Everything else is a “ministry” that exists outside the church.
The Church of God is not a delicate flower—it has flourished during rough times. Christ is building it. We can work with Him as “subcontractors”. Every man’s work will be tried (1Cor 3:9-15). The WCG was really one man’s ministry. It caught fire and burned, but some people remained. In the early 1900s, there was a tremendous push away from local government toward centralized civil governments. Mr. Armstrong did the same thing in his ministry.
Local congregations need to let the holy spirit draw them together, they need leadership that is accountable to the congregation, and they need to be willing to work with each other and begin ministering to people’s needs in the name of Christ.
George Crow talked about The Acts of a Growing Church. He has come to realize that we have a history of being concerned with “our numbers”, not with “God’s numbers”—we built large groups not realizing who was dedicated to what. If the WCG 30% growth had continued until the year 2012, the entire world would have been in the WCG. Would they all have been truly converted?
Mr. Crow once thought of going to court to try to preserve the assets of the WCG to “do God’s work”, but has since come to see that God does not need them. Christ had only 120 followers after three years of ministry. When God wanted His Church to grow, He worked miracles through the apostles and thousands came to Christ (Acts 3 and 9). If we had such miracles today, would we use them to declare the greatness of God, or the greatness of our group?
Bill Kilgore, a Seventh Day Adventist, gave his experience with Personal Evangelism. We all need to avoid being like Jonah, who pouted when he did not like the job he was given. If He clearly gives us something, we should do it. If we want to evangelize, start with 1) ourselves, then look outward: 2) immediate family, 3) relatives, 4) close friends, 5) neighbors, 6) casual acquaintances and 7) strangers. We should keep these things in perspective: we should not offend those closest to us in an effort to reach a stranger. God is the one who calls people. We can plant seed—put out ads, literature, etc., but He has to bless it for it to bear fruit. Teens need to be challenged, not continuously entertained.
He once asked a teen-group if any of them would be interested in spending three weeks to build a church building in central America: there was no modern plumbing or air conditioning. About 30 volunteered. He made sure that they all looked at the pictures of the area so that they understood exactly where they were going. By the time he was done, 50 volunteered. The teens went, worked long hard hours in primitive conditions and completed their goal. On the way home, one of the teens began circulating a list for the many who wanted to go again the next year.
Linda White, the conference organizer, spoke on Where Do Women Fit in the Next Church? The presentation was divided into two parts, the first part covered many scriptures showing the diversity of ways in which women served in the Bible.
The second part focused on how women are serving in the independent Church of God groups today. Linda stated that possibly the biggest mistake in dealing with women during the WCG years was encouraging young women to council with the minister rather than with the older women (Titus 2:3-5). Too often, the women received idealistic but impractical advice and sometimes ended up in an affair.
Linda had two writing boards set up, one for Church-related activities that were not appropriate for women to fulfill, and another for activities that they could. She started with “women publicly teaching men” on the “inappropriate” board (1Tim 2:12, 1Cor 14:33-35) and women privately teaching men (Acts 18:26), women teaching women (Titus 2:4) and women praying and prophesying (1Cor 11:1-16) on the “appropriate” board.
She went on to ask those attending the conference about other activities such as congregation host, board member, treasurer, piano player, choir director, moderator, teen teacher, prophetess, etc. At least some of those attending said that women had done each of those things in their congregation—which seemed to surprise some people—including Linda. Mrs. White intends to produce an article for Servant’s News along the lines of her presentation.
Alan Ruth’s presentation was titled The Coming Cyberchurch. He was not proposing that eventually a church would consist of individuals linked only by computer, but showing that some groups use the Internet as their primary means of evangelism and distributing their teachings. The Internet has not replaced personal contact, but in some cases it has replaced radio, TV, magazines and printed literature.
It has also opened up a tremendous ability for interactive study. The electronic forum provides a means where a variety of individuals in different places can ask a teacher questions—and thousands (or millions) can watch it as it happens. The cost of all of this can be far less than conventional means—an average of one cent for someone to download a substantial piece of literature.
During another session, people were asked to raise their hands if they did not have access to the Internet—only 2 hands went up. Ron Dart remarked that at a previous conference only two years ago, about 50% had Internet access.
Melodee Overton talked about Conflict Resolution for Churches. Her presentation was based around the three-step Matthew 18 instructions, but covered numerous little problems that come up along the way. Her conclusions:
1) If resolution takes place at any of the three steps, then you have gained your brother.
2) If resolution is not forthcoming, sooner or later you must move forward with your life.
3) Develop faith that all things work together for good.
4) Take unresolved conflict to God in prayer and leave it with Him.
5) Accept God’s timetable.
6) Keep the good and discard the rest.
7) Learn from your mistakes, we all make them.
8) With practice, all things get easier.
9) We often ask “Why me?” Short answer: to build godly character, to give glory to God, to learn how to properly help others.
10) Continue to be a Christian “Work-in-Progress”.
Dixon Cartwright spoke on Transparency and Openness. Dixon explained that the various independent Sabbatarian publications (the Journal, Servants’ News, and many others) have greatly changed the way church organizations operate. They can no longer ignore significant questions, ideas, or problems—their members will find out about them.
Because of this, there are now four things that many “Church of God” can do which were almost impossible five years ago:
1) Visit friends in another group.
2) Attend a Feast with another group.
3) Attend an open forum where the leaders can answer questions.
4) Make their own decisions about doctrine and practices.
Some people think these things are good, others think they are bad. Yet it has been this free exchange of ideas that has helped ex-WCG members heal from the difficulties of the past.
The hope of most of the Church organizations is that all of the WCG members will someday get back in “their group”—which seems less and less likely to happen. We need to heal more quickly and begin to have outgoing love for others. Is it possible that our readiness to help others determines, in part, when the Father calls people?
Ronald Dart and Dave Havir conducted the final question/answer/comment session. One person said: going to conferences is not the work of a believer. Conferences are to encourage and to help believers do their real work—personally growing in Christ and helping others. Even though a diversity of beliefs existed on some issues, there were no arguments or harsh words. Ronald Dart even reflected on a new-found freedom: “The freedom to say ‘I don’t know’”.
This is living in reality—a far improvement from the groups that claim to be the one true church and have the answer to nearly everything. When we look at the suffering of the past that occurred from leaders who “thought they knew”, but did not, we can all rejoice in the freedom to do what we clearly understand to be true from the Bible, and to go on learning about the rest—rather than think we already know it all.
This writer would like to thank Linda White and those who helped her for organizing the conference. Tapes will be available from IBLC, (toll free) 877-444-4252 or firstname.lastname@example.org
—Norman S. Edwards