I remember it like it was yesterday. Here I was, a twenty-four year old young man walking into the cafeteria of “institutional church” for the first time. It was my first day of school. Up until this point, my day had been going well. I had completed all my assignments with swiftness and completed all the tasks my teacher gave me with no questions asked. I was still reliving the euphoric moment when I accepted the call from God to build His Kingdom. I was just so excited to finally be here! I’ll admit I was nervous for lunch time. At lunchtime, everyone came from their various classrooms to eat together. It was an opportunity to meet everyone in our school. I’ve heard rumors of the cliques and how divided the lunch room was. I heard the cool kids sat at one table while the “others” sat alone. All day long, I wondered if I would be invited to sit at the cool table or if I would sit by myself.
As I entered the cafeteria, I immediately noticed the cool kids’ table. It was the largest group. As I stood at the doorway with my tray of youthful passion and ZEAL, one of the popular kids looked at me. After a few seconds, he motioned me to come sit with them. Not knowing what to do in that moment, I began to walk towards the table. The popular kid beckoned his posse to make room for me to sit-down. As I sat down, the other ministers’ eyes were like motion sensors, scanning me up and down. I could tell they were trying to judge whether or not I belonged. As I sat down, I looked at their trays of food. Ironically, each person at the table had the same kind of food on their tray. They each had the same juice box of traditionalism, a sandwich of old methods, and a bag of organizational politics. As I listened to their conversations of the “old days,” each one continued to share with me their accomplishments as if I was auditing their spiritual productivity. They began to ask me questions about who I knew and how I got here and if I could preach. It was all about status and accomplishments.
At no point did anyone ask me about my goals or passions--although I did get a few intense questions about ‘position’ and ‘power.’ I responded by saying “I’m not here for that; I’m here to build the Kingdom.” Before I could even finish my statement, they all looked at each other and burst into laughter. One man laughed so hard that his juice of traditionalism came back out through his nose, causing him to gag as he laughed. But as I was being heckled by “the old school,” I turned and saw a table scattered with men and women. I thought to myself, those must be the “others.” As the men continued to laugh, I picked up my tray and walked over to the few that were sitting alone. I sat down, and each of them greeted me with a warm smile. As I looked at their trays, I noticed each person had a different selection of food. One young lady had a juice box filled with passion for young adult ministries. Another man sitting next to her had a sandwich layered with creativity and ingenuity. The last woman sitting with them had a bag filled with enthusiasm for social issues. Each one of these individuals had been ostracized for bringing a different lunch to the table than what was commonly served.
I believe Adventism has fostered an environment similar to that of a student cafeteria. The popular kids (our leaders) have created a system that perpetuates the institutionalization of thoughts and talents. They’ve created constructs that challenge and stifle the unique abilities of so many vibrant voices within our church. Our innovators, creatives and thinkers are left feeling confused, frustrated and lonely. We’re made to believe that there is no space for us and thus we’re pushed to the corner of the cafeteria. When it’s time for “show and tell,” only those who share traditionalist views of evangelism and discipleship are given applause and affirmation. Those who present methods that are steeped in unorthodoxy and innovation are dismissively labeled liberal.
Due to these toxic dynamics, generations of Adventists are losing their ZEAL. Contrary to popular belief, this has nothing to do with our Adventist message but everything to do with our non-relevant approaches. This has only reinforced the idea that “as long as we continue to hold up ‘the tried and true’ methods, we will grow the church.” The popular kids have strategically constructed rhetoric steeped in our denominational heritage to blind the masses to the revolutionary change that needs to take place. As our church continues to grow old, instead of young, the popular kids (better known as the controlling, oppressive leaders who stifle our church growth in the name of “getting back to how we used to do things”) continue to take their self-righteous seats every four or five years. Instead of making room so that our revolutionary voices can be heard, we’re forced to sit by ourselves at lunch time. As we open our lunch boxes of fresh ideas, and sip from our juice box of spiritual passion, we’re left rethinking our place and position in our community. We start asking ourselves the questions “Why am I even here? Will I ever have a place here? Why don’t they make room for me?”As the popular kids and their posse’s gossip, giggle and laugh at our ostracism, we begin internalizing this treatment. We no longer feel like we belong in our faith communities. The church has created this paradox where large groups of Adventist Creatives who are made to feel like they cannot make a valuable contribution to the body of Christ.
Jesus went through the same treatment during his time here on earth. He was rejected and denounced by his own community. In Luke’s account, Jesus’s own community “cried out all together, saying, ‘away with this man and release for us Barabbas’ ” ( Luke 23:18). Jesus’ execution was due to the chants of his own community. His community left him standing alone. How could a man be able to withstand such treatment? It’s because Jesus understood what it meant to truly belong. We must understand that true belonging isn’t solely found in our relationships with people. True belonging is when we believe in and realize that we belong to something greater than ourselves--so much so that we can find the sacredness in standing alone when necessary. In other words, our sense of spiritual belonging provides us with the backbone we need to stand alone, or sit with those who are ostracized by the status quo. It’s a hard thing to do. It’s a great feeling to be accepted by the group. But true belonging doesn’t come with just fitting in, pretending, or selling out because it’s safer. It’s a daily practice that requires us to be vulnerable and comfortable being uncomfortable.
Many of us spend the majority of our lives compromising our ZEAL in order to fit in. I almost fell into this trap. Those who sat at the popular table were men who allowed the organization to master them. Those who were ostracized were ostracized because they refused to give in to the dysfunctional norms. I challenge you to embrace the sacredness of being counter-culture. It’s when we stand alone that we gain a deeper understanding of the One who is greater. Consider the impact of those who decided to stand alone while building God’s Kingdom. I challenge you to consider the courage, the ZEAL, the discomfort, and the loneliness of the Savior, the apostle Paul, the disciple Peter, the martyr Stephen, the trailblazer John the Baptist, the prophet Jeremiah, the prayer warrior Daniel and the strong Queen Esther. Allow your ZEAL to keep you rooted in who God has uniquely designed you to be. Dare to stand alone no matter the cost.
As I sat and ate with these men and women who had been ostracized, I listened to their stories. Like me, they believed our church was in desperate need of revival and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit like the church in Acts. They too believed that we lived in unconventional times that call for unconventional measures. They weren't drawn to organizational power or position. Instead they sought a greater power. A power that is greater than us. As Paul writes, this is the same mighty power that raised Jesus from his grave and sent him to be with His Father (Ephesians 1:20). I quickly realized that I wasn’t sitting amongst the outcasts. I was sitting amongst revolutionaries.
- Jordaan Houston