Coming and Going: a Theological Vision for Advent Christian Mission
by Thomas Loghry
Before I get on with what I am about to write, I want to first dispel any narrow association that might be assumed in my use of the word “mission”. Very often when we hear the word “mission” we think “missions”, and more specifically “foreign missions”. This is to be expected since the sort of talk in our churches that typically involves words that sound like “mission” are usually in association with short-term missions trips and supporting foreign missionaries. However, what these represent are just various applications of what is in fact the “mission”. The mission is the overarching plan, the guiding vision that is to inform whatever actions we might take. Thus, in this context, I am not speaking of the various applications of the Advent Christian mission (e.g. foreign missions), but of the theological vision that drives everything that we do.[i] This has the potential to radically shift how we do ministry as local churches and as an association of churches. My purpose here is not to jump to describing applications but to consider our foundations.
The Advent Christian denomination emerged from a movement that had a very simple message and a very simple mission: 1. Christ is returning soon and 2. We must make it known. While those who were a part of this movement did accrue additional theological convictions on the way to forming the Advent Christian association, none of these convictions so fueled the Advent Christian mission as did the belief in the soon return of Christ. A mix of anxiety and anticipation came together to form an exciting and convicting message that gave birth to churches, publications, and a whole host of other ministries. Without this belief in Christ’s soon return, we simply would not exist.
While this guiding message provided obvious benefits, its predominant fixation on the element of “time” brought with it certain weaknesses. The most obvious weakness it carried is that it promoted the tendency to be apathetic toward providing proper pastoral training and investing in the proper facilities necessary for burgeoning ministry. This fixation on time also dominated the thrust of the message of Christ’s return, thereby neglecting a greater focus on the substance of the “Good News”, both in terms of Christ’s work for us and the expected Kingdom he has introduced. While there certainly was reflection in these areas, they were never given a proper place in shaping the Advent Christian mission; they existed merely as areas of Bible study and perhaps personal application.
As I consider where the Advent Christian church stands today and survey the past 100 years, I believe that we have shed that original mission. Yes, we pay homage to our ancestors by admiring their prophetic charts and injecting comments into conversation along the lines of, “Well, if the Lord tarries…” but the truth is that we are nothing more than shadows of those Advent Christians of yesteryear. What remains with us today is our belief in conditional immortality, a conviction that has never effectively shaped our mission.[ii] The result is that we have become a people without a mission and our story is now being written by the broader evangelical milieu into which we have been absorbed. Frankly, one must ask, “Why should the Advent Christian denomination continue to exist at all?”
Aside from some rather mundane answers as to why we should continue to exist as a connected body of churches (e.g. convenience, tradition), there has not been much in the way of a convincing response to this question. If we have no common theological grid for conceiving our mission and we continue to simply wander about as an incongruous herd of congregational cats, then I think the utility of our denomination really does come into doubt. Answering that doubt lies in our hands; we must identify our mission.
This requires a return to theology. We have to drop mine shafts into our past to uncover those treasures that have been too long buried, while at the same time casting aside what we now see to be fool’s gold. Brought to the surface, we must consider how these gems might be set into the crown of the Gospel so that it may be presented in all of its glory before a dying world desperately in need of her King.
Speaking plainly, we must come to understand how our distinctive theological beliefs as Advent Christians come together to form a coherent, faithful, and compelling account of the Gospel and thereby realize the implications of these beliefs for our ministry.
To this end, I would suggest that we try to understand the Advent Christian mission in terms of “Coming and Going”. We understand that the formation of our denomination was critically dependent upon emphasizing the soon return of Christ. I mentioned earlier that this emphasis falls short when it predominantly focuses on the element of time in Christ’s return. While a posture of readiness should always be fostered, we must put greater effort into understanding what it means to be ready and what “getting ready” looks like. If our hope is placed in Christ and his return, the resurrection of the body, and the restoration of all Creation, we must draw the lines of connection that demonstrate their Gospel rootedness and identify the implications such beliefs have on our ministry practice. What is the meaning of Christ’s first coming and his second coming? What does it mean for us to be going into the world under the expectation of his second coming? What is he bringing? Where are we going?
Our predecessors might provide answers to some of these questions; other questions will require original work on our part to form sufficient answers. I have not intended to provide immediate answers here. My desire has been to initiate discussion and to offer a primitive framework by which we might identify our theologically informed mission as Advent Christians and begin thinking about the ways in which our ministry ought to be uniquely shaped. Where we go from here depends on us coming together, dialoguing, and forging a common mission among us. Anything less will leave us to be a mere a headstone for a people now dead. We must live today and take our part in writing the Advent Christian story.
[i] Tim Keller in his book Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City considers the identification of a church’s theological vision to be crucial for shaping ministry. Thus theology is no mere academic exercise but is instead essential to the life of the Church at every level.
[ii] This is not to say that conditionalism cannot play a significant role in shaping our mission. When considered under the broader phrase, “Life in Christ Alone,” I think it has a great deal of potential in shaping our mission.