“Toto—I’ve a Feeling We’re not in Kansas Anymore”:
Centers of Influence as Practical Models for Wholistic Ministry among Urban Postmoderns
In the Wizard of Oz, the young heroine’s known world literally crashes during a cyclone that upends her house and lands her near a bewildering place called Munchkinland. As Dorothy surveys the strange new territory, she says to her dog, “Toto—I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
As Christians survey the mission challenge of the rapidly growing urban and postmodern populations throughout the world, many feel like Dorothy—a long way from “Kansas” and its familiar landscapes. We have been swept from the comfortable security of what we know in terms of church and witness, and have been thrown into uncharted, even seemingly hostile territory. We are facing a different world, with different rules. And that world is increasingly urban postmodernism.
The tidy panorama of Kansas, with recognizable streets and road rules, has gone. Evangelistic methods that have stood the church in relatively good stead through the decades now seem to have lost some of their shine. Since its beginnings, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has, logically, based its evangelism on the assumption that people were searching for truth. In today’s postmodern world that can no longer be taken for granted. People in this environment are not responding to traditional evangelism like they once did. They do not seem to be looking for the answers we are offering. They are part of a growing multitude totally dislocated from institutional Christianity. As Raymond J. Bakke says, “Far more than two billion of the world’s nonchurched people are no longer geographically distant from the church; they are culturally distant” (Bakke 2002:29).
American urban poet, hip-hop artist, and musician Saul Williams grew up teaching Sunday school in the Baptist church where his father pastored. But like so many of his generation, he moved on from the church. In an interview with Portuguese television in 2010, he describes his religious views:
I’m not beholden to any religion. But I consider myself extremely spiritual, and most of my work is about defining and feeling and celebrating that connection to the eternal, to the creator. I just don’t think that I need a singular book to define that . . . I believe that my connection with God is wireless. I believe that the connection through the church is analog . . . you understand? I think the church is a dial-up connection, and it’s a bit too slow.
In July 2010, Ann Rice, author of Interview with a Vampire and numerous other bestselling novels, announced on her Facebook page: “Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity” (Rice 2010a). She described her decision: “I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.” The next day she explained: “[Faith in Christ] is central to my life. . . . But following Christ does not mean following his followers. Christ is infinitely more important than Christianity and always will be, no matter what Christianity is, has been, or might become” (Rice 2010b).
Today a preference for an unmediated personal spirituality is coupled with a disdain for religious systems, creeds, denominations, and institutions. This postmodern characteristic is reflected in song lyrics such as Van Morrison’s (1986) “In the Garden:”
And I turned to you and I said,
“No guru, no method, no teacher
Just you and I and nature
And the Father in the garden.”
The End of the Story
The world of the postmodern makes no room for any overarching explanations of the world such as Christianity’s “old, old story” (Lyotard 1994:27, 28). Truth becomes what is meaningful to people in their context, depending on the time of day, where they are, how they feel. “Truth” has splintered into fragments that mirror and distort a wide range of different “realities,” perspectives, and smaller, localized “truths.” As Michael Dear explains: “Truth, morality, fact—all are conditional, contextual, and contested…. Our knowledge lacks firm reference points; indeed, it is the absence of such mental moorings that defines the real” (Dear 2000:317). We are not in Kansas anymore.
“The basic postmodern concepts will revolve around the notion of a self with multiple identities and group affiliations,” writes Steven Seidman (Seidman 1994:136). He argues against appealing to “the high ground of some abstract moral values or standpoint. And certainly not by trying to ground one’s moral standpoint in an appeal to some objective universal element (e.g., nature, God, natural law).” Instead, he recommends:
A pragmatic, socially informed moral analysis in which the critic is compelled to defend social arrangements by analyzing their individual and social consequences in light of local traditions, values, and practices. The values of the community of which the critic is a part stand as the ‘ultimate’ realm of moral appeal. (135)
Of course this all smacks of old-fashioned relativism with a new coat of postmodern paint. In 1998, Welsh group Manic Street Preachers released an album entitled “This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours.” In an interview with Vanity Fair magazine in 2008, celebrity actress Angelina Jolie describes how she and her partner, actor Brad Pitt, plan on raising their children:
[My mother] was Catholic but also a child of the 60s. She stopped going to confession at one point because she was having sex before marriage. To me, she represented what religion should be. She never preached. If things didn’t make sense to her, she never just accepted it. I had Communion, but she never forced me to go to church. Brad got me this great thing for Christmas. It’s a bookshelf that has a book on every religion. That’s how we plan to raise our kids. Teach them about all religions. They can pick one or be a student of all of them. We’ll celebrate Kwanzaa for our girl. We’ll celebrate moon and water festivals for our boys. We’ll take them to temples in certain countries. Also to church. (Cohen 2008)
In Kansas people attended church every Sunday, had strict ideas of right and wrong, and had as much knowledge of other world religions as they did about aliens. In the postmodern world, you do not look for the one true religion. You go to the wide buffet of religious and philosophical practices that are now available at a keystroke on Google, and select bits and pieces that you can use to construct your own worldview.
Or you can totally ignore them. As Clifford Longley writes: “People have moved away from ‘religion’ as something anchored in organized worship and systematic beliefs within an institution.” Instead, they have moved “to a self-made ‘spirituality’, outside formal structures, which is based on experience, has no doctrine and makes no claim to philosophical coherence” (cited in Berry 2004:172).
An increasing number of people dismiss any role for the spiritual or religious in their lives. “We can’t underestimate the power of the collapse of institutional religion in the first 10 years of this century,” writes Diana Butler Bass, author of Christianity After Religion (cited in Grossman 2011). “It’s freed so many people to say they don’t really care. They don’t miss rituals or traditions they may never have had anyway” (Grossman 2011). Mark Silk, professor of religion and public life at Trinity College, adds: “The real dirty little secret of religiosity in America is that there are so many people for whom spiritual interest, thinking about ultimate questions, is minimal” (Grossman 2011).
Adventists and the City
The rapid process of urbanization in the 20th Century gave birth to postmodernism. Today, urban areas are the epicenters of postmodernism or, as Kleber Gonçalves puts it, “The centralizing power of urbanization makes the urban context the locus of the postmodern condition” (2005:161).
Researchers estimate that on Wednesday, May 23, 2007, the world’s demographic center of gravity changed. For the first time in history, a majority of the world’s population was living in urban areas (Stone & Wolfteich 2008:1). This creates a massive mission challenge for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which historically has distanced itself theologically and geographically from the city. The question Benjamin Sparks asks of Americans in general is especially pertinent for Adventists: “What is it about Americans, then, that makes us suspicious of, fearful of, and hostile toward the city: ‘O give me a home, where the buffalo roam, and the skies are not cloudy all day’?” (Sparks III 2000).
In 1890, two years after he left the presidency of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Elder George Butler wrote a two-part series of articles in the Advent Review and Sabbath Heraldentitled “Rural Versus City Life.” He began with a disclaimer in favor of the city: “It is not to be denied that cities are necessary in our present world of life, and that they contain much that is attractive, useful, beautiful, and very desirable; neither that there are many noble philanthropic men and women in the cities, the very best in our world (Butler 1890a:9).
However, the rest of the article attacks the city:
City life is a feverish life. . . . It is not conducive to calm thought, religious meditation, needed rest, cool nerves, and quiet contemplations. . . . Cities have ever been, and will ever be, Satan’s peculiar seat, just in the degree of their size and population, luxury, wealth, and pride. . . . We do not see how any one with right views can love city life. We turn from it gladly to contemplate the quiet charms of country life.” (10)
Butler concludes: “The blessed new earth, the final home of the redeemed, will be the perfection of holy, peaceful, happy, country life” (Butler 1890b:27). Of course, the picture depicted in Revelation is almost 100 percent urban—describing a new heavenly city, a new Jerusalem.
“There is no bias in favor of rural life in scripture,” writes Sparks. “But the favorite psalm of urban Protestant America remains: ‘The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures, and leads me beside still waters.’” (2000:45). According to Robin Theobald, in the last decades of the 19th Century “Adventism’s hostility to the city and its enthronement of ruralism was a familiar theme in North American social movements” (1985:120).
There were good reasons for this. Urban areas tended to be far more densely populated than today. In 1893 Chicago, for example, there were 42 people living per hectare. By 1915 that had increased to 62 people per hectare. But by 2002, despite a large increase in population, there were just 16 people per hectare. This was due almost entirely to the increase in urban land cover (Angel et al. 2012:273).
In 1905, Adventist prophet Ellen White wrote of cities: “The constant liability to contact with disease, the prevalence of foul air, impure water, impure food, the crowded, dark, unhealthful dwellings, are some of the many evils to be met. It was not God’s purpose that people should be crowded into cities, huddled together in terraces and tenements” (White 1942:365). A convincing case could easily be made for living away from the temptations, noise, filth, distractions and various forms of unhealthy activities found in such urban areas.
The problem was that this conviction, coupled with a love for country living, led to a lack of Adventist ministry in cities. In 1909 Ellen White wrote: “The Lord has been calling our attention to the neglected multitudes in the large cities, yet little regard has been given to the matter” (White 1909:1).
More than a hundred years later, cities remain a challenge for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. They have grown in size, multiplied in number, and look different in many ways. They have increased in influence as the leading centers of commerce, intellectual thought, and innovation. They are home to the all-powerful entertainment industries—which hold ubiquitous sway over popular culture. And the Adventist voice is scarcely heard amid the noise.
How should the church respond to the rapidly multiplying urban postmodern population? Perhaps one key can be found in the concept of centers of influence—a wholistic urban ministry model promoted by Ellen White more than 100 years ago. This concept, which can be adapted and expanded for the 21st Century, contains key biblical principles of ministry, including incarnational, physical, mental, social, and spiritual components.
Centers of Influence
White writes: “In large cities there are people who cannot be reached by public meetings” (White 2005:364). Today, that number has multiplied. At a time when such things as movie theater attendance have declined in North America (Kaufman 2012), and people seem to spend more time engaged in more things than ever, it is becoming increasingly difficult to expect them to leave their homes to attend public religious meetings.
Although some postmoderns apparently do not feel a deep spiritual hunger, many still do. But most are not looking for some intellectual description of a truth that explains everything. They are less interested in some metanarrative to explain the universe than they are in the micronarrative of how to navigate their everyday lives. They are more interested in the truth of coping with work and stress, dealing with family tensions, just getting up in the morning.
Although White saw dangers in the cities, she promoted ministry in them. When senior Adventist evangelist and leader Stephen Haskell and his wife, Hetty, moved into the heart of New York City in 1901, she wrote that God “was in your going” (cited in Robinson 1967:194). The Haskells found an apartment on the 6th floor at 400 West 57th Street Manhattan—just a couple of blocks from the southeast corner of Central Park. They followed Ellen White’s counsel that, instead of just preaching to people, Christ’s followers should follow his incarnational ministry, connecting with the community through active social engagement. “It is through the social relations that Christianity comes in contact with the world,” she wrote (2005:480). And further, “our experienced workers should strive to place themselves where they will come in direct contact with those needing help” (1948a:76).
Wholistic ministry centers, or “centers of influence,” were central to her vision for urban ministry: “We should establish in all our cities small plants which shall be centers of influence” (White 1948b:115, emphasis mine). These centers link church members to the community, and are based on Jesus’ method of ministry, which she describes in five steps: (1) mingling with people, desiring their good; (2) showing sympathy to them; (3) ministering to their needs; (4) winning their confidence; and (5) bidding people to follow Jesus (White 1942:143).
According to White, centers of influence could include such things as vegetarian restaurants, treatment rooms, lifestyle education, small group meetings, literature, public meetings, and “reaping” ministries.
She commended the work of the Adventist church in San Francisco, which she called a “beehive.” Church members visited “the sick and destitute,” found homes for orphans, jobs for the unemployed. They nursed the sick, visited from house to house, and conducted classes on healthful living. They distributed literature and started a school for children in Laguna Street. They also maintained a medical mission and a “working men’s home.” Right next to city hall, on Market Street, they had treatment rooms operated as a branch of what is today St. Helena Hospital. At the same location they ran a health food store. Even closer to the heart of the city a vegetarian café served healthful food six days a week. On the San Francisco Bay waterfront, Adventists ministered to sailors. And public meetings were held in city halls (White 1906:8).
In 1941, Swiss engineer Georges de Mestral and his dog returned from a hunting trip in the mountains. As he removed burrs from the dog’s fur and his own clothes, Mestral decided to investigate further what made the burrs stick. Studying them under a microscope, he saw dozens of “hooks”—perfectly suited to connect to the “loops” on fur, socks, and hair.
After much research and development, Mestral produced a product that mimicked nature’s fastening device. In 1955, he patented his invention under the name Velcro, which today has become a multi-million dollar business (Stephens 2007).
Velcro connects hooks and loops in a fascinating array of angles and approaches. In the same way, Jesus naturally bonded people to himself in many different ways. In his love-filled “velcro mission,” He healed the deaf, the lame, the leper. He told stories to large crowds, but taught doctrine to a lone Nicodemus at night. He spoke prophetically to the religious leaders, but gave an object lesson to a woman by a well.
Jesus’ model of ministry builds strong, multi-leveled connections through love and service—not bonds of trickery or bait and switch. These connections include, but are not limited to, accepting a series of doctrinal statements. These are life-changing connections, binding people’s hearts, minds and souls to Jesus.
Following Jesus’ example, centers of influence act as wholistic velcro—mingling, showing sympathy, ministering to needs. They are not interested in “hooking” people with well-honed evangelistic techniques. They treat with suspicion talk—however well-motivated—of “closing the sale” to “gain decisions.” They are cautious of witnessing approaches that offer a “sure-proof, so-many-step method” (see Krause 2008:56, 57).
Whether in an urban church building, a rented apartment, or a proper community center, centers of influence invest time in people, not just money on programs and preaching. They reach people’s hearts, not just their heads. They demonstrate “the truth” before telling people about it. They use the spiritual gifts of faithful church members on an ongoing basis, not just for evangelism events, run by experts, for short periods.
Dr. David Paulson, who helped pioneer Adventist wholistic urban mission work with Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, expressed it well: “It is certainly true that we have a special work to do in the world, and that is to introduce a living Saviour to a dying world. No mere verbal description can accomplish this, for this can be more satisfactorily lived than it can be told in words” (Paulson 1901:5).
Of course, with the power of free choice people can always reject the invitation of Jesus. And wholistic ministry to people through centers of influence should not be dependent on them accepting Jesus or becoming Seventh-day Adventists. Even if they never become church members, we are called to follow Jesus’ example of compassionate care. Again, in the words of Paulson:
The man who is interested in only those who he thinks can become church-members as a result of his ministrations, will find fewer and fewer openings for missionary work; for he gradually develops in others a spirit of distrust and suspicion, which closes more and more doors against him; while, on the other hand, the worker who has allowed the needs of humanity to touch his heart, will try to benefit the “nine lepers” even if he knows perfectly well that they will never join his church. . . . The heart of the blessed Master responded more to the needs of humanity than it did to what results would be secured from His labor (5).
The Early Church
The early church also faced an urban mission challenge. “When reading the New Testament,” writes Manuel Ortiz, “you cannot help but be struck by the fact that most of it was quite purposefully written within a missionary context, and that particular context was mostly urban” (Ortiz 2002:46). Sparks adds, “It was principally in the cities of the Roman world that Paul preached the gospel, organized congregations, and confronted authorities, principalities, and powers: Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi, Athens, and Rome” (2000).
Sociologist Rodney Stark describes how wholistic ministry fueled the growth of the early church: “Christianity served as a revitalization movement that arose in response to the misery, chaos, fear, and brutality of life in the urban Greco-Roman world” (Stark 1996:161). He adds that Christianity’s doctrines “prompted and sustained attractive, liberating, and effective social relations and organizations” (211).
On one occasion Emperor Julian wrote to one of his pagan priests: “I think that when the poor happened to be neglected and overlooked by the priests, the impious Galileans observed this and devoted themselves to benevolence.” He also wrote: “The impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us” (Stark 1996:84).
During times of plague and sickness, pagan priests fled the cities while Christians remained to help the sick and suffering. In an oft-quoted statement, Tertullian said: “It is our care of the helpless, our practice of loving kindness that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents. ‘Only look,’ they say, ‘look how they love one another’!” (Stark 1996:87).
Following in the path of the early Christians, centers of influence seek to show Jesus’ love in wholistic, practical ways. They minister to people in all dimensions of their lives—physical, mental, social, and spiritual. They demonstrate that Christianity is not just some overarching metanarrative floating around in theory—but something that can make a difference in the smaller realities of their lives. They build faith in God and the Bible through the localized experience of encountering Seventh-day Adventists who demonstrate the love, compassion, and selfless service of Jesus.
Centers of influence resist “institutionalizing” their activities—duplicating the focus of churches that have become largely inward looking. They are not destinations. They are springboards for putting Jesus’ method of ministry into practice. Where possible they will become involved in and support existing community activities, invite the community to participate in projects they initiate, and keep the focus outward and on interaction—not merely on attracting people into the center. “In true communities there are collective accomplishments,” writes American sociologist Ray Oldenburg. “People work together and cooperate with one another to do things which individuals cannot do alone” (1999:xix).
Oldenburg stressed the importance to healthy community life of what he terms “great good places” or “third places”—”informal public gathering places” separate from home (first) and the workplace (second). He wrote: “Upon an urban landscape increasingly hostile to and devoid of informal gathering places, one may encounter people rather pathetically trying to find some spot in which to relax and enjoy each others’ company” (1999:17).
He says, “These places serve community best to the extent that they are inclusive and local” (1999:vii). Third places—such as post offices, drug stores, cafes—play many important roles including “uniting the neighborhood,” providing “ease of association,” and meeting and learning about people in the community (Oldenburg 1999:viii). He adds: “Perhaps the strongest indictment that can be made against the Puritanism and Protestantism of developing America is that, far too often, they sought to ensure the life of the church at the expense of the life of the community (1999:74).
Could White’s concept of centers of influence function as a special type of third place—a space for connection, community, and service—but which also has a larger purpose to minister to people spiritually? Could the central principles of her idea be adapted to various urban contexts to meet the needs of people in the community, putting the Jesus method of ministry into practice?
Some may be tempted to dismiss centers of influence as merely promoting a “social gospel”—as if this were something to be disparaged. But the ministry Jesus modeled certainly has a large social component. As we minister to people as Jesus did, we naturally draw them to him. This is not some sort of after-thought, or an artificial and arbitrary step to “close the sale” after luring people with the other steps. It is a result of following his method.
As we mingle, sympathize, care, and win confidence—spiritual matters seamlessly become part of the center of influence experience and conversation. People working in these centers should be prepared, trained, and supported in building on this interest, and in starting small groups for Bible study, inquiry, and prayer—spaces where people can discuss spiritual things, and learn the truth about salvation through Jesus Christ.
These groups can form the basis of new urban church plants. In some cases, “interests” from centers of influence may be baptized and join existing Adventist churches in the area. However, in urban areas many new members may find it difficult to join them. The cultural leap into the four walls of these churches may be too threatening. In such cases we should remember the apostle James’ advice to the Jerusalem Council—”It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19, NIV).
New church plants can be cared for—through prayer, resources, support staff, and many other ways—by existing Adventist churches that will act as “mother” churches to these fledgling groups. In most cases, these church plants will never have their own church building. Congregations are being planted, not new buildings. The church planting movement we read about in the book of Acts was urban, it grew rapidly, and it had no church buildings.
Some groups may meet at the center, in people’s homes, in a room in a public space such as a library, or in some rented facility. As these groups grow, they will divide and multiply into more groups. They can become part of an urban church planting movement that grows without walls.
It is a long way from Kansas to our postmodern urban world. Today distrust of religious institutions and suspicion of authoritative and distinctive religious claims looms large. There is still an important place for apologetics and public proclamation of the gospel. But in this new world, Seventh-day Adventists have to do more. They must follow even more closely the example of Jesus.
Jesus did not pursue his mission long-distance. He came down from heaven and literally lived among the people to whom He ministered. He touched people, talked to and listened to them, shed tears. His mission was not a quick sortie to earth with a rapid retreat to the safety of heaven. He came and lived as a human being under no special circumstances, in no privileged position—just to serve.
Ellen White was so bold as to suggest that Jesus’ method of ministry is the only method that will bring true success in mission. Not one of the methods—the only method. And centers of influence will succeed only to the extent they remain true to this blueprint.
Of course this will call for a renewed focus. According to Ray Bakke, “Almost 90 percent of the barriers hampering urban ministry are found in the church’s own ecclesial and mission structures” (Byassee 2009). So centers of influence ministry calls us to prayerfully follow Jesus out of our comfort zones, reassess our priorities, and invest our lives in the urban community—not just within the four walls of a church.
We will not ever be going back to Kansas. But of course we have a better place in mind.
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