Try, try again, but when all else fails get a move on
For several years now, especially since 1995, the Worldwide Church of God, headquartered in Pasadena, Calif., has operated under a set of rules different from the doctrines and teachings implemented by its founder, Herbert W. Armstrong.
Almost four years ago, in The Journal's Oct. 30, 1998, issue, writer Bill Stough interviewed Horst Selent, a member of the WCG's Greenville, S.C., congregation, to write "Greenville Balking at Altering Worship Days."
The Journal did not mention Mr. Selent's name in the 1998 article because of his request for anonymity.
Mr. Selent, along with his wife, Irene, wrote the following update on the congregation's relationship with WCG headquarters four years later and the Selents' decision to move on.
By Horst and Irene Selent
GREENVILLE, S.C.--The year 1998 was an emotional one for our local Worldwide Church of God congregation, which meets in Greenville. One week before Passover our beloved minister was let go by church headquarters, in Pasadena. That hurt.
People started to drift away. We were visited a couple of times by a potential new minister. A question-and-answer session revealed his approach of "the old way is out" and "the new way is in" (including a rock band). His ideas clashed with the congregation. He decided not to come here.
Still about 80 people strong, we were alarmed, the alarm further fueled by distressing news from other churches. Many individuals sent personal letters to HQ, but in the summer we rallied together and sent a petition to Pastor General Joseph Tkach Jr. in Pasadena signed by the vast majority of the people in Greenville.
In it we pointed out that HQ was ignoring the concerns of a lot of its members. Any of us who didn't show the new enthusiasm for worship on Sunday felt disposable.
So we asked for assurance that, as promised, the Sabbath could remain our day of worship. (The Journal in October 1998 reported on the petitions we sent to Mr. Tkach. The text of our petitions, in the form of letters, to Mr. Tkach can also be read at www.marktab.org/wcgweb4.html under "Healing," then "Open Letters").
If anyone who sent us supporting letters back then has wondered why we have not replied, we apologize. But The Journal published the official Greenville church's address, not the petition writer's. So (as we learned much later) a lot of mail in support of the petition went straight to the pastor's office (oops).
Mr. Tkach answered quickly that we were "free to worship on the day the majority prefers," and "Your letter communicates your feeling that the long-range plan of the church is that members will eventually not be allowed to celebrate on the annual festivals. I can only say that the church has no such plan. Your assessment is simply not correct."
However, since our request for a churchwide referendum was not addressed at all, we mailed a second petition. HQ's answer was vague, requesting that we address future issues through our regional pastor.
For one year we had only a local elder, until, in 1999, the minister from neighboring Asheville, N.C., was assigned to Greenville.
Again, tensions began to rise in proportion to the increasing belittling of anything "old."
To clear the air we asked numerous times for an open congregational discussion. That was denied ("It would split the church"). Some of us became black sheep.
We asked some direct questions of our regional pastor. He referred us to the pastor. Our pastor, in turn, fell back on whatever happened to be the latest HQ guidelines. We went around in circles!
But the handwriting was on the wall, especially after an emotional denouncement of a certain "church life" message (sermonette) in which a member dared discuss a Wednesday vs. a Friday crucifixion.
Our attendance dwindled to about 40. Some still went to the WCG Feast of Tabernacles at Myrtle Beach, S.C., in 2000.
Many may have enjoyed that Feast, but one sad memory lingers in my mind: So few people! There were not anywhere near enough to fill the auditorium!
What a difference it had been to celebrate with 11,000 people (for example, in the Poconos) or sit in the end section of a partitioned-off auditorium. Who zapped our collective energy?
Back home, about a year ago now, at a meeting initiated by our minister of the 21 members there, 16 still raised their hands to show a preference for Sabbath observance rather than Sunday services. But we were told not to construe this as a vote; the pastor merely wanted to feel the pulse of the congregation.
Stop that pampering
Early in 2001, at the regional ministerial conference in Savannah, Ga., it was emphasized (as we learned from a participant) that the ministers were to stop "pampering" people who do not go along with HQ; that the time had come to decisively move forward; and that, approaching the "end of a seven-year transition," it would be a waste of time and energy to keep answering the same old questions.
After all, the church's doctrines were now clearly published on the WCG's Web site (www.wcg.org).
It is interesting from our vantage that the U.S. Southeast seemed to have been selected as the spearhead for the switch to Sunday. Was it only the regional pastor's preference? Or was it a greater strategy of first conquering the Bible Belt and the rest would then be easier?
Canada especially and several U.S. regions seem to be changing at a much slower rate.
For the two of us 2000 was our last Feast of Tabernacles with the WCG. The following year we attended the Christian Educational Ministries Feast site at Niceville, Fla. We appreciated celebrating it with approximately 1,000 people from all over the U.S.A. and Canada. They were open, accepting, tolerant, glad to be there.
Today we no longer attend the WCG. Two weeks after the 2001 Feast our minister publicly invited "all who do not agree with my or HQ's directions to please make the decision to leave."
So a few last stubborn sheep left. For us it was one week short of 30 years in the WCG.
We had hung in there for so long:
To see if the WCG would keep its promise of allowing Sabbath worship within the WCG.
For the local fellowship to not suddenly be blown apart.
A tolerant Saturday and Sunday observance, as was originally laid out, should have been possible.
Currently in Greenville
As of May 2002 the Greenville WCG meets on Sunday under the name Way of the Cross Fellowship. As in many other churches, the move coincided with a relocation to a different building. About 20 people attend. Many seem excited about a fresh start.
Half of the 80 people from 1998 have just drifted away over the years. Few have gone to any other church.
Another dozen or so of us meet in each other's homes on the Sabbath.
From the beginning those of us in this group simply agreed to disagree; that is, disagreements would not prevent us from sticking together to provoke each other to love.
Our group is not incorporated. It's wonderfully stimulating to glean from other folks' insights and input. We are learning a lot; we feel at peace; we believe we are where we should be at this time.
Energy for the future
A hunger for something better than the current COG status quo still seems to connect many of us around the globe. We keep reading, looking, expecting. Are you perhaps still waiting for some superchurch to suddenly come along?
Don't wait for it. Rather, do what you can.
There is still a great energy around that we all can tap into. For example, we were stirred by recent news that a minister has resigned rather than follow HQ's order to discharge from the church an elder who gave a sermon about the Sabbath!
Let's stop feuding over words and meanings and details. Let's rise above them. Let's look for that higher plateau where peace is possible. Let's concentrate on the power of positive action to reunite us rather than on a common belief statement on paper.
Is this a new idea? No. May Paul's words empower you and encourage you: "The kingdom of God is not in word but in power" (1 Corinthians 4:20).
Note the zeal for action in the early church. Here is how Gibbon described it more than 200 years ago in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:
"The primitive Christians were dead to the business and pleasures of the world, but their love for action, which could never be entirely extinguished, soon revived and found a new occupation in the government of the Church."
Ask yourself: Didn't we get sidetracked big time?
Focus on action
God may not yet be through with our humbling process. More splits will come if we insist on adversarial debate and separations. Keep a close watch on the calendar issue; it will soon affect every last little group.
But in brokenness lies healing. God loves to reconcile people. For example, He put it in Jacob's heart to go back to his alienated brother Esau, and Jacob retraced his steps back across the River Jordan. But he still lacked total trust in God.
Fearful of his brother's might, Jacob maneuvered at the last minute to leave himself a way out, to run away. (Are we still trying to run away from what we have to do?) Instead of a good night's sleep Jacob found himself in an exhausting wrestling match. (In our darkness does God still have to wrestle with us?) Jacob's hip was put out of joint. (Aren't we out of joint?)
Now crippled, Jacob simply had to face his brother. And--to his great relief and surprise--he discovered Esau's anger had turned into acceptance. Something magnificent had happened. Jacob, in the emotion of the moment, exclaimed with utter amazement, "To see your face is like seeing the face of God." They both broke down and wept.
Crossing the Jordan
What can we do today? You and I, likewise, can set out to cross the Jordan. Take that first step. Don't look left and right, don't wait on others. Reconciliation comes through recounseling.
Read John 13. Here is recommended action, as plain as can be (not from the top down, but from the bottom up): "Little children . . . a new commandment I give to you, love one another . . . By this shall all men know that you are my disciples."
Do you feel helpless like a little child? Good! Then this is addressed to you.
What an effect that would have. If we COG people, who still know and trust each other, cannot do it, who can?
Here is a task to get your teeth into. Make this your personal motto: After decades of prep, you now are a rep.
(To those of us who think one can easily and quickly identify the small group of believers that exclusively is worthy of our love: Careful, now. Don't dismiss other-thinking folks too easily. Would you have recognized the thief on the cross as one of yours? He wasn't religious at all. By his own admission he deserved the punishment. The only thing he did was speak out against wrong and express a hunger for that certain something better. It's truly fascinating how Christ responds to him.)
Lots to do
Practically speaking in Greenville:
Our group has connected with a similar group from Atlanta, Ga. We recently enjoyed a wonderful combined weekend at a lake, including a Sabbath service, with 30 of us fellowshipping, singing, praying and studying God's Word.
Next week we will meet with some North Carolina folks (who left United because of the calendar issue).
Ladies in the Greenville area get together every two months for an evening of great goodies and great chatting, a chance especially for those who don't attend anywhere to see each other.
A "second-generation picnic" is planned this fall for all who are in their 20s and 30s. We hope they'll continue to stay in touch in some fashion.
The two of us have scheduled a dinner out with a couple from the Living Church of God.
Things fell into place for us to rekindle a decade-old friendship with another couple. It was heartwarming to bridge old church challenges after not seeing each other for seven long years.
A new SEP?
When the WCG's Summer Educational Program (SEP) camp in Orr, Minn., was up for sale, good friends of ours in California helped establish the Jon Whitney Foundation with the aim of purchasing the property at Orr.
However, an earlier and higher bidder prevailed, and it was sold a few weeks ago.
But the foundation's goal continues: to provide a national youth camp at which youngsters could come into a community of believers to feel the love of God and those around them.
For more information contact the Jon Whitney Foundation, P.O. Box 702976, Dallas, Texas 75370, U.S.A.
So there is lots we can do. Let's put our heads together. Let's encourage each other. Tell us your good ideas. Read our "Seven Lessons Learned." Drop us a line at http://forums.delphiforums.com/FIFscGreenville.
We, as well as folks in other places, are in the process of planting small seeds (don't expect impressive flowers in full bloom).
However, if only a few of us keep watering these seeds, they won't grow very fast. Let's rally together to do that. With the Internet we can encourage each other from a distance and at the same time plant seeds at home. Let's support anything that has an umbrella feel to it to keep us all connected.
To the top
We plan to open such an umbrella Web site soon at which all can be friends in faith. (In fact, our new name is Friends in Faith.) We simply want to advocate reconciliation, starting at the grassroots level, living up to John 13:34 (the crucially important new commandment).
Perhaps an illustration might help in visualizing this goal. You are the owner of a sleek convertible, but someone else has put a solid hardtop on it. It's no longer a real convertible. You feel cramped. There's no fun in driving anymore.
Now, why not look at the umbrella as a ragtop, a retractable roof that lets us find shelter as needed (Ephesians 4:14) as well as enjoying the feel of wind-tossed hair on a drive in the summer sun to gain individual strength ("according to the effectual working in the measure of every part")?
Read that wonderful section in Ephesians, and let's reconnect and recollect. Let's grow together toward Christ "from whom the whole body is fitly joined together."
The August 2002 issue of The Journal includes many photos and several other graphics, besides the Connections advertising section. Don't forget to subscribe to the print version of The Journal to read all the news and features previewed here.
© The Journal: News of the Churches of God