Being “Practical” As We “Clean House.”

by Nicholas Kersten, Director of Education and History


A few weeks ago, I stumbled across an article on the internet that made me smile. It was written by a librarian who was also a Lord of the Rings fan. She notes that about 30 minutes into the first LOTR movie, the wizard Gandalf spends what seems to be a significant amount of time rifling through a library in Gondor looking for a rare manuscript with a piece of information he needs. The librarian goes on to suggest that Gandalf would’ve saved valuable time if the library and archives he was searching had been properly maintained and organized! For a variety of reasons, this ingenious little article resonated with me — but not least because for the past couple of years, it seems my entire life has been swallowed up in “cleaning house.”

We have done a substantial amount of cataloging, archiving, and shelving of items here in Janesville over the past couple of years. We sorted through our backlog of deposited items and took on new material as we made our various transitions organizationally. This housecleaning has led to a more organized and maintained collection, to say the least. But the organization has not been reserved for my work in the office alone — I am also slowly chipping away at cleaning and archiving my files at home, including a variety of written materials collected by my grandfather, Edwin Shaw, and my great-grandfather, Elston Shaw. My life seems to be one enormous cleaning project everywhere I turn!

But my cleaning projects have turned up a variety of unexpected things which have demanded reflection. One such stray piece of paper from my basement (apparently collected by my great-grandfather Elston) has given me significant pause. The paper is yellowing, and across the top of it is typed (in the inimitable violet of a fading typewriter ribbon) the words, “LET’S BE PRACTICAL.” Underneath that rather intimidating title is one sentence followed by ten questions. They are pointed, and reveal much about the anonymous person who wrote them. The questions target the circumstances under which the members of SDB churches live and work. They focus on SDB ownership of businesses in the towns where our churches are located, and the prospects for work in the towns where our churches are located, especially for our young people. The logic of the questions seems to imply that there is a connection between how our people make a living and their continued participation and membership in our churches. That a lack of SDB owned and operated business presaged negative consequences for us as a people. In addition, the author seems very concerned about SDBs needing to leave the towns where our churches were located to find work.

Certainly the author of “LET’S BE PRACTICAL” is concerned about the vitality of our churches and the communities in which they serve. And he would not be the only one. For most of the past century and a half, SDBs have been very concerned about the relationship between our faith and the increasingly varied ways we make a living. The move in the US from an agrarian, rural economy to an urban, industrial one has put stress on our churches. Responses to this stress have varied. One idea was to collect information on jobs available in SDB towns and publish it for distribution. The Vocation Committee of the General Conference undertook that project, mostly unsuccessfully, in the early 20th century. More recent efforts to directly partner young adults willing to move with churches in need of infusions of young people also were not very successful.

Another response strategy was to seek legal protections for our religious liberty in the workplace. Examples of these efforts include the mobilization to defeat the Blair Sunday Rest Bill in Congress in 1888-89 and also the debates surrounding Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, passed in 1972 — which as originally passed, included protections for Sabbath keepers, though they were soon rolled back in the courts.

But despite the considerable work undertaken, these efforts to publicize jobs and protect our legal rights were both largely ineffectual in actually aiding our people in finding ways to make a living in the locations where our churches have been located. Worse, these efforts failed to recognize the changing economic and social landscape of America, as both people and jobs moved into the cities and away from the rural areas. That is not to say that SDBs did nothing in response to these changes. Significant efforts to plant churches in urban areas (or at least, closer to urban areas) were undertaken, and the fruit of those efforts represent a significant portion of our active congregations today. But more work remains to be done.

The final question on my yellowing sheet is perhaps the most telling of all: “Isn’t it about time that the Seventh Day Baptist denomination thought — and did — a little (or a lot) about our future here in the United States?”

While the question may be a bit alarmist, it does seem to point to a real historical trend, which may have reached its logical conclusion. A recent report from Business Insider collected data from the 2010 Census to note that 80% of Americans now live in urban areas; 50% of all Americans live in just 149 counties; while the other 50% of Americans live in the remaining 3031 counties. A quick survey of our

Directory reveals that those 149 counties are a ready mission field for us if we are willing to undertake it. Where the people are, so also is the need for the Gospel. A refusal to engage guarantees that we will fail in our responsibility to be on mission with God to reach people with the Gospel. You won’t reach what you can’t touch.

Which brings us back, finally, to the author’s questions about our local SDB churches. If we are to mobilize for kingdom service anywhere in these troubled times, we must begin by first engaging in our local churches and communities. Is your local church healthy? Are you caring for each other in robust covenant community? There will be no work for SDBs outside of our churches in the broader world if we cannot live out our faith in the contexts of our own local churches. Are you caring for those in your congregation who have difficulties in their lives? Are you living out the blessings of salvation by grace through faith? Is your Sabbath observance unto God as a life-giving sacrifice of your own agenda and time? Are you engaging the people around you who do not know Jesus for the sake of His kingdom? If we are to think —or do — a little (or a lot) about the future of SDBs in the United States and Canada, we must begin with ourselves. We are left to wonder: what did the author of “LET’S BE PRACTICAL” do to share the Gospel with neighbors and to bolster the work of the local church? Let us be practical in the ways that we seek to serve the God who has called us to Himself in Christ.

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