Three Adventist worlds

 

If you are a regular reader of the Adventist Review on line, you will have noticed that lately the focus has been on Africa, and especially on Rwanda. A nationwide evangelization campaign in this Central-African country is currently being conducted, with a number of key Adventist leaders from the division and the General Conference as active participants. One week ago already almost 30.000 people were baptized. It is expected that on Saturday May 28 approximately 70.000 more men and women will also enter a baptismal font somewhere in the country. This means that as the result of this campaign the church in Rwanda will grow fifteen percent, from 700.000 to 800.000 members. Recently in Zimbabwe on one day 35.000 were added to the church. African leaders are confident that these results can be duplicated elsewhere in Eastern and Central-Africa.

[I will here not enter into any speculation whether all these new members are fully aware of all twenty-eight Fundamental Beliefs or whether this is only a requirement that is imposed by the church’s leadership on the Western world.]

The enormous growth of the church in Africa (and other areas in the world) is in sharp contrast with developments in most places in the western world. If there is any growth in that part of the world at all, it is mainly the result of migration from developing countries. At times I have the feeling that the Adventist church in Europe is no longer a factor that is aken seerious by he rest of he world. For the leaders of the General Conference, it would seem, the church in the often small and unruly Europe has little future. And we have to admit: the role of European Adventism is numerically becoming less and less important within the world church, when we consider that in one evangelistic campaign in Africa more members join the church than the number of the total membership in the entire Trans-European Division.

Whatever be the case, one can hardly avoid the impression that the worldwide church is gradually split in a fast growing church in the ‘South’ and a small, stagnating church in the ‘North’. These more and more seem to be two different Adventist worlds. However, lately I have become more than ever before aware of the fact that there is also a third Adventist world, besides the two I just mentioned: that of the people who find themselves ‘on the margins’ of the church. In recent months I have invested a lot of time and energy in writing of a book that targets those Adventists, who are drifting away from their church and who worry greatly about recent trends in the church and the way the church has been dealing with issues as women’s ordination and the Fundamental Beliefs. I have been in touch with lots of people about my current project. I have asked over twenty people to read the manuscript and to provide me with their input. Repeatedly I was told: ‘ In fact, I also am in the group of those “marginals” you are targeting!’

It becomes ever clearer to me (also after I devoted my blog a few weeks ago to this project) that this book is important and that the group of ‘people on the margins’ of the church is much bigger than I initially thought. I hope I will be able to encourage many of those who are ‘on the margins’. Maybe I can put into words what for many mostly remained a sense of unease that they were often not able to describe.

The English version of the book is in its final phase. As I write, the manuscript has been copy-edited and is with the firm that will take care of the page lay-out, before it can pass through the publisher to the printer and then to Amazon.com and other distribution channels. The aim is to have the book ready by August 1, as a paperback as well as in digital format. The Dutch version is scheduled to appear 2-3 months later. Work has started on a French and a Russian edition. Possibly other languages will follow.

It would, I think, be a disaster if the great success in the ‘South’ would result in less attention for the church in the ‘North’. And it would be tragic if this third Adventist world—of Adventists ‘on the margins’—would be gradually drifting further and further away from the rest of the church. More than ever before the church also needs people who dare to ask questions and are willing to admit that they do not know all the answers. I hope I will be given some more years in which I can put a lot of my energy in this ‘ministry’ for fellow-believers ‘on the margins’.

 

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‘They also love their church’

When I am home  on Sunday morning at half past eight I often watch a television program that is presented by Annemiek Schrijver. In her home, hidden in de woods near the village of Lage Vuursche, she meets with guests who tell about the things that concerns them ‘deep down.’ The program usually has a religious undertone—christian or otherwise. A times I find the message of the guests  about their view on life not very interesting, but there are also times when I am fascinated by what the people have to say. Annemiek Schrijver is an author of fiction and non-fiction but also a radio and television presenter with a huge experience, who has truly mastered the art of interviewing.

I missed last Sunday’s program, as I already sat in my car, en route to Sweden, where I intend to spend a few weeks with my son and grandchildren, while also dedicating a lot of that time to the renovation of his house. My wife will follow by air in two weeks, but Skype enables us to be in daily contact. She mentioned to me that last week’s program had been very worth while. So, I looked for it on the internet, found it and watched it on my laptop.

This Sunday morning a Joseph Oubelkas, a thirty-five year old Maroccan Dutchmen, had come to Schrijver’s home in the woods. He related his experiences as a prisoner in a Maroccan prison cell. During a business trip to the homeland of his father, he happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong moment. As a result he became one of the suspects in a major drugs deal. Though one hundred percent innocent, he was arrested and spent five year under the most miserable circumstances in a high security prison. At last his innocence was recoggnized and he was set free.

This terrible experience did not make Joseph a bitter person. He explained how he had decided to stay sane, The letters he received from his Dutch mother gave him  great support. What impressed me most as I listened to his story was how he viewed his fellow-prisoners. Most of these men were hardened criminals. However, somehow Joseph was able not just to see the ‘outside’ of these persons, but also how different they were behind their tough façade. Among these criminals, he said, he met some very ‘beautiful’ people.  To see this was very helpful for him in his struggle to remain positive.

The conversation about this ability to always discover something good in people around us reminded me of  my own experience, in my own little world. It is probably about ten years ago when I was talking to a colleague. At the time I still served as the president of the Dutch Adventist Church. On a regular basis I met people who did not share my vision for the church. Some made this very clear to me, often in a far from pleasant manner. My colleague had noticed how this tended to irritate me. It was not difficult to detect this. He said something like: ‘Do not get so upset when people push ideas you totally disagree with, even if they are nasty about it. Always remember that these people, in  their own way, also love their church!

I have never forgotten this remark and try to think about it when people I meet ventilate their criticisms about the church, and even question the integrity of other believers—and especially of church leaders. Even when I strongly feel that their idea are wrong and that they damage the church rather than build it up, I try to remember that they also, in their own way, love their church. This realization makes it a lot easier for me to deal with ‘difficult’ people.

 

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Back at Friedensau

 

Once again I am spending a few days at Friedensau. It is a special place for European Adventism. Almost 120 years ago the German pioneers of the Adventist Church decided to establish at this spot a church center with a health institution and a school. The first educational activities date from 1899. During the era of the East-German isolation Friedensau continued to function as an institution for higher learning, with, among other things, a training course for pastors. In that time Friedensau even acquired full university status. After the Wende, when the two Germany’s were reunited, Friedensau became the university for all of Adventist Germany. The university status was maintained—a privilege that continues to demand a high academic level.

This week Friedensau University hosts a symposium. A group of academics and other interested persons, listens to, and discusses, some twenty different academic papers about aspects of the Reformation of the Church in the sixteenth century. This is most appropriate as very soon it will be 500 years since Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door the Castle Church of Wittenberg—an event that is generally regarded as the starting point of the Reformation. With a paper about ‘the influences of the various currents in the Reformation on Adventist ecclesiology’ (the doctrine of the church). I also have an active role in the proceedings.

The Friedensau University is a special place. One has the sensation of being deep in the forest, far away from the inhabited world. Without a car a person feels rather isolated, even though this time I chanced to see a local bus a few times. Yet, the highway between Hannover and Berlin runs barely at two miles distance from the campus. That one does not notice this is due to the fact that the narrow road through the woods to the campus runs over a bridge across the highway, which one passes without getting a view of the autobahn.

The Friedensau University exudes more of an academic atmosphere than any of the other Adventist institutions of higher learning in Europe that I have visited. This is for instance also apparent in details, as in names of persons and places. The leaders carry the academic titles usually employed in a university (the president is the ‘rektor’) and the restaurant is not a ‘cafeteria’ but the ‘mensa.’

Friedensau has gone with the times. The standard of technology is excellent. Yet, the campus and its buildings exude a very distinct continuity with the Adventist past. The huge text of one of the walls of the historic academy building—Der Herr Kommt (the Lord is coming) provides an impressive example.

When the ‘pioneers’  entertained the idea of building a church center in this area, a group of leaders gathered at the place where the university is now located. A the time there was just an old mill. Ludwig Richard Conradi (1856-1939), the legendary leaders of European Adventism in that period, chaired the meeting. The ‘brethren’ reached the consensus that the plan to build a substantial building was too risky and could not be implemented. At that point Conradi invited all participants at the meeting to step outside, He took them to a particular spot at announced: ‘And here is the spot where our institution is going to be!’ It was indeed built and we may still be thankful for Conradi’s courage. Today some of Conradi’s methods would be regarded as even more dubious than they already were in his days. But one thing remains true: Conradi was a man was extraordinary vision.

At this point I want to establish a link with my previous blog. Las week I emphasized the point that important decisions require the participation of a number of people with various skills and opinions. I would not take back one word of what I said. But, at the same time, it is essential to have leaders with extraordinary vision, who dare to think outside of the box and excite others with their zeal and enthusiasm. Conradi was such a person. Regrettably, today we see a dearth of that kind of vision in the highest echelons of the church. But the word of the prophet is as valid as ever: ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish!’ (Proverbs 29:18 KJV).

 

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An abundance of counselors

 

Some thirty-five years ago the Adventist Church in North-Western Europe organized a study week for leaders of Adventist institutions in its territory. Together with two other Dutch institutional leaders (the director of the seminary and secondary school ‘Oud Zandbergen’ and of the Old People’s Home  “Vredenoord’) I flew to the Scottish city of Edinburgh, and from there i Drove the hire care for the three of us to Crieff, where at the time the church operated a health institution. I served in those days as the director of the Dutch Adventist publishing house. It was before the sudden demise of the colporteur system, which starkly reduced the church’s publishing activities.

What I remember most vividly of this leadership  training was the ‘game’ that was intended to show us that involving a number of people in a decision making process usually produces a better result than when one person decides. This is also the case when it concerns something for which no one has any special expertise. We were split into small groups and were to imagine a survival situation and to determine how we were going to ‘save’ ourselves.  First we were to give our individual appraisal of the situation, and then the problem was to be discussed in the group. Subsequently, our individual solution and the plan that was devised by the group were compared with the judgment of a few real experts. To my amazement it appeared that in all cases the decision of the group scored higher than that of each one of us separately. That the lesson hit home is clear from the fact that, after so many years, this experience is still firmly imprinted on my mind.

Last week I had a similar experience. As I wrote in a recent  blog, I am in the final phase of writing a book for Adventist believers ‘on the margins’ of their church. In first instance the book will be published in English, but hopefully a little later also a Dutch edition will appear. This past week I had to decide what the cover is going to look like. I also had to make a final decision on the exact title and subtitle, and on the text on the back of the cover.

A few weeks ago I wrote the cover text and, quite frankly, was quite satisfied with the result. The graphic designer, who is involved with the project, presented me with seven graphic possibilities for the cover. I gave him a picture of myself to accompany the text on the back of the cover. I agreed with the designer that within a week I would indicate my preference for one of these seven preliminary designs. However, almost immediately after he had shown me the various options in the grand café where we met, I knew I preferred number one, with number six as my second choice. The first option was based on an abstract design, in various shades of blue. In number six the face of a young woman with a questioning look dominated.

In the past few days I showed the designs, complete with title and subtitle, and the text for the back (with a small picture of myself) to some thirty people. My initial confidence that I was on the right track was soon thoroughly undermined. A majority of the ‘jury’ thought that design number one was too ‘technical’ (my daughter said: it reminds me of scientology), and that number six would not sufficiently draw the reader’s interest.  Well, having weighed all the arguments that I heard, I decide last evening to ask the designer to further develop design number two, albeit with a different typeface for the title and the subtitle, a small change in the actual wording of the title and a modified text at the back of the cover. I rewrote the text with the aim of making it more personal.

Yesterday morning I had a session with a photographer to get a new picture of myself that would more accurately portray current reality, as attractive as the object of his photo would permit.

The poet of the Bible book of Proverbs already stated: ‘In an abundance of counselors is victory’ (24:6). My Scottish lessen of so many years apparently was not yet lost on me.

 

 

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Zeewolde and the kingdom of God

 

Since roughly eight years I live in Zeewolde, a village/town in the Flevopolder in the center of the Netherlands, where until some 50 years ago there was nothing but water, Zeewolde was the most recent village/town to be built. It now has some 22.000 inhabitants.

Most mornings I take a walk of about one hour. Usually I walk six to seven kilometers. An interesting side-effect of this activity is that I can closely follow the further developments of the place where I live. Between the area where my wife and I have our home and the center of the village a substantial new section is being built. It is fascinating to see how clusters of homes are gradually emerging. When we arrived  eight years ago there was nothing but grass, but now there are hundreds of homes in all sizes and shapes.  Gradually also new streets have been built and paved, and the area is beginning to look really green. Before too long a beginning will be made with the construction of a new supermarket. As I take my walks, I will in the future therefore remain up to date on the special JUMBO offers of the week. There are also plans to built a new set of locks, which will make it possible for small boats to move from the inside of the polder to the larger lake adjacent to it.

Zeewolde is a good place to live, but it is not perfect. Local politics are often far from harmonious and decision making tends to be a rather protracted process. As to the spiritual side: Zeewolde has churches of a dozen or so different denominations. I guess that church attendance is above the national average, with the rather conservative Calvinistic churches showing the most favorable statistics.

Opinions differ as to how our village should be further developed in the future. And although there are many attempts to organize all sorts of activities, a major part of the population remains rather passive. We could also use some more cafés and restaurants of various tastes, and a good book shop would welcome me as a regular customer.

When yesterday I walked my regular distance, it occurred to me that the development of the place where I live in many ways resembles the kingdom of God in this world. It is good to see that there also new ‘mansions’ continue to be built, with new roads and new facilities. That project is also far from completed. It is good to see how in the kingdom the new constructions show a great variety. It must also be admitted that in this stage of the building of the kingdom opinions often differ–with many sticking to the conservative side–about strategies for growth and maintenance. Frequently many ‘inhabitants’ find life not very exciting and wishe for some new facilities that are more to their taste.

Just as I continually get to know Zeewolde better and better, I also try to see where and how the kingdom of God is developing in this world, and which sections lag behind in growth or show extraordinary growth patterns. And then, of course, I think of the church in my country to which I belong—a ‘section’ in the kingdom that is now over one hundred years old and could use some serious updating and refreshing in many areas.

I also find that not every citizen in the kingdom is actively involved in its life and ‘ministry’. The further development of Zeewolde, the place where I live, will require vision and courage. That is just as true for those who want to be actively involved in the further development of the divine kingdom in our world and around us. It will require vision, faith in the future and firm commitment to ensure that Gods kingdom in our world—in our country and our more immediate environment—will remain a place where people feel at home, where things continue to ‘happen’ en where many will continue to find a spiritual roof over their heads, now and in the future.

 

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