Honest reporting

This morning I drove very early from Newbold College, in the direction of Harwich, where I took the ferry to Hook of Holland. When I spend a week or so in the UK, I prefer to bring my car so that I can leave the college campus from time to time. The summer session of the Master in Leadership course, that is offered by Andrews University, has come to a close. In my role, as one of the coaches of a group of students, I have been quite busy, among other things with reading papers and as a member of the examination panel.

A group that started in 2016 has now in principle completed their study, but quite a few will actually need an extension. One of the persons who this week successfully finished her course comes from Finland, She wrote a thesis about the question how Finnish Adventist congregations deal with the large percentage of church members whose names are still on the books but who no longer attend church. This concerns about sixty (!) percent of the membership. I know that in most places a considerable number of the members are never seen in church. However, I was quite surprised to hear from the author of this thesis about this extremely high percentage. And I was also taken aback by the rapid decrease in total memberschip in het country. In 1984 the church still had over 6400 members, in 2001 almost 5600 and in 2017 it had gone down to just over 4700.

I am sure that the membership records in the Finnish Adventist church are handled with care and integrity. However, in many countries this is not the case. A few years ago the total membership in South America had to be adjusted downward by over one million. Just weeks ago the church had to admit that the membership statistics in India left much to be desired and the leadership was forced to take about half a million members off the books, since they simply were no longer there. It brought the membership down from about 1.6 million to about 1.1 million. It is hardly a secret that the membership statistics in Africa are also highly inflated.

When I served as the executive secretary of the Trans-European Division (TED), I was responsible for the membership statistics in our territory. At the time Pakistan was also a part of ‘our’ division. I was well aware of the fact that there were serious problems with the membership records. Judging by the statistics, Pakistan was the healthiest country in the world, for no one ever seemed to die (at least no Adventists). I told the leaders in Pakistan that they should clean up their records. I suggested two basic principles: no name should appear twice on the list and those who are on the list should still be alive. Applying those two minimal rules, the membership figure dropped from about 11,000 to about 6,000.

Gradually the church is beginning to place a greater emphasis on the necessity to be correct and honest in the reporting of membership gains and losses. Fortunately, the church worldwide continues to grow—in some areas even exponentially. However, it is morally wrong to inflate the statistics or to leave those inflated statistics uncorrected.

When we take a honest look at our membership statistics , we realize we should not just tell hallelujah-stories about all the continuous progress. We must look at the facts and worry about the greying of the church in some western countries—especially in those countries where few Adventist immigrants help to boost the numbers (as e.g. in the UK, France and the Netherlands). The all-important question is: How can we present our message in such a way that people will have a greater interest in what we have to say? Can things be turned around in countries where Adventism is slowly disappearing? How can the church become a church where people cannot only find ‘the Truth’, but also find a warm spiritual home, where they want to be and want to stay? Listening to the Finnish statistics I realized once again how pressing these questions are.

Johannes de Heer

Last week I read in an article in my newspaper that the journal ‘Het Zoeklicht’ is celebrating its hundredth anniversary. It was started a century ago by Johannes (or: Johan) de Heer, and it would become an important pillar in the evangelization-movement of which Johan de Heer would be an important leader.

Johannes de Heer was born in 1866 in Rotterdam as the son of a blacksmith, but he had no desire to follow in his father’s footsteps. He found work in a music shop. He felt at home in this environment and started his own music business in 1898. De Heer married in 1889 with Catharine Frederika Beindorff.  Two of their children died at the very young age of 9 months and 4 years, respectively. Their sense of spiritual lostness prompted them to visit the evangelistic meetings that were sponsored by the Seventh-day Adventists. Soon after this they joined the (at that time very small) Adventist Church.

Before too long Johan de Heer had a prominent role in the small Adventist congregation in Rotterdam, where he was elected as elder. However, his membership in the Adventist Church was of short duration. A conflict erupted in 1902 in which Johan played a leading role. The sad result was the departure of almost 200 of the 230 Dutch Adventists of that moment.

A small group of loyal members was left behind in utter confusion. But the star of Johan de Heer would soon rise high, after his ties with Adventism had been severed. Much of his lasting popularity was due to his collection of hymns, on which he started working in 1904. The hymnal of Johannes de Heer is still popular in evangelical circles in the Netherlands. The Adventist hymnal also contains a good number of his hymns. His life-long emphasis on Christ’s Second Coming continued to betray his Adventist roots.

I have often wondered why, over time, the Adventist Church lost so many of its often very creative and inspiring leaders. Johan de Heer is but one example, but I am also thinking of leaders as Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and the German Louis R. Conradi. For sure, in all these cases there were some theological issues. Johan de Heer had little affinity with Ellen White and objected to the teaching of the heavenly sanctuary. (Later he also strongly opposed the sabbath.) Kellogg’s relationship with the church became problematic after the publication of a book that he had written, in which the church leaders saw pantheistic ideas. Conradi came to doubt some traditional doctrinal points and was certainly not on the same wavelength  as Ellen White.

However, I happen to think that these (and many other) leaders did not leave the church primarily for doctrinal reasons. They were, I have concluded, ‘too big’ for the small church of their days. Johannes de Heer was a very talented man who needed space in order to develop his initiatives without restraints. Kellogg had become ‘too big’ for the church organization of his days. His health institution employed more people that the entire church! Conradi was a charismatic leaders who did not get the space to think and act ‘European’ in the rather America-oriented denomination.

To give creative people a lot of space may be risky. That is undeniably so. But by restraining them there is the much greater risk that we lose them. That is still the case today. Often theological arguments are used as a reason for leaving. But the real cause may well be something else: frustration for being restrained in developing and implementing visionary plans. What could a man like Johan de Heer have meant for Dutch Adventism if he had stayed with us? This is a question that often pops up in my mind when I sing one of his hymns.

 

Leadership

It is time to pack my suitcase again. I am off for two weeks to Newbold College in the UK, interrupted by a few days in Belgium. At Newbold a session will be held of the Masters-course in Leadership, with which I am involved. In Belgium the quadrennial constituency meeting of the Belgian-Luxemburg Conference of the Adventist Church will take place. It will be my task during those two days to chair the Plans Committee.

It is exciting to see who are chosen as new leaders ‘in Brussels’. I follow the events at the European Union very closely. The results of the European elections of last week were rather encouraging, at least as far as the Netherlands is concerned. The ultra-right parties did not break through as they had hoped. In fact, the party of the islamophobic Geert Wilders, lost all its seats in the European Parliament. I consider that very good news. I hope that Frans Timmermans will be elected as the Chairman of the European Commission. I must admit that this though it partly inspired by nationalistic sentiments, but I do see him as a leader with authority and vision, and the best candidate for this top-job.

It is impossible to predict how the elections in the Adventist Church in Belgium and Luxemburg will turn out. I remain very interested in what happens there, since a few years ago I served as the interim-president of that conference for some 18 months . The election system that we use in our church does not always put the best people at the right places. I hope the delegates will go for continuity and stability and that the current president will be re-elected. In a little over a week we will know!

During the coming two weeks most of my time will be devoted to the coaching of a number of persons who are enrolled in the MA course in Leadership., sponsored by Andrews University and Newbold College. The members of my studygroup are from the Netherlands, Belgium, the United Kingdom and Germany. I am one of the five ‘advisors’, who each have the task to coach a number of the ca. fifty students. The course is scheduled to take three years, with two session each year where all come together (one of those sessions is in the coming weeks), besides regular (mostly monthly) meetings of each group. I meet with my group alternatively in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium or England. The students have a lot of reading assignments and must write a dissertation and ten shorter papers. That means there is a lot of reading for me.

The whole enterprise requires quite a bit of my time, but it is also fun to be involved with a project like this. I do see, however, that most students do struggle to combine their work and their study. (I know from experience how challenging it is to pursue an academic study in combination with a busy full-time church job.) It does give me satisfaction to have a small part in the formation of new leaders. There is a great need for real leaders in the church at all levels. In the process, I am also learning a lot myself. Listening to the lectures about the various types of leadership I sometimes quietly wonder what kind of leader I have been. In what aspects did I score reasonably well and where could I have benefitted from a bit of extra direction?

After having been involved in the project for about two years, I have an opinion about the structure and quality of the course. I realize that choices must be made and that not all aspects of leadershipo can receive full treatment, I wished, however, that more attention would be paid to the ethical elements in leadership and to some technical requirements for leaders, such as leading out in meetings, conflict resolution, strategic planning and time management.

Against the opinion of some leadership-gurus I remain convinced that leadership can only be learned to a certain extent. Some just ‘have what it takes’ to develop into a good leader, while others will never move beyond being a mediocre leader. I believe we have plenty of evidence for this in what we see around us. I would not just call this ‘charisma’, for this so-called ‘charisma’ often covers some real weaknesses. “Vision’ is probably a much better term. Regretfully, we often see but little ‘vision’ with our church leaders—locally, nationally and internationally. A course in leadership can help to further strengthen and develop vision, but somehow a leader must already have this characteristic if he/she is to grow into an inspiring leader. I hope that I can contribute something in stimulating this vision-element in ‘my people’ and can serve in some limited ways as a role model.

 

Other lives also matter

On May 16, at 7.37 pm, Donnie Edward Johnson was executed by lethal injection in the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in the American state of Tennessee. He was found guilty of killing his wife in 1984. Johnson had become a Seventh-day Adventist Christian while in prison. He was active in sharing his faith, ministered to many of his fellow-inmates and was ordained as an elder by the Nashville SDA church. In his final moments Johnson prayed for forgiveness and sang about his faith in eternal life. And he asked that his final meal be given to a homeless person!

Many Adventists in the USA and elsewhere prayed that governor Bill Lee would halt the execution. Pastor Ted N.C. Wilson, the president of the Adventist worldwide church, and Daniel R. Jackson, the president of SDA Church in North-America, sent a plea for clemency to the governor. The governor, who himself is an active Christian, stated that he had prayerfully considered these pleas, but had decided that justice must be done.

I have always been a fierce opponent of capital punishment and continue to be surprised that so many conservative Christians (Adventists most definitely included) support this brutal form of punishment. I know that in Bible times capital punishment was common and that the biblical record tells us that God quite often commanded it. But we no longer live in those ancient times, when there was no judiciary system, with suitable prison facilities, as we now have them. As a New Testament Christian, I reject capital punishment as inhumane and contrary to the spirit of the Gospel. Criminals must certainly be punished but, for me, capital punishment is no option. Punishment should not be a matter of revenge, as it now so often appears to be. The ultimate purpose is to help a person to ultimately return to society as a better person.

Some twenty years ago I wrote a book that dealt with a number of ethical issues. It was entitled: Matters of Life and Death (Pacific Press Publ. Ass., 2000). It had a chapter about capital punishment in which I gave a number of reasons why I was (and am) against this form of punishment, especially as it is practiced by a number of states in the USA. There is absolutely no evidence that it helps to diminish crime. And there have been too many miscarriages of justice that could no longer be reversed. A major problem with the death penalty in the USA is also that black criminals are much more likely to land on the electric chair or to face lethal injection than white people who have committed the same crimes. And, of course, the American legal system is extremely cruel in keeping a man like Johnson for over thirty years on death row. Why in the world kill a man after such a long period, and after he has long proven that he is no longer the savage killer he once was? What purpose was served by his execution?

My book also dealt with abortion, euthanasia, genetic engineering and other related topics. Over all, the book was well received. Of course, I knew that not all readers would agree with me and I expected that my treatment of some of these issues would create considerable discussion. That was indeed the case, but none of them as much as the topic of capital punishment. I was surprised to receive many reactions from fellow Adventists (mainly in the USA) who passionately defended the death penalty. I still find it extremely difficult to understand this.

It was good to see that some of our key leaders tried to prevent the execution of Donnie Johnson. However, I would have preferred to see our church leaders protest against the institution of capital punishment as such—not just once but consistently. Why only protest when the life of a fellow Adventist believer is at stake? Other lives also matter!

 

Jan Mulder in search of eternal life

I have very little interest in soccer and do not belong to the fans of a particular club. Of course, I have noticed that Ajax has had a very successful season. But that sums up how much I know of the state of Dutch soccer. I must admit that I had some admiration for Johan Cruyff, and that is also true for Jan Mulder. Whenever I see his face on tv, I tend to be at least mildly curious for what he has to say.

Mulder is now in his mid-seventies. After a brilliant career as a soccer player (In particular with the Belgian club Anderlecht and Ajax of Amsterdam), Jan Mulder became a popular columnist for a number of publications, and authored more than twenty books. For many years he has made a frequent appearance in various television programs. Currently he presents a series of six programs on Dutch television with the name: Jan Mulder’s eternal life.

The few programs that have already aired leave the viewer in no doubt that Mulder hopes for a very long life. He does not want to die and for six consecutive Friday nights he explores in his program the possibilities of eternal life. I wonder whether in the instalments that are yet to come Mulder will also approach his topic from a religious perspective. I watched with keen interest the interview of Mulder with Dr. Ian Pearson, an English futurologist who predicts that by the year 2050 eternal life should be within our reach. However, it must be noted that the kind of eternal life the professor envisages is not something that excites me. This English expert on future developments believes that within a few decades technological progress  will enable us to connect our brain with the digital world and that we can continue to live ‘in the cloud’ after our physical body has ceased to function adequately. Our digital ‘I’ may then choose a robot as the vehicle that will allow us to participate in this world. It was clear that Mulder was also not convinced this was the kind of eternal life he is looking for.

I have no idea what technological innovations will change our lives in the future. These developments will almost certainly prolong our lives with a number of years and perhaps we are only at the beginning of replacing failing body parts with ever smaller implanted artificial objects and wireless instruments, etc. However, there will always be a limit to what we can do. As a believer I am convinced that creating life and offering perfect eternal life is beyond that limit. His search for eternal life should take Mulder to his Creator rather than to dr. Pearson.

In the meantime I fully understand Jan Mulder’s eagerness to hold on to this life and to push his death as far as possible into the future. The question whether eternal is indeed an option has also occupied my thinking in recent years. It has recently inspired me to write a book about this topic. I have been looking for answers by taking the Bible as my point of departure. Some of my questions have so far remained unanswered, but I have been able to choose a title, based on a firm conviction: I Have a Future, The English edition of the book will come off the press later in this year. But I have now also started work on a Dutch edition. As soon as that appears I will send a copy to Jan Mulder. I will address it as: Jan Mulder, Bellingwolde. I have no doubt that it will reach him in the small village  in the province of Groningen where he was born and where he now lives.