Will the church afford the heating?

Every week I receive the digital bulletin from a number of Adventist congregations in the Netherlands. I always look through these bulletins, because I am curious to see what is happening locally, and what challenges these churches are facing. This week the Adventist church of The Hague reports that it is facing a massive increase in energy costs. From November 1 energy costs for the church building have increased from 39,920 euros to 112,960 euros per year. That converts to 310 euros in energy costs per day—-on all days of the week, not just on the Sabbath!

In today’s Nederlands Dagblad (Thursday, Nov. 24), there is a full-page article about the same issue, with the title: “Church can no longer be heated.” The article begins with the following paragraph: “In three of the six Roman Catholic churches in the region of Dordrecht, Zwijdrecht and Papendrecht, Sunday worships will no longer be held from December to March. Skyrocketing energy costs are forcing the parish board to take that measure . . .” A little further on I read a statement by the secretary of the Reformed Church in Barneveld, that he expects that the annual energy costs for their church building will soon rise by more than a hundred thousand euros. The litany continues in that same pessimistic tone.

Personally, I haven’t noticed much of an increase in energy costs yet. Our apartment is very well insulated, and heating is provided by a community heating system. The monthly amount has not (yet?) increased dramatically. Yesterday our electricity company credited the 190 euros, that were promised by the government, to our bank account. We heeded the suggestion to donate the 190 euros to someone who does suffer more substantially from the extra energy costs. Of course, we also hear from friends and acquaintances about gigantic increases when their old contract expired. For some, this is no less than a catastrophe.

We realize that our individual and collective energy problems cannot be compared to the energy drama currently taking place in Ukraine. The Russians’ energy-terror poses an enormous threat to millions of residents of Ukraine, especially as the winter is now approaching. How will the Ukrainian government supply the people with electricity, gas and water in the coming months? Hopefully, the Western world will continue to support Ukraine with concrete aid, and help the country through the winter. But in the meantime, there are the challenges at home. How do we ensure that we can go to a reasonably warm church every week, even when the temperature dips down? Will sitting in church with a thick coat become the norm? It was common in the distant past, but now it could be an additional reason for many people to forgo church attendance, at least for the time being.

That the thermostat also must be turned to about 19 degrees in most church buildings on Saturdays and Sundays is obvious. Furthermore, it does not seem unreasonable to me if not only businesses and cultural institutions, but also churches would receive a temporary government subsidy for energy costs. However, one of the things that would really help is if church attendance (and thus offerings!) increased substantially. And perhaps this is the time when churches (including the Adventist Church) should pay extra attention to this important issue.

Statistics indicate that in most Western countries at most sixty percent of Adventist Church members regularly attend church services. There is no reason to believe that the figures are more favorable in the Netherlands. Of course, there are all sorts of reasons why people stay away from weekly church services. And the Corona pandemic has not been helpful. But one of the reasons is that many find–and this is especially true of youth and young adults—that the services do not really captivate them. They don’t get enough out of them, to encourage them to come to church on a weekly basis. How to change that is a complicated matter. But we need to grapple with that question.

It’s going to take a lot of headaches in many places to heat the church building, or to pay the inevitably higher rental costs. But the all-important question remains how the content of the services can sufficiently warm the attendees on the inside, so that they keep coming to church, even if they have to keep their coats on during the service.

Unsolicited advice to the church’s administration

The following is unsolicited advice to the administrators of the Adventist Church in the Netherlands. The leaders are probably not waiting for my advice. It might even cause some irritation. But I give it anyway. Because the question of how we can reduce polarization in our church community, and promote a healthy diversity, where all can feel that they have a valuable role to play, is constantly on my mind.

Some of the things I mention below do cost a bit of money. But fortunately, the church is currently doing reasonably well financially, so that investing in restoring mutual trust in the church seems very responsible to me. I am thinking of seven points. The order is arbitrary.
1. There have in recent years been many changes in the pastoral workforce. Many colleagues hardly know each other. In many ways, the group now lacks clear cohesion. Therefore I would suggest that it would be profitable to organize, in the near future, an informal meeting of a few days, at a pleasant location, of all pastors and active retired pastors, as an opportunity to socialize and to strengthen the group feeling.
2. Organize another “Open Day” in 2023, where the church can present itself in its full scope, and members from all over the country can meet each other in a casual way. This had become a tradition in pre-Corona days, which was very much appreciated. The Open Day can show the wide variety of the activities and initiatives of the national church and of local congregations, and show what is “on offer” (also literally) in all segments of the church.
3. Encourage congregations to organize regional, multiethnic, and multicultural Sabbaths on which members from a number of different congregations (and perhaps even from neighboring congregations from across national borders) can meet and be inspired by each other.
4. Issue a special issue of ADVENT dedicated to reducing the current polarization. Honestly naming the issues and providing opportunity for dialogue can contribute to a better mutual understanding.
5. During the next administrative term, organize another national event when members from all over the country come together. It has been many years since this last happened. We have to go back a decade for the last meeting of this kind, and the fact that such meetings very expensive has greatly diminished the desire to organize such a day again. But we need such an event from time to time to experience a sense of being church together. And that may cost something.
6. After the Corona era, there is concern in many denominations about declining church attendance. For some, even after the pandemic, the digital church service has definitely replaced physically going to church. Others seem to be struggling to regain the rhythm of weekly church attendance. I have the impression that this is also the case in our church in the Netherlands–although it varies from place to place. Should we perhaps form a national working group to study what can be done to encourage stronger church attendance? In most congregations, about 40 percent of those on the membership rolls never or rarely attend church services.
7. And then there is something else. I hear many complaints that emails to “the union” are very often not answered, and also that the office is very poorly accessible. Due to employees working from home, there is often no one in the office building. (I experience this when I volunteer on Tuesday mornings for several hours in the church archives. When I arrive around 9 o’clock, there is often no one to let me in.) It will increase confidence in “the union” if this aspect is given adequate attention.

It is not difficult to give advice from the sidelines. And I could certainly name a few more things in addition the seven points mentioned above. Of course, it is easy to respond with the (sometimes justified) conclusion that the best mates are still on the shore. Besides, the points I mentioned are not brilliant ideas that no one else can come up with. But this blog simply reflects a desire to think constructively, and I hope it is seen that way.

Going forward, together

A few weeks ago the quinquennial constituency meetings of the Dutch Adventist Church took place. Delegates from the approximately 60 congregations and groups listened to the reports of the church’s activities over the past few years, and were given an overview of the financial state of the church. But the part that usually–and also this time—-is most exciting, is the election of the leaders for the next five-year term.

It is no secret that the Dutch Adventist Church is right now highly polarized. Nor is it a secret that during this past congress, the more conservative segment of the church led the way, and will also be over-represented on the new executive committee of the union. The officers of the union were re-elected, but both the president and the general secretary saw how about a third of the delegates voted against their return.

I came home from the convention with a severe hangover. A few days later a video message from the union president was shared with the church, calling on all members to move forward together. Regardless of whether we are conservative or progressive, he emphasized, we are all welcome and needed in the church. Well, it certainly didn’t feel that way during the meetings! I kept asking myself in the days that followed: Is this still the church in which I can feel at home? Have I dedicated my entire career to a church from which I now feel quite alienated? In the days following the meetings, several colleagues contacted me. They shared their concerns with me, and their feelings of being abandoned by their church. I also spoke with church members who said they were considering canceling their membership, or at least no longer wanting to financially support the union organization. I tried, despite my own concerns about the current direction of the church, to encourage these people and advised them in any case not to do anything rash.

Now, after about two weeks, my hangover is largely gone. I am determined not to let my relationship to the church depend on the persons who happen to be in charge of the union. I wish them God’s blessings and a clear insight in the issues they face, and I sincerely hope that the new executive committee will be less conservative in its policies and concrete decisions than I, and many with me, fear, given its composition. I will be as constructive as possible with regard the projects of the union (as long as it does not involve a door-to-door distribution of “The Great Controversy,” because that seems to me to be a very bad idea and an outright PR disaster).

I am pleased to see a good number of foreign speaking appointments in my calendar for 2023. And besides that, of course, it is mostly the local congregations that provide inspiration. Since the union session two weeks ago, I have preached in Groningen and in Harderwijk, and in both cases it was a very warm experience, and I am sure it will be the same this coming Sabbath in Leeuwarden. Yesterday I spent much of the day preparing a funeral service for a member of the Harderwijk congregation. It is a privilege to be able to support people in difficult moments.

The church is more than a meeting of delegates and everything around it. I sincerely hope that people will not drop out because they perceive that the church has made a big shift to the “right”, but that they will indeed experience that there is a place for everyone in their church, also in the years to come,.

All Souls Day

[November 3, 2022] Yesterday was All Souls’ Day. This week–and especially this coming weekend–in many places people pay special attention to loved-ones who are no longer among us. Like All Saints’ Day, which is celebrated one day earlier, All Souls’ Day has a Roman Catholic past. Around the year 1000 this day was first celebrated as a time specifically devoted to praying for all the souls who are not yet in heaven, but are still suffering in purgatory. The name “all souls day” dates back to the thirteenth century. For most people “all souls day” now has a broader meaning. Even for many non-Catholics it has become a day when we think especially of our loved ones who have gone before us. This is also the content of a ceremony that will take place next Sunday at noon at the public cemetery of the place where I live (the village of Zeewolde in the Flevopolder). I am not planning to go to this event, as my wife and I have another important appointment, but in the first week of November I also think more than usual of loved ones who have died. In this week were the birthdays of my mother and my youngest sister. My mother would now, if she were still around, be celebrating her 110th birthday and my youngest sister would have turned 72 a day later. Unfortunately, she only lived to age 33.

In the Adventist Church, it is not customary to publicly pay much attention to those who have died at same time in the past. Some church members might quietly light a candle somewhere, but they will not talk too much about this, since many fellow believers would tell them that lighting candles is a Catholic custom. In a number of places in the Netherlands, Adventists rent a Salvation Army building for their worship services. In these buildings there invariably is a sign somewhere on a wall with the list of the names of the corps members who have been “promoted to glory.” I like that custom, although, of course, our theology demands that we would phrase it differently.

I was struck a few days ago by what David R. Larson, an American friend (and professor emeritus of the theological department at Loma Linda University) wrote on his Facebook page. His comment was part of a discussion about what are the main Adventist doctrines. As expected, in such a discussion one hears mostly about the Sabbath, the Second Coming and the heavenly sanctuary. But, according to Larson, that is incorrect. By far the most important “fundamental belief” for us as Adventists, he wrote, is our view of death. There is no other aspect of our faith that we dwell on as often as our mortality and what awaits us at the moment of our death.

I quote a few lines from what he wrote:
“Few people go to bed wondering whether the true Sabbath is on the first or seventh day of the week, when the Second Coming of Jesus will occur, what Jesus is doing in the Heavenly Sanctuary, whether the Spirit of Prophecy was active in Ellen White or whether the term “Righteousness by Faith” properly applies to Justification alone or to both Justification and Sanctification.
Many go to bed wondering what happens to us when we die and how to live well before we do. People in all walks of life wonder this; however, there are also academic experts in many disciplines who are studying this as they research issues concerning mind and body, freedom and determinism, continuity and discontinuity in human identity. . .”

The Seventh-day Adventist view of death is no longer as unique as it once was, and is nowadays shared by many other Christians. However, it remains an enormously important element of what we have to say to the world around us. For, as Larson emphasizes: there is no other subject that people dwell on so often. And we can assure everyone: We do not have an immortal soul that leaves the body when we breath our last, but we “sleep” for a while, awaiting the moment we can begin our perfect, eternal, life.

Esther, Ruth and the union constituency meeting

Esther and Ruth

My wife and I are loyal viewers of the television quiz Twee voor Twaalf. It is a classic program that has been on the tube for over fifty years, and has been presented by Astrid Joosten since 1991. In each program there are two teams of two people who must answer twelve questions on a variety of topics. The initial letters of the answers must then be put in the correct order to form a twelve-letter word. If one does not have a direct answer to a question, one may search a series of reference books and, in some cases, consult the computer. One earns points with correct answers, but loses points for long searches for answers and in the process of assembling the final word. All in all, a lighthearted, but interesting, and often exciting game.

Many participants really know a lot, and some are also skilled at quickly looking up the answers to what is asked. But with regard to biblical questions, that come up with some regularity, they often fail miserably. Such was the case last night. Rather simple questions were asked about women in the Bible, after whom a book of the Bible is named. These were Esther and Ruth, respectively. The first team gave a wrong answer, and the second team also did not know who was meant, but managed to look up the correct answer. In the past, we also regularly watched the BBC quiz program University Challenge, in which student teams from various British universities compete against each other. In this, the questions are usually much more difficult than in Twee voor Twaalf, and it is amazing how much the students often know. But when it comes to simple Bible questions, they fail as a rule.

Our society is thoroughly secularized and only a small part of the population still has a solid knowledge of the Bible. Knowledge of the content of the Christian faith and interest in the church as an institution has steadily declined over the past decades. And, unfortunately, we must conclude that the church–and also most individual believers in the church–have no answer to that problem. This was also evident at the constituency meeting of the Dutch Adventist Church that is currently being held.

During a quintennial congress, the main issues are electing the church leaders and reporting on the work of the previous five-year period. The Corona pandemic did cause many things to go differently than planned! What struck me most during the reporting was the recognition that too little has been done on evangelism in recent years. Several delegates urged that this point should be given a much higher priority in the coming years. But how this should be done? That remained rather vague! The Dutch Union president rightly noted that we live in a highly secularized society and that reaching the secularized people is a huge challenge. Yes, indeed, how do we reach the people with the biblical message, when they don’t remember Esther and Ruth, and when they admit they never read a Bible?

For now, it remains a matter of searching for new ways. The traditional methods of evangelism no longer work in the Western world. The challenge is to “translate” and “package” the core of the gospel in such a way that our words will relate to the fundamental questions the people around us have. The church’s past can inspire us, but cannot serve as a model to be followed in everything. Unfortunately, that is too often still a starting point for many. To explore new ways requires faith, together with expertise and creativity, as well as boldness and a freedom to experiment. A growing church in our time, and in the future, is an open community, where people feel safe, even if they are “different,” and even if they have questions to which there are no immediate answers. Ours should be a church where secularized people are welcome, and where they feel comfortable because of the atmosphere of being accepted as they are.

The goal of reaching out to the secularized people around us will not be achieved overnight in the new administrative period ahead of us. But it all begins with the understanding that as a church we must, at all levels, be (and in many cases: we must become!) an open, welcoming community that attracts people and does not repel or leave them indifferent-as still so often happens. This is a prerequisite for keeping a larger portion of our youth on board and offering a place of faith, hope and love to those seeking meaning and security in their lives.

I continue to hope (sometimes against my better judgment) that in the coming years the church I love will take that path more clearly than is often the case today, and that the desire of reaching out to our secularized fellowmen will prove to be more than a pious slogan without real content.