[Tuesday morning, October 16] Saturday afternoon, around five pm I realized it was about the time that the president of the highest body of the Adventist world church (the General Conference] was to preach an important sermon. It has become a tradition that the top church leader (this is the kind of terminology that is increasingly used), preaches during the worship service that is held on the Saturday morning of the Annual Council—the annual administrative council where some 300 delegates gather from around the world. My hunch that the service might be streamed by Hope Channel over the Internet, proved to be correct. I followed the service as if I was seated in one of the comfortable chairs in the auditorium of the church’s headquarters in Silver Spring.
Of course, I tried to recognize some well-known faces whenever the camera turned to the audience. And, indeed, I saw many people I know, but I failed to see the president of the Adventist Church in the Netherlands, who is one of the delegates during this five-day conference. [His wife, whom I saw on Sunday, however assured me that her husband was there!]
Ever since, over two years ago, Ted Wilson was elected as the church’s president, his sermons at important occasions, such as during an Annual Council, have been scrutinized by many around the world. More than in the past, the presidential sermons have become explanations of the program that he wants to realize during his presidency, and serve as an update on the various ‘presidential initiatives’ that the church has voted in the past two years and is in the process of implementing. When Wilson preached his much debated and widely distributed (through dvd’s) sermon in Atlanta in 2010, it became clear what things he was going to emphasize during his term in office. The reactions at the time varied greatly. Some were happy and felt that now at last the church would go in the right direction. Others were extremely disappointed, since they felt a new direction was announced that would set the clock half a century backwards.
In the past two years Wilson has, in a number of important speeches and sermons, repeated his emphases and talked about the initiatives that he has proposed and that the church has adopted. Among these initiatives are such as projects as, the Revival and Revelation theme, a massive distribution of the book The Great Controversy, evangelism in the megacities of the world, an emphasis on the traditional historicist interpretation of the prophecies of Daniel and the Revelation and the sanctuary, and a renewed focus on the books of Ellen G. White. Now another traditional theme is added: the integration of the ‘health message’ with other church growth activities.
The sermon of last Saturday afternoon (Dutch time) fitted the expected framework. Wilson based his sermon on a well-known portion of Scripture, Matthew 14. But he quoted Ellen White far more often than he quoted from the Bible. All ‘presidential initiatives’ mentioned above, were revisited. But he emphasized, in particular, the importance of unity, with clear allusions to the recent developments with regard to the ordination of female pastors and the decisions of some church entities to chart their own course. By so doing, Wilson, in fact, made his sermon into a church political speech.
Someone who had been physically present during the sermon commented that ‘it could have been worse’. That was exactly my conclusion after I had listened attentively. Does that conclusion show my lack of trust in the leadership of the church? Have I distanced myself too far from a number a traditional Adventist ideas and methods? Haven I been influenced too much by a postmodern way of thinking? Whatever answer one might give to such questions, it is a plain fact that many share in my feelings and concerns. The current leadership of the church would, I think, do well to initiate an intensive dialogue about this, if indeed the leaders are concerned about the unity of the church.
There is, however, another worrisome aspect. This sermon was once again a striking example of how communication fails when we do not use the language of the people of today. The sermon was so loaded with Adventist jargon that the non-Adventist person who happened to have seen the Hope Channel broadcast, will most likely have understood very little of what was being said. And I suppose that many (in particular, young) church members would also have wondered what it all meant. Their comment would probably be: ‘ What was this all about?’
I saw a short video clip of the explanation given by Gary Krause, one of the church growth experts at the church’s headquarters, of the new emphasis on the integration of the message for the spirit and the care for the body. He stated in clear everyday language exactly the same as Wilson tried to convey when he spoke about the message of health reform and the role of health ministries as the right arm of the three-angels message. Their topic was the same, but they communicated to very different audiences. Unfortunately, Wilson does not seem to realize this.
During the Annual Council week I will use all available channels that I have to follow the proceedings of the Annual Council closely. There are some important items on the agenda. I continue to trust that the Lord of the church will correct the course that human beings steer and that may at times get us to some undesirable stops along the way to the Kingdom!