Some two and a half years have passed since the quinquennial World Congress of the Adventist Church in Atlanta (USA). So, we are at the halfway point in this five-year period between ‘general conferences’. It is a good moment to try to see where we are. The choice of Wilson as the church’s president was a clear signal that the majority of the delegates opted for another (more conservative) course. Has that indeed happened? And if so, is this going to be a lasting development?
I do not pretend that I can answer these questions in any definitive way. But, admittedly, they are very much on my mind. For some time the Adventist Church has been moving in the direction of an ever more hierarchical system, with a lot of power in the hands of top leadership. General Conference presidents have placed an increasingly strong mark on the program of the church. This was certainly the case in the period of Robert Folkenberg, the creative super-manager, who had more ideas per day than his staff could handle in a year. This tendency was less visible in his successor, Jan Paulsen, even though he also got into the habit of launching ‘presidential initiatives’. But since 2010 the projects which Wilson has promoted seem to have eclipsed everything else that the church is planning to do.
What were/are the most important topics of which we have constantly heard since 2010? Let me list some of the main emphases:
- Revival and Reformation
- Loyalty to the Bible, according to traditional principles of interpretation
- A greater focus on the work of Ellen White
- Global distribution of ‘The Great Controversy’
- A six-day literal (and recent) creation
- The status of women in the church (ordination)
- Warning against non-SDA influences
- Proactive measures against dangerous forms of spirituality
- Care for the unity (uniformity?) of the church
- ‘Reaching’ the big cities, starting with New York
- A new emphasis on the ‘health message’
So, what has happened in these various domains? It appears that these themes have not really caught on everywhere. The slogan of ‘revival and reformation’ seems to have receded somewhat into the background. The massive distribution of ‘The Great Controversy’ has not quite gone according to the original plans. In many countries the project has not been given high priority. And in most places where the project has been given high visibility an abbreviated version of the book has been used. With regard to the issue of women’s ordination, the president has met more resistance than he probably expected. Whether the large-scale evangelism in New York and other megacities will be successful remains to be seen. Many are skeptical. The results of other plans are more difficult to measure and it will be a while before we will be able to determine whether they have brought major, lasting changes. Will more church members now regularly read their Bible? Will the average local church pay more attention to Ellen G. White than before? Will we see new, innovative methods to link the themes of faith and health in a relevant way?
To chart how faith communities develop requires some distance in time. Only some fifteen or twenty years from now will we, most likely, be sure whether the Wilson initiatives were truly ‘successful’. While the church’s media may pay a lot of attention to certain projects and themes over a stretch of time, we must recognize that many other processes determine local church life, and not everything that comes from ‘above’ does in fact ‘land’ in the local church or even in the local conference. Also, the influence of top leadership of the church must not be overstated. Their influence can wane quite quickly. Men like Robert Pearson and Robert Folkenberg have become mere footnotes in the annals of Adventist history.
Whether the church in general will move towards to ‘left’ or towards the ‘right’ is not just determined by initiatives that come from the head office. All kinds of other developments in society and in the way people think, also play a role. We must fear that, just as in many other denominations and as in society at large, polarization will further increase. Yet, it can also not be denied that in our western, postmodern world hierarchical systems meet with more and more resistance and are experienced as mostly irrelevant. Unfortunately, many Adventist leaders seem unaware of this.
No one can predict how the church will exactly develop in this phase of its history and whether the current climate will continue after 2015. Time will tell what initiatives have been a blessing to the church and what would better have been left untried. But in the midst of all doubts and worries, I continue to trust the role of the Spirit. In spite of all human maneuvers He will ultimately guide the ship of the church towards its final destiny.