A bigger difference is hardly imaginable. During the past few months I have been a faithful attendee of the Loma Linda University Church. It is the largest local Adventist Church in the world. Not quite is big as the Yoido Full Gospel Church (the Korean Pentecostal mega-church with some 800.000 members and a weekly attendance of about 250.000 people in a wide array of services), but with about 7.000 members it surpasses the membership of the entire Netherlands Union. During the first service (9.00-10.15) and the second service (11.30-13.00) almost all of its 2.300 seats are occupied. The church has concrete plans to substantially enlarge the building in the near future.
Since the services are televised, the services follow an exact time schedule. The music (either instrumental or a large choir) is of high quality. Everything is projected on large screens. During the weeks that I visited the church, the speaker was invariably the senior pastor. He knows how to captivate his audience. He preaches without any paper (Perhaps I state this with a little jealousy, since after fifty years of preaching I still take 10 sheets of A5 to the pulpit when I start my sermon.) Everything breathes professionalism.
You can enjoy your anonymity if that is what you prefer. You can choose to be a spectator, without getting personally involved in any way. I have the impression that this is true for many of the attendees. But I must be honest: there are hundreds of volunteers who ensure that the Sabbath services run smoothly and the church’s many programs are organized. I have also discovered that the church has many activities for its children and youth. Moreover, almost every week some people are baptized.
However, last Sabbath I was in a totally different church, about 100 miles North-East of Loma Linda. After a drive along a beautiful road through the Mojave desert we arrived at a rather simple church structure: a one-story building that contained a meeting hall and a few other rooms. Prior to the service I asked the pastor how many people we might expect. ‘On a good day about one hundred, or possibly one hundred twenty,’ he said. I was to be the guest speaker that morning.
My wife and I had arrived early enough to be there at the beginning of the Sabbath School, at 9.30 am. To my surprise there we just two men when we entered. To my further surprise these were two black men. During the Bible study hour gradually the number of (almost exclusively black) people increased, and when I began my sermon at about 1.15 pm (!), it appeared to be ‘a good day’, for the church hall was almost full.
I had not realized that many of the Adventist churches in California are quite small: mostly white churches, but also predominantly black churches and Spanish churches and churches with a mostly Asiatic membership. In any case, we were most warmly welcomed in the Antilope Valley SDA Church in Lancaster, CA. At the beginning of the worship service the church members were invited to greet each other, which was a much more spontaneous and physical process than I had become accustomed to in the Loma Linda University Church. No classical music with violins and cellos, but jazz-like music with instruments I tend to associate with New Orleans. My sermon may have been a bit tamer than a sermon of the church’s regular pastor. (But there were a solid applause after I had said ‘amen’ and I do not believe this was mainly inspired by the fact that at last I was ready to sit down!)
During the past few days I have repeatedly wondered: If I were to live permanently in California, would I want to become a member of a perfectly orchestrated church as the Loma Linda University Church, where the services have many elements that agree with me as a white, well-educated, senior European? Perhaps I would, for I prefer a worship service with style, that starts on time and ends on time. Or would I rather opt for a smaller church where people know each other and you sense that they belong together; and where all, or most, people are directly and actively involved in what happens on the Sabbath morning—even though there many be some aspects that are culturally distant to me?
What ensures that a group of people is in fact a community of faith? It is a question that is not easy to answer. Of course, cultural factors play an important role. But the crucial thing is that a real ‘church’ consists of people who are determined to be ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ and behave as such—people who do not only come to church as passive receivers, but are also intent on giving from themselves to others. Well, I am beginning to look forward to returning to my home church—the Adventist church in the Dutch city of Harderwijk—where, thank God, we still have a church organ (admittedly, hardly comparable to the Casavant Freres pipe organ with 7,036 pipes in the Loma Linda university Church), with Robert as our faithful and gifted organist. It is a church that, I believe, qualifies in many ways to be called a real community of faith.