I hope that many things in ‘the’ church will change, in particular in my own denomination—the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Unfortunately, in recent years I do see a lot of change at the highest level of my church, but (at least that is what I think) in many cases not in a positive direction. With regards to many issues, I see a deplorable trend towards ‘the right’, and a glorification of the past, rather than a renewing engagement with the present and the future. Will this change in the near future? Time will tell.
It would, however, seem that change in the church happens more and more at the local level. And it also seems that the voice of the world church (certainly in the western world) is considered as less and less relevant. My experience of today (Saturday April 11) is a small but telling illustration.
Today I preached two sermons. After having said ‘amen’ at one location, I hurried to another, nearby church. I was in Huis ter Heide (near Utrecht, the Netherlands), and the distance between the church-operated care home for the elderly (‘Vredenoord’) and the local community church nearby, on the campus of the union office, is only a distance of a few hundred meters.
One might expect that a group of elderly residents of a care home do not make for a progressive church. Yet, in the recent past I have seen various signs of renewal. The Bible study (Sabbath school) has been moved to the Friday night. This morning I saw to my delight a burning candle on the platform and I also noticed that the attributes for the Lord’s Supper have been placed on the communion table. These may small, incremental changes, but they are not unimportant. They show that the church is giving thought to how it worships and is not just following old traditions. Moreover, This morning the service was led by a female elder. The most important thing I have noticed in recent years in this special church is a different kind of atmosphere—with much more openness than in the past.
In the not too distant past the local community church in Huis ter Heide, where I arrived (almost out of breath) at 11.30, was not known for many signs of progressiveness. I was surprised by what I saw this morning. The average age of the circa one hundred attendees was, I guess, not above forty. A praise-team, with a small band, led the church in contemporary music. It is a church where people of different ethnic origins gladly worship together, and where there is space for people with a ‘different’ sexual orientation. In short: I saw a living church that seems to have found a way of keeping many of its young people on board, and that only very faintly resembles the church that I used to know. And I did not get the impression that this church cares very much about what happens in Silver Spring or in St. Albans!
I could list a good number of other examples of Adventist churches in my country that have significantly changed or are in a process of change. This offers hope for the future. And I am happy to see that the leaders of the Adventist Church in the Netherlands provide space for these developments. They have better understood than many of their colleagues at higher administrative levels, that change originates in local churches. Let us not forget that this is the model that we find in the New Testament. Organizational structures are necessary, but they are nothing more than tools. The church is primarily a collection of local faith communities. The New Testament does not know of a strong central church organization with an office in Jeruzalem or Antioch. The church was the (local) church in Jeruzalem, in Ephesus, in Rome, in Corinth, etc. Perhaps this model must receive greater emphasis, if the church is to change into a living faith community in which ever more people of our time can find their spiritual home.