Last week I wrote about my visit to a local Lutheran church in Sweden. In passing I remarked that the largest Swedish denomination annually looses one percent of its members. You do not have to be a great mathematician to figure out that this will have serious consequences, especially when the members whose names are still on the books hardly take the trouble of attending church on Sunday.
In the Netherlands we see something similar. The Roman Catholic Church suffers a dramatic membership loss and must fuse many of its parishes. In the Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PKN) the alarm bells are ringing and all kinds of studies are undertaken to find ways of stopping the membership hemmorhage.
It is all part of a much broader process. The Christian church is (not so) slowly but (very) surely moving from the North to the South. Most Christians today live in Africa, Inter- and South America and parts of Asia. This trend does not ignore the Adventist Church. At one time people put the label ‘American sect’ on Adventism. This was not so strange, as the Adventist Church did have its origin in the United States and during the first period of its history the majority of Seventh-day Adventists lived in North-America. Today, things have changed dramatically. Only about 8 percent of the 18 million church members worldwide now live in the US and only a few percent may be found in Europe and Australia. The bulk of the membership is nowadays in the South (in what used to be referred to as the developing world).
Does this mean that the Christian Church (and with it Adventism) will completely disappear from the North? This question cannot by be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It has happened before that regions of the world wore christianized, but later saw how the Christian faith disappeared again. Think, for instance, of North-Africa—in the early centuries a flourishing province of the church, where people like Augustine had their domicile.
I find it hard to believe that Christianity will totally disappear from the so-called Christian West. It seems that its roots are too deep for that to happen. But in all probability, things will change further and it never become like it was in the past. The church will become smaller rather than larger. And if there is some growth in some countries, it will only be due to a temporal influx of immigrants.
A few years ago pastor Wim Dekker (one of the leaders of a Dutch Protestant home missions organization (IZB) wrote a book entitled (in translation): Marginal and Missional, with the subtitle: A Concise Theology for a Diminishing Church. The book just saw its fifth edition. Dekker argues that we will have to get used to the fact that Christians will form a small minority. Days ago I read an article in the Lutheran journal Missio Apostolica in which the author reminded his readers that ‘. . . the church will always be a remnant church, carrying the cross of opposition, suffering, pain and hardship (Mt 8:34-38; Rev 12, 13).
This is perhaps something Adventists ought to give serious thought to. There appears to be something in the Adventist DNA that says that the church must continue to grow. We must constantly have new initiatives to recruit new members. And if we have little or no success (as is the case in some Western countries), it inevitably leads to frustration and demotivation: it seems as if the Adventist approach no longer works. Or might this be something we, pragmatics as we are, have convinced ourselves of? Could it, however, be that we must simply accept that it is how it is, without endlessly lamenting about it? Should we perhaps reconsider what it means that (together with other Christians) we are called to be a ‘remnant’ in the region where we live? Perhaps the title of Dekker’s book summarizes succinctly what our faith community must learn to be: marginal and missional! However, this must be based on a clear and solid theology.