Last Saturday I saw the two sides of my church. I had no preaching appointment elsewhere in the country, which enabled me to worship in the small church where I hold my membership. That morning we were to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. As usual I arrived about ten minutes before the start of the service, with enough time to greet all members personally. There was no Sabbath School. Normally the Sabbath School starts at 9.30. It is followed by a 20 minutes coffee break, before the divine service begins around 11. However, on days when we have the Communion the service starts at 10, with coffee after the service. So, this was the program for last Sabbath.
It was a very good service. A welcoming, friendly atmosphere. A well-planned liturgy, a sermon with content and a communion ritual that was experienced as meaningful by all who participated—myself definitely included.
A few hours later I was in another town where I joind a discussion group of some 20-25 people, most of whom are ‘on the margins’ of the church or have ceased to be members. Some decided already quite some time ago to lave the Adventist Church, but they still enjoy visiting this monthly discussion. Some weeks earlier I had been invited to introduce my recent book to this group. Apparently, there were still so many questions raised by the book that it was decided to devote another afternoon to it. There also, the atmosphere was excellent and I went home with a good feeling. The meeting had been quite meaningful.
When later, during the evening, I looked back at my day, I thought: Yes, these are the two sides of the Adventist Church. And even though they are miles apart, they belong together. The painful truth, however, is, that it is extremely difficult to build a bridge between those two elements, for the gap has become so wide that the groups no longer understand each other’s thinking. Those who attend church faithfully every week and feel safe in their faith, fail to understand why so many others have left the church and have so many doubts about things they once believed. Many ‘doubters’ who have gradually moved to ‘the margins’ have the sense that what happens on Saturday morning in church is no longer relevant to them. And they see things in the church (elsewhere in the world, but also in their own country) that they can no longer accept.
For me building bridges remains a sacred task. What can I do to help those, who hardly know any doubt and who have no major concerns about the way the church operates, to realize that the doubts and concerns of others are very real and touch their entire being? They must not simply shrug their shoulders and silently conclude that this is what happens when people give up their simple faith or allow too many questions to create unrest in their hearts. I am convinced that we often see an alarming lack of understanding and loving care for the people who are ‘on the margins’.
And what can I do to assist people who struggle with their faith and their church, so that they may consider to give the church another chance? How can I convince them that most church members are pleasant and positive people, who are willing to give them space and will not worry unduly when they have ideas that deviate from ‘the 28’—as long as they will also respect the opinions of others? What can I do to help them see that the church does indeed display some very disconcerting trends, but that it, nonetheless, still has much to offer, and that you actually do yourself a disservice not to participate in a constructive way in the life of this church family.
All of this presents an enormous challenge, and not only at the local level, to which I referred above. Worldwide perhaps the greatest problem the Adventist Church ever had to deal with is the polarization between those who are happy in their faith and content with their church (since they have ‘the Truth’) and the millions of men and women who, for all kinds of reasons, no longer feel at home in the church. The international debate now largely centers on the topic of ordaining women as pastors. That discussion is hugely important, but, in fact, this subject serves as a kind of symbol for a much broader underlying array of issues. The year of listening to each other and praying together that the General Conference has recently announced will not solve this. More is needed for that. There is a great suspicion on the part of many that the ‘lower’ organizations must listen to the ‘higher’ layer of the church! However, it is at least as important that the top leadership learns to intently listen to, and to look at, the concerns of the ‘doubters’ and those who are ‘on the margins’.
At the same time, I remain convinced that building bridges must first of all happen at the local and regional level. In my local church many members do not know who Ted Wilson is and the majority has never seen a GC Working Policy. Most have no clear idea whether or not the Dutch Adventist Church is in line with all international ‘laws’ of the church. But most of them do have children or relatives who are now ‘on the margins’ of the church and can give you a list of names of those ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ who once were active members but have left through the church’s back door. Only when at a local and regional level we are serious about designing and building bridges, can we hope to help, through a slow process, to de-escalate the crisis of polarization the church is presently experiencing. I want to continue working towards that end and hope many will want to join forces in the designing and building of bridges.