Monthly Archives: August 2017

Some thoughts about dying churches

Last week I preached in a small church in the university city of Umeå in the north of Sweden.  In this city of some 75.000 inhabitants each week a small core of Seventh-day Adventist members gather–with a group of mostly foreign students joining them during the academic year.  I was told that here is the most northern Swedish Seventh-day Adventist presence. When I mentioned this on my Facebook page, it was quickly pointed out to me that there is, in fact, a group of Adventist believers in Slussfors, which is some 300 kilometers North-West of Umeå. And I was told that there is an isolated church member in Kiruna, which is the northernmost town in Sweden.  However, looking at the Adventist presence in most of Sweden north of Stockholm, it seems that for years Adventism has been on a steady retreat in this region.

The former president of the Adventist world church, Dr. Jan Paulsen, grew up as a boy in the North of Norway, where he was baptized as a member of the Narvik church, some 200 kilometers north of the Arctic circle. This church no longer exists, and quite a few churches in the northern part of Norway have suffered the same fate.

But it is not only in the North of Scandinavia where Adventists are an endangered species. In many places in Western Europe (and elsewhere in the Western world) countless churches that have not experienced the (often mixed) blessings of an influx of members from developing countries, have a hard time staying alive.

In my own country, the Netherlands, quite a few churches have closed in the past few decades. To mention a few: Sneek, Veendam, Goes, Den Helder, Ede, Hengelo, Kampen. Some churches have merged.  And some churches are struggling to survive, as e.g. Haarlem and Enkhuizen. The number of Adventists in the big cities has increased, but this has been only due to immigration, while the number of ‘indigenous’ members has been steadily declining.

What can be done to revert this trend? Do we give up and just accept that ‘what goes up must also go down’?  Must we simply accept that we are not immune to the factors that also caused a drastic decline in membership in other denominations?  Must we patiently wait for the moment when the last members will turn off the light?

I refuse to believe this. And that is not only because I have invested so much of myself in this church. It is because I believe this church has some ‘unique selling points’.  However, I realize that we in many cases must do better in translating and communicating these ‘truths’ in ways that show their relevancy for this century. And that we must do better in showing that we are an open and welcoming community of Christians, that also wants to be a part of the wider community.

I believe that we should do all we can to save the small local churches that are in danger of disappearing.  That may be even more difficult in places like northern Scandinavia, where distances between population centers and Adventist churches are huge, than it might be in the Netherlands where distances are mostly small.  Sometimes, all it takes to save a small congregation is to add 5-10 active members. Can nearby, more ‘healthy], churches come to the rescue? Can they encourage some of their members to commit a number of years of their church life to one of these churches in need? Can the national umbrella organization be more pro-active in stimulating such a process?

I know that many church planting experts will say that reviving a dying church is much more difficult than planting a new one. That may be so, but it is also true that giving up on the Adventist presence in a particular place is usually permanent. We must not let that happen.

Books, and more books

During the festivities of some two weeks ago, to celebrate the 90th birthday of the Swedish conductor Herbert Blomstedt, I met a few friends I had not seen for quite some time. One of them was Per Bolling, a Swedish pastor, who in the past served for some years as the manager of the Adventist publishing house in Sweden, and later as the Swedish Union president. He was my translator on Saturday morning August 5, when I preached during the church service. Per wrote a number of books and brought a copy of his newest book along for me. Having already written a book on Paul’s letter to the Romans, in his most recent book Per deals with the letter to the Galatians.(1)  Per is a clear thinker and a gifted writer.

Sigve Tonstad had come, together with his wife Serena, from his current domicile in Norway to the Swedish town of Rimbo. He also brought a copy of a book for me along. As it happens it is also about one of the Pauline letters. It is a commentary on the letter to the Romans from an ecological perspective (2). The title certainly raised my curiosity. Glancing through the book and reading a few lines here and there told me that reading this 400-plus page book (with rather small print) will require a considerable (but probably very worthwhile) effort.

Sigve Tonstad and I have great respect for each other, During our meeting in Rimbo he was very appreciative of my recent book FACING DOUBT. He told me: ‘You write for the church members and what you have to say is very important for them. And I,’ he added, ‘write mostly on behalf of the church and want to present an Adventist view to a larger academic community.’ Sigve is both a medical doctor and a theologian. As an academic he is by far superior to me. I regard him as one of the most able and most creative theologians in today’s Adventism.

Leaving Rimbo I received yet another book, written by a few dozen of Blomstedt’s friends. It was presented to the maestro at this special moment in his life.  I was honored to have been asked also to contribute a chapter to this book. (3)

However, as far as reading during our holidays in Sweden is concerned, these books must wait their turn. Of course, I brought a number of books for our four weeks in Sweden. As usual, I am alternating regularly between something ‘light’ and something that is more ‘substantial.’ A novel by the Swedish crime writer Håkan Nesser falls in the first category. I am reading it in the original Swedish language, which means that my reading tempo is a little slower than it normally is. I find it remarkable to see how Scandinavia produces so many excellent crime writers. The reason for this still puzzles me.

The more ‘substantial’ book that I will probably finish later today was published just about two months ago by Boekencentrum, a prominent Dutch publisher. The author is Gijsbert van den Brink, a professor at the Free University in Amsterdam. When I translated some time ago a voluminous book on dogmatics that he co-wrote with a colleague at the same university, I got to know Van den Brink quite well and received an invitation for the book presentation. The book is entitled: En de Aarde Bracht Voort: Christelijk Geloof en Evolutie. The Dutch title indicates that it is about christian faith and evolution. One of the reasons why I was so interested in this book is the fact that Professor Van den Brink has his roots in a rather conservative section of Dutch Calvinism. Most people in this segment of Dutch Protestantism tend to be very negative towards anything that smells of evolution. They cling to a literal interpretation of the creation story. Many of them must feel very uncomfortable with the fact that Van den Brink has taken it upon himself to investigate whether christian faith and evolution can actually go together. He tries to demonstrate that there are no insurmountable hurdles for maintaining the cardinal teachings of the christian faith while also accepting evolution as a fact.

I have read the book with great interest. I have gradually come to rather similar conclusions. This does not, however, mean that Van den Brink succeeds in convincing me in everything he says. I admire him for his courage to deal with this topic so extensively and openly–even though he knew he would receive much criticism. But I also appreciate the fact that, apparently, it is now possible, even in those circles where Van den Brink has his spiritual home, to discuss topics that are controversial, without being excommunicated or totally sidelined.

The book is a must-read for those Adventists who have serious questions about the official view of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which offers  a literal six-day creation in a recent past as the only option. (A somewhat more technical edition of this book in English will appear in 2018.)  It would be great if Adventist theologians and scientists would also be able to discuss these matters openly without fear of repercussions. And how great would it be if church-related publishing houses would welcome authors who search for answers in the domain of faith and science, and would publish their writings.  I do not easily abandon my hope that one day this will happen!


[1]  De Zweedse titel is: Frihet: en Liten Bok of Galatenbrevet (Uitgegeven door Skandinaviska Bokförlaget, 2017).

[1]  Letter to the Romans: Paul among the Ecologists. (Uitgegeven in de serie: The Earth Bible Commentary, door Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2016).

[1]  Herbert Blomstedt: Nahe am Herzen der Schöpfung. De inhoud is deels in het Engels en deels in het Duits.


Transgender and Adventist

It has been a long journey for me.  It was not until some twelve or thirteen years ago that I was first confronted with the issue of homosexuality in a concrete and direct way. I had been invited to an international Kinship-conference that happened to be held in the Netherlands (where I live), to give a series of devotional messages. It was the first time I spent a significant amount of time with a group of gay and lesbian people (mostly with Seventh-day Adventist connections). Listening to the stories about their challenges, in particular with regard to their often difficult relationship with the Adventist Church, forced me to rethink the fact that a considerable percentage of people do not neatly fit into the heterosexual world of which I myself am a part.

Since that first in-depth encounter with homosexual people I have studied the issue from various angles, especially from a biblical point of view.  I have, of course, taken a good look at what my church has said about homosexuality and at how my church has often discriminated against men and women who are gay or lesbian. And I have concluded that the official Adventist view of homosexuality is highly defective. It is based on a strictly literal reading of a few biblical texts–often without regard for the general context. However, it cannot be reconciled with the underlying message of the Bible that God does not discriminate against anyone on the basis of social status, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. I have–with many others–concluded that the Bible condemns various heterosexual and homosexual practices, but that this does not necessarily includes a condemnation of same-sex partnerships that are based on a monogamous, exclusive, enduring commitment of love.

While I have been on my journey with regard to sexual diversity, I have become more and more aware of the wide range of sexual orientations, nowadays often referred to as LGBTI (or a variation on that series of capital letters). More recently the transgender issue has come to the foreground in our society and people in general have become more aware of the fact that the group of transgender people is much larger than was often thought. Last year the Seventh-day Adventist Church felt it could no longer ignore the issue and published an official statement on transgenderism.[1] As could be expected, the statement met with considerable criticism, from those who felt it was too accommodating and from those who felt it fell far short of generously accepting transgender people for who they are.

The statement issued by the church is, in many ways, quite sympathetic. But it is in line with previous statements that underline the ideal of heterosexuality and leave no room for alternative relationships. Though recognizing that a non-heterosexual orientation is hardly ever a matter of choice, it leaves those who have this orientation in the cold, with no option but to remain single and often extremely miserable.

I continue to struggle with many questions. I accept that the entrance of sin into the world affected human sexuality. Some would, however, say that the sexuality that God created was not just of the binary male-and-female-kind, but was from the very first more fluid. They do not see a connection between the entrance of sin and the origin of homosexuality. At least for now, I do not agree with this view. It seems to me that sin has confused all aspects of life and that after the Fall nothing is quite like it was before. However, that does not make a person with a non-heterosexual orientation a greater sinner than a hetero person. And all of us must pursue our happiness within our individual sin-affected situation. But, admittedly, this is a topic that has various aspects I am still struggling with.

Then there is another question: it seems that transgenderism is more widespread today than it was in the past. Is this a perception or a reality? If it is on the increase, why is that so?

I have many ‘technical’ questions with regard to life as a transsexual person. I cannot imagine what it is like. And what all it implies when a person decides to undergo surgery and other treatments to become what he/she has felt he/she has been all along. In any case, to suggest (like the official church statement does) that gender re-assignment surgery is no option and that someone who is born in the wrong kind of body must accept that fact, however difficult it is, and not do anything about it–to me this sound totally unacceptable.

Some time ago I read this statement in a significant book about homosexuality, written from  a conservative Protestants perspective:  ‘‘For those of us who are straight and who don’t spend a whole lot of time processing, wrestling, hiding, or managing our heterosexuality, I think there will always be a gap in our understanding of what it is like to be persistently attracted to the same-sex.’[2]  The same principle, I believe, applies, to being transgender. If so, who am I, as a heterosexual person, to tell someone, who happens to be in the ‘transgender’ group, how to live his/her life as optimal as possible?

All my questions fade into the background when the topic is no longer one of an academic nature but when it concerns real people. The people behind the film Seventh-gay Adventists just released a fifth short portrait in its series about LGBTI-people. This short film is about Rhonda[3], who was born as a man and is now a woman, serving as an elder in a Seventh-day Adventist Church. Whatever questions I may have, I can gladly put these aside when I hear Rhonda relating her experience and present life as a trangender person and a Seventh-day Adventist..


[2]  Wendy VanderWal-Gritter, Generous Spaciousness; Responding to Gay Christians in the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 214), p. 51.



Memory Lane: Selling books in Sweden


This past week my wife and I once again drove from our home in the Netherlands to Sweden. It usually takes us three days of not too strenuous driving to reach our destination. This year we combine a few weeks of vacaion with our son and our granddaughters with a few other activities–some of them church-related.

I have no idea how often I have made the trip to Sweden. My guess is that it must at least be forty or fifty times. During my years at the church headquarters of the Trans-European region, I came there quite regularly. But since then I have gone to Sweden two or three times a year. However, my Sweden trips started already when I was a student. The Adventist Church in the Netherlands had as a rule of Medes and Persians that anyone who wanted to become a pastor in the Dutch church had to do a minimum of one year’s of colporteur work with books published by the denominational publishing house. It was graciously allowed to cut this one year into four or five summer vacations. The philosophy behind this system was that this was the perfect way to learn how to meet the public. Besides, it was an evangelistic work of the highest order! It may have been a coincidence that the president of the Dutch church at the time was also the director of the denominational publishing house, and thus had a very direct interest in increasing the turnover of his institution.

The one-year canvassing rule had one fortunate loophole. It was not mandatory to do it in the Netherlands and since there was a (well-founded) rumor that it was much easier to sell books in the Swedish countryside than in the Netherlands, I was one of several students who went to Sweden and earned all the money needed for the next year at college. And thus I sold books in a number of different regions in Sweden. The last time I went together with my wife, shortly after we were married, to earn the money that would pay for a year at Andrews University in the USA to earn my masters degree.

One of the first places where I worked was the beautiful town of Gränna, situated on the shore of the long Vättern-lake in southern Sweden. One of the main highways passes Gränna and gives a fantastic view of the town and of the lake, with in the middle of the lake an island–Visingsö–where I also sold hundreds of books. Whenever I pass there–as on this Friday August 4–my colporteur experiences automatically come to mind. I must admit that at the time the economic aspect was far more dominant in my mind than the evangelistic blessings. I must also admit that I really hated the work–every day of it. But it was the only way I knew to earn enough to pay for my studies of the following year.

Colporteur work with books published by the church is an important part of Adventist history. From the beginning it was strongly promoted as one of the key methods to get the “Truth” to the people.  Actually, it was also a way to provide a living to people who had lost their job when they started to keep the seventh-day Sabbath–in a time when working on Saturdays still was the rule. And, there was also a strong economic benefit for the church!

In the Western world the colporteur work (in later times increasingly referred to with the more pleasant term: literature evangelism) became more and more difficult. Legal restrictions and the fact that door-to-door selling became more and more socially unacceptable–besides a number of other reasons–led to the rather sudden demise of this branch of church work. As a result many of the publishing house operated by the church in the western world lost a major part of their business, and many either collapsed or had to be drastically scaled down.

[Unfortunately, the world church has still not fully accepted the fact that the days of colporteur work in the western world are over. The world leaders of this department of the church, who come from parts of the world where selling books from door to door is still a booming business, feel that it is still an activity that must, in some form, be reignited, also in countries where the local leaders know it has no future. But then, this is not the only example that indicates that the folks in Silver Spring are not always sufficiently attuned to the conditions in other parts of the world.]

Tomorrow (Saturday August 5) I am scheduled to preach in the church on the grounds of the Swedish Adventist College in a service to celebrate the 90th birthday of the famous Swedish Adventist (still very active) orchestra director Herbert Blomstedt. And then, on Monday, we head North for the last 500-plus kilometers to our final destination of this trip.