Yearly Archives: 2019

An invitation

On Wednesday morning the bell rang. Since we are living in an apartment building, visitors and parcel deliverers must first announce themselves before they can enter. From our apartment we can see and hear the person and can decide whether we allow the individual to proceed to the front door of our apartment on the second floor. There were two ladies with a simple request. Would it be OK if they put a leaflet in our mailbox? The leaflet was about a congress (about love) that was soon to be held. I appreciated their approach, for there is a sticker besides our mailbox to indicate that we do want to have the local newspapers but do not want any advertising materials.

My thoughts were confirmed when a few hours later I checked our mailbox. The ladies were Jehovah Witnesses. The leaflet was an invitation for a congress of the Watchtower Society to be held on August 2, 3 and 4 in the huge exhibition halls in Utrecht.

I am not an expert on the strategies that the ‘witnesses’ nowadays employ in their recruiting activities. Their former, rather aggressive, tactics are definitely a thing of the past. And their witnessing on the streets has also taken on a new form. I saw in several countries how they employ a handy, foldable standard that allows them to show their products. It seemed to me that the public is only approached when they show some interest. And when, occasionally, I get a copy of the ‘Watchtower’ or ‘Awake’, I notice that the headlines of the articles are much more moderate than in the past and have lost much of their former alarmism. Likewise, the leaflet that I found in my mailbox had no reference to Armageddon or other terrible events that are about to happen!

The question is, of course, how successful the Jehovah Witnesses are nowadays in their recruiting of new members. It is difficult to find exact statistics. According to a site that seems to be reasonably objective (https://wachttorenkijker.wimdegoeij.nl/jehovahs-getuigen-statistieken/) the society had some 29,500 Dutch members in 2015, which was about 1,500 members less than twenty years earlier. The growth in 2015 amounted to just 15 members, while there was a loss of 18 members in 2016.

It always bothers me when Jehovah Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists are mentioned in one and the same breath. Fortunately, that happens less and less. Most people who know anything about Adventists regard them as a bona fideProtestant faith community rather than a sect. Many Jehovah Witnesses are, no doubt, sincere in their faith. Their zeal for the spreading of their convictions may have decreased, but continues to be an example for most ‘main-line’ Christians. Their search for new strategies is certainly laudable. Any religious movement that fails to do so must accept the negative consequences.

As a Seventh-day Adventist I want to see my church grow. I doubt, however, that we should go back to our former strategies of going from door to door, or that we should mobilize the church in distributing hundreds of thousands of leaflets. (If we feel that distributing leaflets can still be effective, it is a job we can with full confidence leave to one of the postal services.) Likewise, I also doubt that organizing large congresses will result in many new contacts. We will probably never find out how many non-Jehovah Witnesses will attend the Utrecht congress. The congress may inspire many members of the Watchtower Society, but I suspect it will not result in many new members. And I wonder whether their new way of presenting their publications is really effective.

Adventists must also continue to search for new ways in which to communicate with the world around them. I repeat, however, what I said in last week’s blog: The greatest priority is to be (or to become) an open and warm faith community where people truly ‘belong’—a community that binds people together and radiates that this community has something important to share, that enriches life. The reactions on my blog of last week, which I received through various channels, underline the sad reality that in this respect, in many places, our local churches still have a long way to go.

Why belonging is important

The topic of church leaving has already for some considerable time weighed heavily on my heart and mind. And thus, when I see a book that addresses this issue I am instantly interested. When during a recent visit to Blackwell in Oxford I saw a book entitled Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and America since Vatican II(by Stephen Bullivant, published by Oxford University Press, 2019), I was interested enough to give it a thorough look-through and to buy it. The book analyses the exodus from the Roman Catholic Church in a number of dioceses in the UK and in the United States and reaches some conclusions which can safely be applied to the two countries as a whole, and even in other areas of the world. It is true that the Catholic Church has suffered some severe setbacks because of the much-publicized sexual scandals, which made may people ashamed to be Catholics. But the exodus has a number of other causes and one major element is, as this book emphasizes, the loss of community. Lapsation is not mainly caused by doctrinal dissatisfaction or intellectual doubt, but by becoming gradually detached from the community where one found one’s spiritual home.

In the Adventist context Professor Richard Rice (School of Religion, Loma Linda University) has emphasized the radical change in the religious attitudes of the postmodern generations. In his book: Believing, Behaving, Belonging: Finding New Love for the Church(2002) he explained how former generations put ‘believing’ before ‘belonging’, whereas today truly belonging to a community has priority. It is essential that people have a close tie with the church as a place where they feel at home–where they are accepted as who and what they are, with all their questions and doubts. Building and maintaining that sense of community is a two-way street. It must be treasured and nourished by the individual. But the community must also do what it can to make each church member feel truly safe and at home. It must consistently give each member the sense of being important and being valued. It must be aware of crises in the lives of individuals and ‘be there’ for them.

Last week my wife and I met with someone who told us the story of her relationship with her church community. It was not a Seventh-day Adventist faith community and I will refrain from identifying her denomination. She told us how she had grown up in her church, but as she went through life she had gradually stopped attending church and being actively involved with her church. But she was never visited and even when there was a death in the family there was hardly any real support. Because she no longer attended she was at some point contacted with the message that her membership was now being discontinued as she seemed not to be interested to be part of the church.

Through the years I have heard far too many stories of this kind. And whenever someone tells me such a story I feel ashamed. It hurts and to some extent I take it personally. Why is the church (and why is also my church?) not doing a better job in making people feel they are valued as part of the community.

I hope I have through some of the things that I write helped some people to actually stay with my church and even find a new way to (re-)connect with the church (and with their faith). A few weeks ago I was at Newbold College in the UK. When getting my meal in the cafeteria I was approached by a gentleman. He said: ‘I am so-and-so. You probably do not know me. But now that I happen to see you I want you to know that I read everything you write and that you have kept me in the Adventist Church.’ Something like this happens perhaps a few times each year. This morning someone became my ‘friend’ on Facebook for a similar reason. Such things give me a lot of satisfaction. But when I think of all the people I know, and have known, who have distanced themselves from the church, I wonder: Has the church done what it should and could have done to stay close to these people? And I realize: that question also impacts on me? Have I done what I could do to look out for these people, to make contact with them and assure them that the community is still there and, in spite of its many imperfections, it is still worthwhile to be part of it? It is a sobering thought.

 

Remembering Slavery

On July 1, a special ceremony was held in the Oosterpark in Amsterdam in remembrance of the abolition of slavery in the Dutch realm. Each year this Keti Koti ceremony is held at the Monument of Dutch Slavery and its Heritage to remember that slavery was abolished in 1863. Already in 1860 slavery ended in a major part of the Dutch East-Indies, but it finally also came to an end in 1863 in the Dutch Antilles and Surinam. The Netherlands was one of the last countries to abolish slavery. Ceremonies were also held on July 1 in other cities in the Netherlands, in particular in Middelburg which at one time was a major center of the Dutch slave trade.

The Netherlands did not only use slaves in its colonies to make the plantations more profitable, but also had an important part in the international slave trade. It is estimated that the Dutch share is this trade was between five and eight percent and that this concerned between 500.000 and 850.000 men and women.

Today we can only look back with disgust when we think of this horrible trade in human flesh and all the  crimes and dehumanizing procedures that were part of this. It is a good thing that our society focuses from time to time on this scandalous part of its history. And, naturally, these regular ceremonies have a profound meaning for all those who trace their ancestry to slaves.

From time to time the question arises whether the offspring of the slaves should received a financial compensation for the pain and misery that was inflicted on their ancestors. This question is perhaps extra relevant in the light of another scandalous matter from the past that is presently getting a lot of attention. I am referring to the role of the Dutch Railways Company during the Second World War in transporting Jewish compatriots to the concentration camp in the eastern part of the country. The Dutch Railways has decided the follow the advise of a special commission, chaired by Job Cohen, a former mayor of Amsterdam, to pay a compensation to the few survivors and to the families of those who did not come back alive. I do not think the two cases can be compared in all respects. The current railways company is the same legal entity as it was when it was willing, some 75 years ago, to assist the Nazis with their project of eliminating the Jews. Perhaps it is only right that this company—although rather late—accepts its responsibility. But should the government, after more than 150 years, also give some form of financial compensations to the posterity of the slaves?  I am not so sure.  Slavery was a terrible thing, but through the centuries other population segments in the Netherlands have also been treated very unfairly. Historians must make sure we do not forget this. But should this always lead to financial compensation?

My wish would rather be that these regular ceremonies in remembrance of the Dutch role in the international slave trade, and of the Dutch enthusiasm to bring slaves to the plantations in our colonies in order to make these more profitable, would lead us to the point that we will begin to treat all human beings—far and near—as fully equal. We have not fully left our past involvement with slavery behind us until all discrimination has been abolished and until all people who live in our country are treated as equals, irrespective of ethnic origin, color of skin, gender, sexual orientation or religion. Not only equal for the law, but treated as equals in everyday life and accepted as truly equal in the way we think! Giving money to the posterity of slaves may be a nice gesture. It may assuage our national sense of guilt. However, we remain guilty of a subtle form of slavery if regarding and treating all people as fully equal has not been become a reality.

 

Maarten

I was watching the arrival van Maarten van der Weijden at the finish near the Frisian city of Leeuwarden (in the North of the Netherlands) on televison. I must admit I was keen to see the very moment that he would touch the shore and climb from the water after swimming almost 200 kilometers with only a few short pauses.  It had never been done before and I trust not too many will follow suit.

Maarten followed the trajectory of waterways that connect the eleven places in the Province of Friesland that have city-rights.  This route has become famous because of the skating tour that was organized for the first time in 1909 and has since taken place in those years when the ice has been sufficient strong to carry the tens of thousands of skaters who have tried to reach the finish. Climate change has, however, resulted in warmer winters, and since 1997 the event has not taken place. Each year preparations are made, just in case . . .  To cover this distance on skates means that one has to be top-fit. But swimming this 200 kilometer distance is in a totally different category.

Last year Maarten started on this marathon-endeavor, but had to give up after 163 kilometers. But last Monday evening he reached the finish—in a remarkably good condition.

Maarten van der Weijden (b. 1981) has had a great swimming career. He became an Olympic champion on the 10 kilometer during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and in the same year became the world champion in open water swimming.  These achievements are the more remarkable considering the fact that he had to interrupt his sports career during four years, after he was diagnosed with lymphatic leukemia in 2000. At first his chances looked rather bleak, but he fully recovered from his deadly disease and made a come back in his sport. After having won his fight with cancer he decided to do whatever he could to help raise funds for cancer research. This year’s (successful) attempt to swim the ‘tour of the eleven cities’ netted some six million euro’s for the Royal Dutch Society for Cancer Research.

Few recent events in the Netherlands were followed by so many, with such enthusiasm, as Maarten’s attempt to do what most people felt was impossible. Nonetheless, I have some mixed feelings about the whole enterprise. Of course, I am very sympathetic towards the goal of raising funds for further research. However, why is there always a need for such fund raising efforts in a rich country like the Netherlands that can afford to spend some 100 billion euro’s a year on health care and social care programs. Can it not find a few hundred million euro’s to finance the efforts of our researchers (be it in the area of cancer or other deadly diseases) without having to resort to all kinds of gimmicks to provide them with the money they need?

And I doubt whether one should voluntarily submit one’s body to the kind of grueling torture that Maarten decided to undertake. It could easily have gone terribly wrong. I still believe our health is such a treasure that we should not unduly risk it—not even for a charitable purpose. It has been said that Maarten failed last year and that this pushed him to try again. Well, I do not think he failed last year. How can one say that a person failed when capable of swimming 163 kilometers!

Having said this, one can, of course, only have great admiration for the kind of stubborn perseverance that Maarten van de Weijden exhibited on his second attempt to swim the route of the eleven Frisian cities. That certainly makes him a role model for many.

 

Creative (?) Innovation

Last week my blog was inspired by the thesis of one of the students of the Master in Leadership course that Andrews University offers through Newbold College to some fifty mature students from all over Europe (with which I have been involved for the last two years). This week also an aspect of this course has led to a blog. One of the ten pillars of the study program is ‘Creative Leadership and Innovation.’ During the last few weeks I had to read a few papers in which students describe what innovative projects they have recently undertaken and what theoretical basis they found for their approach in the literature they were told to read.

Perhaps it should not have amazed me, and yet I had not expected that the creative element stayed so far in the background as it did, and that the innovation was mainly one of technological innovation: the purchase and utilization of new equipment and the introduction of digital applications. It confirmed what I had seen throughout the years in my various assignments in the church. In practice, innovation usually means buying new things and seldom includes a totally new, creative approach to deal with the challenges one is facing.

When in the 1980’s I visited the Adventist publishing houses in various African countries, I noticed time and time again that funds could be found to purchase new machines, but that there were hardly any investments in the training of people in the creative sphere, and to develop a specific African graphic approach. At the time the publishing houses in Afrikca employed some 700-800 employees, who operated the type setting machines, the presses, the folding machines, etc., But the number of full-time editors and graphic designers could perhaps not be counted on the fingers of one hand, but the fingers of two hands more than sufficed.

Later I discovered that this pattern may be seen—though perhaps not quite in the same shocking proportions—worldwide. The Adventist Church has always been good in applying new technology, in the print media, as well as for radio and television. It was always possible to acquire new equipment, to update studio’s and install new computer systems. But many leaders do not sufficiently realize that real innovation has first and foremost to do with the development and stimulation of creative spirits. Certainly, there is a need for state-of-the-art camera’s and well-equipped studio’s, etc., but we need most of all talented authors, graphic experts and clever people who can develop new program formats and programs. We need people who are able to translate the Adventist message in new images and new words, which may be understood by those who are part of other subcultures than ours.

One of the major problems is, that the denominational publishers and program makers must constantly try to satisfy their financial sponsors. Do the people who pay the bill think that their project represents ‘kosher’ Adventism? Do they sufficiently recognize the ‘present truth’ in the publications and programs? Let me point to an example, Since many decades the church has published the journal ‘Signs’ (earlier named ‘Signs of the Times’). The most important innovation the journal has seen is that, at a given moment, it was decided to opt for the same format as the Readers’ Digest. Through the years the editorial staff has worked hard to make it a quality journal.  However, the problem is that they must constantly ask the question: Do the older, conservative church members continue to like the journal to the extent that they are willing to buy gift subscriptions? If these gift-subscriptions would dryp up, the journal cannot survive. Unfortunately, this does not provide the creative impuls that is required to develop the journal into a medium that can stimulate the readers in a new way with relevant Adventist insights.

Being creatively innovative can be risky, as, a few years ago the makers of ‘the Record Keeper’ found out. Initially, the film project had the official imprimatur and even received substantial subsidy from the General Conference’s coffers. After the script had been approved and the over-all plan was found OK, the graphic innovators began their work. When the product was finished it was widely praised, but some of the top church leaders got ‘cold feet’ and prohibited its circulation. It was too ‘different’ and people might not understand what the project sought to accomplish!

Being truly innovative demands courage. And not everything has to be successful. But, without creative courage, innovation will not go beyond the purchase of new stuff.

(PS. A local church may decide to ‘stream’ its worship service. But this only becomes a genuine innovation if the format and content of the service has ‘new’ elements that will ‘catch’ the non-churched man or woman who happens to tune in.)