Monthly Archives: June 2019

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.)

Honest reporting

This morning I drove very early from Newbold College, in the direction of Harwich, where I took the ferry to Hook of Holland. When I spend a week or so in the UK, I prefer to bring my car so that I can leave the college campus from time to time. The summer session of the Master in Leadership course, that is offered by Andrews University, has come to a close. In my role, as one of the coaches of a group of students, I have been quite busy, among other things with reading papers and as a member of the examination panel.

A group that started in 2016 has now in principle completed their study, but quite a few will actually need an extension. One of the persons who this week successfully finished her course comes from Finland, She wrote a thesis about the question how Finnish Adventist congregations deal with the large percentage of church members whose names are still on the books but who no longer attend church. This concerns about sixty (!) percent of the membership. I know that in most places a considerable number of the members are never seen in church. However, I was quite surprised to hear from the author of this thesis about this extremely high percentage. And I was also taken aback by the rapid decrease in total memberschip in het country. In 1984 the church still had over 6400 members, in 2001 almost 5600 and in 2017 it had gone down to just over 4700.

I am sure that the membership records in the Finnish Adventist church are handled with care and integrity. However, in many countries this is not the case. A few years ago the total membership in South America had to be adjusted downward by over one million. Just weeks ago the church had to admit that the membership statistics in India left much to be desired and the leadership was forced to take about half a million members off the books, since they simply were no longer there. It brought the membership down from about 1.6 million to about 1.1 million. It is hardly a secret that the membership statistics in Africa are also highly inflated.

When I served as the executive secretary of the Trans-European Division (TED), I was responsible for the membership statistics in our territory. At the time Pakistan was also a part of ‘our’ division. I was well aware of the fact that there were serious problems with the membership records. Judging by the statistics, Pakistan was the healthiest country in the world, for no one ever seemed to die (at least no Adventists). I told the leaders in Pakistan that they should clean up their records. I suggested two basic principles: no name should appear twice on the list and those who are on the list should still be alive. Applying those two minimal rules, the membership figure dropped from about 11,000 to about 6,000.

Gradually the church is beginning to place a greater emphasis on the necessity to be correct and honest in the reporting of membership gains and losses. Fortunately, the church worldwide continues to grow—in some areas even exponentially. However, it is morally wrong to inflate the statistics or to leave those inflated statistics uncorrected.

When we take a honest look at our membership statistics , we realize we should not just tell hallelujah-stories about all the continuous progress. We must look at the facts and worry about the greying of the church in some western countries—especially in those countries where few Adventist immigrants help to boost the numbers (as e.g. in the UK, France and the Netherlands). The all-important question is: How can we present our message in such a way that people will have a greater interest in what we have to say? Can things be turned around in countries where Adventism is slowly disappearing? How can the church become a church where people cannot only find ‘the Truth’, but also find a warm spiritual home, where they want to be and want to stay? Listening to the Finnish statistics I realized once again how pressing these questions are.

Johannes de Heer

Last week I read in an article in my newspaper that the journal ‘Het Zoeklicht’ is celebrating its hundredth anniversary. It was started a century ago by Johannes (or: Johan) de Heer, and it would become an important pillar in the evangelization-movement of which Johan de Heer would be an important leader.

Johannes de Heer was born in 1866 in Rotterdam as the son of a blacksmith, but he had no desire to follow in his father’s footsteps. He found work in a music shop. He felt at home in this environment and started his own music business in 1898. De Heer married in 1889 with Catharine Frederika Beindorff.  Two of their children died at the very young age of 9 months and 4 years, respectively. Their sense of spiritual lostness prompted them to visit the evangelistic meetings that were sponsored by the Seventh-day Adventists. Soon after this they joined the (at that time very small) Adventist Church.

Before too long Johan de Heer had a prominent role in the small Adventist congregation in Rotterdam, where he was elected as elder. However, his membership in the Adventist Church was of short duration. A conflict erupted in 1902 in which Johan played a leading role. The sad result was the departure of almost 200 of the 230 Dutch Adventists of that moment.

A small group of loyal members was left behind in utter confusion. But the star of Johan de Heer would soon rise high, after his ties with Adventism had been severed. Much of his lasting popularity was due to his collection of hymns, on which he started working in 1904. The hymnal of Johannes de Heer is still popular in evangelical circles in the Netherlands. The Adventist hymnal also contains a good number of his hymns. His life-long emphasis on Christ’s Second Coming continued to betray his Adventist roots.

I have often wondered why, over time, the Adventist Church lost so many of its often very creative and inspiring leaders. Johan de Heer is but one example, but I am also thinking of leaders as Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and the German Louis R. Conradi. For sure, in all these cases there were some theological issues. Johan de Heer had little affinity with Ellen White and objected to the teaching of the heavenly sanctuary. (Later he also strongly opposed the sabbath.) Kellogg’s relationship with the church became problematic after the publication of a book that he had written, in which the church leaders saw pantheistic ideas. Conradi came to doubt some traditional doctrinal points and was certainly not on the same wavelength  as Ellen White.

However, I happen to think that these (and many other) leaders did not leave the church primarily for doctrinal reasons. They were, I have concluded, ‘too big’ for the small church of their days. Johannes de Heer was a very talented man who needed space in order to develop his initiatives without restraints. Kellogg had become ‘too big’ for the church organization of his days. His health institution employed more people that the entire church! Conradi was a charismatic leaders who did not get the space to think and act ‘European’ in the rather America-oriented denomination.

To give creative people a lot of space may be risky. That is undeniably so. But by restraining them there is the much greater risk that we lose them. That is still the case today. Often theological arguments are used as a reason for leaving. But the real cause may well be something else: frustration for being restrained in developing and implementing visionary plans. What could a man like Johan de Heer have meant for Dutch Adventism if he had stayed with us? This is a question that often pops up in my mind when I sing one of his hymns.