Numbers chapter 35 informs us about an interesting feature of life in ancient Israel. God instructed Moses, we are told, to arrange for six “cities of refuge,” three on each side of the Jordan River. A killer was in great danger of becoming the victim of revenge. But in these six cities people, who had inadvertently killed someone, could find asylum and be safe until their case would come to trial.
The “city of refuge” institution has inspired other asylum-models. Many countries have a tradition that a house of worship may serve as a “city of refuge,” where law enforcement officers will not enter or, at least, act in a very restrained manner. That is why in recent times undocumented immigrants have sometimes sought and received asylum in a church building. When the refugee crisis was at its height, some Dutch churches organized permanent church services, so that refugees who had found asylum in the church would be relatively safe. The police would hesitate to arrest anyone during a church service!
It occurred to me, as I was thinking about possible consequences of the Corona-crisis for the church—and for the Adventist Church in particular—that we currently are seeing a kind of ‘city of refugee” model developing. I am referring to the growing number of digital sabbath schools, where the program is quite different from that of “traditional” sabbath schools and which are mainly “visited” by church members who consider themselves “progressive.” I am now regularly receiving information of where I might find these “progressive” sabbath schools—in the United States but also in other parts of the western world. I have been invited to attend several of them and have actively participated by giving a number of presentations in three of them, with more being planned for the coming months. In none of these sabbath schools I have seen a traditional lesson quarterly. The leaders of these digital groups, which may have in excess of a hundred participants, decide on the topics that will be discussed and then find people who are willing and able to introduce such a topic by giving an introduction. Before the pandemic erupted many of the participants were members of non-traditional sabbath school classes that have long been a feature of several of our larger churches, especially near major SDA institutions. But in this Corona time these alternative classes see also others joining, who feel at home in an environment where real live issues, and topics that are often avoided, are discussed. Most presenters are of a more liberal ink. In an open atmosphere traditional viewpoints may be queried and existential questions can be probed along unorthodox paths. Since there have lately been few, if any, physical church services, these sabbath schools usually last much longer than the “normal” one hour period. In one of these sabbath schools which I recently participated in, one of the “members”, when asked about a return to “normal” church services, said: “Actually, this has become my church.”
Could it be that, as the Corona-crisis is subsiding, there may be a significant number of people who want these digital sabbath schools to remain, and want to be church members in this digital environment. Could it be that there are quite a few persons who have come to experience these digital sabbath schools as ‘cities of refuge.” They have often not felt “safe” in the traditional churches where they hold membership, and where they experienced that their questions were not welcome. They have often concluded that the things that are discussed in the traditional sabbath schools in their local church, and what they heard in many of the sermons, has very little, if anything, to do with their everyday life. The Corona-crisis has made it possible to escape from a narrow kind of Adventism, and they have found a safe haven in one of these “progressive” sabbath schools. Could it be that this is a phenomenon that will spread? And should, perhaps, even the church administrators be happy that there are places where members, who might otherwise sever all links with Adventism, can be together with like-minded people and have their church? (For well over a decade in the Netherlands two “cities of refuge” have been in operation, where Adventists gather, who are often at the “margin” of the church, and now consider this their church. They operate with full support of the Dutch church leaders.)
Is this a good development? It certainly is not the ideal situation. The fundamental idea of being church is that we can all meet together and worship together, regardless of where we come from and who we are. The church must in its very nature be totally inclusive. It should be a place where people can find spiritual nurture and grow in different ways and at their own speed. It must be a place of love, and true love includes patience, respect and tolerance when ideas and customs differ.
That is the ideal. But, unfortunately, our time is characterized by a polarization as we have never seen before. This is what we see in society, and perhaps never as bad as in these pre-election days in US politics. The differences between adherents of different parties are so sharp and cause so much hatred and violence that constructive discussion has become virtually impossible. We must fear that something similar is happening in too many places in the Adventist Church. There is an ever-deepening divide between various segments of the church. One the one hand we see a determination to stay with the past. Popular (and populist) speakers inundate the church with their conspiracy rhetoric and their sensational dvd’s. Many feel that this is the good “old-time religion” we should protect. But, on the other hand, we see those who want to find new ways for living and expressing their Adventist faith, and who want to connect their Adventist heritage with the world of the 21st century in which they live. The tragic reality is that communication has broken down between those two “parties” in the church. With the result that in many places the “progressives” (for want of a better word) have been leaving the church in droves. It may be a very good thing in our present circumstances that there are and, for the time being, remain some digital or physical cities of refuge, where those people, who feel that the traditional local church, where they used to attend, does not provide then with enough breathing space, can find spiritual safety, until the polarization subsides, and we can become the kind of inclusive church as Christ intended.