As I write this blog, the Annual Council of the global Adventist Church is almost over. The council consisted of hybrid meetings, with part of the GC executive committee physically present in the chapel of the headquarters office in Silver Spring (USA), and most of the board members scattered around the world, at often inconvenient times, participating via Zoom. In terms of technology, it is quite a feat, with live streams in five different languages and many fine graphic presentations. I am pleased to see that, despite the corona crisis, the church has managed to stay afloat organizationally, and has suffered relatively limited financial damage. But the pandemic has not left the church untouched. It is estimated that some 17,000 church members succumbed to the virus, including some 800 employees. Anyone who thought that God would protect all faithful Seventh-day Adventists from the Covid-19 epidemic urgently needs to revise his/her theology.
I realize that from a distance I have not been able to get a complete picture of everything that has been discussed and decided in the past few days, but there are a number of aspects about which I am very concerned and which depress me quite a bit. First of all, there is the statistical report by the flamboyantly dressed David Trim, the director of the statistical office and the archives of the Church. Over the last two decades we have become accustomed to the fact that the membership of the Church worldwide each year increased by more than a million people. During the recent pandemic that figure remained at about 800,000. The question is whether this decline is only due to the practical problems during the pandemic or whether it also confirms a negative curve in church growth. More alarming in the statistical report is the graph that shows that of every 100 men and women who join the church, 41 leave again after a shorter or longer time. That frightening percentage is slowly but surely creeping further upward. And the unpleasant reality is that this number is actually even higher, since many drop out without this being registered anywhere.
Church leaving is a complicated issue that most denominations have to deal with and that has many aspects. But I am convinced, it certainly also has to do with the conservative course that the church leadership of the Adventist Church has embarked upon, especially since the current president of the world church took office. This ultra-conservative course was again strongly emphasized during the past few days. It was very clearly expressed in Ted Wilson’s sermon on Sabbath morning, in which he listed no less than fourteen dangers threatening the Adventist Church. He called his sermon “pastoral,” but it was anything but that. Brothers and sisters of non-heterosexual orientation are more likely to have felt that there is no place for them in the church. Many of them wonder why they should stay in a spiritual community where they are not welcome.
One of the important agenda items on Monday also had to do with the “theological dangers” threatening the church. A group of four men, led by the president, was tasked with identifying these threats. Their list of ten points mostly paralleled the sermon of Sabbath morning. Many have already commented on this via the social media, both pro and con. I was particularly struck by a comment on Facebook from someone who noted that it was not he who had left the church, but that slowly but surely the church had left him! We need to keep that aspect in mind when looking at church figures about church leaving.
A burning question concerns the role of the hundreds of theologians associated with the Adventist colleges and universities. The situation is sad and disconcerting: almost all of them are sidelined. The list of the “theological problems” on the agenda of this fall meeting was compiled by just a few confidants of the president of the Church. Guarding the “doctrine” of the church apparently cannot be entrusted to people with solid theological training but depends on the insights of a few top executives. (By the way, it is striking that the list of dangers fails to mention the heresy of Last Generation Theology! One wonders why.) Rightly (but at this point in vain) the previous General Conference president called for the building of bridges between theologians and administrators!
All in all, the past few days have left me rather depressed. But I am not giving up hope that at some point a new wind will begin to blow. If it doesn’t, the Church to which I belong, with all my heart and soul, risks becoming a museum instead of a place where I can recharge myself spiritually, and where my faith connects with the challenges of everyday life.