Monthly Archives: November 2023

Technology and content

About two months ago (September 15, 2023 to be precise), Dr. Joo-hee Park, the president of the (Adventist) Sahmyook Health University in Korea, introduced ADAM. The participants in the conference of the Asian chapter of the Global Adventist Internet Network (GAIN-Asia) were informed about a unique project: Park and his team are developing a robot which can serve as an assistant-Bible-instructor. The robot is being trained in knowledge of the Bible and in the details of the 28 Fundamental Adventist Beliefs. Park gave the assurance that the ‘training’ of the robot will be extremely thorough, to ensure that ‘he’ will not spread any misinformation! In other words: Adam comes with an anti-heresy warranty. The GC will be pleased that the robot is apparently masculine! However, I am not so sure that the Adventist community is really waiting for this new ADAM——even if the robot will be fully conversant with official Adventist teaching.

A key slogan in the GAIN-meeting was: ‘Technology for Mission.’ The Adventist Church has been a pioneer among religious organizations in utilizing new technology in its mission outreach. They were early adopters in the sphere of publishing and printing. From the very first, Adventists emphasized the importance of the printed page, and established printing facilities wherever a new mission field was opened up. Later on, they were pioneers in radio ministry and, subsequently, in using television and satellite technology for evangelistic purposes.
So far, so good.
Few, if any, will deny that using new technology to further the church’s mission is a positive thing. Therefore, in this age of Artificial Intelligence and robotization many will perhaps applaud dr. Park for creating ADAM. However, we must keep in mind that technology, important though it is, is no more than a tool. Technology gives us instruments for the delivery of a message, but is not to be confused with the message itself.

Content comes first
Implementing new technology is actually the easy part. It requires some people with technical know-how and adequate funding. The church has always been quite good in buying, installing, and operating technologically advanced equipment. But all too often, that is where our front-line position ended.
In the 1980s I worked a number of years in the publishing branch of the church on the African continent. At the time we were operating in this part of the world seven publishing houses with printing facilities. The quality of the printing was in most cases superior to that of commercial printing firms. Together these institutions had between 400 and 500 technical employees– typesetters, printers, bindery workers, etc.. But the total number of authors, editors, designers and photographers in denominational employ on the African continent was less than a dozen! It was an unnerving example of how technology received priority over creativity. The technical production chain rather than the message held first place. This state of affairs has been typical for much of the Adventist media scene in the past and still defines much of the church’s missiological methodology.

I hope that the church at all levels will continue to use the latest available technology. Since the Corona pandemic such services as Skype, Zoom, Team and other platforms, and the streaming of worship services, have developed in ways we could not have imagined even a few years ago. Computer technology is everywhere. When out preaching somewhere, I enjoy seeing young people contributing to the smooth running of the church service by operating the beamer(s), the lighting and the sound system. But, could it be that we are in danger of forgetting that the content of what we seek to communicate—in whatever technologically advanced ways—must be our first concern?

Do the sermons that we, pastors (I am one of them), preach sufficiently relate to the real questions of the church members who sit in the pew or in front of their computer screen? Do we use language they can understand? Do we use images and cite examples that touch their heart as well as their brain? The sound system may be perfect, but do we truly communicate ‘present, i.e. contemporary relevant, truth’?
Does the church nurture established and new authors, who can write books that make people think and bring spiritual refreshment? Does the church look for (and support) women and men who can write articles and books that challenge readers with new ideas, help them to make Christ-like decisions, and enable them to grapple with the issues of every-day life? Does the church stimulate authors and designers to create books and journals that bring new theological insights and point to courageous ethical solutions for today’s issues.
The world is full of print shops that can produce our books, and today’s printing-on-demand-technology has made book production easier than ever before, but what we need, more than anything else, is creative authors and graphic artists who can present the Adventist version of the Christian faith in an authentic, new, credible and convincing way.
Do our media ministries produce programs that trigger the imagination of the viewers and incite their curiosity? Or do they mainly cater to the taste of the more conservative (and often elderly) segment of the church that is eager to see traditional views rehashed and confirmed? [That, it seems to me, is certainly true for such independent organizations as 3ABN, but also for some other television ministries.] What really matters is: Do the church’s media departments create the kind of programs that will make younger persons, or those who is only vaguely interested in religion, when they happen to flip through to the channels, stay with an Adventist program for more than just a few seconds? The crucial question is: Does the church attract and value the kind of creative talent that succeeds in re-telling the Adventist message in such a way that it can ‘land’ in twenty-first century minds? New technology only serves us well if we have the right sort of content to offer.

One thing is sure: technology—whether it is a Korean robot or some other high-tech innovation—will in itself not enable us to reach the minds and hearts of the people around us. Content comes first: a message that is loyal to the Christian-Adventist core, but is not obscured by jargon that only insiders understand and focuses on issues of yesteryear rather than on the concerns of today. Having said all this, I gladly acknowledge that there are committed, talented and highly creative persons, who try to do what I pleaded for in the paragraphs above. But I hope and pray that their tribe may exponentially increase.

What kind of church do we want to be?

Adventist leaders might benefit from a study of Dutch church history. The Netherlands have become a very secular country, but its spiritual roots continue to shape at least part of its national identity. Through the centuries religion and church were crucial pillars of Dutch society, and its theologians were respected far beyond its borders. Moreover, Dutch ecclesial life was diverse, to say the least. A striking maxim underscored this: One Dutchman, and you have a theologian; two Dutchmen makes a church; three Dutchmen and there is a schism.

The two southernmost provinces of the Netherlands remained largely untouched by the sixteenth century Reformation and stayed predominantly Roman Catholic until a few decades ago. Most of the country, however, converted to Calvinism. Why the Dutch preferred Calvinism over Lutheranism is a fascinating story, but I am happy they did, for by so doing they provided me with inspiration for this blog.

A parting of the way
Since the middle of the nineteenth century, until some recent reconfiguration, Dutch Calvinism consisted of two major blocs: (a) the Dutch Reformed Church and (b) a wide array of Christian Reformed denominations. The Dutch Reformed Church (Nederlands Hervormde Kerk) aspired to be a spiritual home for the entire population. It aimed at providing a religious habitat for a broad range of theological persuasions—all rooted in Calvinism but extending from quite conservative to exceedingly liberal, and everything in between. The Christian Reformed branch (the Gereformeerden), which separated from the main Dutch Reformed Church in 1834, soon suffered numerous further splits, as theology professors and church pastors convinced groups of believers that they happened to be the sole custodians of unadulterated Bible truth. For example: In 1926 a bitter controversy erupted about the question whether the story of the speaking serpent in paradise had to be taken literally! Opinions collided and, once again, a new denomination was born.

Two types of denominational bodies
The Dutch ecclesiastical scene mirrors a general phenomenon in the Christian world. We see two different categories of church bodies: (a) global religious movements that emphasize unity, but allow for a considerable diversity within their ranks, rather than pushing for strict uniformity; and (b) denominations that define themselves very narrowly, both theologically and ethically. Prominent examples among global religious movements that want to keep all theological streams and traditions under one large umbrella are the Roman Catholics and the Anglicans. Compare these with such movements as the Baptists and the Lutherans. The Baptist World Alliance has 253 member bodies—independent entities that call themselves Baptist, spread over 130 countries—all with their own theological distinctiveness. In addition, there are other Baptist groups that have not joined this world alliance. Or take the Lutherans. The Lutheran World Federation is the umbrella for 149 Lutheran denominations. They share their Lutheran roots, but manifest a broad gamut of theological convictions, from quite “liberal” to defiantly “fundamentalist.”

Admittedly, we, Adventists, have also experienced some splits, but they were comparatively few and relatively minor. The most significant was the emergence of the Reform Adventist Movement, which still survives as an independent international denomination with about 40.000 members. Adventists have stayed together to a much larger degree than most other denominational families. But for how long will the Adventist Church succeed in preserving this organizational unity?

I believe the Seventh-day Adventist Church faces a painful dilemma. Thus far the church has been unwilling to choose between the two patterns mentioned above. It has tended to define its theological boundaries ever more narrowly, while at the same time hanging on to the ambition of being and remaining a unified global movement. The leaders demand that all believers, worldwide, share in the same approach to the Scriptures, and expect the full adherence of every Adventist to a comprehensive doctrinal package. They insist on the importance of remaining a global movement, with the General Conference leaders (backed by the quinquennial sessions which they dominate), as the ultimate arbiters of what is truth, and of the policies by which the denomination must be administered. However, church history shows that, in the long run, you cannot have it both ways! You cannot expect that 22-plus million Adventists will interpret the Bible, and will define the church’s teachings, in exactly the same way!

An inevitable choice
I hope my church will—sooner rather than later—realize that staying together as one body (and not being fragmented into numerous denominations, each with its own brand of the “truth”) demands that there be space for different brands of Adventism. Based on a number of key convictions, each of these brands must be developed and expressed in a particular geographical environment, in a contextualized way that is informed by history, culture, and spiritual milieu. The church must encourage a honing of the Adventist version of Christianity to the cultures of the various regions (divisions) of the world, just as unions and conferences must accommodate cultural, ethnic and theological diversity. And local congregations must be intentional about nurturing an openness to differences among their members that will make a local church a real spiritual (and inclusive) community, where people can come, and feel safe, as they are.

Does that mean that anything goes and that anyone can call himself/herself a Seventh-day Adventist? No. Unfortunately, there are extremes on the ‘right’ and on the ‘left’ that have made a caricature of the Adventist rendering of the Christian faith. This unpleasant reality will be with us as long as Adventism stays alive and attracts all sorts of people. It is something we will have to live with, while we help those around us not to be drawn towards the edges.

Increasingly, Adventism is pulled in two directions. A strong, traditional segment insists that we must all believe in the same way and must all obediently submit to the directives of our denominational hierarchy. On the other hand there is an, often anonymous, part of the Adventist community that pleads for breathing space and for freedom to live his/her Adventist faith in an authentic way, in tune with one’s own conscience.

I see just one option if we want to have a church that is, and will remain, a living (and growing) faith community rather than a museum, where the dust gathers until the last visitor turns off the light. It requires staying together around a common theological core, rooted in our Christian past and in our specific tradition. At the same time it demands that we value diversity, also in our theology, and most certainly in the way we practice our faith in the specific corner of the world in which we happen to live.

And, when it comes to the 28 Fundamental Beliefs . . . Let us always remember that we are not saved by agreeing on a mass of doctrinal fine print, but by gratefully embracing God’s grace. After all, we have the certainty of salvation not because we are locked into a solid ecclesial system, but because we belong, now and in the future, to our Lord Jesus Christ.