The future of the church is not going to be decided in Silver Spring. In spite of the endless study commissions that must formulate an advice for the church’s governing bodies about such issues as the ordination of female pastors or the further tightening of the ‘fundamental belief’ about the six-day creation. In spite of the audacious (or what other adjective might I use?) plans to distribute millions of copies of The Great Controversy, and in spite of a new thrust to bring ‘the message’ to the big cities. In spite of all the meetings and initiatives, the millions of dollars and the media efforts, the future of the church is not going to be decided at the church’s headquarters in Silver Spring. No, the future of the church is decided in Nykøbing in Denmark. Let me explain.
Last Saturday my wife and I visited the Adventist Church in Nykøbing, some 100-kilometer south of Copenhagen. For several weeks, while on vacation, we had not been to an Adventist Church. So, we decide that on our way back from mid-Sweden to the Netherlands we would make a stop in Denmark to spend a leisurely Sabbath in this lovely country that so much resembles Holland, and go to church. A quick search on the internet provided us with the address of the Adventist Church in the town where we had booked a room for two nights in a modest three-star hotel.
We found the pleasant, modern church building, and we parked our car next to the seven or eight vehicles of fellow-worshippers. A few more ‘brothers and sisters’ arrived and at eleven o’clock on the dot the worship started. All together there were probably about thirty people—one girl was possibly around twenty, the rest was closer to my blessed age. There were some indications that ‘normally’ (i.e. outside vacation time) some children would be present, presumably with their parents. But when we were there, no child was anywhere in sight.
Our Danish is good enough to understand what was going on, to join in the congregational singing and to get the main thrust of the rather dull sermon that was preached by a pleasant man in mid-life—probably the elder of the church. We were greeted by several people in a very friendly manner, even though no one really tried to start a conversation with us when the service was over. A little lemonade in a plastic cup was available in the foyer, but to say that this was part of an exuberant social event would be stretching the truth considerably.
As we left the church and set out on our afternoon ride through the surrounding countryside, my wife and I happened to voice the same question: Why in the world would the people in Nykøbing want to join the Adventist Church in their town? What could possibly attract them there? What would, in particular, motivate young people to look for a spiritual home in this local Adventist Church? We could not think of an answer.
I may be doing great injustice to the Adventist church members of the Nykøbing church. Admittedly, we visited during the holiday season, when things tend to be slow. There may be more to this church than met our eyes. But, I rather doubt it. And after having visited many local congregations in many countries in Western-Europe (and in the US, for that matter), the question keeps coming up with ever greater urgency: Is there enough on offer in most Adventist churches to keep the people that are there, let alone to attract new people in any serious numbers.
I am a member of a 50-member church in the Netherlands (Harderwijk). On the average I attend once every six weeks, as I am usually out preaching myself. I enjoy coming there. I have come to know the people. There is a pleasant atmosphere. I feel welcome. But now, image that I came there, because I happened to spend a few days in the area. Or because I moved to this town and was looking for a church to join? Or because I popped in out of mere curiosity? Would I find enough to make me come back? To feel that what happens there is relevant to whom I am, to where I am in life, and to what I am looking for?
The future of the denomination does not primarily depend on the big issues that are currently debated in our headquarter offices. In final analysis, the future of the church—in particular in the West—depends on whether it succeeds in being relevant; whether its truth is ‘present truth’ for me, in my situation, and, in particular, for my younger contemporaries. That is why the future of the church depends on what happens in Nykøbing (and in Harderwijk and the thousands of other small and not so small local churches).