One of my last official assignments as the executive secretary of the Trans-European Division of the Adventist Church was a trip to Kuwait. At the time (2001) the office in Britain, where I worked, had the oversight not only over church organization in parts of Europe and Pakistan, but also in Kuwait and a series of other countries of the Middle East. Kuwait is, of course, an Islamic state, but the authorities have a much more relaxed attitude towards Christians than most other nations in the region. When I went to Kuwait, our church had a few hundred members in the country. There was a pastors but he had no official status and had entered the country as an employee of an Adventist businessman who owned a factory in Kuwait. This was an undesirable situation and my task was to meet with the authorities in an effort to regularize the situation.
When meeting with representatives of the Ministry of Justice, I was told that a few Christian communities did indeed have official permission to invite pastors or priests. This was a ‘historic’ arrangement, and it would be difficult to also get that privilege for the Kuwaiti Adventist Church. But, I was told, if I could come to some understanding with another Christian group, there was no objection to bringing a pastor to Kuwait under their umbrella.
I made an appointment with the leader of a community of evangelical Christians that had the benefit of the ‘historical arrangement.’ It was a very pleasant visit. However, the leader of this church could not help us. His members would not be amused if they discovered that he had assisted the Adventists. I asked him why his members would object. ‘Well,’ he said to me, ‘your members tell my people all the time that they are part of Babylon, and that does not endear the Adventists to them.’ It made me extremely sad to hear this.
As I pursued my assignment, I met with other Christian leaders. The Roman-Catholic bishop of Kuwait not only invited me for a very good meal, but also indicated his willingness to help me. After careful consideration I declined his help, since I feared that it might create more problems in our church than it would solve. In the end an arrangement could be made with another Christian church.
What I remember most vividly, however, of this visit to the Adventist church in Kuwait was the church service on Friday evening. Realizing that these members only very infrequently saw a church official from their union or division, I decided to be very brief in my worship talk, and to give them the opportunity to ask questions–about any topic they wanted to address. To my great surprise, during the hour that followed most questions were about Christmas. Should Adventists celebrate Christmas? Is it ok to have a Christmas tree?
Just imagine: here is a group of some 200 members. They belong to the very small minority of Christians in this Islamic country. Rather than seeing other Christians as their allies–as their brothers and sisters–in their attempts to bear their witness in this non-Christian environment, they see the other Christians as their enemies (‘Babylon’) and rather than worrying about ways to present the Christian faith in the most attractive way to their Muslim neighbors, they have heated debates about the Christmas tree.
I realize that most Kuwaiti Seventh-day Adventists are families of migrant workers who have imbibed a kind of Adventism that is rather inflexible. But still . . .
Just a few more days and large parts of the world celebrate Christmas. I hope that my fellow-Adventist believers, who are surrounded by adherents of non-Christian religions and by a secular majority, will find ways to join hands with other Christians to emphasize the Lordship of Christ in their Christmas. And as we approach a new year my wish is that Adventist Christians will not major in minors, but live their faith in such a way that it will attract people who are dissatisfied with their secular–and often empty–life.