Will the church disappear?

As I am writing this blog I am still struggling with my jetlag. The time difference of nine hours will inevitably derail one’s internal clock for a few days. However, it was great to spend two weeks in California, to meet friends and to stay in the homes of kindred spirits–the first week not far from Loma Linda and the second week a few hundred miles more to the North in San Luis Obispo.

With respect to ‘work’, these weeks were focused on my last book FACING DOUBT. The chapters of the Adventist Forums in San Diego and Los Angeles (Glendale) had invited me to speak about this book, and when the folks in San Luis Obispo heard about my coming, the request came to also include their church in my itinerary and to speak on the same topic. The more I visit different places and speak to groups of fellow-believers of whom a majority finds itself ‘on the margins’ of the church, the more I am convinced that I am involved with something really important. Time and again I meet people who tell me they have recognized themselves in my book, and it is extremely satisfying to get reactions from people who say that the book has in fact helped them to re-connect in a meaningful way with their faith and their church.

However, there is an element that gives me more and more concern. The groups that invite me consists mostly of people who have passed the age of sixty. Some decades ago the Adventist Forum chapters were established by relatively young people—mostly in their thirties and forties. Many of them are still members of AF, but the majority is now of retirement age, and very few young members have joined in recent years. During my stay in San Luis Obispo an informal get-together was organized on the Saturday evening. The idea was that I would try to answer questions and that we could continue the discussion about topics that had been raised earlier in the day. Several attendees emphasized that their church had also been unable to retain most of their younger members. That led to the question whether perhaps the Adventist Church is doomed to disappear.

For many Adventists it is simply unthinkable that Adventism will, slowly but surely, disappear (at least from the Western world). Because the Seventh-day Adventist Church is ‘God’s last church’, the church at the end of time that has the special commission to proclaim the pure gospel everywhere, before Jesus Christ will come to gather his church and take it ‘home.’  But the reality raises concerns. Some new churches are established, but at the same time the church disappears from certain regions. In the northern part of Scandinavia, for example, very few Adventists remain. In the churches in urban centers very few representatives of the original population can be found. A study that dr. Ronald Lawson recently published on his website indicates that within a few decades the percentage of ‘white” Adventists in New York has decreased from around 90 % to less than 10 %. (https://ronaldlawson.net). I remember talking with a colleague about the sad fact that our children, and the children of many other pastors, were no longer in the church. His reaction was: ‘Yes, it stops with us!’ Was he right?

I heard a comment in San Luis Obispo that has stayed with me. One of the attendees said: ‘ We keep on saying that we must give space to our young people and must pay much more attention to their ideas and wishes. But that has hardly any result. The younger generation does not want a church that is adapted just a little to their thinking. We must dare to give the church to the younger generation. Let them take it from us, and let us se what will ‘emerge’ (sorry: that is a suspect word!). Only if we dare to do this, the church has a chance to survive.’

Do we indeed dare to do this? Do I dare to do so? I have not reached the point that I can reply with a unconditional ‘yes’. And that is not just because I wonder whether the church that will ‘emerge’ will still send me a monthly retirement check. It is mostly because I still feel attached to many aspects of today’s church. But I have no doubt that something radical must happen. Too many people have already disappeared or are ‘on the margins’ of the church. May God give us the courage to explore new ways!