Among the statements by Ellen White that we hear over and over again in the Adventist Church is this one: “We have nothing to fear for the future, as long as we do not forget how the Lord has led us in the past.” This statement refers to the future of the church, and over the years has encouraged many Adventists. There may at times be problems in the church, and there may be good reasons to be concerned about certain developments, but we may trust that the church will not be shipwrecked. After all, it is “God’s last church,” and, therefore, we may have the confidence that He will not abandon his church!
In this blog I will not pursue the question how we should define the term “last church,” and whether we can refer to ourselves without hesitation as “God’s church”. In any case, I think these words must be used with care, and we should guard against spiritual arrogance. I just want to pose the question whether we can be sure that the future of our church is assured. Will the church continue to grow, and continue to have a global presence? And can we be sure that the Adventist Church will still exist in some form some or another some fifty years from now?
Church history teaches us how, over time, churches and movements arose and disappeared again. This was already true in the first centuries. Take for example the situation in North Africa. At one time the church was strongly represented in that part of the world. Augustine was the bishop of the city of Hippo in North Africa. He was one of many church leaders in that region during the time when it was still ruled by the Romans. But from the fourth century onwards, North-African Christianity shriveled until it was gone. And take England. The gospel won British converts as early as in the second century. But the church disappeared again, only to make a new start in the seventh century. Countless movements and groups arose in the long Middle Ages but quietly disappeared again. And, everywhere, after that – also in the Netherlands – religious groups started, grew and disappeared again.
According to the well-known sociologist of religion David O. Moberg (born 1922), churches, like other organizations, usually go through a cycle of five different stages: (1) a movement begins; (2) formal organization; (3) maximum strength and efficiency; (4) institutionalization and increasing bureaucracy; (5) disintegration. Might this also be true of the Seventh-day Adventist Church? Can we be sure that God will protect us against this?
The omens are not favorable, especially in Western countries. Just this past week I read in a magazine that leaders of the Church of Canada fear that their church will virtually disappear within twenty years. Such reports are becoming ever more frequent, coming from numerous countries. Secularization and church-leaving continue to increase at an alarming rate. While there is still much interest in spirituality, there is less and less interest in institutionalized Christianity. And what the impact of the current pandemic on the church will be is still a big question mark.
The influences that lead to a decrease in the membership of many churches are also making themselves felt in the Adventist Church. In numerous countries, the church remains at previous levels only because of migration. But even among the “new members” the same developments can already be observed that previously decimated the number of “original” members. Globally, the church has problems with the retention of its members. Some forty percent of newly recruited members have disappeared after a relatively short time. A large proportion of our young people disappears or never joins the church of their parents. Many congregations no longer grow or simply disappear.
I am becoming increasingly convinced that we must fear for the future of our church. But at the same time, I refuse to be fatalistic or to be content that “it will last for as long as I will live.” But the church can only have a future–in whatever form or size–if it succeeds again in being relevant in what it says and (especially) does. That will require changes-probably very radical changes. Not everyone will be happy about that. It involves risks. That means, among other things, that we will have to let go of certain ideas and traditions, become fully inclusive, and initiate new things. But we can only overcome our fears for the future of the church if we have the courage to change course, with the goal of (to use a classic Adventist term) recovering “present truth.”