I was surprised by an e-mail message I received a few days ago. I do not want to reveal the identity of the sender. He is a person for whom I have great respect. For many years prior to his retirement he filled several very senior positions in the international Adventist Church. He is a gifted author and a very accomplished biblical scholar. There was at this point in time no special reason why he should have written to me. He simply wanted, he said, to express his appreciation. I quote: “This is just a note of appreciation for what you continue to do for the SDA church. You are a courageous voice of a concerned lover of God’s people. Thank you, and keep it up.” It is for others to decide whether his appraisal of my activities is valid. However, coming from someone like him, I felt greatly honored. I know such words, coming from him, count for more than just an empty compliment.
Let me, however, quote one more short section from this e-mail. “These are strange and troubled times, for both society and our church. There is much that is good in Adventism, but also a lot of rubbish. The times cry out for leaders who will rise to the task.” These are words coming from a prominent leader in the Adventist movement. From my contacts with him I know he has given life-long committed service to the church and he continues to support the church in many ways. However, in recent years he has also become quite critical of many of the trends that he has observed, and he deplores the kind of leadership the church must currently endure. He has worked closely with the previous general conference president, but today his voice is no longer valued. The words I just quoted summarize in a very concise (and sad) way the conclusion to which he has come: “There is much that is good in Adventism, but also a lot of rubbish.”
Many church members, in particular in the western world, agree with this assessment, even though in many cases it is more of an uncanny feeling than something they can put in precise words. There is a widespread sense that questions are often not welcome, and that the church finds it difficult to translate the Adventist teachings and life style convictions in ways that are relevant for 21st century people. This is, however, not something that is only found with “people in the pew”. I personally know many former leaders, and numerous men and women who currently serve the church at various levels in the administrative structure of the denomination, who in their hearts and minds fully agree with the statement that there is much that is good in Adventism, but also quite a lot of rubbish. The regular readers of my blog will not be too surprised when I say that I am most certainly in that category.
The 64.000 dollar question is: What do we do about this? Do we have the courage—-individually and collectively—-to identify what is good in Adventism and thus should be retained? What are the elements of Adventism that make sense in the secular and postmodern world in which we live? What are the parts of our belief structure that can help is to live as Christians in today’s world? What are the things that can provide us with answers for today’s questions, rather than offer reflections on 19th century issues? And can we muster the courage to identify the “rubbish” that we must leave behind?
Some will argue that we must be careful and “pastoral” in our approach to this issue. They say we must avoid further polarization, and are convinced that change can only be incremental, lest we lose members who feel that the traditional “truths” are being compromised. In reality, we are losing many members—-of all age groups, but most notably from among the young—-because we continue to repeat things that are “rubbish”, and do not have the courage to say that we simply can no longer preach certain things or uphold certain traditional interpretations.
The person who sent me the e-mail from which I quoted correctly stated: “The times cry out for leaders who will rise to the task.” I continue to believe that this cry will at long last be heard and that at some point in time our church will elect leaders who are equal to the challenge. Will it happen in 2022? Let’s hope and pray that it will.