On June 2 the Adventist Church in Utrecht (the Netherlands) hosted a special program that targeted Adventists who are ‘on the margins’ of the church. There was a similar meeting, about a year ago, that was likewise inspired by my book Facing Doubt, which in Dutch has a title that is best translated as Staying or Leaving? The aim was to meet with church members who have either left the church, or are on their way towards the church’s exit. The organizers succeeded in attracting some in those categories, but the majority of those present might be best described as (still) being part of the church, but unhappy about various trends in current Adventism.
The afternoon program started with a live interview with someone who once was an Adventist pastor, but had decided to leave both the ministry and the denomination. What made him leave? What kind of church could perhaps entice him to return? A video-interview featured a young woman, who as a teenager had taken leave of the church, but some ten years later decided that, after all, she wanted to be part of it. The interviews formed the basis of group discussions, followed by a plenary discussion about themes that focused on aspects of church leaving and on the question what the church should be like if it has a hope to stop the hemorrhaging among both young and old.
But a major item was also the taking of a poll–using our smartphones to answer questions displayed on the screen. The program (KAHOOT) that was used showed the score immediately after the people gave their reply to the multi-choice questions.
These questions were intended to gauge the feelings of the participants regarding the 28 fundamental beliefs of the Adventist Church, but also to explore how they view the church. The answers to the questions about the doctrines (“do you consider this doctrine very important, important, not very important, or unimportant?”) were hardly surprising. We usually find in such surveys that some doctrines, such as the Sabbath and the second coming, score quite high, while many consider doctrines as e.g. the sanctuary, 1844, and the thousand years, as much less important. Such a polling exercise is interesting, but, admittedly, its scientific value is limited. It is clear that many Adventists simply know very little about the content of the ‘fundamentals”, and in many cases would change their opinion if they were aware of some of the doctrinal fine print. For instance, many find the doctrine of ‘unity’ quite important, but do not realize that the church tends to interpret this ‘unity’ mostly as strict uniformity (something most of them do not like). The doctrine related to ‘family’ also scores rather high, but few realize that this ‘fundamental’ provides no space to those who have a ‘different’ sexual orientation.
One answer to a more general question I found most alarming. Although many of those who ‘cast their votes’ said they are still active in the church, the majority of the participants indicated that they feel no longer inspired by their church. That is, indeed, a very serious matter. If a major part of the members no longer feels inspired by the church—by what it has to say and by what it offers its members and those around us—there is no real future for the church. Is that, when push comes to shove, what is troubling the Adventist Church in the West?
When I ask myself the question whether the church continues to inspire me, I have no unambivalent answer. Some things, fortunately, do, but there are also many things that I experience as dull, uninspiring and sometimes even distasteful. I hang on, and want to do what I can to help turn the tide—together with many others who often feel disappointed by their church but, like me, do not want to give up on it.
How can the church become more inspiring to an increasing number of members who would like to see a different kind of church? I believe it basically boils down to perhaps five core issues:
- We need local churches that provide a warm and welcoming environment, where members and friends of the church feel at home and find a community where they can truly ‘belong’.
- It is great to be part of a world-wide movement, but the church is, above everything else, a local community, that must provide space to all who want to belong to it. While being united with regard to some core beliefs, there must be a ‘gracious spaciousness’ to allow for diversity in thought, and there must be room for open discussion. The members must feel they can be who they are, without being judged or criticized.
- The church needs the kind of worship, teaching and preaching that, while doing justice to the core of Adventist beliefs, relates to the issues of everyday postmodern life. While we must know what we believe, we must also realize that not all beliefs are equally ‘fundamental’ and that views may (must?) develop over time.
- The church can only be true to its calling and inspire if it makes a meaningful contribution to the world around us. We may not be able to be involved with all the issues that are important in our society, but we have convictions that should lead us to choose areas where we can make a real difference.
- The church must be a ‘safe’ place, where everyone can feel truly welcome, and where we can bring our friends and others, regardless of their background or orientation, without any fear that they may be looked down upon or worse.
If most local churches would succeed in becoming that kind of community, I am sure I would feel more inspired by my church—and many others with me.