“The church does not inspire me”

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:

  1. 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’.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

 

Selling and buying church buildings: good or not so good?

A few days ago I read in my newspaper that the Roman-Catholic Church in the Netherlands considers it inevitable that the Catharina-cathedral in Utrecht will cease to be a place of worship. It has simply become too expensive, as the number of worshippers continues to drop. There is an annual deficit of more than half a million dollars to maintain the building and the Catholic community that uses the church is no longer able to cover this. Perhaps the church will become an exposition hall that is connected with the adjacent Museum for Ecclesiastical Antiquities and Art (the Catharijne Convent). Remarkably enough, this cathedral is the church of the Dutch cardinal, Wim Eijk, the head of the Utrecht diocese. The pope will yet have to give his approval, since it concerns a cathedral being desecrated. The plan is to transfer the ‘cathedral’ functions to the St. Augustine church in Utrecht.

It is no exception that churches must close their doors and a must search for another destination of the building. In some cases real estate developers line up to purchase church buildings, since these usually are at prime locations. Sometimes church buildings can retain their function, when other faith communities are ready to move in. The Adventist Church quite frequently profits from such a situation. Last week I participated in a conference held in an Adventist church building in Rynfield, close to Johannesburg in South-Africa. When I complimented the organizer of the conference with the excellent facilities, I was told that the church had been the spiritual home of a Reformed congregation, which had to sell the church when its membership began to hemorrhage.  The president of the Adventist Church in Belgium and Luxembourg told me a few weeks ago that the Adventists in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg have just bought a church building from the Apostolic Church, who could no longer afford to keep it. In quite a few countries the Adventists have been able to buy properties from other faith communities. As a rule this a lot cheaper than buying a piece of land and building a new church. In recent years the Adventist Church in the Netherlands bought Roman Catholic church buildings in Zeeland and in the Hague, and were able to acquire excellent churches in Almere and Utrecht, that the Protestant Church in the Netherlands was forced to sell.

Some will say: This is good news. Apparently, the Seventh-day Adventist Church is still growing, while many other denominations are shrinking. However, this seems too easy a conclusion, and even if the statement were correct, there is no reason to be self-congratulary. Firstly, because it is clear that in the western world the number of active Christians is constantly diminishing. In the past (and unfortunately this is still the case in segments of the church) Adventists looked at other Christians mostly as their enemies (‘Babylon’ and ‘the whore and her daughters’). I have totally abandoned that idea. Other Christians—Catholics and Protestants—are my brothers and sisters! Of course, we may disagree with several of their viewpoints, but we must stick together and uphold each other, in a combined effort to make sure that a clear Christian sound may still be heard in our world. Sure, our own specific melody must also be heard–not detached from the message of other Christian believers, but rather to supplement it, and, if needs be, to correct it.

Secondly, there is another aspect we should not forget. The Adventist Church is still able to hold its ground or has in recent years shown some growth in many western countries. But honesty demands to admit that, in almost all cases, this is due to the immigration of fellow-believers from elsewhere in the world. When we discount these immigration statistics, the situation if far less positive. Without the arrival of these immigrants, Adventists would in many places also have been forced to close and sell church buildings. And, as I have said in earlier blogs: Adventists usually follow the trends that we see in other denominations—albeit with a delay of a few decades. There is plenty of reason to be worried and to do all we can to escape this trend. We will only be able to do so, if we can create open and creative communities that learn to package their message in ways that will appeal to the people—young and older—of our times. This continues to present an enormous challenge.

 

Looking and seeing

The Lonely Planet Guide has recently declared the Dutch province of Friesland (Frisia) to hold third place in the top ten of European holiday destinations. At the moment the capital city of the province—Leeuwarden—is Europe’s cultural city of the year. That makes a visit to Friesland very timely, but when this year is over and the pressure of tourism has somewhat abated, it may be even more pleasant. Friesland has a rich history; it has many traditions; it has beautiful small towns with marvelous historic centers, and it offers beautiful scenery as one drives from one place to the next.

I love visiting Friesland. My name betrays that my ancestors came from there. Dutch family names that end in -sma indicate a Frisian pedigree. My first church appointment was caring for a small congregation in the picturesque Frisian city of Sneek. That is also where our son was born, now more than fifty years ago. Last Friday morning my wife and I drove to Friesland for a day of museum visits in and around Leeuwarden. We stayed the night in a reasonably comfortable three-star hotel and went to church on Sabbath morning where I was scheduled to preach. Since it was the Pentecost weekend my sermon was based on a story in Acts 19, where Paul meets twelve men who came to church of Ephesus but confessed that they knew nothing of a Holy Spirit. Well, you can easily see that this text is a good springboard for a sermon on our need for being acquainted with the Spirit.

On Friday, on our way North, we made a short stop in Heerenveen, about 30 kilometers south of Leeuwarden, where we visited a museum that we had never before been to. It proved to be a small museum, mostly dedicated to a group of regional Frisian painters. But it also has special exhibitions. The current exhibition features the paintings of the Italian painter Giorgio Morandi. His specialty was painting still lives of bottles and vases. Interesting, but not something I could get very excited about. In fact, I enjoyed the museum building (and especially the coffee shop with a great view of the Frisian landscape), more than the art works.  But, entering the hall with the paintings of the Italian artist, I was struck by a statement by Morandi that was printed in large letters on the wall. It read: You can travel the world and see nothing. Understanding the world does not require a lot of travel, but it all depends on looking intently at what is before your eyes.

Morandi’s words are so true.  I still have the opportunity to do a lot of travel. I am writing this blog while I am waiting for my flight from Amsterdam to Johannesburg. And, lo and behold, as I am sitting in the waiting area and checking my e-mail, I find that I am invited for a series of speaking appointments in Australia later in the year! Even though most of my travel leaves me very little time for touristic activities, I do see a lot and try to absorb the local culture and circumstances as much as I can. I believe I can truly say that the travel throughout my life has had a major influence on me and on who I am today. However, I also often meet people who have traveled much more than I have. They have visited exotic places, but have seen next to nothing. They may sit on a beach on the Seychelles for two weeks, without trying to see how the people live. They may go on a safari tour in Africa but see little more than they could have seen in a zoo in their home country.

Seeing and understanding the world does not primarily depend on constantly going to lots of places, but it has most of all to do with our curiosity, with being open to discerning and learning, with our willingness to ask questions and seek answers. And this is not only true for the sphere of faraway travel and exiting geography. It also applies to everyday life. Some people see far less than others. Some are almost blind to what happens around them—in their family, their neighborhood, their workplace and their church. Others constantly see things that enrich their life and stimulate them to form balanced opinions or to adjust their points of view.

A few years ago one hundred of my blogs were put together in a book (in Dutch).  The title was: Wie goed kijkt ziet altijd wat! Or, to put it in English: If you look intently, you will always see something worthwhile.  I still believe this is very true!

Israel

As soon as the topic of Israel comes up, I have a number of different thoughts. And in this week, in which the State of Israel celebrates its seventieth birthday, these thoughts only intensify. For me the subject of Israel has three important aspects, and each of them evokes many questions. Firstly, there is the political reality of the State of Israel that was established seventy years ago. Then there is the situation of the Palestinian people which is closely connected to the existence of Israel. And, thirdly, there is the question of the spiritual significance of Israel.

Let me begin with a paragraph or two about the reality of Israel as a nation state. Anyone who knows just a little bit of the history of the Jewish people, through the centuries, but especially during the atrocious events of the last century which culminated in the Holocaust, will understand the desire of the Jews to have a safe haven. And, from a Jewish perspective, it stands to reason that this would be located in their ancestral land. I can live with the fact that the Jews acquired their own state. However, I feel very strongly that the Palestinian people should also have their own state and I hope that I will still live to see a fair and peaceful two-state solution. Currently this seems further away than ever, and the situation has even become more complicated by the irresponsible initiative of President Trump to move the US embassy to Jerusalem.

It is  no wonder that the Palestinians protest on a regular basis against the Israeli occupations of part of their territory and against the continuous construction of new settlements in these occupied Palestinian territories. Not all methods that the Palestinians use are acceptable. And the situation is made even more complex by the internal divisions and the stubbornness of Hamas. But I fail to understand why the Israeli use so much violence, as they have done once again in this past week. How can a people that has suffered so much inflict so much suffering on another people? I wished my own country would not back Israeli politics to the extent it continues to do and would be prepared to stand up for the rights of the Palestinian people (as, for instance a former Dutch prime-minister, Dries van Agt does).

A major segment of conservative Christians in the western world is very solidly pro-Israel. Many of them believe that, although the Jews may have rejected Christ when he was on earth, God has not finished with them and that in the end the Jewish people will accept the Messiah, and then the Jewish believers will enter God’s new world together with the Christians ‘from the gentiles’. It is fair to say that, as yet, we see no signs that this is about to happen!

Other Christians defend the so-called substitution theory.  They believe that the church is now the ‘spiritual Israel’, and has replaced the ‘literal’ Israel as God’s people. The promises once given through the prophets to the people of Israel, were conditional. Only if Israel would remain loyal to Jahwe these promises would be fulfilled. Since the people of Israel failed to abide by these conditions, the promises will now, at most, receive some kind of spiritual fulfilment in the church. This has long been also the traditional Adventist view.

However, the idea that the church has replaced Israel has lately not gone unchallenged. I agree with those who argue that this substitution theory is rather questionable. In his letter to the Romans the apostle Paul tells us that somehow a link will continue to exist between the Jewish ‘tree’ ands the  (Christian) ‘branches’ that have been grafted on that ‘tree’. The theologians must help us in sorting out what that means. I recognize that my faith has solid Jewish roots and realize that I can learn much from how the Jews read the Bible. But I will stay away from all kinds of Jewish rituals, such as celebrating the Jewish feasts. I see an increasing trend to do so, also among Adventists, but I want to stay away from that. I am not a Jewish Christian but a Christian from the gentiles’.

And I  certainly do not want to be part of the large group of Christians who condone just about everything the State of Israel is doing!

Ascension Day

Thursday May 10—Today is Ascension Day, which means that Dutch people do not have to go to work. In many countries Ascension Day is not a public holiday, but in the Netherlands it is. Forty days after his resurrection Jesus ascended to heaven. We read about it in in the Bible in the first chapter of the book of Acts. That event is commemorated today. A relatively small group of Dutch people, mostly of rather conservative Reformed vintage, will go to church. But it is safe to say that the vast majority of the population has no idea what Ascension Day is all about. For most it is a day for family activities and shopping, and furniture shops and garden centers will be very busy.

Celebrating Ascension Day goes far back in time. Some of the Church Fathers of the early ages already mention it and from trhe Middle Ages onwards it was an important day in the liturgical calendar. Different folkloristic customs sprung up around this day, such as the tradition of ‘dauwtrappen’ (literally: dancing on the grass that is moist because of the dew). In times past people would get up extremely early, even before sunrise, and would dance with bare feet, and sing, on the wet grass. Presumably this originated in a pagan custom. Today this tradition has developed into walks in groups or bike tours in the (not too early) morning of Ascension Day.

In general, Seventh-day Adventists do not attach great value to celebrating the Christian feast days. Some are, in fact, very much opposed to paying any attention to them. I experienced this just weeks ago, when on the Sabbath just before Easter I preached in a Dutch Adventist church. My sermon was about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. After the service I was sharply criticized by a lady, who felt that I should have preached about a truly Adventist topic, as for instance the heavenly sanctuary, and not about something she could have heard in any other church! Perhaps my sister-in-the-faith would have been more satisfied if I had preached about Jesus’ ascension, for that topic fits seamlessly with the heavenly sanctuary theme.

In several places the book of Hebrews refers to the moment when Jesus departed from the earth and ascended to heaven, where he promptly began his ‘work’ as the great heavenly High Priest. One of the prominent themes of this book of the Bible is the radical difference between the imperfect earthly high priests and the perfect heavenly High Priest, who having acquired the right to become our Mediator can assure us of our eternal salvation.

Most (?) Adventists believe that this heavenly ‘work’ of Christ our our High Priest consists of two phases. They argue that in the second phase, which began in 1844, Christ is ‘active’ in the most holy part of the heavenly sanctuary, where the ‘investigative judgment’ takes place. It is a rather complex teaching that is based on the premise that the heavenly sanctuary must be an exact parallel of the early sanctuary, since God told Moses to construct the tabernacle with two apartments (the holy and the most holy) in accordance with a heavenly model that he was shown by God.

There has been almost constant controversy among Adventists about the question whether Jeus’ work in the heavenly sanctuary consists of one single phase or of two plases. (In the book of Hebrews there is, remarkably enough, no mention of a two-phase ministry.)  Desmond Ford was the most prominent supporter of the single phase option. The controversy that erupted cost him his job in the church, and left a trail of misery across the denomination. Today many Adventist theologians and pastors agree with Ford, although they are often reluctant to admit this publicly.  To me, the one-phase option sounds quite convincing, but rather than fight about this issue I would much prefer that we simply accept that there are differences of opinion. After all, it seems that most of us agree on the core of what is at stake. Christ came to this world to die on our behalf. But he was raised from the dead. Many men and women met him during the ensuing forty days and testified that the Lord ‘was truly risen’. When Christ departed from this earth, he was fully entitled to be called the perfect Mediator / High Priest, who can ensure that all who accept him will enjoy the eternal benefits of what he accomplished on the cross. I cannot understand how this all fits together. We are dealing with a heavenly reality that far exceeds our human intellectual capacities. But the essence of this heavenly reality is ‘revealed’ to us in words and images that give us some idea of what Christ did and does for us. In any case, it tells us enough that we may rest assured that somehow the gap between God and us has been bridged. For me that is all I need to know.