Church and world

 

It has been a while since I translated the dissertation of Dr. Edward ‘t Slot (at the time pastor of a Protestant church in Zwolle) into English. It has now very recently been published by the renowned academic publisher Mohr Siebeck in Tübingen, with the title: ‘Negativism of Revelation’. The book deals with a rather complex debate between Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. With the rather heavy price tag of about 70 euro, I do not have high hopes for this book to become a real bestseller. Fortunately, I do expect to find a free copy in my letter box one of these days.

This past week I had the privilege of once again meeting Dr. ‘t Slot–this time in a different setting. He has now become a professor at the Theological University of Amsterdam and since this past week also (for one day a week) at the University of Groningen. Last Tuesday he held his inaugural speech as the formal start of his position as theology professor in Groningen. I should add that his academic chair is sponsored by the Confessionele Vereniging in de Protestantse Kerk in Nederland (a society of rather conservative Protestants in the Netherlands, who pay for the expenses of his professorate). ‘t Slot’s assignment is: Theology and Church in the Twenty-first Century.

I always enjoy the academic traditions: the prestigious, historical aula of the university, the procession of the professors in their academic gowns, who accompany their new learned colleague, and the somewhat unearthly atmosphere as the audience listens to the laudatio (a few friendly words to introduce the speaker) and the oratio (the lecture of the new professor). I should add that it appeared to me that only a minority of the audience (clearly, mainly from the rather conservative segment of Dutch Protestantism) understood what the speech of Dr. ‘t Slot was all about. (The somewhat mysterious title was: The seventh ‘however’—the philosophical discourse between academy and church.)

I arrived quite early at the ‘academy building’ of the university and decided to pay a brief visit to the new Starbucks restaurant at the ground level of the university library. This building is immediately opposite the historic building where professor ‘t Slot was to deliver his oratio. It was a rather full house–groups of students in lively discussions, mainly young people with a book or their laptop and their favorite drink.

A more profound difference was hardly thinkable than between the open, totally secular atmosphere of Starbucks and (hardly 200 meters from there) the almost sacred sphere of the university aula with its stained glass windows. If I were looking for an illustration to picture the distance between church and world, here it was. Within seconds I could step from one world in a totally different one. Immediately this raised the question in my mind: How can these two, so different, worlds ever engage in a meaningful dialogue?

The new professor is supposed to focus on the subject of church and theology in the twenty-first century. I have no idea how he is going to tackle this. His background as a pastor in an ‘ordinary’ congregation may help him. I will be on the lookout for publications from him. I am curious. Will he be able to substantially contribute in making theology and church a living reality in the time in which we now live? Will he manage to escape often enough from his new academic world in the faculty of divinity to discover what the ‘real’ world is all about? In any case, I believe, he would be well advised to spend a little time at Starbucks, whenver he comes to Groningen, and to take some of that atmosphere with him into his room or lecture hall.

The few hours last Tuesday in Groningen also reminded me personally how often I am locked into my own small ecclesiastical world, without much contact with the ‘real’ world around me. As a follower of Christ I also run the risk of mainly talking to myself and to people who have very similar ideas to those I have, while the Lord has also given me the assignment to meet with people who do not yet know him and think very differently from how I think myself. It would be an understatement to say that it remains an enormous challenge.

 

 

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Ben Carson

 

I follow with more than average interest Ben Carson’s growing popularity  in the United States. Reports from the past week indicate that he now ranks first in the long list of Republican presidential candidates. It seems he has even passed Donald Trump.

I do not live in the United States and cannot vote in presidential elections. But I did live a number of years in the US and I believe I have a rather good idea as to how American politics work. Were I to live there now, and were I to have the right to vote, I would certainly not support the Republican party. I have always found it rather strange that so many American Christians support a party that, in my view, has some rather unchristian ideas and seems to have little regard for the kind of compassion and care for the weak in society that Christ modeled for us. The democrats may  in many ways also be far from perfect, but I would rather given them my vote than the republicans. However, all this is just theory.

Ben Carson is a very special case. He is a Republican (and quite a right-wing Republican), but he also is a member of the same denomination that is my spiritual home. The question that now occupies me and many of my fellow-Seventh-day Adventists is what role Carson’s membership in the Adventist Church will play in the coming months. According to the American constitution, religious conviction is not supposed to be an issue when people run for public office. However, it undeniably does. It is hard to win a presidential election without catering for the evangelical camp. Donald Trump announced a few days ago that he is a Presbyterian. Between the lines we heard him say that it would be much safer to elect a Presbyterian as president than someone like Carson, who belongs to some rather unknown, and possible rather extreme, religious group.

In 1928 the Democratic candidate Al Smith did not succeed in the elections. It seemed that the US was not yet ready for a Catholic president. Even when John F. Kennedy, some thirty years later, ran for president, his Catholic faith was a sensitive issue. But when, just a few years ago, Mitt Romney participated in the presidential race, his Mormon conviction was much less of a problem than many had anticipated. The question is now whether Carson will find his Adventist allegiance a major hindrance or not.

In any case, the Adventist Church, can be sure that it will draw a lot of attention in the coming period. Let us hope that journalists and other opinion makers will take the trouble to look for correct information, preferably at the source, rather than by googling their ‘data’ from all kinds of negative and prejudiced websites, or by listening to frustrated ex-members. The church itself will have to be very reticent in its PR, to avoid any suggestion it seeks to promote Carson.

I assume that sooner rather than later the Dutch media will also begin to pay attention to the Adventist color of mr. Carson. Let’s hope they will proceed with integrity and that all this may acually help to make Adventism better known in our country, and that its many positive aspects may be highlighted.

In all honesty I must admit that I strongly disagree with many of Carson’s political ideas. However, fortunately, we can be quite sure that Carson a person of a high moral integrity who does not hide any ugly skeletons in his closet. Ben Carson can tell the people a moving personal story (and he has done so in several books)—a story of faith and perseverance. This may well be more important for many American voters than the question whether Carson believes  in a few doctrines that many will see als somewhat strange. I can only hope that in the coming months the media will portray Carson as a genuine christian, who is a true role model for many, and not as someone who belongs to a somewhat strange, rather unknown club, that some (unfortunately) doubt is fully christian.

I hope Carson will not be the next American president. But it would be a terrific bonus if, in the coming months, his popularity has a positive influence on the way his church is perceived by the general public—in his own country and elsewhere.

 

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Is it OK to be a small church?

 

Last week I wrote about my visit to a local Lutheran church in Sweden. In passing I remarked that the largest Swedish denomination annually looses one percent of its members. You do not have to be a great mathematician to figure out that this will have serious consequences, especially when the members whose names are still on the books hardly take the trouble of attending church on Sunday.

In the Netherlands we see something similar. The Roman Catholic Church suffers a dramatic membership loss and must fuse many of its parishes. In the Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PKN) the alarm bells are ringing and all kinds of studies are undertaken to find ways of stopping the membership hemmorhage.

It is all part of a much broader process. The Christian church is (not so) slowly but (very) surely moving from the North to the South. Most Christians today live in Africa, Inter- and South America and parts of Asia. This trend does not ignore the Adventist Church. At one time people put the label ‘American sect’ on Adventism. This was not so strange, as the Adventist Church did have its origin in the United States and during the first period of its history the majority of Seventh-day Adventists lived in North-America. Today, things have changed dramatically. Only about 8 percent of the 18 million church members worldwide now live in the US and only a few percent may be found in Europe and Australia. The bulk of the membership is nowadays in the South (in what used to be referred to as the developing world).

Does this mean that the Christian Church (and with it Adventism) will completely disappear from the North? This question cannot by be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It has happened before that regions of the world wore christianized, but later saw how the Christian faith disappeared again. Think, for instance, of North-Africa—in the early centuries a flourishing province of the church, where people like Augustine had their domicile.

I find it hard to believe that Christianity will totally disappear from the so-called Christian West. It seems that its roots are too deep for that to happen. But in all probability, things will change further and it never become like it was in the past. The church will become smaller rather than larger. And if there is some growth in some countries, it will only be due to a temporal influx of immigrants.

A few years ago pastor Wim Dekker (one of the leaders of a Dutch Protestant home missions organization (IZB) wrote a book entitled (in translation): Marginal and Missional, with the subtitle: A Concise Theology for a Diminishing Church. The book just saw its fifth edition. Dekker argues that we will have to get used to the fact that Christians will form a small minority.[1] Days ago I read an article in the Lutheran journal Missio Apostolica in which the author reminded his readers that ‘. . .  the church will always be a remnant church, carrying the cross of opposition, suffering, pain and hardship (Mt 8:34-38; Rev 12, 13).[2]

This is perhaps something Adventists ought to give serious thought to. There appears to be something in the Adventist DNA that says that the church must continue to grow. We must constantly have new initiatives to recruit new members. And if we have little or no success (as is the case in some Western countries), it inevitably leads to frustration and demotivation: it seems as if the Adventist approach no longer works. Or might this be something we, pragmatics as we are, have convinced ourselves of? Could it, however, be that we must simply accept that it is how it is, without endlessly lamenting about it? Should we perhaps reconsider what it means that (together with other Christians) we are called to be a ‘remnant’ in the region where we live? Perhaps the title of Dekker’s book summarizes succinctly what our faith community must learn to be: marginal and missional! However, this must be based on a clear and solid theology.



[1]  Published by Boekencentrum, 2011, p. 70.

[2]  Armand J. Boehme, ‘The Church and the Culture of the Millennialists—the Best or the Worst of Times, Missio Apostolica, May 2013, p. 119.

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Going to church on Sunday

When in Sweden, visiting my son and grandchildren (as I did in the past week), I do not attend church on Saturday/Sabbath. There is no Adventist church anywhere near Kramfors where they live. Last Sabbath, therefore, once again was a day without church worship.  However, during this past weekend I did go to church. On Sunday I attended the worship service in the Swedish (Lutheran) Church, just outside Kramfors.

My oldest granddaughter sang in the children’s choir that had a significant part in the special autumn-service. Of course, it is exciting to be present at such on occasion as ‘farfar’ (the Swedish term for the paternal grandfather). And so, last Sunday, I sat in the not very comfortable pew in the beautiful white, early 19th century, church building, just outside the town. I had often driven by it, but at last I had a chance to see the interior.

It was a most interesting experience. Until 2000 the Swedish Church was the state church. Until then every person born in Sweden became automatically a member of the national church. This is no longer the case. As a result of that change and the ongoing secularization of the Swedes, church membership now drops annually with about one percent. But even today more than half of the Swedish population belongs to the Svenska Kyrka (Swedish Church), a Lutheran denonomination that has close ties with the British Anglican Church. Church attendance is at an all-time low. Only two (!) percent of the members come to church on a regular basis.

Last Sunday the population of Kramfors did not come en masse to the special service. My guess is that there were about 150 people. Among them was a signifant percentage of immigrants. The picture was very clear: this church in Kramfors is on its way to become an immigrant church of Eritreans, Afghans, Iranians, Syrians , Albanians, etc.

The ethnic shift in this church was further highlighted by the baptism that took place during this service: four adults and one child—all from Albania—were baptized. Although they were not immersed—which is the biblical model—it was an impressive event. The pastor emphasized that the five new members were now part of the global church, the people of God—not just as members of the local church where they found their spiritual home, but  of God’s people worldwide—all the men and women who confess Christ as their Lord. This aspectis usually not mentioned in many of the baptismal services that I have attended through the years. Those who are baptized are baptized into the body of Christ , but this does not coincide with one particular faith community. (This, of course, does not mean that one’s choice of what church to belong to is unimportant.)

Celebrating the communion was also an important part of he service. It was clearly an ‘open’ communion service and I joined the people who came  to the front, where the pastor placed a piece of (glutenfree) bread in the hands of the communicants. Having received the bread the participants dipped their bread in the (non-alcoholic) wine, in one of the two large cups that were held by ladies who assisted the pastor. For a short moment I hesitated to go forward, but I joined my granddaughter of almost eight years, who apparently was also very welcome to partake of the communion. After this we could light a candle together, in memory of some loved one. We decided to light the candle for grandma who had remained in the Netherlands.

Was it is beautiful service? No, not really. At least not if you prefer a solemn and quiet service. It was somewhat disorderly and it was rather long. Yet, it was good to be there.

II did, however, ask  myself what the future would be for this local church. Will the number of church-leavers by compensated for by the influx of immigrants? And in what ways will those new members change the atmosphere of the church? I clearly had the impression that at this moment the arrival of these new members is seen in a very positive light. It seems to me that it is (probably somewhat naively) simply seen as  a welcome reinforcement of  the church—without perhaps fully understanding the long-term consequences. What, for instance, will happen when the ‘real’ Swedes have become a minority in their church. Will they still feel it is ‘their’ church, where they continue to feel at home? For a short moment I toyed with the idea that I might establish myself as a consultant in Sweden. My church work in different countries, where a lot of immigration took place, may have given me the kind of experience that might be of use in Kramfors (and possibly elsewhere)!

As I post this blog I am on my way back to the Netherlands. I must now focus on a series of presentations for Adventist pastors in Hungary, in early November. However, I do intend to pay a visit to this Lutheran church in Kramfors during my next visit here and to follow the process of change that is taking place.

 

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The wall

Saturday October 3 was a feast day in Germany. Twenty-five years ago the Berlin wall came down and the reunification process of the two Germanies could begin.  In great numbers the citizens of the German Democratic Republic (DDR) travelled to places they had not been able to go to for some forty years. Many relatives had not been able to meet during that time. Travelling from West to East was difficult, but not East to West was impossible.

In the end things went unbelievably quick. The leaders of the DDR saw that changes were inevitable; they began to lose their grip on the country. But it hit them as a complete surprise that he process accelerated in the way it did.

The ‘Wende’ (turning around) is now 25 years in the past. Last week my wife and I drove to Eisenach. In the past the fabulous Luther-city was in the DDR. There is now not much to remind the visitor of that fact. Yes, shortly before arriving at our destination we saw a sign announcing that we had passed de ‘Ehemaliger Grenze’ (the former border) between East and West. In some places—especially in Berlin—one finds museums where the younger generation may discover how it was. A short stretch of the Berlin wall has remained and is each year photographed by millions of tourists. Driving from the Netherlands to Berlin one passes Helmstedt, where many stop to visit the old border control station.

The Germans faced an enormous challenge in reconnecting East and West. Two totally different system had evolved that needed to be merged into one. There was a wide economic gap that had to be bridged and an enormous backlog with regard to modern housing and infrastructure had to be dealt with. In many cases it was difficult for the people from the East to find a decent job in their reunited country. But by and large Germany has successful in achieving its goals. Therefore, there was more than enough reason for the Germans to be proud of their accomplishments on this special feast day. And other countries had plenty of reason to congratulate the Germans with this great feat. The time of the ‘trabies’ and the terrifying Stasi had receded into the past. And now, 25 years later, Germany has the moral and economic power to welcome a million or so refugees from countries with similar regimes as once existed in the DDR.

The German miracle may be a source of inspiration for other regions in the world that are separated from the rest of the globe by walls and fences of barbed wire, and where citizens are jailed when they happen to have an opinion that displeases their government. It is difficult to achieve reunification and freedom in such situations, but the German example tells us that it can be done. And sometimes it can happen in a very short time.

Thoughts like these give me courage when I think about the situation in the faith community to which I belong. Most comparisons are only partially justified and I do not want to suggest that the Adventist Church suffers from a kind a Stasi-terror. But no one can deny that a wall has been erected between the more conservative and more progressive parts of the church. One of the main issues is the way in which the Bible is read. And there are huge cultural differences. In the South many things are rejected as unbiblical or unacceptable, which the North deems to be OK or even desirable. Significant migration to Western Europe has added to the problems that have arisen. However, somehow we must be able to bridge the differences. The walls that separate us may not become higher and thicker, but must disappear. We need visionary leaders who will lead the way. We need people with the courage to start breeching the walls.  There are moments when this seem utterly impossible. That is also what the Germans thought. But in their case, it did happen, even if it seemed that their dream would never come true,

Looking at my church I  continue to dream. And I do what I can to, once in a while,  cut a small hole in the wall that separates me from so many of my fellow-believers. And in the meantime I pray that the walls may soon come tumbling down!

 

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