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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Wartburg

I am writing this blog in an elegant room on the third floor of the hotel in the German city of Eisenach that is run by the German Evangelical Lutheran Church. My wife and I are here, because I have been invited to give a presentation to the members of the AWA.

The acronym AWA stands for Adventistischer Wissenschaftlicher Arbeitskreis. It is an association of German Adventists who meet from time to time to study and discuss relevant topics for contemporary Adventists. AWA might be compared to the American Spectrum/Adventist Forums organization. It is an independent group, but the fact that the president of the North German Union will preach tomorrow morning, is a clear indication that the AWA is not seen as negative or as a group of rebels.

This year’s topic is the outcome of the recent General Conference in San Antonio. What were the crucial trends? What does the future look like after San Antonio? My lecture on Sunday morning will focus on this latter question.

I do not know whether it is a coincident that this year’s meeting is in Eisenach, or whether choosing this place is meant to be a signal. Eisenach is one of the famous Luther-cities in Germany. Looking from our window I se,e at a distance of a few hundred meters, the top of a high hill, with the Wartburg castle—the fortress where Luther took refuges for about a year and where he translated a major part of the New Testament into German.

Luther is seen by most Adventists in a much more favorable light than Calvin and most other reformers. Luther is the great reformer who dared to challenge the mother church. He had the courage to criticize the many things in the church that were patently wrong. After intensive study he had concluded that essential aspects of the gospel were no longer preached and practiced. Against his initial intentions, this eventually led to a tragic split in the sixteenth century church.

Now, five centuries later (the fifth centennial of the Reformation will be celebrated in the Luther Year in 2017), most Protestants not only see the great achievements of Martin Luther but also his shortcomings. And, at the same time, Luther is no longer only seen in a very negative light by all Catholics. There is a widespread consensus that lots of things in the church of Luther’s days needed urgent correction. But for a long time the opinions differed sharply. For most Protestants Luther was a hero, while most Catholics saw him as a apostate rebel who inflicted great damage on his church.

In spite of major reforms, the church is never perfect. This church is semper reformanda (it must constantly be reformed). In the past few years the leadership of the Adventist Church has been calling for ‘revival and reformation’. Simultaneously, there are many members in the pews who also want to see changes and ‘reform’ in their church. But when they speak of change, or ‘reformation’, they mean something quite different. They want to say that their church is in danger of becoming a system that in many ways resembles the system that Luther protested against. They want to emphasize their own freedom and responsibility before God, when they read their Bible and draw their  conclusions, without having to accept every syllable of an almost infallible document with 28 detailed Fundamental Beliefs. They refer to a system of church governance in which the members (all members; men and women in full equality) form the basis of authority, rather than a subservience to a strictly ordered hierarchy. I expect that in the next few days we will be talking about that kind of ‘reformation’.

It is no surprise that the call for this type of reform is not welcomed by the church’s bureaucracy. This form of criticism is usually regarded as a kind of rebellion that will damage ‘the church’. But those who keep their eyes on the Wartburg (even though not all share in my current privilege of seeing it with my physical eyes), know that bringing ‘reform’ always takes time and effort, But in the end it is liberating and will help many to more clearly see the core values of the gospel. [However, we must do all we can to ensure that the ‘reformation’ which the Adventist Church needs, will not lead to the kind of fatal split that occurred in Luther’s days.]

 

 

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The Telegraaf and the Adventist Review

 

Soon after getting up each morning I spend roughly ten minutes in checking a number of websites. One of these is the site of a Dutch daily newspaper, called de Telegraaf (the Telegraph). Let me say this: I am not a fervent reader of this paper. Maybe I ought to state this a bit stronger: I greatly dislike this paper and the values it proclaims. Around seven am the newspaper boy does not deliver this, admittedly quite popular, paper to our door, but another—’quality’—paper [Trouw]. However, the website of the Telegraaf does provide a quick answer to the question whether something important happened during the nightly hours. And I must admit that I am often also quite curious to see some of the readers’ comments.

Anyone who knows anything of communication and journalism knows that by comparison the media always get more negative ‘letters to the editor’ and web-comments than missives of adhesion. This seems to apply even more forcefully to the Telegraaf readers. Any ‘hot’ item—and lately there have been enough of those—hundreds of readers tend to empty their vials of wrath. Usually the comments define the government as rotten and ineffective, and the prime minister does not get a very positive press either. Half of the Netherlands (or perhaps even a bit more) consists of people who only want to line their own pockets, while they contribute nothing to society. And, of coursem there is Brussels and the EU, and . . . the thousands of Syrian fortune hunters who enter our country.  And who knows how many IS terrorists are among them.

It takes me some effort to realize that these comments do not represent the average opinion of the Dutch population. Yes, they stand for a disturbingly large group of people (who are mostly ill-informed and opinionated), but there are also other voices of people who think in a more nuanced and constructive way—although these tend to be less vocal and, unfortunately, re not speaking out as frequently!

This does not just apply to the secular media. Looking at the letters to the editor and the web-comments of the Adventist Review (the journal of the Adventist world church), I often get a kind of Telegraaf-feeling. I find it quite frightening to see how negative sentiments or simple Hallelujah-shouts that ignore the facts, often reign almost supreme. The comments often cry wolf about all kinds of tendencies that readers discern in the church. So far, so good. There must be freedom of speech. But often ideas, intentions and hidden agendas are attributed to people, and opinions that are contrary to their own are all too easily depicted as satanic. [I hasten to add that I also find many letters and web-reactions in other denominational and independent Adventist media not very uplifting.]

Reading such reader-reactions at times discourages me greatly. I must continuously tell myself that it is a ‘law’ that negative comments will greatly outnumber positive reactions. We are told that the chance that someone who disagrees will seize his pen or grab his i-pad is about ten times more likely than that someone who approves of what he reads will react.

Last week I had to remind myself several times of this. My blog of last week was not appreciated by all readers. Some comments may be found at the end of that blog (both under the Dutch and the English version). Some reactions were of such a nature that I deleted them. After all, I want my blog to retain a certain amount of ‘class’. Quite a few readers preferred to send me e-mails. Among those there were also more negative than positive ones. The most important problem was that apparently many readers did not really understand that message I wanted to convey and thought that I placed Jesus in the gay-scene of his days. Whenever I post a somewhat controversial blog it also appears that some readers are so sure of the correctness of their own views that they will not even consider any other approach.

Until yesterday I thought that this week’s blog might be about the papal visit to the USA. However, I decided against that idea, since I do not want to receive too much digital communication during the coming week. Earlier blogs about the pope or about Catholicism usually resulted in some comments that I really ought to restudy the biblical prophecies, If I did, I would know that the pope is ‘the beast’ of the book of Revelation, and would discover that even the sympathetic Francis deceives us.

For the next few days I do not welcome such reactions. Together with my wife I hope to spend a few pleasant days with friends on the coast of the south of Spain. Next week, undoubtedly, I will find again something controversial to write about.

 

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