Will the church disappear?

As I am writing this blog I am still struggling with my jetlag. The time difference of nine hours will inevitably derail one’s internal clock for a few days. However, it was great to spend two weeks in California, to meet friends and to stay in the homes of kindred spirits–the first week not far from Loma Linda and the second week a few hundred miles more to the North in San Luis Obispo.

With respect to ‘work’, these weeks were focused on my last book FACING DOUBT. The chapters of the Adventist Forums in San Diego and Los Angeles (Glendale) had invited me to speak about this book, and when the folks in San Luis Obispo heard about my coming, the request came to also include their church in my itinerary and to speak on the same topic. The more I visit different places and speak to groups of fellow-believers of whom a majority finds itself ‘on the margins’ of the church, the more I am convinced that I am involved with something really important. Time and again I meet people who tell me they have recognized themselves in my book, and it is extremely satisfying to get reactions from people who say that the book has in fact helped them to re-connect in a meaningful way with their faith and their church.

However, there is an element that gives me more and more concern. The groups that invite me consists mostly of people who have passed the age of sixty. Some decades ago the Adventist Forum chapters were established by relatively young people—mostly in their thirties and forties. Many of them are still members of AF, but the majority is now of retirement age, and very few young members have joined in recent years. During my stay in San Luis Obispo an informal get-together was organized on the Saturday evening. The idea was that I would try to answer questions and that we could continue the discussion about topics that had been raised earlier in the day. Several attendees emphasized that their church had also been unable to retain most of their younger members. That led to the question whether perhaps the Adventist Church is doomed to disappear.

For many Adventists it is simply unthinkable that Adventism will, slowly but surely, disappear (at least from the Western world). Because the Seventh-day Adventist Church is ‘God’s last church’, the church at the end of time that has the special commission to proclaim the pure gospel everywhere, before Jesus Christ will come to gather his church and take it ‘home.’  But the reality raises concerns. Some new churches are established, but at the same time the church disappears from certain regions. In the northern part of Scandinavia, for example, very few Adventists remain. In the churches in urban centers very few representatives of the original population can be found. A study that dr. Ronald Lawson recently published on his website indicates that within a few decades the percentage of ‘white” Adventists in New York has decreased from around 90 % to less than 10 %. (https://ronaldlawson.net). I remember talking with a colleague about the sad fact that our children, and the children of many other pastors, were no longer in the church. His reaction was: ‘Yes, it stops with us!’ Was he right?

I heard a comment in San Luis Obispo that has stayed with me. One of the attendees said: ‘ We keep on saying that we must give space to our young people and must pay much more attention to their ideas and wishes. But that has hardly any result. The younger generation does not want a church that is adapted just a little to their thinking. We must dare to give the church to the younger generation. Let them take it from us, and let us se what will ‘emerge’ (sorry: that is a suspect word!). Only if we dare to do this, the church has a chance to survive.’

Do we indeed dare to do this? Do I dare to do so? I have not reached the point that I can reply with a unconditional ‘yes’. And that is not just because I wonder whether the church that will ‘emerge’ will still send me a monthly retirement check. It is mostly because I still feel attached to many aspects of today’s church. But I have no doubt that something radical must happen. Too many people have already disappeared or are ‘on the margins’ of the church. May God give us the courage to explore new ways!

Out of Adventism

My wife and I are currently spending some time in California. I had been invited to give a few presentations based on my book FACING DOUBT, first in San Diego and then in Glendale, near Los Angeles. A friend whom we got to know a number of years ago, and who visited us last year in the Netherlands, invited us to stay with her. I am now sitting at the kitchen table in her fabulous house in Redlands, not far from Loma Linda, writing this blog. We will have left from here to go to San Luis Obispo by the time this blog appears on my site. San Luis Obispo is a relatively small town some 400 kilometers Northwest of Redlands. I am scheduled to preach there on Sabbath and to give a presentation about the theme of my book.

Many of those who attend these presentations have already read my book or have at least heard about it. In the Glendale City Church my book has been used in one of the main Sabbath school classes during the previous quarter as a guide for the discussions. For me these presentations and the question-and-answer periods that followed, and also the numerous conversations of the past few days, were once again a clear confirmation of the fact that a large number of Adventists are stranded ‘on the margins” of the church, and that this group needs special attention.

Shortly before leaving on this California trip someone called my attention to a book written by a former Adventist pastor and theologian, Jerry Gladson. It is entitled Out of Adventism and describes how Gladson came to the decision, after a long process, to quit as an Adventist pastor and to become a minister in another Protestant denomination. I ordered the Kindle-edition. (Since I got a Kindle e-reader a few months ago as a birthday present from my wife, I am using it rather intensively). In between other things I read Gladson’s book during this past week.

I had never heard of this Gladson, but I hear from people in California that is he quite well known. After having served for a number of years as a church pastor he was invited to join the theological faculty of one of the colleges in the South of the USA (now called Southern Adventist University. He was given the opportunity to continue his studies and to pursue a doctorate in Old Testament studies.

Gladson describes in detail how he gradually began to question some traditional Adventist doctrines. A few chapters chronicle the tumultuous situation that followed the activities of Brinsmead and his followers and, subsequently, the controversy around the ideas of Desmond Ford. In addition, the church was confronted with people like Ronald Numbers and Walter Rea, who with the books called many aspects of the work and person of Ellen G. White into question. Gladson was not only trying to resolve many issues in his own mind, but became theologically more and more suspect. It is sobering to read about the process he went through, but it is absolutely dumbfounding to read about the toxic climate in some of these institutions for higher learning. ‘Spies’ would infiltrate the lectures of some of the professors in an effort to collect evidenced through recordings of their alledgedly ‘heretical’ views. Church leaders were all too often inclined to take sides with the conservative church members who urged that these theology professors would be fired.

Much of what Gladson writes about his pilgrimage through Adventism parallels my own experience. However, I worked in the Netherlands at the time of the controversies around Brinmead, Ford and Walter Rea and others, and there the conflict was much less bitter and did not make any casualties among the pastors. At that point the experiences of Gladson and my experiences were different.

Gladson decided, like many others, to leave the Adventist Church. The church lost many competent and fine workers as a result of the intolerance and often unchristian attitude of church leaders. In the past few years I have met many of them and listened to their sad stories. But I am glad to be able to say that I have also met many who decided to stay and who have done all they could to help improve the spiritual climate in the church. And I am grateful that, in spite my reservations with regard to certain doctrines and my aversion against particular trends in the church, I have found the strength to remain and to continue to play a positive role. However, books like Out of Adventism remind me of that fact that power play and intolerance continue to make victims and damage many good people for the rest of their lives. That made my reading of this book in the past few days into a painful and sad experience.

A theological toolbox

The Dutch publishing firm Boekencentrum recently published a book with a title that, literally translated, says: Having good tools is half the work.[1] The book has two authors: Professor Kees van der Kooi, who teaches systematic theology at the Free University in Amsterdam, and his wife Margriet, who is a hospital chaplain. I have become rather well acquainted with the content of their book, since I translated the text for the edition that will shortly be published by Eerdmans in the USA. The message of the book is clear: Christian spiritual care has much in common with spiritual care that is given from the perspective of another worldview or that pretends to be neutral. The Christian chaplain, however, brings more to his job than the skills and knowledge that every person needs who mentors or coaches people in crisis situations. He/she needs a good theological toolkit in order to do and say things that have a solid theological basis. This thesis is further explored in the analysis of some fifteen different cases from Margriet van der Kooi’s practice.

As I was focused on this topic, I happened to see a book in my library that I bought a few years ago in an Christian bookstore in Australia. This book emphasizes the role of the pastor as the theologian in his church.[2] A pastor must dispose of a good number of gifts and social skills if he/she wants to be a competent leader of his/her church. But the plea of the authors of this book is that a pastor should first and foremost be a theologian, who is able to feed his church members with good, theologically responsible, spiritual food and can lead his team in a way that has a solid theological undergirding.

I would like to extend the thread that runs through these two books a bit further, to include a specific group of people: leaders and administrators of church organizations—in particular the leadership of so-called ‘higher’ organizations. In the context of the Adventist Church this would mean: leaders of conferences, unions, divisions and the General Conference. In the past decennia much has been done to provide education for leaders through leadership courses and seminars and even full academic programs. These usually emphasize the techniques that are needed to lead rather complex organizations.  Those who have tried to keep somewhat informed about the subject matter the church-initiated courses usually deal with, will have discovered that in many cases they include topics that are also relevant for training sessions in non-church organizations and in the business world. To some extent this is quite all right, for, after all, the church is also a social organization, in which one encounters the same processes that are found in any organization. However, it should also be mentioned that the training that the church provides for its leaders does always stress the important fact that church leaders must be spiritual leaders.

Nonetheless, there is an aspect that is often not given the kind of attention it deserves. A church leader must also be a competent theologian who is able to execute the task that has been entrusted to him/her in a theologically responsible manner. He/she must not just have the skills to organize things efficiently, to chair meetings professionally, and to lead and enthuse a team of co-workers. It is also of crucial importance that a church leader/administrator is a theologian who is able to steer the church in a positive theological direction. He/she must understand current theological developments and either stimulate or resist particular developments in a theologically responsible manner. It seems to me that on its various levels the Adventist Church has many leaders who are ‘spiritual’ men and women, but at the same time are theological light weights. And this has its consequences. I cannot help but think of the former president of the General Conference and his current successor. The leadership of the former president was characterized by his solid theological background and, unfortunately, that cannot be said of at least some of the present leaders of the world church. Church administrators must always have their theological toolkit at hand in the execution of their task. If not, the church will suffer incalculable damage.

[1]  Kees en Margriet van der Kooi, Goed Gereedschap is het Halve Werk: De Urgentie van theologie in pastoraat en zielzorg. Utrecht: Boekencentrum, 2017    [2] Kevin J. Van Hoozer en Owen Strachan, The Pastor as Public Theologian. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015.


Unity: a step forward

Last week the Adventist Review—the more or less official journal of the Adventist world—published a remarkable article about the questions that continue to stir the emotions in the Adventist Church. How do we proceed with the issue of the ordination of female pastors? And, an even more pressing question: Should the church take disciplinary measure against unions and conferences that, against the will of the General Conference, have decided to ordain women to the gospel ministry?

During the Autumn Council of 2017 the executive committee of the GC (of which all union president are members) a plan that had been devised by the top leadership of the church to punish the leaders of those organizations that do not abide by the church’s policies, was rejected after a lot of commotion. The majority of the 250- member committee was dissatisfied with the process that led to the proposal and considered the proposal itself as not carefully thought-through or even totally unacceptable.

The article in the denominational journal explained the process that must now lead to a new proposal that may go on the agenda of the Autumn Council in October of this year. It is hopeful that the church’s journal was quick to publish this article, giving all the details, and also that the committee that is dealing with this matter wants to guarantee absolute openness and transparency. The previous chairman of the Unity Oversight Committee, Tom Lemon, left this position. It remains unclear whether or not he did so under pressure from ‘on high’. He has now been replaced by Michael Ryan, a veteran church administrator, whom I know reasonable well and whom I would want to characterize as a no-nonsense pragmatist (which is not the same as saying that he is not spiritual or a politician!). In the process of preparing a new proposal, in order to break the current impasse, a broad inventory will be made of how leaders at all denominational levels think that the ‘non-compliant’ unions must be dealt with. A list with six questions had already been sent to all union president. They are asked to indicate what, in their view, should happen with those ‘non-compliant’ unions.

It is too early to predict whether this new approach will bring us forward. Personally, I would have preferred if the church at the General Conference level had opted for a more relaxed attitude. Would it not be possible to allow the passage of time to do its work? In the past there have often been significant developments, without endless meetings, congresses, study committees and GC-session votes. The matter of military service is a good example. There was a time when the SDA position was clear: Adventists are willing to respect the authorities, but carrying weapons and the possibility of having to use these for killing people, was considered as contrary to our understanding of the sixth commandment: ‘You shall not kill’. In some areas in the world this is still the Adventist position, but in other places Adventists more and more consider it an honor to defend their country, also in a combat role. I regret that development, but it shows that there may be a development in a certain area that leads to a diversity of practice, which can be absorbed by the church without too much tension.

Would it not be possible to allow unions, if they so desire, the freedom to operate with a one-credential-system, in which men and women have fully equal status and rights? And could we not allow other ‘fields’ in the world that disagree with such a development to continue with the traditional ordination practices? Can we not simply decide to see how matters will develop and re-evaluate the situation in a decade or so?

Some may object and say: Must we take so much time? I realize it is in the Adventist DNA to want to do things quickly. However, church history teaches us that ecclesial processes may take a long time. In the Eastern Orthodox world that question of the correct Easter date has always been a dilemma. One committee that was set up to discuss this question held annual sessions for over fity years! I admit: that maybe too long to our taste. But it seems a good thing to me to give ourselves—and first and foremost the Spirit—a bit more time than we are accustomed to do.


The Shack

From time to time one of my books goes missing. I usually fail to write it down when someone borrows one of my books. Occasionally a borrower may forget to return it. (I must admit that I also have a few books in my library that I borrowed, and that I have forgotten whom to return them to. And from time to time some books must be recycled to make place for new books.

I do not remember what happened to The Shack, by Wm. Paul Young. Some ten years ago I bought this book in a Christian bookstore in Sidney. I may have lend it to someone after I had read it. Anyway, it was not longer there when I looked for it. But early last month I happened to see it in Barnes and Nobles bookstore in the USA, and, as I write, the book lies on my desk in front of me. Worldwide some 25 million copies of the book have been sold. The Dutch edition sold over 25 thousand copies.

The book begins with the story of a little girl that is abducted during a family camping vacation. The police finds evidence that she was murdered in a deserted shack, somewhere in Oregon. Four years later Mack, the father, who still mourns his little girl, receives a letter inviting him to return to the shack. It seems that the letter comes from God himself. Very hesitatingly Mack returns to the shack, where he finds three persons: a black woman, an Arabic-looking young man and an Asian young woman. They present themselves as the three persons of the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit—the triune God in a totally different form from what Mack imagined God to be. In the long conversations that take up much of the book the three try to bring Mack to some new insights about God and to reconcile him with the terribly event that had happened.

The reviews of the book vary from ‘rubbish’ to ‘absolutely amazing’. Many readers felt the book was blasphemous, while many others say the book has immensely enriched their spiritual life. I am somewhere in between. I do not believe the book has significant literary qualities, but it has given me food for thought. The theme of human suffering remains relevant for all of us, and is addressed in this book in a creative and meaningful way. But the special value of this book is the way in which God is pictured.

It is perhaps not very shocking to see Jesus presented as a young Arab, even though most people are more familiar with pictures of Jesus as a white European of American young man. Of course, this is not what Jesus looked like when he was on earth. The Holy Spirit as a young Asian woman—what do we make of that? Most people do not have any mental picture of the Spirit. It remains mostly very vague who and what the Spirit is. In early Christianity the Spirit was often spoken of in female terms. However, God the Father as a beautiful black woman of about forty—for many readers this is simply a bridge too far. This is the total opposite from the way they picture God the Vader. Inspired by medieval paintings they imagine God as an old, white (!) male (!), with a long white beard. But why would it be all right to think of God as a white man, and not as a black woman?

A theology professor at an Adventist university once told me that, when he teaches a class about the Doctrine of God, and specifically about the Trinity, he tells his students that—beside several heavy theological books—they must read The Shack. He believes it is essential that students realize it is possible to picture the triune God in many different ways, but we can never get beyond human images. God is so infinitely different from us that we can never define him (?).  Even when we say that God is a ‘person’, we do not really know what we mean. The problem is that we can never describe the Indescribable One with our limited human vocabulary. We must carefully search for words and images that will lift us above our own human level, but as soon as we have said something about God we must take a step back and admit that it was no more than human stammering and that we have not penetrated into the mystery of God.

No, God the Father is not a black woman, but neither is he a gray-haired old man. He is God. He/she is my God, who in some mysterious way gives meaning and future to my life. And let us realize that, if we are looking for an image of God, as something concrete that we can hold on to, this image never represents the divine reality. For God does not live in our human ‘shack’, but in heaven (whatever that word may mean).