From the beginning numbers have been very important to Adventism.  And they still are. Ever since reading an interesting book that described American as ‘a calculating people’[i] I have often wondered whether the excessive emphasis on numbers is a specifically American trait.  If so, it not only chacterized American Adventism, but soon also became an aspect of international Adventism.  Ad Adventists we have tended to define our success in terms of membership growth, dollars and numbers of institutions.  Of course, we expected the figures always to go up. We either tend to downplay any decreases or, at times, even speak euphemistically about ‘negative growth’! For growth there must be.

Only a few decades ago in Europe the status of a pastor was mainly determined by the number of persons he had been able to baptize. No wonder the strong emphasis on this aspect of numerical growth could easily lead to pulling people in the baptismal font who were not quite ready for that important step. One cannot escape the impression that in some parts of the world this continues to be rather common praxis. When, for instance—as happens in some territories—a pastor is supposed to qualify as a ‘centurion’ by baptizing at least one hundred people per annum, or when  pastors are given special awards for success in ‘soul winning’ , one must not be amazed if subsequently membership retention will be a problem.

During the Annual Council of the worldwide Adventist Church which just ended in Silver Spring, the issue of bringing ‘rebellious’ unions into line with denominational policy was not the only important issue. The executive secretary of the General Conference reported an alarming trend in the (non-)retention of new members. While in recent decades 42 percent of new members left the church again after a relatively short time, this number has risen to 49 percent in the last five years. So, yes, the church is still growing numerically, but maybe the time has come not to brag about numbers any longer, but to look at what kind of church we are and what kind of spiritual community we should be, if it is to be a place where newly recruited members will want to stay.

A recent example of the way we play with numbers was the evangelistic campaign that was held in September in the city of London. Early in the year the independent Adventist media organization 3ABN announced it would be the backbone of a major evangelistic thrust in the city of London. In greater London the Adventist Church has, in the past few decades, seen a strong growth, although almost exclusively among the non-indigenous segment of the population. It was hoped (and expected) that with the support of 3ABN the church in London would receive a major boost in terms of membership gains. The campaign was held at 11 different sites and was life streamed from there, enabling people to also watch the presentations in their homes. As a result a total of 87 people were baptized.  Some denominational media spoke in glowing terms about this success, but even in the most glorious accounts in between the lines one could pick up signs of disappointment. Danny Shelton, the president of 3ABN, commented that the results would have been much better  if the campaign had been held elsewhere, rather than in the extremely secular environment of Britain’s capital city. Hosever, I challenge Shelton to tell us what place in the secularized Western world  would be more receptive to the type of evangelistic campaign his independent ministry promotes.

When it comes to the numerical growth of the church we will have to accept that in today’s secular environment traditional evangelism no longer works—not even with strong media support, and not even among the non-indigenous population segments.  That realization should help us to  accept that we must experiment more creatively with other forms of church growth, and that we must be willing to define ‘success’ primarily in terms of individuals who, often after a long pilgrimage, come to Christ and decide to be his disciple. And, secondly, it means that we must do all we can to create a climate in which those people who have decided to make the Adventist Church their spiritual home will want to stay there, enjoying their new found freedom in Christ as they mature in their spiritual life.

The sooner we stop playing the numbers game the better it is.  It will help us not to be despondent when the numbers aren’t so great, and to focus on what really counts: growth in terms of our relationship with the Lord.

[i]  Patricia Clone Cohen, A Calculating People – The Spread of Numeracy in Early America (London and New York: Routledge, 1999).


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Principle or Power


I am writing this blog in the express train that will take me in just over five hours from Stockholm to Kramfors, a provincial town further up North in Sweden. The next twelve days will be most dedicated to the next phase of the renovation project of my son’s house. And my two granddaughters, of course, will also get quite a lot of attention. Skype and the excellent internet connection in my son’s house will ensure, however, that I will stay in touch with the Dutch home front and can also follow what is happening in the higher echelons of the Adventist Church

The official church media hardly provide any information about the introductory meetings, that precede the so-called Annual Council. These premiminary meetings have been held during the last few days in Silver Spring (near Washington DC). Yes, two documents were made public. These were intended as the basis for the deliberations of the executive committee of the General Conference—consisting of 343 people from around the world—that is to meet in the coming days. But, apart from this, a deadly silence was maintained. Certainly, this way of communicating is no longer acceptable in 2016. But so far we must rely on the independent media, such as Spectrum and Adventist Today. We can hardly blame them if they do not get all details totally straight. They must gather their news without any official information. They do this in a admirable way. Chapeau!

The manner in which the denominational leadership has handled the controversy regarding the ordination of female pastors threatens to cause great damage to the church. It no longer concerns a biblical-theological principle, but has deteriorated into a blatant struggle for power. A warning had been given to ‘rebellious’ organizations that serious consequences would result if they would go against the church’s policies and ordain female pastors or in some other way ensure the full equality between male and female pastors in their territory. Now, it seems, the time has come to deal with these wayward organizational entities, for the authority of the leadership is at stake.

Whatever will happen in the coming days, one thing is sure: a denominational emphasis on power and force will only result in losers. Even if the leaders in Silver Spring will manage to persist in their disciplinary measures—now or in a year’s time—they will not be the winners of this controversy. Their prestige as pastoral leaders of the church and as servant leaders will have been damaged for good and they will appear ever more irrelevant to many people in the Western world and possibly also elsewhere.

I fervently hope it will not come to a split and that somehow this dark page can be torn from the annals of our history, before the entire world will be able to read it.

When recently I published my book FACING DOUBT: A Book for Adventist Believers ‘on the Margins’ I had no inkling that within a few months it would gain so much further in actuality. I wrote about, and for, fellow-believers who are struggling with doubts and are seriously concerned about current trends in their church. I pleaded with them to deal with their doubts and concerns in a constructive manner and not to leave the church. In the last weeks and days, I hear and read about many fellow-Adventists who are considering to do just that. When they hear about the discussions in Silver Spring they wonder even more than before: Is this a church I want to stay with? Personally I still answer this question in the affirmative. I continue to trust that in the end things will be all right—even though in the short term we may be in for some nasty developments. But eventually, I believe, we will be able to leave this crisis behind us.

In the meantime the train has arrived in the city of Gävle. Another three hours of this train ride remain. I can now concentrate on something else. I took along a thick biography about Catherina Halkes, for which I used a few of the book tokens I received for my birthday. Yes, the book has some relationship to the issue this blog is mostly about. Tine Halkes (1920-2011) was one of the most prominent feminist theologians in the Netherlands. She faced the life-long challenge to be taken seriously by her (RC) church . . .

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About some good and some sad things

Last week it felt mostly like vacation. Together with my older sister from Canada and her husband, my wife and I spent a few pleasant days in Maastricht and the surrounding area (in the far South-East of the Netherlands). My Facebook followers may have read about our adventures. The week ended with a meeting with a discussion group on Saturday afternoon in Amersfoort, where I had been invited to give a presentation about my recent book FACING DOUBT.

In the past week I had to catch up with a number of things. Not only was there a substantial backlog in answering emails, but the Netherlands Union (the Adventist Church in the Netherlands) also sent me a 10.000 word document in French, with the request to produce (rather quickly) a Dutch translation.

Yesterday (Thursday) was, in several ways, a special and in emotional day. It started quite pleasantly. I had agreed to meet with a colleague in a restaurant, not far from the office of the church. This colleague wants to organize a get-together—for part of a day or a full day—for people who have a sense of being ‘on the margins’ of their church. It would be an occasion of talking together and of delivering a message to them that they also truly belong to the church and that there must be space for them—in spite of their questions and concerns. In the coming weeks and months the plans will be further worked out, with the intention of organizing the event in February at a central location in the country.

But, upon arriving home, I opened my laptop and read the sad news that the wife of Wim Altink, our union president (and friend),  had died. Just a few days ago my wife and I had visited Els and Wim. Her condition had clearly deteriorated since we last saw her, but even days ago there was still the hope that a new treatment might work. That was not to be so and Els at last lost the battle of more than ten years against her vicious cancer. The rest of the day my thoughts continued to return to Els’ death and it kept me from sleeping during a substantial part of the night. What remains is the sense of powerlessness to help and the fact that words remain totally inadequate.

A second event which greatly affected the rest of my day were the rumors from Silver Spring (USA), where next week the annual meeting takes place of the full General Conference executive committee. As usual, these meetings are preceded by pre-meetings of the top leadership of the church: the officers of the General Conference and the presidents of the world divisions. In the past few days a lot of concern has been caused by two rather lengthy documents that are to be the basis of discussions next week. They deal with the unity of the church and the necessity to confront the organizational units (conferences, unions) that ignore some church policies (read: that ordain women pastors, or refuse to ordain anyone). One comes away from a reading of these documents with the clear sense that the gender issue in the church has deteriorated into a blatant struggle for power. The top leadership of the church is determined (through a long and convoluted pious reasoning) to enforce its will on the entire world church. Whatever the cost! Initial reports from Silver Spring make us fear the worst. Will there be enough committee members who have the guts to speak up against the GC dictate, or has the culture of fear grown to the extent that most will remain silent?

It would seem that at the higher levels of the church open and free communication has ceased to exist. I experienced this myself at a lower level as a retired church worker. Last week I wrote a rather lengthy email to elder Wilson, the General Conference president. I pleaded with him to be aware of, and to care for, the many people in the church (especially in the Western world) who have doubts about aspects of their faith and are very concerned with some present trends in their church. Two days later I received a reply, written by the president’s personal assistant, on behalf of pastor Wilson. He replied that Wilson had carefully read my ‘cri de coeur’. That initial hopeful sentence was immediately, however, followed by a series of pious platitudes and hollow slogans, that in no way related on the content of my letter. No reply would have been better than this kind of reply. This reply was just a small demonstration of how real communication apparently has become impossible.

At this moment (Friday morning) I am getting ready to hit the road for a four-to-five hour drive to the German city of Kassel, where the North- and South-German Unions will this weekend hold their youth congress. I feel honored—but also slightly uneasy—that at age 74 I have been invited to present a number of workshops at a youth congress. My topic is: How do we see people who are ‘different’: A Christian view of homosexuality. I look forward to the experience and hope that I can help at least some young people in forming a reasonable and informed opinion.


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Two discoveries


In the past seven weeks—since the publication of my recent book FACING DOUBT (and of the Dutch edition)—I have received lots of comments from readers in the Netherlands, but especially also from the United States and Great Britain, as well as from numerous other countries.

It is great to hear that so many have not only read the book and found much with which they agreed, but have also indicated that the book helps them to deal with their doubts, concerns and insecurities. It makes me grateful and it strengthens my feeling that this is a worthwhile project.

The sheer number of positive reactions has amazed me. Quite regularly I am enthusiastic about books that I read, but I must admit that I seldom write a comment (even when I know the author personally). It has truly amazed me that so many people have take the trouble to get hold of my e-mail address (, have sent me a Facebook message or posted a comment on my Facebook page or on the special page dedicated to the book (@facingdoubt), while a few also submitted a comment to the or websites. But in the process I have discovered two things.

Discovery number 1.

I thought that my book would most of all be of interest to those who are ‘on the margins’ of the church—people who hardly ever attend church and feel increasingly uneasy about the Adventist Church. However, I discovered that this presupposition is faulty and perhaps I should consider changing the subtitle of the book! Many people who are active in the church and do not plan to leave the church any time soon, tell me that they feel the book is useful for them. They are happy that I honestly and openly deal with matters that are not just of concern to their brothers and sisters ‘on the margins’, but are also very relevant for others who are in the midst of church life. Not everybody thinks that I have a fully conclusive answer to the questions I raise (and, of course, I did not pretend that I would have all the answers), but the book, they tell me, helps them to deal more satisfactorily with their questions and concerns. It was great to discover this.

Discovery number 2

My second discovery is that the culture of fear in the Adventist Church is even more widespread that I thought. When the book appeared I sent about one hundred complimentary copies to Adventist church leaders in the US and Europe. From a a few I received a note that they received the book and intend to read it. But for the most there is deadly silence, except some things that reach me through the grapevine. Some apparently feel that, though they cannot agree with everything I say, it is good that I actually try to open the discussions about the questions and concerns many members have. I have been told that one of the top leaders mentioned to a colleague that he felt that all church leaders ought to read this book. But to publicly say something positive about the book is apparently too risky. Doing so would raise suspicion and may well endanger one’s church position. I had not expected that this would play such a major role. Of course, I realize that leaders have to be careful in what they say about controversial topics and will not easily endorse books they fear are not totally kosher. But in the past few weeks my fear has considerably increased that leaders must at all costs stick to the ‘party-line’ and must not get involved in any theological or organizational issues. And this is extremely sad. I keep hoping that in the coming months some leaders will publicly say: ‘This book deals with issues and questions that we must talk about. Let us not be afraid for genuine dialogue. Let us not ignore the large numbers of people in the church who live with doubts and who are worried about present trends in their church, and let us provide them with the pastoral care that all God’s people need.’

I wonder whether in the coming months I will make some further discoveries!



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The Bible: reading before ‘studying’


In the past week I spent a few days in England. It is always a pleasure to drive through the rolling South-England countryside, to visit the ancient city of St. Albans (where I have lived a number of years) and to walk through its famous cathedral. To pop into the enormous Norrington Room of Blackwell’s bookstore in Oxford is the cherry on the cake. However, my real purpose for my visit to the UK was to present the “Diversity Lecture’ at Newbold College. My topic was: Difficult Conversations within Adventism.

As is normally the case, the audience had the opportunity to ask questions after the lecture. In answering these I made a remark about the necessity of reading rather than of studying the Bible. In the following days this remark started a life of its own on Facebook. What I meant to say was also touched upon in my recent book FACING DOUBT (pp. 175, 176).  Of course the study of the Bible—by professionals as well as by ‘ordinary’ believers–remains very important. But reading the text comes first. I emphasized this in the following excerpt from my book:

Reading the Bible

Adventists like to talk (or even boast) about studying the Bible. New members usually go through a process of Bible ‘studies’ to become acquainted with the ‘truth.’ We have our weekly Bible studies in the so-called Sabbath School. Early Adventism borrowed the Sunday School model from other denominations and adapted it, as time went by, to its specific needs. The institution of the Sabbath School has certainly helped in strengthening biblical literacy among the church members. But more and more Adventists are beginning to realize that this type of Bible ‘study’ often leaves much to be desired. Most of the quarterly ‘study guides’ are of a topical nature. A particular theme is selected, and then broken down into thirteen sub-themes. The author of the study guide selects a number of Bible texts that he feels say something about these themes, together with some quotations (usually from Ellen G. White) and some further explanatory comments. Very often the Bible texts are drawn together without much regard for context. The weekly Sabbath School study shows that the traditional proof-text method is still very much alive. And even when during a quarter a particular book of the Bible is studied, relatively little attention tends to be paid to its background, context and particular theology.

I have come to the conclusion that we should perhaps stop studying the Bible, and start reading the Bible—as a story that we want to follow from the beginning to the end. When we read a novel and enjoy the plot, we will not just select a paragraph here and there and combine these bits and pieces in a random kind of order. If we read a good book, we will want to follow the entire plot and are eager to know how it ends. In a way this also applies to the Bible. It is God’s story about his interaction with us and with the world. We do well to read it from beginning to end. We may perhaps skip a few pages (for instance the long genealogies) here and there (as we sometimes also do with ordinary books), but we will want to follow the story line. And the same is true for the separate sections of the Bible we usually refer to as the Bible ‘books.’ We will only get the full benefit from our reading if we read these sections in their entirety. And some are so short that we can easily read them in one sitting.

When we use this method, we may find that certain well-known texts do not actually say what we always thought they said. When read in isolation from their context we may come to a conclusion that is not warranted when we also read what precedes and follows the text. Even if we do not understand many of the things we come across, we still benefit from our reading by catching the over-all message of the Bible or a part thereof. Consulting books about the Bible, such as a good commentary, is certainly useful but it cannot take the place of the reading of the Bible itself. Unfortunately many Christians read more about the Bible than in the Bible.


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