Called

 

I have been quite productive since I came home from a trip to Sweden about two weeks ago. (We all know that trying to do a lot of things is not the same as being really productive!) Besides preparing two new sermons, I wrote two short articles in Dutch and two longer articles in English. In addition I worked on two presentations for a congress on ‘Celebrating Diversity’ that is to be held in Oxford (UK) towards the end of this month. I finished one earlier this week and this morning I finalized the second of the two presentations.

And I also succeeded in restoring order in my study and to make it more pleasant by shifting some of the book cases and my desk. So, all together, I feel rather satisfied.

One thing that I also appreciated very much this past week was viewing the impressive film that David Brillhart has made about the theme of female pastors in the Adventist Church. It runs for about 30 minuts and is entitled CALLED.

I know David since 1990. At the time I lived in Ivory Coast, a country in West-Africa. I was charged with making a 45 minute video report about the work of the church in the part of the African continent that was then referred to as the Africa-Indian Ocean Division.  This region comprised, apart from a few Anglophone countries (Ghana, Nigeria), all African countries where French is the official language (even as far as Madagascar and Reunion and Mauritius). I wrote the script and traveled with the small team that did the filming in a dozen or so African countries, while David was responsible for the final product. I vividly remember how we worked through several nights in a studio in California in order to get the film ready, in time for the General Conference session in Indianapolis.

I have stayed in regular contact with David. Therefore I was not surprised when (together was many others) I received a message from him with the internet link to the film (https://vimeopro.com/user2035123/called), and with the request to share his message, with the link to the film, to my Facebook networks.

This film about the experiences of four female pastors in the Adventist Church touched my deeply, in a way that few films have been able to do. The film gave an impressive picture of the resistance and prejudices female pastors must face when they begin their work in the churches that have been assigned to them. Fortunately the film also shows how many of these prejudices fade once the church members get to know their woman pastor and begin to appreciate her and recognize her calling. Brillhart and his team have succeeded brilliantly in telling the story of these women, without getting into fruitless arguments about Bible texts, but by putting some actual faces to the ‘problem’.  One remark of a young girl with Rumanian parents struck me as extremely important: ‘Do not write someone’s story before you heard it.’

In the past few days David and I have exchanged some messages about another project. Would it not be great if a similar film could be made about the issue that I deal with in my recent book FACING DOUBT: A Book for Adventist Believers ‘on the Margins’? David would love to work on such a project but for the time being it will most likely remain just a dream—unless from somewhere a Maecenas emerges who is willing to take care of the finances. Well, who knows?

For now I ask all readers of this blog to take the time to watch this movie CALLED (see the link above) and to tell others about it—by word of mouth and through the social media.

 

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The two sides of the church

 

Last Saturday I saw the two sides of my church. I had no preaching appointment elsewhere in the country, which enabled me to worship in the small church where I hold my membership.  That morning we were to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. As usual I arrived about ten minutes before the start of the service, with enough time to greet all members personally. There was no Sabbath School. Normally the Sabbath School starts at 9.30. It is followed by a 20 minutes coffee break, before the divine service begins around 11. However, on days when we have the Communion the service starts at 10, with coffee after the service. So, this was the program for last Sabbath.

It was a very good service. A welcoming, friendly atmosphere. A well-planned liturgy, a sermon with content and a communion ritual that was experienced as meaningful by all who participated—myself definitely included.

A few hours later I was in another town where I joind a discussion group of some 20-25 people, most of whom are ‘on the margins’ of the church or have ceased to be members. Some decided already quite some time ago to lave the Adventist Church, but they still enjoy visiting this monthly discussion. Some weeks earlier I had been invited to introduce my recent book to this group. Apparently, there were still so many questions raised by the book that it was decided to devote another afternoon to it. There also, the atmosphere was excellent and I went home with a good feeling. The meeting had been quite meaningful.

When later, during the evening, I looked back at my day, I thought: Yes, these are the two sides of the Adventist Church. And even though they are miles apart, they belong together. The painful truth, however, is, that it is extremely difficult to build a bridge between those two elements, for the gap has become so wide that the groups no longer understand each other’s thinking. Those who attend church faithfully every week and feel safe in their faith, fail to understand why so many others have left the church and have so many doubts about things they once believed. Many ‘doubters’ who have gradually moved to ‘the margins’ have the sense that what happens on Saturday morning in church is no longer relevant to them. And they see things in the church (elsewhere in the world, but also in their own country) that they can no longer accept.

For me building bridges remains a sacred task. What can I do to help those, who hardly know any doubt and who have no major concerns about the way the church operates, to realize that the doubts and concerns of others are very real and touch their entire being? They must not simply shrug their shoulders and silently conclude that this is what happens when people give up their simple faith or allow too many questions to create unrest in their hearts. I am convinced that we often see an alarming lack of understanding and loving care for the people who are ‘on the margins’.

And what can I do to assist people who struggle with their faith and their church, so that they may consider to give the church another chance? How can I convince them that most church members are pleasant and positive people, who are willing to give them space and will not worry unduly when they have ideas that deviate from ‘the 28’—as long as they will also respect the opinions of others? What can I do to help them see that the church does indeed display some very disconcerting trends, but that it, nonetheless, still has much to offer, and that you actually do yourself a disservice not to participate in a constructive way in the life of this church family.

All of this presents an enormous challenge, and not only at the local level, to which I referred above. Worldwide perhaps the greatest problem the Adventist Church ever had to deal with is the polarization between those who are happy in their faith and content with their church (since they have ‘the Truth’) and the millions of men and women who, for all kinds of reasons, no longer feel at home in the church. The international debate now largely centers on the topic of ordaining women as pastors. That discussion is hugely important, but, in fact, this subject serves as a kind of symbol for a much broader underlying array of issues. The year of listening to each other and praying together that the General Conference has recently announced will not solve this. More is needed for that. There is a great suspicion on the part of many that the ‘lower’ organizations must listen to the ‘higher’ layer of the church! However, it is at least as important that the top leadership learns to intently listen to, and to look at, the concerns of the ‘doubters’ and those who are ‘on the margins’.

At the same time, I remain convinced that building bridges must first of all happen at the local and regional level. In my local church many members do not know who Ted Wilson is and the majority has never seen a GC Working Policy. Most have no clear idea whether or not the Dutch Adventist Church is in line with all international ‘laws’ of the church. But most of them do have children or relatives who are now ‘on the margins’ of the church and can give you a list of names of those ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ who once were active members but have left through the church’s back door.  Only when at a local and regional level we are serious about designing and building bridges, can we hope to help, through a slow process, to de-escalate the crisis of polarization the church is presently experiencing. I want to continue working towards that end and hope many will want to join forces in the designing and building of bridges.

FACING DOUBT_SIDE BAR_S2_web_GB kopie

 

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Once more: Facing Doubt

 

A lot has happened since a few months ago my recent book FACING DOUBT: a Book for Adventist Believers ‘on the Margins’ was published.  Most reactions from readers around the world have been very positive. Time and again I received messages telling me that the book described their personal situation. Some added that it helped them to face their doubts in a more constructive way and to see their church in a realistic but more positive way, in spite of the trends they do not like.  Selected reactions have been posted regularly on the special Facebook page:  @facingdoubt.

At time I have wondered about the wisdom of sticking my neck out in the way I did. But, looking back, I feel richly rewarded and it is a truly fulfilling ministry to support an important –sometimes marginal—segment in the Adventist Church.

As I expected there have been preciously few reaction from church leaders (Many did receive a copy and through the pipeline I get signals that it is being read and that some even feel it is important that the book gets a wide audience)

Official church channels for the promotion of the book have mostly remained closed. This, of course, presents a challenge. How do we make more people in the church aware of the book?  I am very grateful for the support I received from Adventist Today and Spectrum, and from the many individuals who have used their social media contacts to help with the promotion of the book.  As a result, for some weeks the book was the nr. 1 best selling Adventist book on Amazon.

The Dutch edition has received a warm reception from many of my fellow Dutchmen. French, Danish and Russian translations are under way. Initial contacts have been made with a view to also getting the book out in the German and Norwegian language. And—who knows?—a Spanish translation might also be feasible. Finding the funding for the costs of translations, etc. remains one other challenge, which means that things may not go as quickly as I had hoped.

However, the time has come to give the English (and Dutch) edition another promotional boost.  One again I want to ask all my (now almost 4.000) blog readers to look at my current Facebook page. My simple question is: Please share this page with all your FB ‘friends’ and ask them to then share it further with their network!

And, of course, please tell others about the book (or give it to relatives and friends whom you feel might benefit from it.

A big thank you!

PS  And if you hav not ordered your own copy: do so now at Amazon.com.

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Numbers

 

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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