Got a burning question about the church and want to take it to the top? Chances are your question has already been answered by Jan Paulsen, president of the General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, during his numerous, live, and unscripted conversations with young adults around the world.
This feature contains excerpted questions and answers (and some dialogue) from five Let’s Talk sessions with Pastor Jan Paulsen held over the course of several recent years, including the latest in St. Louis, Missouri, in July 2005. Material has been edited for space and clarity. --Editors.
QUESTION: Pastor Paulsen, do you believe that we are putting too much of a standard on baptism when we say things to people [such as], “Hey, you have to stop smoking before you can be baptized”?
PASTOR PAULSEN: I think baptism signifies that you have made a deliberate decision for Christ. That is an informed decision. It has to do with accepting salvation in Jesus Christ, and it has to do with accepting the life of discipleship. Christ says, “come walk with Me.” It is in response to that call that you accept Jesus Christ and begin your journey with Him, and are baptized. It is very biblical, and it signifies that you are finished with something that is past. Romans 6 describes baptism as a burial of the past and an emerging into a new life. It is important that it is understood by those who are being baptized just what that new life is, and they have made their decision that this is going to be the life for them. A person is ready whenever they have made that decision. This is not a matter of time. It all depends on where they’ve come from--and what stage they are at in their own development.
Q: I’ve got an issue related to that. I’m living with my partner currently--we are not baptized because we are “living in sin,” and they won’t baptize us until we are married. To some people who aren’t in the church and haven’t grown up in the church, this is a block. For example, my fiancé’s parents have been living together for 30 years. They are not married, and they are not going to get married. If someone says to them, “You can’t get baptized unless you get married,” they are going to reply, “Well, you can keep your religion!”
This is a very difficult question. Actually, it’s a challenge to the church in many parts of the world. I don’t think the Bible is the one that is unclear on this. Marriage is between a man and a woman who have made a decision, made a commitment to each other for life--they need to express themselves in the way that is accepted and recognized by the public as a permanent commitment in marriage. It’s a biblical thing between two individuals and God, and it just seems to me that it is the right thing to do. Why don’t you do it? You have already made your decision. Why don’t you ask the lady--make her day!
Follow-up: We are; we are getting married!
PAULSEN: Wonderful! [In regard to working with a couple like your fiancé’s parents,] I would work patiently and, I hope, lovingly with them to move them along, so that this doesn’t become an obstacle. The church has very clear biblical standards and has to operate by them. If the church becomes a place of maximum accommodation, then we have a problem on our hands. But I would want to explain to them how the church works, what the standards are, and at the same time show how much I care for them as individuals. I would try my best to lovingly bring them into the family of Christ.
Q: I’m a worship leader. With music and worship styles still being quite a controversy within the church, what are your thoughts on how the Adventist Church is dealing with this?
PAULSEN: This is a very huge question because music is also culturally conditioned. When I first served in Africa 40 years ago, we had drums in church for worship. This would have been considered terrible in some parts of the world, but in Africa it was the natural thing, a good thing to do. Culturally acceptable. We have to recognize that there is no simple answer to this issue.
I think there is some music that doesn’t belong in worship life. I don’t care where you are; some music just simply doesn’t belong. But having said that, at the same time those of us who are accustomed to classical music have to recognize that there is a large number of our members, particularly the younger generation, who are able to live meaningfully and in a very devout manner, and they express worship and witness through music that is more modern. In Melbourne this past week when we attended [worship], the music that I heard was to a large extent very beautiful, and yet it had a modern touch to it.
The core thing is about being an Adventist. That has to do with what you believe and the values that you have incorporated into your life. This is your identity. The list of what I believe is quite substantial and specific. What are the values you hold to? What do we say “Yes” to, and what do we say “No” to? Therein are displayed the qualities of life that are peculiar to Adventists. I suppose, in a sense, music is also filtered into that.
Follow-up: Worship styles and what some people believe or perceive to be right for their church--even things coming out of the same doctrine and beliefs--still seem to divide us. I think it is quite a problem.
PAULSEN: Are you good at examining that critically? Are you good at disciplining yourself? Are you making sure that this is not just a way by which what is established outside the church finds its way into the church?
ANSWER: Yes, I think it is really important to look at that, and as a worship leader myself I have to discern not only what is appropriate for the church but also what our culture is--because each church has a different culture within itself.
Q: In today’s society there is extreme pressure on youth to have sex outside of marriage. What is the church doing, and what can we do, to be the voice of abstinence?
PAULSEN: First of all, the Bible is clear. Is sex outside of marriage a good idea? No. But it happens. What do we do when it happens to young people? The church has to, on the one hand, have clear standards, and teach these standards to the family. Parents also owe it to their children to speak clearly on this subject. In our institutions we owe it to our students to speak clearly on the subject. And then you may find that even though you have done that, it happens.
The church is an instrument for salvation; it is not an instrument to reject people and make them feel unloved--by the church or by Christ. Even when mistakes of this kind are made, the church needs to reach out and bring people in. But I also need to say that I think the church’s teaching on this is very clear. I think it is important that we appeal to our teenagers and ask them to examine their own lives, not only look at standards as something that is outside of their own person. They need to look at themselves and ask what they are doing to themselves: Are they doing damage to themselves, are they destroying themselves, and are they going to feel better about themselves, or are they reducing their own values by doing this? I think these are important questions that a young person should be encouraged to ask himself or herself.
Q: After you have done the series of Let’s Talk and you’ve heard the voice of Adventist youth, what will you actively do about our thoughts and concerns so that we will see a result in our local churches?
PAULSEN: It’s like talking and living in a community. Does it ever end? I don’t see this [series] as something that has a limited life. I happen to be in this position now and have the privilege to meet with you, but church leaders need to do this around the world.
You ask the question as to what we will do with it. It isn’t so much one specific program or one specific initiative that is the main burden on my heart. We must change the mind-set to: “Look, the church is all of us.” Two thirds of our church are young people--are they heard, are they active, are they seen in the church? I want to be sure that our dialogue, our conversation, can stimulate greater understanding for and participation of the corresponding change of mind-set so that all of us will function as a community. That is the only way we are going to finish the mission that Christ has entrusted to us.
I really do want the younger people in the church to be entrusted with responsibility and to let that be displayed in the life of the local church. And I want all of us, including those who are employed by the church, to assume a coordinating leadership role as mentors, as trainers.
There are some specific ideas and initiatives that have come about in these conversations that I will take back with me to Washington, and that I will review with some of my colleagues.
Barbados, ATN Via Satellite--
QUESTION FROM PERTH, AUSTRALIA: What efforts, if any, are being made by the world Adventist Church to promote global peace and harmony; and why is it that the pope receives global media coverage to advocate peace when you, as president, stay silent?
PAULSEN: Let me try the second one first. Why does the pope receive so much global media attention? He is the head of a religious community of 1 billion. This is a large community, and they are everywhere. And so when he speaks, obviously he is representing a large segment of the world’s population. It is natural. There is an enormous influence that flows from what he says.
We are not silent on the issue of peace. I have not been silent on the issue, but I don’t get the same media coverage. These are difficult times that we are in. We have been through two very difficult years. And I have, on several occasions, in public and also before leaders when I have traveled around the world, spoken to the issue of peace. I have spoken to the issue of relationships between nations and tolerance within a particular nation that will tear itself apart by regional issues. So we address it. We do. The media coverage, we don’t always have much control over that.
Q: I have traveled to about 13 different countries on five different continents, and most of those have been within an Adventist setting. Why does Adventism seem more genuine in developing countries than in North America?
PAULSEN: You have raised a very important question. To answer this fairly is very difficult because it is difficult for me to measure genuineness. But I would say that of the world where our church is growing very rapidly--in Africa, or in South America, or in Inter-America, or in parts of Asia where we have an explosive growth in some countries--there is such a sense of warmth; there is so much life. You are there for a Sabbath, and there is an enormous sense of celebration. There is a sense that we are huge, there are many of us, there is a lot of strength, a lot of joy, and a lot of partnership--a lot of everything that makes up life. It’s a strength of life, which is communicated well.
Having these feelings in North America and in parts of Europe is often very hard when our church is a small community and almost swallowed up by the secular society. It’s hard to convey the same sense of being part of a winning team, and the sense of having such an enormous strength and life. Even as I look at these difficulties I have to remind myself, I am where I am. This is where God has put me. I have to be faithful to Him, and I need to be Christ’s witness where I am in my community, among my friends, and then see what the Lord can do with that.
Q: The Adventist Church has not always been at the front of social or racial reform. Do you think we as Adventists should engage ourselves politically to change society?
PAULSEN: Here again we have to keep in mind the fact that we are talking about a global Adventist Church, and what is the political reality in one part of the world is not so in another. What’s possible to do in one part of the world is not so in another part of the world. Should our church be engaged politically? Yes! I think so. Our church should be spokespersons for boundaries that may change society for the good.
War is dreadful. And so is the [plight of the] poor. Christ cared profoundly for poor people. You cannot read the Gospel without being struck by the fact that Christ cared for the poor. I think the poor have so few spokespersons. To me, it’s a shame that the most eloquent spokespersons England has for the poor people in Africa today happen to be pop/rock musicians: Bono and U2. The church hasn’t done or said enough for the poor. The church can be a voice on the public scene to espouse the right values. We are not meant to be a withdrawn, quiet community that engages only in spiritual talk.
Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan--
Q: I’m from Germany. My question: How do women and younger people come into higher positions of leadership in the church?
PAULSEN: [From the perspective of] the elected leadership of the church, we do want the younger people and women to become greater participants in the life and the dynamics of the decision-making activities of the church. We want them to be more visible; we want them to feel a sense of ownership in the church and church decisions. In other words, the church cannot afford to have observers sitting out there on the bleachers. The church is all of us--men, women, children, youth, and the older ones. And we really have to acknowledge and affirm that, and then make room for this kind of involvement. And I want to assure you that when I talk with my fellow leaders, I find on the whole a great readiness to accept this, and a willingness to work on trying to find a better way of resolving this.
St. Louis, Missouri, July 7, 2005--
Q: 60-70 percent of the young adults are leaving the church. Why do you think this is, and what can we do to remedy this?
PAULSEN: If young people of that number (I don’t know quite what the numbers are) leave the church, we are in [trouble]. I don’t think people leave the church because the teachings of the church have somehow died on them. They leave the church for personal and maybe social reasons, or something went wrong in their lives. The church (by that I mean the local congregation) needs to be a people-loving community. People need to know that when they walk into the local church, it’s like the arms of a family held around them. Whatever they do, whoever they are, whatever they look like, and whatever they say, they need to know that they are safe within the family. In that kind of environment young people feel that this is a good place to be.
Q: I believe that young people would stay in the church if they were involved. As the head of the Adventist Church, how far are you (and the church itself) ready to go, as far as the youth are concerned? Would you trust us to choose the music we would like and support us with materials and encourage us when we fall?
PAULSEN: The word you used, “trust,” is very important. Those of us who are older need to trust those who are younger in the church. We have to both understand and tolerate, and we have to take some rebuke, and we have to take some love--it’s all in the dynamics of family life. My advice to the youth is to be sure that what you do, what you sing, and how you behave can somehow also give to them a sense that you trust them as the older generation. I think that kind of trust will allow considerable room in the choices we make.
Q: Ireland has the leading statistics in suicide, per capita, in Europe, and suicide is the leading cause of death among young people in Northern Ireland. What is the church’s view on suicide and salvation, and how do we address this issue as a church?
PAULSEN: There are never simple reasons as to why a person says that “this is too much for me--I don’t see a future,” and ends their life. Tragic as it is, reasons for it are often very complex. Our Lord is a very understanding and very loving Father. He is also able to see that somebody was brought up to the very border of toleration and somehow didn’t know how to cope with it. God is a loving God who is going to do His utmost to save everyone. Don’t write anyone off, including the people in Northern Ireland who find it a bit too much.
Q: In Africa we are suffering from HIV/AIDS. What message do you give to the young people in connection with that?
PAULSEN: The church is massively involved in dealing with the problem, and asking: How do we treat people who carry HIV/AIDS? In terms of healing, it is a multinational, international undertaking. But every Adventist church should be a healing forum; it should be an environment in which those who carry HIV/AIDS can feel that they are not being shunned, and that there are, in fact, people who love them and will embrace them, and who will socially be loyal to them. The church is involved in Africa in a specific program to train our churches to become havens of refuge, havens of healing socially.