May 24, 2006

Four Big Questions

1515 page8 capt’s always dangerous to prophesy, especially about the future. From its earliest days, however, a key component of the Review’s ministry has been to look ahead, preparing the Advent people for what lies over the horizon as we await the ultimate event that is coming—Jesus’ return.
My neck is getting too long. It’s been a while since I shared my perspectives on the future of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. So let me dust off my seer’s robe and lay my cranium on the block.
But first, some basics: What I envisage here is strictly my own thinking. It isn’t necessarily shared by other Review editors, let alone the church leadership. Second, I will focus on the church in North America, since the Adventist Review circulates mainly in this division. Third, whatever I convey proceeds out of a deep conviction that the Lord is leading this church; that, despite its flaws evident and not so evident, He loves us as the apple of His eye. I am not a critic of the church—have never been, and pray never to be.
This article focuses on questions—four big ones. I have huge regard for the administrators of the church at all levels who sweat and struggle to find answers. You will probably find this article heavy on questions, light on answers. But there is a time to bring tough questions out into the spotlight.
Like now.
Question One: Will the church in North America be flexible enough to accommodate the changes that lie just ahead?
1515 page8 capWhat changes? Big changes. If time lasts another 20 years, I see the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America differing profoundly from the church of 2006.
George Barna specializes in research on Christianity in North America. He has made it his lifework; he has written some 35 books. And now his latest book, Revolution (Tyndale House Publishers, 2005), seeks to plot and describe a movement that Barna predicts will transform the Christian church like nothing else in more than a century.
1515 page8Barna is speaking of a broad-based grassroots revival that has no single leader and no headquarters. This movement differs radically from past renewals. “In the great awakenings of America’s history, the pattern was always the same: draw people into the local church for teaching and other experiences. In this new movement of God, the approach is the opposite: it entails drawing people away from reliance upon a local church into a deeper connection with and reliance on God” (p. 127).
The heart of this revival, which Barna’s research suggests already involves more than 20 million, is “Revolutionaries” (Barna’s term), people who have chosen to order their lives in concert with core biblical principles. In defiance of popular culture, they have returned “to a first-century lifestyle based on faith, goodness, love, generosity, simplicity, and other values deemed ‘quaint’ by today’s frenetic and untethered standards” (p. 12). Zealously pursuing an intimate relationship with God, “they have no use for churches that play religious games, whether those games are worship services that drone on without the presence of God or ministry programs that bear no spiritual fruit” (p. 13). Consequently, many of the Revolutionaries find their spiritual nurture in small groups that meet outside the life of the congregation. In these groups they focus on aspects of devotional life or particular outreaches of Christian service.
Barna lists characteristics of the Revolutionaries. Among them:
  • "I am not called to attend or join a church. I am called to be the church.
  • Worship is not an event I attend or process I observe; it is the lifestyle I lead.
  • I do not give away 10 percent of my resources. I surrender 100 percent” (p. 129).
By the year 2025, Barna predicts the spiritual profile of the U.S. will be dramatically different from today’s. Only about one third of the population will rely on a local congregation as the primary means for experiencing and expressing their faith. (Thus church attendance will decline sharply.) Another one third will look to alternative forms of faith-based community. And one third will realize their faith through the media, the arts, and other cultural institutions.
Barna comes out gung ho for the Revolution. He sees himself as a Revolutionary, part of a movement of God in our day. But is he on target? And if he is, what is the likely impact of the Revolution on the Adventist Church?
I am not as enthusiastic as Barna about the Revolution. It’s too early, I think, to endorse it as a divinely inspired movement; let time reveal that. And the Revolution smacks of two elements that characterize the spirit of our times—extreme individualism and disregard, even contempt, of the past. Biblical Christianity clearly teaches that as followers of Jesus we are part of His body—we have a corporate identity. Barna would not deny that, but he deemphasizes it in favor of the individual.
These caveats aside, I think Barna’s account of what is happening and what is likely to happen in American Christianity is probably correct. Many developments suggest to me that the church is in ferment. More than 50 million adults go to church every weekend, but religion tends to be superficial. The church as a whole does not have a big impact on society. I sense a dissatisfaction with the established institutions of religion, and a hunger for something that will feed the spirit. As religious experimentation grows, denominational labels are being set aside by both clergy and parishioners.
We would be blind if we fail to recognize a similar stirring among Adventists in North America. It’s not uncommon to find a member in church on Sabbath morning who, on another day, joins a study group of a different denomination or no denomination. The sad, shocking truth is that many of our people do not feel fed in their Adventist congregation. Many—only the Lord knows how many—retain their membership but rarely attend church; they seek spiritual nurture through other means.
These trends will likely continue and accelerate. The Adventist Church 20 years from now will be one in which structure at all levels, including the congregation, plays a greatly diminished role. It will be even more diverse than now with multiple cell groups, ministries, and lay initiatives. The role of administrators and clergy will change: they will be less directive, more spiritual shepherds, even cheerleaders for the laity.
In fact, our church in North America has long had aspects that in part correspond with Barna’s Revolution. We have a remarkable and wonderful organization of Adventist businesspeople, entrepreneurs, and professionals—Adventist-laymen’s Services and Industries (ASI). The organization, which has as its motto “Sharing Christ in the Marketplace,” started out small nearly 50 years ago, but has grown into a powerhouse. Its national convention, held in August each year, attracts thousands for a high-energy feast of testimonies, music, sharing ideas, spiritual messages, and brainstorming mission projects. Significantly, you’ll find conference and union presidents mingling with the crowd, as well as division and General Conference leaders.
The ASI people are doers. At times they feel impatient with the “organized” church because of its layered bureaucracy and multiple committees. ASI leaders are used to quick decisions—they are successful businesspeople; some are millionaires. And their love-hate relationship to the church (in action, not in doctrine) reminds me of the mixed feelings of the Revolutionaries described by George Barna.
Some readers doubtless will feel disturbed by what I have described. Some leaders may see it as a change that will enormously complicate their tasks and make them more difficult. Some pastors will heartily wish that I am wrong.
I may be wrong; that doesn’t matter. But if I am right, or only half right—if the role of congregations in spiritual life decreases and small groups and ministries proliferate, if ASI wields an ever-increasing influence—this first question will loom large. Will the church be flexible enough—all the church, but especially administrators and pastors—to accommodate the changes that are coming while retaining our distinctive identity, and to accept a church that is more and more lay-driven and lay-led?
Question Two: What will be the role of our institutions—our hospitals, schools, publishing houses, etc.?
1515 page8 capAs in other areas of the world field, institutions in North America have played a major role. Our schools at the various levels have provided a haven for our children and youth in which the beliefs and values of Adventists can be presented as a lively, rational option. Our hospitals and clinics carry on the healing ministry of Jesus, and present an attractive face of Adventism to the public. Our publishing houses send out books and magazines of high quality that serve both evangelistic and nurturing functions. Our health food factories have made available meat substitutes and other products for the consumption of Adventists and the general public.
1515 page8Adventists in North America are a comparatively small church, but we are overachievers. The number and range of our institutions are remarkable. And these institutions have accomplished great good for the church in this division. Especially in parts of the division where membership is sparse, these institutions impart a sense of pride and identity.
Many of our institutions are now more than a century old. They have been here so long that we can’t imagine the church without this academy or college or hospital or publishing house. But their future is by no means assured. Over the course of our history we have sold or closed schools, academies, and colleges; and also hospitals, publishing houses, nursing homes, and health food factories. (We have also started new institutions.)
The next 20 years will bring ever-increasing pressure on our institutions because of financial constraints. We are much better at starting an institution than at closing one: no administrator wants to be the person to preside over the demise of an academy, hospital, or whatever. Typically, we shut down only when imminent bankruptcy forces our hand. Nor is it a simple matter to close an institution, because each institution has a constituency that has the final word.
Although church income measured by tithes and offerings continues to increase in North America, everywhere the church is struggling to pay the bills. Congregations struggle to keep church schools open; academies, colleges, and universities require a large proportion of church income to stay afloat. Without appropriations most, if not all, could not survive.
Our hospitals and publishing houses, on the other hand, do not receive appropriations: they must sink or swim by their own efforts. But in an increasingly complex and competitive business climate, these institutions make heavy demands on the time and energy of union presidents or the GC vice presidents who chair their boards.
Inevitably, the role of our institutions will come into ever-sharper focus in the years just ahead. In particular, the relationship of institutions to mission: Is our mission to keep an institution open whatever it takes (such as larger and larger appropriations), or is our mission bigger than perpetuating an institution? Is it good stewardship, for instance, to operate all 13 colleges and universities? To operate two competing printing establishments?
In some areas of the world church, divisions have never had many institutions. Some divisions have experienced the painful loss of their finest and most celebrated ones. But the Adventist Church there has not collapsed. The Lord has shown it how to not only survive but to grow in spite of the loss.
I am quite clear on this: while institutions play an important role in our mission, institutions per se are not our mission. Our mission is defined by Revelation 14:6, 7—to take the everlasting gospel to every person. There comes a point at which the dollar costs or time demands on spiritual leaders to keep an institution afloat can no longer be justified in view of our mission. That is the point at which saving the institution has replaced the mission itself.
Question Three: When will Adventists in North America honestly face the challenge of the movies?
1515 page8 capFor many years Miriam Wood wrote a popular question-and-answer column for the Adventist Review, “Dear Miriam.” On one occasion she decided to tackle the taboo topic of the movies in a full-length article, and I encouraged her to go ahead. The article, well balanced as it was, brought her a torrent of critical mail. Many of those who reproached her seemed to hold that any dialogue on the topic would only weaken the church’s standard.
Nearly 20 years have passed since Miriam Wood’s venture, and I doubt that much has changed. Because of the knee-jerk reaction that she encountered, Adventist leaders avoid this “hot potato.” They turn a blind eye to what is happening, which is that the great majority of our youth, and increasing numbers of older members, pastors included, reject the church’s standard of not going to the movies.
1515 page8To me, this is a serious matter. Many Adventists have lower viewing standards than evangelical Christians. Large numbers of our people, I fear, are being seduced by the all-pervasive media. Instead of the Bible, movies, television, and music are shaping their values and attitudes. They are becoming conformed to the world, rather than living as new beings in Christ transformed by His grace.
We have focused on movie theaters, but the problem is far bigger. Television, DVDs, and VCRs bring the movies into our living room.
We need a higher standard—a much higher one. And one that rests on sound reasons. Some of the arguments we’ve used in the past don’t hold water, and our young people see right through them. Like saying that movie theaters are bad per se (but on occasion we rent them and hold meetings in them). Or that movies are bad per se (but we show selected ones on college campuses or at church functions).
All aspects of this matter trouble me: the weakening of Adventist morality and spirituality because of the impact of the media, in the home as well as in the movie theater; the double standard that officially rules movie theaters out of bounds but that permits movie viewing in “approved” places; the weakening of the church’s values because of the wholesale rejection of this “standard”; and the knee-jerk reaction that silences any attempt for honest evaluation and discussion.
In the church I long to see, members and leaders will be open and honest with one another. Such a church is the only church that many of our young people will choose to be part of.
It’s time to clean up our act. That starts with an honest discussion of the movies.
Question Four: What will it take to bring us together?
1515 page8 capI have left the most difficult issue till last—the race card. If I have any friends left after the first three big questions, this one may scatter them to the winds.
The race question, by which I mean primarily but not exclusively Black-White relationships, is indissolubly tied to the history of the U.S. I confess, therefore, that some aspects of this complex and troubled matter elude me and will always elude me, because I was not born here. On the other hand, having lived in different cultures may help me to see more clearly other aspects.
1515 page8I was racist and didn’t know it. Not on a Black-White basis: one of my closest friends at Avondale College was an Ethiopian. Only after leaving Australia and living in India did I become aware of the prejudice I harbored toward the Aborigines of my native land. Racism, I discovered, is selective; it’s conditioned by environment and history.
In important respects Adventists in North America have come a long way. Less than 40 years ago White congregations turned away Blacks from worshipping with them on Sabbath morning, and Black leaders weren’t permitted to dine in the General Conference cafeteria. Those barriers, incredible as they seem from today’s perspective, are gone, and I praise the Lord for it.
I wish I could report that Adventists were in the forefront of removing the barriers, but we were not. We moved as society, prodded by acts of Congress, moved.
Congress can enact legislation, but it cannot change attitudes. Deep-seated animosities—on both sides—remain. And Adventists still do not take the lead in bringing Blacks and Whites together.
Because I have a white skin, it’s almost impossible for me to imagine the slights and insults, the innuendos and slurs, that people of color still live with in the U.S. I have never been pulled over by a police officer who questioned whether I was the rightful owner of my car. I don’t have to live with the phoniness of politicians who put on a smiling face but behind closed doors make ugly, racist comments about me.
Racism has become institutionalized in the culture, and in the Adventist Church as well. In the same city White Adventist pastors rarely or never fellowship with Black Adventist pastors. Each group reports to different conference leadership.
The eight regional conferences came into being some 60 years ago. They were not something demanded by Black Adventists; rather, they were imposed on Black members. Nevertheless, the church has grown and prospered among Black Adventists. The regional conferences have provided opportunities for administrative leadership, and membership overall has increased to now represent 30 percent of the North American Division. In other ways Black Adventists in North America have helped the total church: while many Whites gave up on public evangelism, Blacks did not; and the debates and division over the role of Ellen White and other doctrinal matters did not engage them to a significant extent.
I think a variety of congregations is good. Just as the services at some churches appeal to me more than others, so Black, White, Spanish, Indian, Korean, and other congregations can minister to the needs of the diverse Adventist membership. The only caveat: that everyone is welcome to attend, regardless of background.
Because I am a dreamer, however, I have to question whether the current divided structures should continue indefinitely. Maybe it’s the best we can hope for, but it surely is far from the Lord’s ideal that we should be one. Slavery inflicted terrible wounds on both Blacks and Whites, and these wounds have not healed in either party. Will they ever heal short of the Second Coming?
Some Black leaders, who have suffered injustices in the church, see no prospect of change and want the present structures to continue. Some White leaders are more comfortable with the separation. But some lay members, Black and White, think it is time for us to come together. And maybe this is the way the change will come—as a movement of the laity who desire fellowship with one another above all else. In some areas conferences are beginning to explore initiatives, as Black and White leaders bring ministers together for fellowship and joint planning. Such efforts toward visible unity should be applauded and encouraged.
Only the Holy Spirit can make it happen. He can change attitudes and bring healing to the generations-old wounds. He gives us a dream of the ideal; He encourages us to think outside the box; He impels us to keep trying, striving toward the ideal. And just maybe the Lord has big surprises just ahead. Maybe He will upset the applecart, plunge us into a new situation in which old structures and attitudes will be swept away as events rush on to their grand climax.
I hope we will keep trying for visible unity.
Four big questions: they involve Adventists’ congregational life, institutions, lifestyle, and relationships among us as members of the body of Christ. They are not the only questions, but they are important enough for all of us—members, clergy, administrators—to pray hard and long for the Lord’s guidance. He, the Lord of the church, who gave Himself to present the church glorious, without spot or wrinkle (Eph. 5:27), will show us the way if we seek Him with all our heart.

William G. Johnsson, editor of the Adventist Review, enjoys spending time with his two granddaughters and walking on the beach.