November 19, 2008

Think Global, Act Adventist

2008 1532 page18 cap was introduced to the Adventist Church in the late 1950s in Seoul, South Korea. At that time I was attending a Presbyterian church. One of the things I heard from those who introduced me to the church has stayed with me. They said that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is one of the three best organized worldwide entities. The other two are the Roman Catholic Church and the Communist Party.
The Korean Adventist church in the 1950s was small and unimpressive, with a membership and organizational strength that were hardly recognizable. And perhaps my introducer was trying to get me to see the Adventist world church beyond the meager national church in a poor, war-devastated country—as Korea was at the time.
In the course of learning more about the Adventist faith and the organizational structure of the church, I came to agree with that early assessment—though the part about the Communist Party now seems very dated, given world events since that time. To me, the Adventist Church looked like a tightly interwoven worldwide web.
Further, I discovered that the scope of the Adventist theological concern was global. The three angels’ messages were about the final destiny of all peoples in all nations. This was reflected in the then-current denominational logo with three angels flying over the globe. The Adventist Church seemed to support a global mission in every region of the world. I still remember the world mission reports every week, and the Thirteenth Sabbath offering for various projects around the world.
2008 1532 page18Moreover, I noticed that the educational and health-care systems were another aspect of the worldwide network of the church. Considering the size of the denominational membership, I thought this was indeed an impressive organizational accomplishment. I came to see that I had joined a global church.
My First Exposure
All of the above notwithstanding, the Adventist faith I was first exposed to seemed obsessed with less important subjects, as I saw it. There seemed to be an overemphasis on things such as country living, dietary reform, the mark of the beast, and the time of trouble. It all made me quite uneasy, as a new member, since I did not yet understand the full implications of Adventist teachings. The sense of imminent apocalyptic events overwhelmed me, and at one point I thought about living like a hermit in a deep mountain cave to escape the upcoming troubles and persecutions. Keep in mind that I was only a high school student at the time, still in my teens. For me, there didn’t seem to be any joy in discovering these new truths and joining the remnant.
Undoubtedly, the particular local church I was attending at the time was somewhat different from other churches. But that experience led me to form the overall impression that most Adventists were uptight about the end-time signs. I felt I was becoming self-centered, trying to protect myself from the prophesied crisis, and my spiritual outlook became very narrow. It was like seeing a flickering light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. I found myself cutting relations with others and becoming a member of an exclusive, other-world-oriented religious “sect.”
As I look back on those early days of my Adventist faith, I realize there was a wide gap between the church’s global organizational structure and the attitude of some of its local members; and between the church’s broad theological outlook and the everyday life of individual members. In other words—as I saw it—the church operated as a global organization, while the prevailing attitude of some of its members was far from global.
Developing a Global Outlook
How global is the global church? In a twenty-first-century global community, do we as Adventists think globally? Do we live with a global outlook and concern? Has the Adventist faith increased our global awareness and citizenship? The mere global organizational structure and activities of the church do not necessarily instill a global perspective in its members.
The idea of a global attitude is not a new concept. But it has become more prevalent and prominent in our time, and it’s going to be more in demand as the process of globalization continues (and I’m using “globalization” in a restricted sense—not necessarily with all the political connotations it carries in the contemporary context).
In response to global changes, certain attitudes are more emphasized than others. For instance, the feudal society in the Middle Ages valued patience and obedience, as most people followed the rhythm of nature for food production. The industrial society, on the other hand, required of its workers coordination and efficiency for mass production. But the twenty-first-century global society puts certain other traits at the forefront. Among these are openness, inclusiveness, and creativity.
1. Openness
Perhaps no other attribute is more prominent in the global age than increasing openness. All kinds of barriers are coming down. People, ideas, goods, and services are flowing freely across the world. Political boundaries, economic restrictions, cultural differences, social classifications, and even physical barriers are yielding to the force of free-flowing globalization. The telephone (especially global-roaming wireless cellular services), the Internet, fax, satellite, jumbo jets, ocean-going cargo ships, and high-speed trains are the means of open flow between countries and continents. As a result, people keep coming across new ideas and things.
Do Adventists feel comfortable with the increasing openness of life in the twenty-first century? Are we open to new ideas of doing things? New challenges? Do we feel fit or unfit in this increasingly open society?
The opposite of openness is closed-mindedness. Faced with the overwhelming reality, some of us want to shut down and be closed to the outside world. But if we fail to respond to the changing reality, the option is far more serious. Burying our heads in the sand would result in suffocation. Do we want to live like certain religious groups that rejected the coming of the industrial revolution in the name of Christian faith?
Another cause of a closed mind could be spiritual arrogance. Some of us tend to believe that the spiritual gift we have inherited does not need enlightenment; that there’s no reason to add to what we have; that there’s no need to learn from others. Any person or system that is not open is more likely to become stunted.
To make the Adventist faith community a dynamic and relevant community to the people of the global age, we need to be open to new insight and information. We must be willing to learn from others, even in the area of faith life. Unless openness undermines our core foundation and beliefs, we should stay open.
2. Inclusiveness
Openness has inevitably led to increasing diversity in our times. Nowadays, it’s hard to find a homogeneous community or society. People of different backgrounds come together and coexist. How do we respond to the increasing diversity?
One has only two options: inclusiveness or exclusiveness. There’s no middle ground, unless one becomes lifeless. Either we open our arms to embrace diverse people or we fold them tight and just watch. Either we engage in interaction with others or exist in isolation. Some racists, nationalists, and extreme religious fundamentalists have rejected anything they find different.
The New Testament is very clear about our choice. The examples of Jesus and the early Christians are unequivocal about our option. They embraced everyone—the marginal, the outcast, the Gentile, and even the enemy—with open arms.
People with whom we associate may not understand what Adventists believe. They may reject our lifestyle. Nonetheless, we must resist the temptation to be exclusive. We cannot resort to establishing an exclusive Adventist ghetto, protected by a high wall of exclusivity.
3. Creativity
One of the effects of globalization is uniformity. It has become much easier for trends to spread worldwide. In many regions of the world, people can shop at the same chain store, watch the same news program, wear the same kind of clothes, read the same best seller, eat the same fashion food, sing the same pop song, and so forth. We may call it the McDonaldization1 or the Wal-Martization of the world. Thus, local uniqueness is facing a serious threat today.
Who wants to live in a uniform, monochrome world anymore? Who wants to be a cookie-cutter person? To make the world a more interesting and exciting place, each individual and community has to offer their uniqueness. Diversity is the creation of multiplicity. One can contribute to the enrichment of the world by being uniquely different, not conforming to the uniformity.
The Adventist Church has much 
to offer the world community. The Sabbath truth, for example, could offer a profound understanding of rest in an increasingly restless world.2 The healthful lifestyle we practice is another area in which Adventists can contribute to a world full of sickness, resulting from unhealthy lifestyles. Adventist Christian education could be an antidote for young people suffering from meaninglessness and rootlessness. Many people are drifting aimlessly, looking for an anchor point in their lives. Perhaps the most serious challenge facing today’s Adventists is how to make the truth we hold relevant and attractive to the people of the twenty-first century. This would require a great deal of creativity and imagination.
Creative repackaging of Adventist truth is a critical task. The inherited truth needs to be repackaged for the needs of a global community.
So I would rephrase the mantra of the global age: Think global, act Adventist.
The Gospel in an Age of Globalization
The gospel of Jesus contains a global dimension. Jesus said: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:19, 20, NASB).* And again: “You shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8, NKJV).†
One of the major obstacles in carrying out the Great Commission was the mind-set of some early Jewish believers. They were closed, exclusive, and tradition-bound. The gospel was meant to bring down the barriers that separated Jews and Gentiles. The carriers of the message were to bridge the gaps between Judea, Samaria, Asia Minor, Greece, Rome, and the faraway regions of the world. And one of the tasks of the apostles was to make the early Christians open, inclusive, and creative, so as to reach the ends of the world with the gospel message. They opened up new territories and embraced peoples of all labels (Jews, Gentiles, Greeks, Romans, the free, the slave, the barbarian, the circumcised, the uncircumcised).
The many inspiring stories Jesus told speak of openness, inclusiveness, tolerance—the story of the good Samaritan, for example. Or that of the prodigal son. Wholly relevant in the time of Jesus, they are compelling messages also for us today.
We Adventists must either develop a global attitude or experience increasing difficulties in our attempt to convey our message to our contemporaries. The church has established a solid global hardware, so to speak. But it now needs to develop a global software—namely, its people. The new wine of present truth needs a new wineskin. 
*Scripture quotations marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
†Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright ” 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1See George Ritzer, The McDonaldization of Society (Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge Press, 2000); Benjamin Barber, Jihad vs. McWorld (New York: Ballentine Books, 1995).
2See Samuele Bacchiocchi, Divine Rest for Human Restlessness: A Theological Study of the Good News of the Sabbath for Today (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Biblical Perspectives, 1988).
Won K. Yoon is a professor of Sociology at La Sierra University in Riverside, California.