Sunday, November 12, 2006

Stop the Babble On

This first post of mine is actually a bit of a celebration of how far the Adventist church has come in the '00s--while still a warning to not let up. Since I wrote the following piece in July 2000 at the General Conference in Toronto (and it was yanked at the last minute from being published in an Adventist periodical), many of the points touched on below have changed dramatically for the better. Today women are entering Adventist pastorships all over and more administrative doors are opening for them, young people are getting more involved in church life, and stale mindsets are crumbling fast. And even as I wrote it, delegates to the 2000 session were making bold moves to grease the wheels of progress. Still, other issues remain, such as the fact that the number of young delegates to the 2005 session in St. Louis was no better than five years before.

Since writing this I've worked for a time at the church headquarters and I truly have nothing but good to say for the environment and the people I was privileged to work with--but alas, I still can't vouch for everything that happens behind closed doors. And other glaring issues remain in every aspect of church life. To pick a relatively mundane but important issue, the 2005 session passed a new "fundamental belief" that both met the needs of new believers and satisfied the world community, yet the official doctrine of Christian Behavior remains stubbornly focused on what we shouldn't do, instead of emphasizing, at least a little bit, the proactive law of love.

As you read the following, take note of where we've come from, the work we still need to do, and the challenge that never changes:

Q. What's the difference between Hollywood, Big Tobacco, and the Adventist church?
A. Only the first two are famous for targeting youth.

It's the first Sabbath of the 2000 General Conference session, and for fifteen minutes, the young adult Sabbath school most closely resembles a revival meeting. Onstage, Ontario conference's only female pastor is greeted with cheers. A global group of youth applauds a call to end institutional segregation int he church. Then Britain's youngest delegate to the GC session stands up to speak. He talks of the challenges he faces trying to work within the church. "Don't get me wrong," he says. "I don't have anything against old people, just the way they think. As long as they don't think old . . ."

A fiftysomething gentleman speaks next, looking and sounding quite intimidated by what he's seen and heard. He begins a call for missionaries to Micronesia with a plea for young adults to not let such issues distract them from service. Clearly, this isn't the scene or sentiment he expected.

People like to emphasize that Ellen and James and Uriah were all whippersnappers when they started the church, so young adults should take heart. They forget one distinct advantage for the teenybopper Ellen White and her prophetic posse: since the church hadn't been built yet, they didn't have to bang on the clubhouse door to get in.

In fact, James and company did their best to avoid all manner of creeping institutionalism. They had a word for it: Babylon. To them, organizing a church structure to hammer out creeds and regulate church activity was the very spirit of the beast. That's why 19 years passed from Disappointment to denomination.

They made up for lost time soon enough.

As I write this during Toronto's GC session, only 49 of 2000 delegates are under the age of 30. (None of those are from North America.) Meanwhile, the delegates argue over official statements and tiny details of the Church Manual. Save for parliamentary procedure, delegates might babble on util the rooster crowed.

The British delegate's idea of "thinking old" can also be defined as institutionalism. We "think old" whenever we hold onto outdated methods, Balkanize into factions, and fail to look down the track to what's ahead.

Change will continue to be difficult, but it can happen. The church must pour its resources into young people, because nobody's better at reaching the world's masses of young people than themselves. The church must listen, encourage, and invest. The church must invite young adults in at every level, and address their changing needs. Otherwise, natural selection will take place, and the church will attract a narrower and narrow group of people.

For the fashion company executive recruiting teens for focus groups, reaching out to young people is a no-brainer. For Adventism, it could be a lifesaver.


  1. There seems to be a curious policy at least here in Minnesota when it comes to interviewing new pastors. Although I don't completely understand the process it has been plainly stated that only current office holding elders are invited to interviews. That means in most districts no women are present, no young adult or teens are present and no Youth Leaders to represent teens are present. It always seems to me to be a very odd way to operate.
    Dick Larsen

  2. The decision-making of the church's current hierarchal structure suffers from "system dysfunction" that can only be repaired with the top of the food chain pointing the finger back at themselves and saying "To change the problem, I have to change myself" and shifting new perceptions down the org chart.

    They could benefit greatly from a shared governance model - most effective when it is made inclusive of and accountable to a wider range of interests and constituencies, including a broader representation of 30 and under (with females and minorities sharing the table).

  3. DL, that's unfortunate if true. Every church I've ever known would introduce its candidates to the church board as a whole.

    The crux of the issue is whether or not we're comfortable opening up the church to everybody--and whether we'll remember just how diverse the church is. We've come a long way, though I know not every area has come as far as others. Which means it's up to each one to reach one, still.

  4. Great article! :o)

    There are a lot of pride and control issues at stake in the organized church. Working your way up the infrastructure is good business with great benefits and retirement plans. Not to mention having the places of honor at potlucks and conventions isn't a bad perk.
    For many, the church organization itself and not Christ are their security. So let's not shake things up or encourage people to think for themselves or (gasp) things could start changing...

    We have been doing things the same way for the last 50 some years. Now the younger generation is saying, "Okay guys, the old, pass-a-pamphlet, hold a seminar, proof-text and dunk 'em approach isn't filling our pews or changing hearts. Perhaps we've been missing something?" Young people are willing to take this ship back to port, to re-examine things until we have something more appetizing to offer God's sheep.
    Unfortunately, we've been so busy herding and branding them that feeding them kind of got left by the wayside, but that is changing...

  5. For decades we have been (or played) victim to this reality. So what are viable actions and solutions to get us to where we wish to be?

  6. Allan, that's the million $ question. I don't know the answer. But I see changes happening. Look at what's happening in Western Australia - there's a thriving missional church movement that's re-defining Adventism. And it's being "blessed" by a young and progressive conference president (see this posting: )

    That says something about leadership. While still in its infancy, we need to keep an eye on them and remove ourselves from victim mentality and take ownership.

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