Thursday, March 10, 2011

Ethnic Adventism: Boon or Bane?

by Larry Downing

Some time ago I was asked to participate in a panel discussion at the Loma Linda Church. Our assignment was to respond to the above question. I looked up “ethnic” in the dictionary and learned Adventism is ethnic. I emailed the moderator and asked if we were to take literally what the title asks. He replied, “You are no fundamentalist!” (His words, not mine).

I took some comfort in this assurance. I also concluded that his response gave permission to expand the discussion. I modified the question to read: Ethnic Diversity within Adventism: Boon or Bane? To add a bit more pizazz I tired another: “Mixed-Up Adventism: Boon or Bane?” I wondered if the ambiguity in this phrase might trouble some so I modified the question to read, “The Mix Within Adventism: Cool, or Not?” My answer: an unequivocal “Yes!” or, perhaps, “No.” Let me explain.

When we look at the composition of the North American Adventist Church we bring to the discussion components associated with theology, politics, economics, ecclesiology, psychology, ethics, and sociology. The sociological aspect, including the dynamics associated with the Church Growth Movement, has had significant impact on the Adventist church we see in most metro areas.

The Church Growth Movement began in the early 1960’s when Donald McGavran, Win Arn and others began to explore how to enhance church growth and what elements contribute to congregational growth.

In their research, these scholars, many of them based in Southern California, discovered and identified specific principles and practices that were common to growing congregations. They found, for example, that “Like Attracts Like.” This finding was developed into a principle: Target those who are most like you. We are, so goes the theory, more comfortable with people like ourselves. The greater the mix, the less the comfort. If one accepts this premise, diversity is not the ideal. Think of the potential for a Church of the Cloned Saints!

Note that in this discussion, ethics and theology play second fiddle to sociology. We, as Trinitarian Christians, take seriously the theological propositions set forth in the Newer Testament. We pay attention to how we apply our theological conclusions—the oneness of humanity, for example. There is within our belief in Trinity a precedent that gives emphasis to equality. This factor encourages us to include parity among people into our ecclesial equation. All have equal worth before God. Separation is not an option. And within this Trinitarian oneness there is diversity. There is not a sublimation of one to the other nor are there degrees of significance among the separate individuals. As a prophetic voice, we are called to proclaim and model this oneness of humanity.

The teachings and practice of our Lord and his apostles affirm that within the construct of our faith there is neither Jew nor Greek, male or female. There is to be no shibboleth between or among races, groups, nationalities, languages or other demarcations that we have invented to define one person or community from another.

Our theology has no truck with corporate structure that places efficiency, production and bottom lines above relationship. Our theology does not allow us to incorporate a practice in our churches that conflicts with the admonitions and behaviors advocated by the Lord and the biblical writers of the Newer Testament. There is a right thing to do and an ethical way to be. To do or be otherwise is to violate the essence of the Christian faith.

My answer, then, to the guiding question “Ethnic Adventism: Boon or Bane?” is that ethnic diversity within Adventism is a boon and is to be celebrated. We are not to be governed by corporate interests or defined by those practices associated with corporate mentality. Scripture is our handbook and theology is our guide. It is our obligation, under God, to turn round any practice or policy that limits or diminishes our theology. Likewise, it is our mandate to support and promote any practice or policy that enhances the oneness of the body of Christ.

On a conceptual level, it is appropriate to ask, “How can we maximize the benefits that implicitly arise from the rich diversity that is Adventism?” “What example does our church offer for racial and ethnic unity that we can share with a society that struggles with ethnic and racial diversity?”

The acronym WWJD (What would Jesus do?) I find less than satisfying. Acknowledging that what I’m about to ask is closely allied with this question, I will ask it anyway. “Suppose we had the opportunity to sit opposite the Lord and He asked this simple question: What have you done to bring people together?”

In the past two decades the Caucasian, English-speaking Adventist membership numbers have remained static or diminished. Visit an English-speaking congregation in most metro centers on any given Sabbath and you will find in most of them a diverse ethnic and racial mix. Expect to see that the Caucasian segment is less than half of those who attend. This is both a cause for celebration and a reason to be concerned.

Our mission emphasis has produced converts that give new meaning to the old hymn, “Bringing in the Sheaves.” We celebrate the fact that the North American Adventist church is one of the most diverse religious organizations in the country. But the celebration is shadowed by the loss of significant numbers of Caucasian, English-speaking members, especially young adults and youth. New converts and immigrants have not replaced the missing members! The change in church demographics leads us to ask: “What might the now majority groups in the church do to assist the Caucasian minority?” We have race, language, and ethnic specific camp meetings, youth organizations and special events, except for the Caucasians. “Should there be a Caucasian camp meeting or youth conference?” “Should Caucasians send out an SOS Macedonian Call?” “What responsibility do the ethnic groups have to the decreasing Caucasians?”

These questions and numerous others await answer. We can publish our successes and celebrate our achievements. Well and good. But we have yet developed a practical method that has brought together the diverse groups that is mutually beneficial.

As one who has spent more than a quarter of century as a pastor in multi-ethnic, multi-language, multi-racial congregations, I confess I spent more time attempting to make things work than I did in developing a theology of ministry to the people mix in my congregations. I gave higher priority to keeping peace in the congregation than in the development of sound philosophical base for ministry in a metro area. Creating a place where people of good will came together for a common purpose was a good start, but it is not the final word. We worship together, now what? Where do we go from here? The answers to these and like questions await response. We have not yet decided who will begin the process, much less complete it.


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