Is the Face of Adventism Changing? How to apply eternal values to our changing cultures
By Jan Paulsen
For some, seeing the words “change” and “Adventism” within the same sentence is unsettling. Is our church changing? Does it look different, sound different, express itself differently, than it did a decade ago? two or three decades ago? And if there are differences, how should we relate to them?
The idea of change can be deeply troubling. We prefer that which we know—the comfortable, the familiar.
Yet whatever belongs to today is in constant flux—in a process of “becoming.” I encounter the inevitability of change when I look into the faces of my children and my grandchildren, or when I open a newspaper or log onto the Internet. I hear the certainty of change in the words of young Adventist professionals who speak to me about their dreams for their church. I see the force of change in the worship of African women who move and sing with joy as they walk into church. I experience the power of change as I worship with Adventist believers in China who have for so long been cut off from their worldwide church community, and who say to me: “Do we still belong? Are we part of the family?”
We serve a Lord who is no champion of the status quo. The gospel of Christ is a gospel of transformation.
The illusion that we as a church can stand still while the rest of the world is in constant motion around us is just that—an illusion. Our church exists within the parameters of time, geography, and culture, so it also must change. We are buffeted by external forces—political, economic, cultural, and technological realities—which are largely beyond our control. And there are internal forces for change, as well, that exist simply because of who we are: a family of 25 million men, women, and children; hundreds of cultures, languages, and nationalities blended together in Christ. Change comes because the community of Adventism is growing; it’s dynamic and it’s alive.
Is the face of Adventism changing? Yes, in some ways. Is this something to be feared, something to be resisted? I think not.
Walking Backward Into the Future?
While change is inevitable, our response isn’t. There are essentially two attitudes we can adopt. We can turn our faces toward the past, fix our eyes on the path along which we have already traveled, and attempt to walk backward into the future. Thus, we come to see all change as inherently disturbing, as somehow breaking faith with our spiritual heritage; almost apostasy. We ask each other anxiously, “What should we do?”
Alternately, we can turn around and face the future, with all its uncertainties and challenges. We can acknowledge the certainty of change and seek to harness its energy and creativity. The past becomes not a destination, but something that helps define our core identity and values, and points to where we are going; and in this way we carry the past with us into the future. The critical question now becomes: “How can we guide and channel these forces for change into that which is good for the church and its mission?”
I believe that an Adventism that has become frozen within a particular time or culture has lost its way. It can no longer respond creatively to challenges; it has lost its ability to adapt its methods, its structure, and the way it uses its resources to carry out its mission in a changing world.
Listen to the words of Ellen White: “We cannot be accepted or honored of God in rendering the same service, or doing the same works, that our fathers did. In order to be accepted and blessed of God as they were, we must imitate their faithfulness and zeal,—improve our light as they improved theirs,—and do as they would have done had they lived in our day. We must walk in the light which shines upon us, otherwise that light will become darkness” (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1, p. 262).
How do we “walk in the light which shines upon us”? How do we bring the ageless truths of yesterday with us into the realities of today?
It requires a mind-set that doesn’t fear change simply because it is change. It requires an ability to discern that which is transcendent—those unchanging values and truths that allow us to negotiate safely through a world of change.
Anything that is alive experiences change—it will come irrespective of how you or I feel about it. But in acknowledging this, do we then let change run wild? Do we allow change to drive and determine itself within the life and witness of the church?
The apostle Paul, writing to Timothy, returns again and again to the need to safeguard truth. “Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care” (1 Tim. 6:20, NIV); “What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching…. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you” (2 Tim. 1:13, 14, NIV); “Continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it” (2 Tim. 3:14, NIV). Paul is saying, “Take care of your spiritual inheritance. Understand what you believe, then take it with you into life.”
There are things that come to Adventism from our past that are “nonnegotiables.” These are our spiritual inheritance. They are not open to be reinvented or modified or relegated to a place of lesser importance. They are our birthright, the touchstones of our faith, which give us our identity and mission; and we must take them with us into the future.
What are these constants?
First and foremost, Christ, as He comes to us out of history, and as we meet Him in Scripture. He is and will always be the One and only—the “Solid Rock.”
Second, Scripture itself, for this is the voice of God giving values and direction to humankind. Scripture tells us about the second coming of Christ, about His ongoing ministry of reconciliation and judgment, about how He made us and life on this planet, about His prophetic gift to the church—it’s a list we could expand to embrace each of our 28 Fundamental Beliefs.
Third, God’s purpose for each of us, as individuals; for the personal spiritual bond between myself and my Creator must exist before I can take my place as a member of the corporate body of Christ.
And finally, our shared history as a church; all that answers the question: “What is the purpose of Adventism; why did God call this movement into existence?”
These four constants are not “up for grabs.” They are not “maybe’s/maybe not’s.” They have meaning within every culture, and they are not diminished by the passage of time or by changing societal norms. They exist above and beyond the world of change. And within the framework of these constants we find a huge body of identifying values.
When we understand this, when we’re clear on the truths that we will live and die for, we have no reason to be threatened by change. We approach change from a position of strength and certainty.
Navigating a World of Change
I can understand Peter’s awe and bewilderment as he witnessed the glory of the transfigured Christ. “Lord,” he says. “Let’s stay here—let’s build three shelters on the mountaintop, one for You, Elijah, and Moses” (see Matt. 17:1-5). But Christ went back down the mountain and continued His ministry to humanity.
Adventism doesn’t belong on the mountaintop either; it belongs to the communities in which we live and work, with all their untidiness and disorder and change.
In recent years I’ve become acutely aware of various pressure points for change within Adventism which come from many, many different sources. And I’ve become more conscious, also, of the need for me as a church leader to cultivate a nondefensive attitude toward change—to look at it for what it represents in practice; to test it against the constants of our faith as they come to us from Scripture.
Where will change test us?
Pressure for change will come to us from the political realm. The church must function within the environment where it’s placed; it has little choice. In the West the church has few constraints. Yet in many places around the world the church must find ways to adapt to political realities without compromising that which it values highly as a faith community. In places where we can speak out freely, the voice of Adventism must be clearly heard—in a way that’s free from partisan politics—on those issues that touch our core values: freedom and human rights, justice, care for our fellow human beings. Individual church members should also ask, “Can I, should I, be more involved in shaping the moral and social landscape of my community or nation? How can I do that? What can I contribute? Should I become politically engaged?”
Society’s changing attitudes to human conduct and morality will also test us. In many places there’s a public dialogue about the definition of marriage and the implications of this for society. How do we as Adventists relate to this? It’s something we didn’t need to struggle with 20 years ago. The church cannot and will not endorse changing moral attitudes that run counter to the clear injunctions of Scripture, even when these find provision within law. Could it impact the operations of our church? Perhaps. The church has to explore the delicate balance between being obedient citizens of the land and being fair-minded human beings, without coming adrift from our biblical values. These things are never easy, and yet they must be faced.
Change will continue to come to us through technology—especially communication technology and media. This is an area in which I believe Adventism must have an attitude of engagement. Are we keeping current with the possibilities these new media present to us? Are we willing to harness new methods of communication in the hopes of reaching those slices of humanity—particularly young people—who are becoming increasingly selective about their sources of information?
Another area in which change presents itself to us is in worship patterns. We’re a global community, and each one of us is a child of our own time and culture. It’s natural that there will be variations in the format of worship, or the style of music, or the level of formality or spontaneity. We don’t all necessarily sing to organ accompaniment! I have to be very careful that I don’t automatically brand anything that isn’t from my tradition as sinful, simply because it’s different. In the same way, when I meet people—even within my own faith community—whose appearance does not quite match my expectations, let me not be too hasty in concluding that they’re somehow coming adrift from the Lord. Let’s be gentle with people, for when everything else is peeled away, it’s people—not things, ideas, or cultural expectations—that Christ is going to save.
A nondefensive attitude to change is especially critical when it comes to the way we approach mission. There must be a flexibility—a suppleness—in our thinking that allows us to respond effectively to the changing environments in which we find ourselves. So mission initiatives and programs may change from year to year. The way we use our resources—our spending priorities—will change. Policies and structures shouldn’t be servants of tradition—we shouldn’t invest them with an aura of sacredness simply because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Instead, church policy should serve the unity of the church and its mission, and the language of policy should be shaped by the simple question: “What is it we need to accomplish and what is good for the church?”
Gospel of Change
We serve a Lord who is no champion of the status quo. The gospel of Christ is, at heart, a gospel of transformation—of radical change. Christ said: “Nicodemus, you have to be born again. What you are now is not enough. I will change you and make you into a new person.” And in Revelation, Christ declares, “Behold, I make all things new.”
Change will come. It will come because our church is vital and alive, and it will come because the world we belong to is constantly changing. We will test change against the constants of our faith. We will ask, “Does this unify us as a spiritual community? Does it further our mission?” And then we will walk into God’s future without fear.