What is the future of Seventh-day Adventist health ministries as it faces the challenges of a rapidly changing global environment? Following is an adaptation of the keynote address given by General Conference President Jan Paulsen on July 7, 2009, at the Health and Lifestyle Conference in Geneva, Switzerland.
The nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw the rise of the “prophets of secularization”—sociologists and political thinkers who predicted the decline of religious faith as a force in society. They simply took for granted that the more people were exposed to economic, scientific, and political advances, the more quickly they would shake off the old-fashioned shackles of faith. The death of religion was simply a matter of time.
The obituaries, though, were premature. We find ourselves today in a world where religious belief is clearly a significant and, in many places, a growing force in society. Instead of “secularization theory,” sociologists are now more likely to speak of a “post-secular” age.
But there is another powerful force of the twenty-first century, a force that is wholly a product of recent decades. Unlike religious belief, it is newborn, it is brash, it has few moorings in the past: I am speaking about the process of globalization, which is re-creating humanity’s social structures within a span of time that is quite simply breathtaking. Globalization acts as a vast, dynamic “transport system” that carries ideas, values, and people and deposits them anywhere and everywhere. Barriers of language, culture, and geography are no longer as meaningful as they once were. No institution—public or private, religious or secular—remains untouched.
Globalization is a fact; it is happening; it’s as unavoidable and unknowable as its ultimate consequences. Religion, similarly, is a reality that is with us. It’s here, and it’s a powerful force both within the lives of individuals and in the societies where they live. These two forces—globalization and religion—live together, interact with each other, and are often intertwined.
For the health ministries of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, surveying the changing global landscape on which it conducts its mission, these are significant issues.
As we walk into the future, there is no question that our commitment remains strong. We continue to place a high priority on facilitating, funding, and supporting professional medical and health care through our network of more than 600 hospitals, sanitariums, clinics, and dispensaries; through nutrition and other health programs; and through our advocacy of vegetarianism and alcohol- and drug-free living.
But while our commitment is clear, I believe it’s time to reflect in more depth on the values that should anchor us as we step onto the shifting ground of our changing world. And more than this, to ask ourselves what values we can, in turn, imprint upon this terrain. What unique mark can we make?
We need to ask ourselves: What does a distinctively Adventist approach to health ministries look like? What does it offer that isn’t already being offered by any number of alternate providers?
Let’s consider briefly four strands of thought woven throughout Adventist heritage and identity that are central to the health ministries of our church and which, I hope, will continue to guide us into the future. Obviously, this is not a finite list of values, but can perhaps serve as a starting point for an ongoing conversation.
Theology of Connection
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matt. 25:35, 36, NIV).
For Seventh-day Adventists, our model for relating to other people finds its beginning and end in Christ’s radical identification with humanity. An individualistic, inward-looking conception of Christianity is utterly at odds with a Savior who reached out to restore blind eyes, cure lepers, and heal an emotionally broken woman.
Quite simply, we cannot express our faith—our desire to imitate Christ—in seclusion; our values and our beliefs find their true meaning only within the context of human relationships. In the words of my former teacher Jürgen Moltmann, “Likeness to God cannot be lived in isolation. It can be lived only in human community” (J. Moltmann, God in Creation, p. 222).
So what does it mean to live in connection with others? It means that your problems are not yours alone; they are also mine. It means having a sense of solidarity with humanity that makes me vulnerable, also, to its hurts and pain.
Living in connection with others means seeing the large problems of society as collective human problems. I begin to see that poverty, for instance, is not just the result of random circumstances or arbitrary luck. If I live in comfort and someone else lives in distress, could there be a material relationship between these two conditions? Perhaps there is. In admitting this, my sense of isolation diminishes and my sense of responsibility for others grows.
How will this value express itself within the health ministries of our church? By deliberately placing ourselves in those places where there are “gaps” in access to health care; in offering service that pays no heed to a person’s religious, economic, or cultural background; in avoiding “parochial” thinking by forming creative partnerships with others who share our goal of relieving human suffering—be it a government agency, another faith-based organization, a local church or mosque. It means being motivated by self-giving love, not the desire for financial profit or increased influence.
Ultimately, living in connection with others means that “when we see human beings in distress, whether through affliction or through sin, we shall never say, This does not concern me” (The Desire of Ages, p. 504).
Theology of Human Dignity
“Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness” (Gen. 1:26).
Whatever the Imago Dei means—and who has a complete definition of it?—it touches the whole person. God made us in His image—physical, spiritual, moral, social, emotional, intellectual beings.
But for Seventh-day Adventists, the immeasurable worth of every person derives from more than just this stamp of the Divine given at Creation. Human dignity springs not just from our origins but also from our potential and our destiny. This concept profoundly shapes the way we deal with people. In all our healing ministries, we see in each person not just “what is,” but “what is possible.”
It means also that we must, at times, have the courage to “wade into the fray,” to recognize and condemn structures or practices that diminish the dignity of our fellow human beings. This isn’t new territory for us. Hear the words of former General Conference president Arthur Daniels spoken about the ministry of Ellen White: “Slavery, the caste system, unjust racial prejudices, the oppression of the poor, the neglect of the unfortunate,—these all are set forth as unchristian and a serious menace to the well-being of the human race, and as evils which the church of Christ is appointed by her Lord to overthrow” (Life Sketches of Ellen G. White, p. 473).
Simply put, acknowledging the image of God in humanity means that we value people above everything else—and this fundamental premise runs throughout all we are and do as a church.
Theology of Hope
“Behold, I make all things new” (Rev. 21:5, KJV).
For Seventh-day Adventists hope is a grand theme, an essential part of our spiritual “genetic blueprint.” But for us, hope doesn’t just point forward toward the grand epilogue of human history—the “what is to come.” Hope is the lens through which we view past, future, and present.
Our hope looks backward to the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection and finds there its touchstone. It’s a hope that looks forward to the moment of ultimate transformation—when all things are made new—and finds there its ideal, its motivation. And it’s a hope that looks outwardto the realities as we meet them today and asks, What then can we do to start bridging the gap between what is and what is to be?
Some have been critical, and rightly so, of an eschatological perspective that serves simply to reconcile us to current miseries—an “apocalyptic lethargy.” But for Seventh-day Adventists the renewal of all things is not just a future event in history; it’s a process of renewal that begins now. Awaiting the “blessed hope” is not a passive exercise, but something that demands action in the present.
The healing ministry of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is primarily about awakening hope—physical and spiritual. Although physical needs are often the most apparent, they are indivisible from emotional and spiritual needs. In ministering to the body, we can never ignore the spirit; and the most basic need of the spirit is hope.
Theology of Wholeness
“The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power” (1 Cor. 15:42, 43).
In Christ’s death and resurrection, we see vividly and starkly displayed the extreme contradictions of the human experience: the corrosive power of sin, and the creative power of God; the decay of fallen humanity, and God’s ability to renew and transform; the agony of separation from God, and the triumph of God claiming His own. In the death and resurrection of Christ this dialectic between decay and wholeness provides an unparalleled display of God’s creative and redemptive power.
Bringing wholeness out of decay, healing out of sickness, finding peace in chaos, bringing light into the darkness—this is the task that the followers of Christ have been given.
For Seventh-day Adventists, “wholeness” has another dimension. Our spirituality embraces thewhole of human life; it recognizes that “the relation … between the mind and the body is very intimate” (The Ministry of Healing, p. 241), that we don’t live our lives in “segments” where physical health is merely a “piece” that can be separated from the totality of our existence.
Our approach to health is not just limited to the treatment of disease, or to defining what we eat or drink, or to training medical professionals; it’s a concept that encompasses all that contributes to the “completeness” of human existence.
Health ministry is therefore indivisible from our commitment to education, to human rights, to humanitarian work, to environmental care, to our desire to be a force for good in our communities. All these commitments find their beginning and end, their meaning and objective, in our spiritual mission, which gives life and force to all we do as a church.
A Good Life
This is where we stand today—at the edge of a new world that we can’t yet fully imagine, where the shifting plates of technology, economics, and politics are still re-creating our global landscape.
What will tomorrow look like? I don’t know; but I know that it’s not to be feared.
How will the health ministries of the Seventh-day Adventist Church impact tomorrow? I pray it will hold strongly to its commitment to create connection, promote human dignity, and offer hope and wholeness; that it will continue, in a multitude of ways, to help people achieve a “good” life.
In that simple word “good” lies an immense range of ideas—the ability to live fully, to love deeply, to breathe freely, to experience joy and the absence of fear, to know a hope that exists outside the bounds of what is finite and that will take us into God’s eternity. This is the good life Christ holds out to us; this is what defines the mission we have been given.
Jan Paulsen is president of the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church.