How Multicultural is the SDA Church? – On The GC Presidential Election II

[ Roy Branson,“In Memoriam” (1937-2015) ]

The SDA Church is living an epochal cultural change incarnated with the demographical shift in these last fifty years. In 1962 the Church in the “Global South” had a membership of 818,716 (60 percent of world membership of 1,362,775). In 2012 that “Global South” membership shot up to 16,380,066, representing 92 percent of world membership. The “Global North” (NAD, EUD, TED, SPD) had 544,059 members in 1962 and these four Divisions reached 1,501,425, or just 8 percent of total membership, in 2012. This numerical shift has been still more visible in the2015 General Conference session in SanAntonio,Texas, for the inevitable theological and administrative impact it has had on the general Adventist ethos. No one would doubt the irreversible multicultural character of today’s Adventism, but actually few leaders – unfortunately including this presidency – are really aware of its deep implications. Westerns are living this shift as threat and Southerns as revenge. But both share a poor understanding of what cultural pluralism really means. An increasing number of Westerns look at what happened in San Antonio as estrangement and feel disenfranchised from the church they used to love. But beyond appearances, and notwithstanding the short-sighted and self-referential cultural sensibility non-Westerns showed on that occasion, what happened at San Antonio is not a threat, but an important opportunity for Adventism to improve and refine its religious profile and message. Just as democracy is not simply about transparency in elections but of reasonable, shared and contractual governing, multiculturalism also cannot be reduced to an exotic, colorful and paternalistic General Conference evening “parade of nations”. We are guiltily cultivating a burlesque multiculturalism that is the twin sister of today’s Adventist theological literalistic trend, as well as a presumed “enlightened” progressive Adventism which resists it. We will never manage to increase the meaning and value of our end-time theological message if we keep cultivating (Westerns as well as Southerns) such a superficial and non-dialogical cultural pluralism. And we will never improve our enormous multicultural potential if we refuse to abandon, or at least to responsibly work out and limit, our strong and compulsive trend of theological literalism.

How did we manage to embrace and cultivate such a poor multicultural awareness? We can discern four historical stages:

· The first one could be called a “Homogeneous Mono-culturalism” (1863-1900). In this stage, and after abandoning a restrictive shut-door theology, Adventism opened itself to others. These others who were invited to join the church were theologically different, but culturally identical, to us because they also moved with and remained attached to an Anglo Saxon mind-set. After joining Adventism, they just kept and reinforced this by giving it a theological justification.

· The second stage could be called a “Heterogeneous Mono-culturalism” (1900-1950). In this stage, and after embracing a world-wide perspective in mission, Adventism went out from the United States and established strongholds in other territories – but still within the Western world (Australia, Scandinavia, continental Europe). The Anglo Saxon component in Adventism still remained predominant but was no longer alone. Here we find, for instance, a new European – and in particular a German – Adventist ethos that emerged for the first time, and whose artisan was the controversial Ludwig R. Conradi (1856-1939). Conradi was a nationalist, not a multi-culturalist, and for this reason he didn't help the global church to update itself to this new situation but just to create a European alternative to the original Anglo Saxon Adventism. Conradi died (1939) when Adventism was almost fifty per cent non-Western, but he lacked (as does the average European Adventist today) a multicultural awareness to visualize an opportunity. At this stage Adventism stopped being exclusively Anglo Saxon but paradoxically radicalized even more its Western monolithic profile.

· The third stage could be called a “Non-dialogical multiculturalism” (1950-2015). In this stage – already visible in the early 1950s – the traditional Western strongholds represent for the first time only half of global Adventism. The church had already changed demographically but nobody seemed to realize the consequences of this cultural shift. And, from the 1950s to the 21th century, not only did non-Western Adventism remain voiceless but, paradoxically, it was imposed upon and passively accepted a theological agenda not its own: the defense of Biblical literalism, a kingly understanding of spiritual authority, an unbalanced apocalyptic mind-set and numeric obsession with mission. Non-Western Adventism sold its rich and complex soul for a “lentil stew” of cultural acceptance. But the numbers are incontestable and irreversible. Adventism is already a South-Hemisphere phenomenon. And theologians and administrators have not facilitated this cultural passage. The players are unaware and unprepared. The final result is an asymmetric, non-dialogical multiculturalism. It is composed, on one side, of a numeric, euphoric and unsophisticated theological majority and, on the other side, of a besieged, self-proclaimed enlightened and fearful Adventism. The vast non-Western Adventist majority (92 %), which rightfully made its voice clearly heard at San Antonio, may be perpetuating the traditional Adventist cultural impermeability – but with the wrong agenda and with disputable motives.

· The fourth stage starts symbolically at San Antonio and we could positively call it a “Dialogical inter-culturalism” (2015- ). Nietzsche has taught us in his “Untimely Meditations” (Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen) that true history is not what we describe the past to be but rather that which we make for the future. We can't be satisfied with the simple reversal of our traditional Euro-centric mono-culturalism, one which embraces an ideological and revengeful non-Western culturalism, rooted in the Southern hemisphere. It is for the well-being of all Adventism that we need to simultaneously accept, respect and promote a humble and dialogical Western Adventism, with its specific needs, as much as Western Adventism must respect, promote and defend a balanced and dialogical non-Western Adventism, with its own vision and horizon.

How could we promote a true, honest and open inter-cultural dialogue within Adventism? The main question is not whether we are multicultural or not, but rather which kind of multiculturalism are we really defending and promoting? According to Francesco Remotti, a renowned Italian cultural anthropologist of the University of Turin (in a book presented some time ago here at our Adventist theological school of Villa Aurora), a true inter-cultural dialogue can exist only if we understand cultures within three modulating characteristics:

· First, “Complexity”. No culture should be reducible to one category, motive or stereotype. And this threat doesn't come uniquely from the outside but also from within when, in the name of a supposed dynamism and greater functionality, internal alternatives are overlooked and cut off, making the system apparently more efficient but in reality poorer. The value of cultural systems is not measurable by the strength of “immediate” results but by the capacity to maintain the structural complexity and the “time-mediated” results they facilitate in long cultural cycles. It's almost impossible to positively value the richness and complexity of other cultures if we have destroyed the complexity within our own cultural system.

· Second, “Relative Incommensurability”. No culture can grow healthy if it detaches itself from the outside world with the intention to better preserve its various specificities in the name of an internal uniqueness. It's true, nobody outside will ever fully understand the meaning of what group life is within. But it is also true that – detached from an external eye and critic – what grows inside often disfigures and distorts itself rather quickly. For this reason a healthy culture doesn't consider the external eye as a threat but rather a necessary ally. A culture that can't be criticized is also a culture that can't be improved. A culture that is absolutely incommensurable (i.e. that can't be compared to other cultures), condemns itself to be meaningless and transitory.

· Third, “Translatability”. Not only should we allow others to analyze the type of Adventism we represent but we should also be capable of translating pure internal mechanisms and experiences in an understandable language for outsiders. Instead of hermetically closing ourselves in exclusive symbols, codes and registers – undecipherable to others – we should ourselves create a language and religious forms intended to be read by others from cultural areas different than our own. Translation is not just a linguistic instrument to communicate better. Translation is, above all, a cultural and theological way of being that, in making us accessible to others, allows us to become meaningful and incarnated historical beings.

The critical assessment of our church multicultural vocation, after these three characteristics suggested by Remotti, shows that we still have a very deficient multicultural structure. One more attentive to letting every cultural component express its values and convictions as a “cultural solo” rather than to promote true interaction, dialogue and consensual decisions. But particularly this brief critical assessment evidences that the newly elected GC president, even if he is not imputable for have been re-elected or for having the sympathy and trust of a majority of Adventists, certainly is imputable for not having done anything important to make the church grow in cultural awareness and dialogue. Cultural awareness is also an important and decisive component of an enlightened leadership because it represents a help for dealing with other more specific religious and theological topics.

But we must avoid passing absolute and definitive assessments of this presidency. Because, as in the parable of the two sons (Matthew 21:28-32), symbolically this presidency is saying “I will not go”, But perhaps later on, as in the parable, he will change his mind and will finally go and face all these challenges listed here – without ideological obsessions, manipulatory strategies and for the real benefit of the global Adventist family. For accomplishing this he should have good and wise counselors and listen to them. Does he have them now? And if he has, would he listen to them? Or, is he just choosing people like himself, people who limit themselves to reaffirm what he believes and plans? History will decide. Strong leaders tend to reaffirm their convictions and follow a-critically their updated obsessions. But leaders can also change. Does the GC president need to abandon his personal convictions in order to be more open and relational with the various sensibilities and needs present in our world-wide community? Not necessarily. A president can and must maintain his own convictions. The only thing he should remember is not confusing his convictions with the well-being of the general church. A president who completely identifies his personal profile with the destiny of the church he leads is simply reckless. A president instead who is able to go beyond his own convictions and “suspend” them for a moment – in order to identify himself with the needs of a part of the membership he serves – becomes ipso-facto a trustworthy president. And that is what the Adventist community is desperately needing today, a GC president for all Adventists.

Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher and physician. Currently he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

The fundamental issue, it seems to me, is how the individuals within the denomination decide what is truth.

SdA’ism is culturally an organization that can not stand external scrutiny, because it is too easy to prove that its positions on many issues are wrong - and it is inconceivable to many SdA that they are wrong about these things.


A powerful analysis, But WO is not a theological issue but a cultural one. why did not the president support a division level decision? the church boasts about millions yet preaches about 144,000. A number that could fit in any first rate football stadium. Adventism has its own left behind brand. Denominational games are as messy as making sausage. Tom Z

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[quote=“tjzwemer, post:3, topic:9212”]
Denominational games are as messy as making sausage. Tom Z
[/quote]Some are much worse than others, to be sure.


WOW!! This touches on problems All The Way from the GC halls in Silver Springs to the Local Churches in every place around the world.
We have MANY multiculturalism affecting Adventism.
What to do with Women around the World.
Differences on How to Read The Bible around the world. Literally or some other way.
How do we understand Ellen White?
WHO do we allow to be welcome into FULL Participation in the church? Some want to be Very Restrictive in our Evangelism. Others want to be ALL Inclusive. Both meeting in the same church house sometimes.
In one country there is even WHAT is the correct day to attend church on Sabbath? I havent heard of that one being resolved.
There are other multiculturalisms just related to different age groups and how each age group grew up and was influenced by their cultures.
YES. Adventism is messy inside its Crypt. But looks Beautiful on the Outside.
Thanks for being willing to suggest the Opening of the Crypt.


Hanz Gutierrez has written a perfectly honest and accurate analysis of the current presidential leadership crisis in our church. These three points stand out as the most significant. The article deserves to be studied carefully. (Andrews Univ. search committee should receive it!)

  1. “A president can and must maintain his own convictions. The only thing he should remember is not confusing his convictions with the well-being of the general church.”
    We need vision, value, and valor

  2. “A president who completely identifies his personal profile with the destiny of the church he leads is simply reckless. A president instead who is able to go beyond his own convictions and “suspend” them for a moment—in order to identify himself with the needs of a part of the membership he serves—becomes ipso-facto a trustworthy president.”
    We need presidential leadership for equity and excellence in an era of concerns and constraints.

    1. “And that is what the Adventist community is desperately needing today, a president for all Adventists.”
      The capability of presidential leadership to set direction, maintain alignment behind a multi-cultural strategic plan, ensure employee trust and cooperation, motivate and inspire others, and work globally and collaboratively is directly linked to the church’s success.

Where to start?

  1. This complex article covering a multitude of concepts lends itself to having more than one comment (unless you’d like a comment as long as the original article itself).

  2. While I agree with the themes of the writer in terms of the history as it relates to multiculturalism and the challenges, I do struggle with some of the details.

The author suggests that the 92% of non-Westernized Adventists are “theologically unsophisticated” and are having the views of other cultures imposed upon them. What, are you saying that non-Westernized Adventists can’t study and think for themselves? Given that the author is coming from a more liberal viewpoint, what does he make of those “Westernized Adventists in the NAD” who also believe in headship, 6 day creation and against WO?

The other issue I have is the author says to resolve the issues we need speak in an understandable language for outsiders. But the way he does so this way:

“Instead of hermetically closing ourselves in exclusive symbols, codes and registers – undecipherable to others – we should ourselves create a language and religious forms intended to be read by others from cultural areas different than our own. Translation is not just a linguistic instrument to communicate better. Translation is, above all, a cultural and theological way of being that, in making us accessible to others, allows us to become meaningful and incarnated historical beings.”


My mom told me that when writing, do so at the 6th grade level. I’m sure this is a wonderful article. But when I need keep referring to a dictionary to understand points and phrases like “Dialogical Interculturalism” and “Relative Incommensurability”.

This may make for a great doctrinal paper. But certainly won’t impact those who work with people from other cultures every day.

The Bible said it better: "And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people Rev. 14:6


Though sociological analysis of the nature of our faith communion and of its leadership is helpful, as above could it be that the Scriptures themselves point to an even more helpful analysis of such things?

I refer to what the Scriptures say about the weak and the strong! This is not the place to outline such an analysis or to apply it to our contemporary Adventist context. I have not noticed any significant use of this paradigm to assist us in finding our way through any of the issues that pose a threat to unity within our faith communion.

It seems to me that if the pro-WO perspective can be said to be the ‘strong’ and the con-WO perspective can be said to be the ‘weak’ what is most essential to bridge the divide is education and education that reaches to the grassroots level. We also must discover a common hermaneutic

The East Central Africa Division have called for cultural sensitivity as they deal with the issue in their territory. They have also called on the rest of the world field to engage them as dialogue partners. But for some reason this dialogue didn’t continue beyond the end of TOSC’s work in mid 2014. Had there been some more intensive dialogue down to the grassroots level in the 12 months before the GC Session, it may have been the case that some form of WO would have been authorised by now.


This sentence alone can trigger off long meditations (visualizing all that multicultural burlesque dancing), even longer discussions (what is the author trying to tell us with the word “presumed”?)… A brilliant article, as usual.
Nevertheless, the solution at the end is just one of several options. Obviously a “president for all Adventists” is much nicer than a polarizing and divisive president. But to focus for the solution on one person, when the whole article describes a systemic issue is “symbolic” at best (and I often have the hunch that TW is someone who allows for a lot of projections) and “idealistic” at worst (the GC president as the saviour of the church is exactly the problem we have, not the solution).
An alternative solution may very well be a sisterhood of regional churches, i.e. a far less centralized church (see Lothar Träder’s article) - as found with the Lutheran churches, the Baptist churches, the Methodist churches … you name it. This would not be the end to diversity. In fact, if you have your own regional identity, you are in a much more stable position to appreciate the diversity in meeting another region - with their own identity.
Last, and certainly least, there is the alternative of streamlining all real diversity away, coming back to the originally quoted sentence, changing just one word: “We are proud cultivating a burlesque multiculturalism that is the twin sister of today’s Adventist theological literalistic trend.”


About Conradi (and his time and lasting influence) : It is the fate of WW I and WW II, but not selfcenteredness : The Friedensau - trained missionary Ernst Kotz founding the “Friedensthal” - Mission and doing a great cultural work by codifying the natives language - with Bible translations - of the tribes in East Africa and writing a top ethnology : “Im Banne der Furcht” Hamburg 1922… And Autrian missionaries Steffen and Lesovsky with his wife going to Bagdad - -

Conradis engagement in Russia (at the railroad depot in Neandertal, as being told by thw witess Oosterwal) : “One ticket fourth class Neandetal - Moscow and back”. His personal impulses to Russia ended with the battle of Tannenberg ( Prussia / Germany 1914) - - - a Nationalist ?? With his “Traktatgesellschaft Hamburg - Bern - Budapest” (!!) ?

As a child I collected my tithe in a tin money box showing the face of Jesus on the one side, the globe on the other. This was a product especially produced for SDA kids in the thirties -also a manifestation of the Conradi spirit. Huenergard, Hasel from somewhere around Frankfurt), Braun ( a former Catholic from Wuerttemberg, married into a Vohwinkel Family, Schneebauer ( a conservative Bavarian) to Austria - Conradis decision. Just wonder, they were accepted in Austria !

A Youth Congress in Chemnitz, Germany - maybe in 1928 - had the logo on posters , on pins - - - : a globe, on this the cross and “AJM” (“Adventjugend Mission”)

Of course those named somehow still worked in the spirit of Colonialism.

Austrian Edwin Ludescher after WW II , later EUD - Preident and GC Vicepresident, was - besides also being the Austrian ambassador there - somwehere on the West Coast. He already fostered African indigenisation, being aware of Colonialisms decay.

Around 1960 people like Fichtberger, Pala, Krakolinig, Obenaus went into the “Mission Field” of the EUD, there then experiencing the very end of Colonialism. They - by their parents homes, their phantasies of future, their personal call for foreign mission - - were still somehow influenced by Conradi.

And at last those in post - WW II time worked in the former colonies of Belgium and France, nations also shaped by the Code Napoleon . Do not neglect the influence of civil and criminal laws and administration structures by their philosophy and their text - here of Code Napoleon. This shapes the thinking . Thoughts and experiences are transmitted by words far more complex and to be misunderstood by those from the next valley than the "delta - delta - charly - roger"of airtcraft pilots. God will forgive.

I apologize for in the moment not quoting exactly, as it concerns times and places.


Here again we have exhibited the arrogance and condescension displayed by some in the so-called “developed” world. As if the Holy Spirit can’t guide those in “non-Western” countries to an understanding of truth just as well as He can those in the Western world. And I’m not convince that those in Western countries are any less influenced by culture than those in developing countries. We think we’re more “sophisticated” because we have more technology. Technology is irrelevant to the understanding of Biblical truth.

And I also agree with your point about his use of language which cannot be understood by the average layman without a dictionary. In the world of logic it’s called “prestige jargon.” My favorite example: “A nomadic portion of the metamorphosed igneous or sedimentary deposit of the Proterozoic era accumulates no bryophitc plant life.” I’m sure Professor Ness will get that one. :slight_smile:


While I also enjoyed the article, agreed with much of it as well, I must say as well and maybe I just have thesaurus envy, I found parts of the message lost among a forrest of hyphenated high brow speak.

If I had to read the word “dialogical” one more time in its infinite iterations.

Perhaps this is why I don’t have a PhD, not that I wouldn’t want one.


Again an excellent analysis from Hanz’s pen of what could be called «pathologies of Adventism».

The challenge of cultural diversity is a global issues and it affects us all: faced with the fact of cultural and religious diversity, how can we come to agreement on some shared norms and practices that will help us to live peacefully together? My hunch is that the church’s leadership has underestimated the challenge of cultural diversity in a global, wired, and transparent world, in its eagerness for mission and growth over the last 30 years. Is this why it seems to hit the church today as a demographic tsunami? Is the church constitutionally rigged to handle this situation? As I see it, the answer is no, and the GC session in SA exemplified it.

The church is also faced with another challenge. If it is going to succeed in embracing cultural diversity, I believe it has to revise its epistemic architecture and develop a more humble epistemic attitude. It has to move from a strong ontological (essentialist) theology to a hermeneutic (interpretative) theology; from a dogmatic theology to a dialogical theology, able to embrace a world of a plurality of perspectives. In other words, it has to leave behind its quest for “Absolute truth”, and renounce its supremacist and hegemonic claims to know “God’s mind” with absolute certainty. A strong metaphysical (coersive) theology that is antagonistic to scientific truth is no longer a sustainable option.

The world has nothing to learn from a fundamentalist church who needs to “detach itself from the outside world” in order to preserve its “remnant” identity.


Quite a hard read I must first say!. I think the article could have been more simply worded. multi-culturism, i noted with interest the article that noted that the adventist church is the most diverse church (in north america). Sadly this is not the case in somr ‘non-western’ countries. Multi-culturism or diversity is but a dream. Not because other cultures do not exist within these communities, they do exist but they prefer to worship amongst themselves and not be enjoined to other cultures

Community worship should be with those you choose: worship cannot be forced. But being a multicultural church ad having very different practices is not a biblical doctrine, nor should it be. This was realized when Gentiles were not forced to adopt Jewish culture. We do not worship in the exact same way as either the early church or an SdA church in Thailand. Why should we?

The problem stems from the wishes of the leader to bring uniformity through conformity to one practice world wide. We saw that effort and now the results of wishing to force all Adventists wherever they live and whatever culture in their background to adopt the same practices. Even changing FBs to reflect those who have far less appreciation of the best scientific evidence. The blowback will continue with this type of coercion.


This whole idea of ‘multiculturalism’ is a pathetic grasp for relevance, supported by some rhetorical manipulation.

We are called out of the world, our distinctive cultures, to be supra-cultural, to the Kingdom of God, “Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision or uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, slave, and freeman; but Christ is all, and in all.” We are not called to infect the Kingdom with our social mores, but to release their bonds.

So when Paul says he is a Jew among Jews, a Greek among Greeks, this is not to justify the Jew or the Greek but to receive them where they are that they may be entreated to raise from those cultural shackles and fully participate in establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, as it is in heaven.

Trust God.


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A very interesting article. I really like his suggestion about the three forms of inter-cultural exchange and appreciate the description of historical stages concerning SDA culture.
I’m not sure that I can agree with a western and southern cultural divide, though. The WO-vote actually showed that it’s not a southern vs. western situation, since there is absolutely no way that “western” thought is 41%. I’d rather suggest that it has far more to do with the differences that arise from rural and urban worldviews with all the complexities and diversity these entail. I believe that urban cultures are more alike in a globalized world, than cultures that have the same ethnic or geographical DNA, but that stem from a more rural community. It is not uncommon for two rural congregations from different denominations to have more cultural similarities than with congregations of the same denomination in an urban setting. I guess that urban culture, with all its demons and deficiencies, has an intrinsic pluralistic and generous approach concerning diversity. Many who voted for the proposal were acknowledging that, although they weren’t ready for WO, others might be. It was a far closer vote than most had anticipated, especially for those, who, like me, had attended practically all the business sessions of that GC thus far.
I believe that we have to start to develop and practice a Kingdom view - a view that can see reaching out to different groups as a necessary step towards mission, but consciously building congregations that are not bound by ethnicity, race, intellect and/or social-economic status, breaking with the natural tendency to be with whom we are/feel alike. If not, we are doomed to fail spiritually and, therefore, practically in the end, even if the more culturally homogeneous congregations seem to initially thrive. It’s more work, but a clear view and practice of the biblical (and, obviously, Jesus’) understanding of the Kingdom of God is the only true and powerful alternative to whatever else society has to offer.
It would go a long way to have a president who would have this clear view of the diversity and unity of God’s Kingdom here on earth as a very imperfect foretaste of its fullness, especially with our current ecclesiastical polity, but it also has to be lived out in the local congregations, however that may manifest itself.
And, just as a side note, do not ask too much of any one person. The author may have a more complex vocabulary and style, but I believe he expresses himself very well. Let us not try to dismiss the intent and the great amount of good that the article brings, because he strives for something in others and the church that he also struggles with… may (s)he who does not have inconsistencies cast the first stone.

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My ONE comment is, please, copy your post to the same essay in the LOUNGE so that we can have a conversation about it. I hope Pici @blc learned his lesson…