In reflecting on the success that N.T. Wright, Rob Bell, and Jamie Oliver have had in taking "Adventist beliefs" to a larger audience, one wonders why Adventism has not had as much success translating its beliefs into mainstream culture? Here are three ideas I have.
Narrow Focus on Church Growth Although it is unlikely that evangelism by committee will yield great results, this is exactly how it is done in most parts of the Adventist church. The main focus of our sharing beliefs has always been baptisms and church growth. This narrow focus inevitably leads these committees to only invest in methods and content that will lead individuals to leave everything behind and join the Adventist church. Although there is nothing wrong with this view, it severely limits the potential impact Adventism could have in the larger world.
A classic example from here in England where I pastor might be the local church that is concerned with the underage drinking they witness in their urban community. Most Adventist churches in this situation would simply try to reach the teens using various methods that will lead them to baptism - often with very little results. If they were willing to widen that focus, they would be able to draw plans to help these kids to make heathier choices. The difference in approach is the difference between warning about the perversity of the world vs. thinking of how Adventism is not an alternative to the culture, but incarnated with it. Like Jesus' mix of human and divine, the body of Christ throughout its history has, despite its rhetoric, connected the sacred and the secular.
Intentionally adopting the later approach could potentially change the way Adventists interact with the world. Once Adventist institutions, churches, and members understand evangelism as an incarnational process, they would be open to having a revolutionary impact on the world. However, this is not easy. It would probably take the return of Jesus itself to convince some administrations that it’s worth using our resources to promote Adventist beliefs for their own sake.
The proposal here is not to abandon the goal of baptizing people as Jesus instructed. Quite the opposite—it goes farther. It treats Adventist beliefs as memes—a gene-like idea that spreads through and shapes culture organically. Alexander Carpenter presented a paper in the 2009’s Global Internet Evangelism Network conference on widening the Church's end goal from simply baptisms to the dissemination of Adventist belief as "memes" into today’s culture. Adventist health care comes closest to how this happens—as in some communities people think the word "Adventist" is directed to healing. Furthermore, the prolifferation of books on the Sabbath lately reveals an interest in that idea in the culture, despite Adventism's best efforts to hide it under our denominational bushel. Instead, we should be connecting people to our ideas as good in their right—and then Adventism becomes the community where belonging happens to those who believe and behave in already related ways.
Insular Research and Media Productions There is a trend across Adventism that further limits its potential. Almost everything that is produced by the church is mainly for the consumption of the membership. Adventist universities encourage theology students to continue their education in Adventist institutions only. This means all the research produced by the best Adventist theologians is only read by other Adventist theologians! Similarly, books and articles are seldom spread the Christian world at large—except each year's evangelism sharing literature. This insular culture is so limiting that Adventist authors that manage to escape the trend and publish outside the institution seem to be somewhat ostracized in Adventist circles.
The same is true of Adventist media productions worldwide. Ray Dabrowski, who led the church’s communications for over a decade, has identified the church’s chosen target audience as a key problem in Adventist media productions. When producing music, film and TV programs, it is very difficult to openly engage with the secular culture as this will possibly alienate the Adventist membership who ultimately pays. Hence, Adventist media productions, much like our literature, is ultimately created to entertain our members whilst vaguely trying to baptize other Christians at best.
Fear of Losing Membership The Adventist church does not encourage its members to engage with secular media or literature, much less wider Christianity. In a recent speech by Ted Wilson, the president of the world church, members were told not to read material from other Christian writers as it might pollute their understanding of salvation and the gospel. This fear grips the imagination of leaders who are scared of losing their members to "half-truths" presented by other writers. This is a valid fear that if acted upon could alienate a whole generation of Seventh-day Adventists. Furthermore, it has been one of the main reasons why Adventism remains insignificant in the Christian world.
N.T. Wright is still fuzzy about what happens in death before the second coming. He also doesn't have a clear picture of the millennium or indeed the Sabbath, and many other Adventist beliefs. Similarly, Rob Bell also has some varying views regarding many beliefs. Jamie Oliver has great recipes for pork chops! Any writer will have views that will need to be studied and analyzed against scripture. It’s not an easy task and could definitely be dangerous. However, Jesus didn’t seem to be scared of that. He encouraged his disciples to go to the world as sheep among wolves, which is definitely dangerous. Perhaps more energy should be invested to educate the membership to think for themselves. The church should have never deviated from that, as the opposite of encouraging critical thinking is brainwashing.
Perhaps the Adventist church will still capture the imagination of the world in the future. Perhaps it will discover how to inspire its own members to revive our incarnational nature and reform mediocrity in engaging the world. Perhaps we will live up to our prophetic vision of proclaiming the good news in a loud voice rather than our current evangelistic whispering campaigns. Alternatively, there is also the possibility that Adventists don’t have a copyright on truth and God has inspired and called sheep from other folds to proclaim these truths in a louder voice than the church itself has been doing. If this is the case, the remnant may be much larger than the Adventist church itself.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/3055