Perspective: Adventist Christianity in a Post-Christian World


(Spectrumbot) #1

Europeans love their churches; they just don't use them. I grew up in a community in Norway that loved its local church, the only church in the county, Lutheran or otherwise. The locals still take good care of it, and if it burned down, the way the only church in the neighbor county did a few years ago, they too would move heaven and earth to rebuild it at public expense. And for Christmas and New Year, they lovingly post pictures of the church, draped in light snow and flood-lit, in order to wish everybody a blessed Christmas and a good New Year. But they hardly ever go to their beloved church.

Twenty-two percent of Norwegians today say they believe in God. The rest? They believe in the good life and don't see what religion has to do with it. They want the church around as master of ceremonies at all of life's key events. They might not believe in either God or the devil, but they will bring their children to church to be christened. They don't want to be thought of as disrespectful of tradition--or an atheist!

While, according to 2002 Pew polling data, six out of ten Americans said that religion played an important role in their lives, only 11% of the population in France, 12% in Japan and 33% in the UK felt the same way. Forty-seven percent of the French, according to the same polling, said they were agnostic.

Decommissioning of sanctuaries has become a thorny problem in Europe. The church of England, according to the Wall Street Journal, closes 20 churches per year. In Denmark, 200 churches have been decommissioned, and in the Netherlands, the Roman Catholic Church expects that the same will happen to one-third of its 1,600 churches, within a decade.

So far, the United States has remained somewhat insulated from this trend. In the first decade of this millennium, more than 5,000 new churches were added, but it remains to be seen how long Americans can keep their throbbing finger in the dike of secularism. For various reasons, mostly associated with the separation of church and state and lack of educational opportunities, the US still remains the "Silicon Valley of Christendom." But for how long?

If Adventists are not concerned about this development, they should. If Christianity is reduced to a marginal phenomenon in Western culture, Adventism is virtually doomed to disappear. While some Adventists may still think of themselves as a movement established by God to replace all other organized expressions of the Christian faith, and that the fate of "apostate Protestantism" and a demonic Catholic church is of no consequence, the great majority, I'm sure, realizes that all Christian denominations are in the same boat: If all the other churches go down, so will they.

And that recognition is a good thing.

Adventism has always ridden the coattails of mainstream Christianity. As a church, it never developed a language by which it could communicate with the non-religious or the other-religious. To this day, Adventist evangelists swoop into communities that have a strong historical attachment to Christianity and overtly try to exploit the dogmatic vulnerabilities of these people. But that is of no use when addressing the post-Christian or non-Christian. Telling them that Roman Catholics have got it all wrong, is about as relevant as arguing about which group interprets Islam correctly, the Shia or the Sunni. To the world, it's completely irrelevant whether Brigham Young distorted the original Mormon message, as claimed by Emma Smith and Joseph Smith, Jr. And telling an atheist that Saturday is the Lord's Sabbath is something you'd expect to see in the Onion, not in real life.

In post-Christian societies, such as Europe, Christians need to find a new way of speaking to people, a new language that doesn't presuppose Christian literacy and, just as important, a new message. And this applies especially to Adventists: when there are no more sheep to steal, you need to raise some yourself. Adventism emerged in an America that for the most part saw Christianity as an incantation that uncorked the champagne of God's grace. The grace of God was seen as free and unmerited, but it still wouldn't do you any good if your dogmatic enunciation was slightly off. There was no salvation outside of dogmatic perfection, also called orthodoxy. It is time that this un-Christian idea be buried.

If Christianity in general, and Adventism in particular, are to have a future, they need to return to the roots of New Testament Christianity. Christianity started out as a fellowship pushing spiritual ethics in an apocalyptic setting, something that ought to have a certain appeal to especially Adventists. It was not a dogmatic inquisition, but a commitment to a Way of life. Restorationist churches such as Adventists, Church of Christ, Mormons and Jehovah's Witness saw themselves as God's counterpart to the early church's Great Apostasy in the area of biblical doctrine, but they got it all wrong. The greatest sin of the early Christian church was substituting orthodoxy for ethics. A bad interpretation of a biblical text is like playing a bad note in a concert; it's jarring but not fatal, and often inevitable, but if you get the orchestration and the key wrong, it's much worse. That's what happened to the movement started by Jesus of Nazareth: it turned a fellowship into a competitive quest for God's ear, an attempt at franchising the passwords to eternity, and the emphasis of Jesus on values was largely lost.

Europeans have abandoned the faith of Christianity, but they have retained its values. The challenge there is to restore the relevancy of things spiritual while in the U.S., it is to restore moral values to religion. Here, Christians have retained the faith, but to a disturbing extent it's a rhetorical shell around a right-wing dream of wealth and celestial fire insurance for the individual. If there ever was room for a Christian counter-culture, based on the values of the Gospel, it's here in the U.S..

I'm writing this from the perspective of somebody who is no longer a believer. I'm a post-Christian and essentially a humanist. Like most of my fellow post-Christians I love the grand, old churches, visually and atmospherically, even though I'm estranged from Christian theology. There are lots of people like me, people who gladly sneak into empty churches, especially the grand ones. The challenge for people of faith is to make what is being said in these sacred spaces relevant to our lives. You could start with values. It is not Jesus that offends us. We're not the "wicked" of biblical myth; we're not looking for a life without challenges, a blessing on hedonism. We're looking for relevancy, an opportunity to make a difference, to use our uniquely human gifts. What we're not interested in is the identity of the King of the North in Daniel 11 or what the 1335 days of Daniel 12 refer to.

Aage Rendalen is a foreign language teacher in the Richmond Public School system, Richmond, Va.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6545

(Loren Seibold) #2

Thanks for a thoughtful piece, @aage_rendalen!

Has any strong Christian tradition/denomination developed that language? I can’t think of any Christian church that has made much progress with the non-religious. We tend to be self-inspecting and self-referential. I love your description of the church of tradition in Norway. But as you point out, that doesn’t mean “faith” in the sense that we talk about it. Yet maybe these traditional, ritual uses of faith are a step in the right direction? Could they (wedding, funerals, christenings) open the door to real faith when it is needed?

We pastors often talk about this—that we’re drawing from the pool of already-Christian. But as you said above, we don’t have a very good framework for reaching outside of that. I don’t know a church that does. And what you acknowledge you’re really talking about, @aage_rendalen, is not non-religious but post-religious people. These may come with a chip on the shoulder about religion, and a historical perspective of culture and religion, which makes it hard to even talk to them about faith.

I think you have (as so many of us do here) identified a nearly-intractable problem. But few of us are sure what the answer is. I fall back on “I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me,” as I wrote about a in couple of months ago.


(le vieux) #3

Au contraire; it will shine even brighter amid the darkness surrounding it, giving light to any who are still searching for truth.

I’m not sure what you mean by that, but we preach the 3 angels’ messages, which includes “the everlasting gospel;” and the gospel is the root of NT Christianity.

I’m sure that explains why our missionaries were so successful around the world, and why so many in “third world” countries continue to embrace the gospel as presented by our missionaries. The hoity-toity western world thinks itself so sophisticated as to no longer need the “crutch” of religion (as they worship at the altars of Hollywood, sports stadiums, and other gods), but many in the rest of the world recognize their true needs.

Really? Which ones? They ignore the first 4 commandments; practice euthanasia, and have very loose sexual mores. How can they have retained the values of Christianity, when the article claims that we live in a “post-Christian” world?


(Elaine Nelson) #4

Would any Adventist leader be so brave as to write describing Christianity, and especially Adventism? Where are there leaders so bold as to address this unspoken problem? Adventism began in the “burned over” districts but there are now to many “burned out” Christians, including Adventists.

Aage, you most succinctly presented the current situation; the leaders should all read this and then hold talks on what to do about this rather than WO or LBGT issues when few, if any or either listening or care. The door swings largely outward.


(Brad(Luna)) #5

They still believe in love, taking care of the poor, kindness, and helping their neighbors. There is more to religious values than sexuality.


(Thomas J Zwemer) #6

Aage A marvelous piece. But Christ entered into a world exactly like ours. A place of passion without purpose. I find in Him Purpose with a passion. The music of the Church, the architecture of the Church are overshadowed by the history of the Church. but that history is the history of man. The Gospels gives use the History of the God of Grace. Here lies my assurance. Tom Z


(Peter Marks) #7

Our Saviour asked a good question, “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” The answer indicated by the original language is no. Our God is not suprised at this turn of events. Can Adventism do better in reaching the world with the everlasting gospel? Certainly!

Just last night, I was listening to Jan Barna making a presentation on podcast. It was titled "The Bible as Story: From the Death of Scripture to a New ‘Revelation - The Bible as Worldview.’ He explicitly stated that if we study the Bible as a grand story and as a drama, it will bring revived life and a great re-formation to our lives and our witness. He claims that he has proved this in his ministry. Barna goes on to decry the dogmatization of the Scriptures, which lead to a brittle orthodoxy. Not that our doctrines are incorrect! Rather, the teachings of the Scriptures are always to be gathered and shared from the great, unified whole of the Scriptures, rather than as distilled gems.


(Carolyn Parsons) #8

I see quite a bit of this thin shell Christianity in the Osteen ministry. Beautifully perfumed, sumptuously decorated, beautifully lit, tightly produced, media rich populist pabulum. It is impressively empty.

In the parts of the world where the SDA church is growing fastest, so are other churches. They are importing this prosperity fable in much of Africa where you can often see a gold gilded polished granite temple rise from the slums. With armed guards flanking the doors and guarding the gate behind which the BMW’s and Land Rovers are washed and polished for the use of the leaders.

In the US, we have almost no beautiful old churches to visit and spend a quiet respite gazing through the stained glass and watching people say their prayers. Or a place where you can’t run your fingers along the chisel marks of a stone mason’s ancient labor. What we have instead is church piped over the airwaves in the form of whacky conspiracy theories, hateful discrimination, all American jingoism or fluffy nothingness. We know what sells.


(Phillip Brantley) #9

Most Seventh-day Adventists know that there are about 18,000,000 members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Some know that the Church organized itself with 3500 members in 1863. Very few have done the simple calculation to determine the compound annual growth rate, which is only 5.82 percent. This history is not Pentecost. This history is not the impressive stewardship shown by the faithful servants Jesus describes in His Parable of the Talents. If we consider that many members on the books no longer attend church, contribute in any way, or consider themselves Seventh-day Adventists, the compound annual growth rate can be regarded as artificially inflated. In recent years, the net annual growth rate has averaged around 2 percent.

Most Seventh-day Adventists are not only abysmally ignorant about the Church’s historic rate of growth but also ignorant about the historic rate of growth in their local churches. Ask any pastor and his or her team of elders about the rate of growth of the local church they serve and they will not be able to give you an answer.

It is very difficult to substantiate the contention that growth is a major objective of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. There is very little in the major governance document–The Church Manual–that impresses upon the mind that Seventh-day Adventists care about growth. The Church Manual’s primary focus is church purification. We see very little about the imperative of growth and absolutely nothing about what a church should do to achieve growth. Anecdotally, we know that as long as a particular local church is meeting the needs of its members and there is an environment of peacefulness, the church is considered to be a success even if no one ever gets baptized. We also know that there are no benchmarks of success for pastors; pastors can enjoy long and satisfying careers in Church ministry and not grow their churches.

It is interesting to me that during our extended conversation about women’s ordination no one to my knowledge has bothered to calculate the growth effected by female pastors and compare that statistic to the growth effected by male pastors. I perceive that nobody cares. Perhaps one of these days, the Church will organize a TOSC-like committee and publicize to the 18 million members of the Church what they have not yet learned from the Parable of the Talents.

I appreciate Aage Rendalen’s excellent and thought-provoking essay.


(Elaine Nelson) #10

What a comment about the condition of the church today written by a non-Adventist! He expresses more concern about the status of the church than any leader today. certainly not Wilson. Is it because there is hesitancy to state the true nature of the Adventist church today? Aage seems to be far more aware of the church than any church leader has verbalized.


(Peter) #11

So Ryan Bell isn’t really unique and not as newsworthy as some have thought? I found this piece far more relevant than what Ryan has said/written. It seemed particularly significant that Aage didn’t make a point of being a non-believer until nearly the end of his piece. That the Adventist Church could ever disappear seems understandably unthinkable, but I wonder if those who think in terms of Adventists being a remnant and in a time of shaking care if the church is growing. Or do they take pride in “purifying” the church and remaining “true”?


(Carolyn Parsons) #12

No, he isn’t unique. The difference is that he went from pastor to unbeliever and he did it in front of the whole world. Though never easy, I think it is easier to negotiate the loss of faith out of the public eye. Aage also has more years under his belt and the confidence that age brings to knowing who you are. I hope to get there soon :slight_smile: but not too soon.


(Steve Mga) #13

Aage brings up some relevant issues in my mind. The current pastor is having his going away [to Atlanta North] party in about 12 days.
There are apparently 3 pastor names that are to be, or have been, provided by the Conference, but the names have not been revealed to the congregation by the Church Board.
The Eldership of the church this year has discussed the “purity of the church” issues when one of 2 of them has had the sermons when the pastor needed to be away.
It will be interesting to see what type of pastor will be allowed to take over the pulpit. The pastor before our current one was around for less than a year and resigned. He got so much flack over a guitar band for vespers, he decided this was not the one for him. People knew he and his group practiced after church for 3 to 4 months, so it was no secret.
With this in mind, Aage’s piece has given me pause for reflection.


(Aage Rendalen) #14

Thanks for your thoughtful responses. Loren points out that no Christian movement seems to have succeeded in making the Christian faith relevant either to those in our part of the world who drifted away from religion or to those who grew up outside of it. I agree.

Few people who have grown up in happy, well-functioning families have ever become successful writers or artists, and it seems that generalized contentment has the same effect on people’s spiritual needs.While that may be used as an emotional and rational cushion against wide-spread failure to connect with contemporaries on religious grounds, it does point out that religion only seems to maintain its relevance under certain cultural conditions and that its diffusion and success are functions of very predictable variables, none of which seems overtly divine.

Pici mentions growth in the developing world. That is an entirely different story with different dynamics, and not much of what happens in those parts of the world have much relevance to the situation that Christianity faces in our part of the world. As far as believing that the demise of mainstream Christianity would be a great opportunity for Adventism to shine, I beg to differ. My daughter was chuckling when she recently told me about her three year old daughter calling her over in a gift store to look at a human butterfly. It turned out to be an angel. “I guess I have been remiss about her religious instruction,” she said. And that is going to be a problem for you, Pici, when you speak to my grand-daughter’s cohort 15 years from now. It’s like having to program in machine code as opposed to using a high-level programming language. When you have to explain angels or Satan (not easy if you’re constrained to use the Bible) and that the first woman was created from the first man’s rib, you’d face an immense up-hill battle against incredulity. We who have grown up in the Christian cultural sphere tend to under-estimate grossly how much we take for granted when we talk to people.We have heard the term “son of God” all our lives. My grand-daughter is going to wonder how God can have a son when he has no wife, and you’ll be welcome to continue that conversation. That and the one about the Trinity. And why God has temper tantrums and goes on killing sprees.

Pici doesn’t think Europe has retained the values of Christianity, that it is a cesspool of hedonism.My response to that is that when it comes to sexual morality no earthly culture has much to boast about. We’re all like Fiats with hormon-fueled Porche engines and while some manage to control the vehicle, many don’t. Before they know it, they’re in the ditch. Europe is no different from America or Africa. What I meant is that in Europe the values that Jesus focused on, such as concern for the widow and the poor and the stranger within your gates, are held in much higher regard than they are in a US ravaged by Social Darwinian thinking and a secular version of Christianity. Better to make no profession and do right, in my book, than offer empty rhetorical sacrifices to the Almighty.


(Pagophilus) #15

Well, then you don’t really know what you want. You want to retain old symbols but not what they stand for. Living in the past is what I call it. Yearning for the good old days, not knowing that is was solid Christianity that made the good old days so good. (And if you’re not interested in who the King of the North is or what the various time prophecies mean, then you will have no idea where we are in the timeline of earth’s history, and what is coming, and what is expected of you.)

Christianity without substance is as useful as…how do the Aussies put it…tits on a bull.


(Graeme Sharrock) #16

After reading your excellent comments, I watched the press conference given by Gov. Bob McDonnell, as he twisted himself into a holy knot in front of the press after being given two years of prison time for misdeeds as governor. After trying to eat humble pie, he announced that he was going to fight his conviction, asserting the Jesus Christ was in control of human providence and would doubtless move things in McDonnell’s favor.

America is such a strange place, where religion, politics and arrogance seem to star in a three-ring circus. The public mocking of Jesus’ identification with the downtrodden and the exaltation of the power brokers and those who can afford teams of highly paid lawyers in an ongoing parade of narcissism.

Religion in America thrives because it is still very useful. Damn me for my misuse of funds and breaking my oath of office, but love me because I love Jesus.


(Sirje) #17

Appreciate all that you’ve said - fresh air into a stuffy room.

My European background informs me that what you describe in Norway - respect for religious icons and rituals, while abandoning religion, has been the norm in most of Europe for a very long time. At least since the beginning of the 20th century, and probably beyond. Christian norms have woven themselves into the European social identity; and have been identified as a mark of being civilized, instead of being religious.

The difference between the European and the American attitudes about religion goes back to the history of both, of course. The Americas were populated by disenfranchised religious refugees from Europe; while European culture is much older, and has evolved from nature worship to a “modern” rejection of it. The fact that Christianity is responsible for that evolution seems to not matter much. Society has retained religious ritual more as a respect for its history, than for actual religious conviction.

Maybe, too, European history has given Europeans a sense of reality that is missing in the western hemisphere. Many Europeans have family memories of God’s abandonment. Morality, in a time of war, gets made up on the go, as needed. America has had a front-row seat to that history, but without the emotional involvement. We have had the luxury of making moral judgments about it, without actually being there. Of course, some of us have come out of that experience, but the memories of it are dying away with those who lived them.

As to the problem of relevancy - maybe religion isn’t the best place to find God these days. Let’s try science and see how that plays in Oslo, London, and Paris.


(Sinisa ) #18

“Really? Which ones? They ignore the first 4 commandments; practice euthanasia, and have very loose sexual mores. How can they have retained the values of Christianity, when the article claims that we live in a “post-Christian” world?”

How about the fact that teenage pregnancy is way lower in Scandinavia then lets say in the Bible belt? What about the gun culture- so loved in christian south and almost non-existent in western Europe? How about egalitarian consciences manifested in Europe’s social, welfare and health systems which just does not exist in the places where you have more churches per sq mile than traffic lights? Violent crime? prison population? Domestic abuse? Even some values of 4th commandment can be traced in legislations which limit the working hours and exploitation of the workers and protects their right for free time.
Actually, I think his quote really explains this discrepancy quite well:
“Europeans have abandoned the faith of Christianity, but they have retained its values.”


(Elaine Nelson) #19

We need more thoughtful and honest appraisals of Christianity from Aage. There is a lacuna of such public reflection from those who hold the reins of this church. While it is sinking into decay, there continues to be calls for “revival and reformation.” A useless phrase for a dying corpse. The center of gravity for Adventism has long ago left and gone south.


(Cassandra) #20

Aage: We’re looking for relevancy, an opportunity to make a difference, to use our uniquely human gifts.

Aage, I bought The Adventists Trilogy for a Christmas gift for my traditional SDA friend, and we’ve started watching it together.

What strikes me, in watching it, is that the things you describe post-Christians as wanting are the very things that Adventists have historically excelled at, which perhaps might go far towards explaining why so many former Adventists still find attraction in the values of Adventism.