IF TIME SHOULD LAST
Adventism’s look when I am 80
Let me begin with a confession. I am probably the wrong person to venture predictions about the future. The embarrassing truth is that I have a poor track record.
For example, I contributed to a 1981 essay that declared that the denomination
was on the verge of a schism. But
despite a great deal of controversy, “the Desmond Ford crisis” (to use familiar Adventist shorthand) did not create a new church, another splinter group calling itself something like the True and Reformed Seventh-day Adventist Church.
I recently stumbled across another false prophecy of mine. In old lecture notes for my denominational history course I found a list of likely problems in the future of Adventism, the sort of thing we usually talked about on the last day of class.
One issue not on my list was women’s ordination. I told students in 1993 that ordination regardless of gender was “inevitable.”
In my profession we study change, eagerly explaining how things change and what caused a specific upheaval or revolution. Historians are especially interested in moments of reversal or radical new directions, when “present trends” did not continue. Yet, we did not see—or predict—several major events of my lifetime, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of South African apartheid, or the dramatic growth of Islam’s influence.
Similar seismic shifts have shaken the religious world. I think of how the American religious environment has changed since I was baptized in 1960. Did any farsighted Adventist editor, scholar, or evangelist predict the rapid decline in members and cultural influence for such mainstream Protestants as Episcopalians and Presbyterians? What about the drastic changes in Catholicism since the Second Vatican Council and the concomitant side effects, including a steep decline in the number of men entering the priesthood or monastic orders? Who confidently expected reopened Christian churches, even evangelism, in Russia and China?
Within Adventism, too, are many apparent shifts from standards, taken-for-granted customs, and centers of strength. Ingathering in the United States? Sabbath School attendance? One-time “Meccas” or “Jerusalems” now replaced or overshadowed—Skodsborg Sanitarium in Denmark, the Singapore complex of institutions, Madison College, Battle Creek?
At the same time, a denomination numbering 20 million members has grown in unexpected directions, creating new and remarkably powerful institutions and influential concentrations of believers from Korea to Brazil to Rwanda. We seem to both wax and wane all at once.
I have been thinking a lot about the changes I may see in the next dozen years as I move toward the milestone of “fourscore years.” In speculating about what these changes might be, I am quite sure that some things will not change. I am confident that Adventists will continue to preach “the blessed hope,” proclaiming not only a risen Christ but also a returning Christ. Our largest local congregations will still be known for Adventism’s commitment to health and innovative forms of medical ministry. And growing or not, the Sabbath will still be the experiential core of what it means to be an Adventist.
Adventists are cautious about looking down the road a dozen years, fervently hoping that this battered old planet may be refurbished before 2029. We often preface any projection with the well-worn phrase “if time should last.” So, acknowledging fallibility—historians’ and mine—here are some possibilities (if time should last).
The next General Conference president will be “non-Western.”
This means (and here the compass spins) not from the United States, Canada, Europe, or “down under.” This will happen sooner rather than later, and will be primarily the result of the shifting demographic makeup of the denomination, not any specific theological or political controversy.
In the next dozen years we will see strong challenges to religious liberty around the world.
Such challenges will probably involve the right to “proselytize,” alleged “blasphemy,” state regulation of church institutions, and the freedom of groups and individuals to dissent from majority opinion. Religious liberty conflicts are unlikely, however, to only present a binary choice between first- and seventh-day worship. The warnings in the book of Revelation about overreaching governments, claiming God’s prerogatives, will remain relevant in 2029.
The North American Division will be both less important and more autonomous.
As American financial and political influence over the rest of the church fades somewhat, we should expect to see more conversations about “home missions” in the “homeland of missions.” Short-term missions will continue to get more attention than the promotion of lifelong mission service.
Other world divisions may also propose new configurations of administration, though the denomination will simultaneously reject congregationalism. Our central organization works too well to be discarded.
Regardless of the outcome of the debate on women’s ordination, we will see expanded roles for women in the next 12 years.
Even if most female pastors are “commissioned” rather than “ordained,” there will be more of them. Women will continue to serve in such high-profile roles as university presidents, church administrators, pastors of large congregations (in certain areas), and widely read authors.
Adventists from traditional societies will be subtly shaped by women who, for example, teach seminarians how to preach, train physicians, or write significant defenses of Adventist teachings.
Conflict over Adventist teaching and practice relating to human sexuality will be much harder to resolve.
The General Conference president and the president of the North American Division appear to hold different positions on whether world divisions should be allowed to decide on their own about women’s ordination. But both are likely to be in full agreement with the recent evangelical Nashville Statement, which affirms that “God designed marriage to be the covenantal, sexual, procreative, lifelong union of one man and one woman,” and denies that “marriage is a mere human contract.”
Neither leader would support the “progressive” alternative issued by Christians United, which repudiates the idea that the “present multiplicity of sexual orientations and gender identities” has anything to do with the “fallenness of human relationships.”
I do not expect the church to endorse radical change. However, as it defends the traditional Christian understanding of sexuality, the denomination will have to avoid anything that suggests ostracizing homosexuals, or risk losing the support of many young people.
In a church with many national, racial, ethnic, and tribal fault lines, American models of progress may become less relevant.
Discussions of church unity will necessarily move beyond the paradigms created by the historical experience of Black Americans. Compensatory programs for “minorities,” for example, are bound to change as old majorities disappear. “Diversity” may become an unworkable concept if it assumes that racism or poisonous ethnocentrism is restricted to people of European descent. Racial categories themselves will become more vague in the face of global migrations and an increasing number of people who are multiracial or multiethnic.
One More Thing
I am tempted to offer one more prediction, this one more daring and even more uncertain the others. In the part of Seventh-day Adventism I know best, I see hints of an impending realignment. Maybe I’m imagining it, but some of our old words and categories seem to be losing their clarity and usefulness.
We once thought we knew what the words “conservative” and “liberal” meant in the Adventist context. We were pretty sure that there were sharp differences between these two groups, and we could predict how a “conservative Adventist” would react and what a “liberal Adventist” would assume. But I suspect the words may be losing their meaning, or at least their sharp edges. Recent events at Pacific Union College (PUC), where I serve, have unsettled my confidence in the old labels.
A few months ago readers of Adventist Review may have noticed a surprising news story about PUC’s decision not to sell some of our land, which is a heritage that goes back to the beginning of the school. Now, of course, it’s good news when any Adventist institution refuses to go down that familiar, invariably disappointing road of selling assets to pay off debts or, even worse, to shore up one year’s budget. But that is not the most interesting part of the story.
Our campus has had a lively discussion about this land, which includes 1,800 acres of forest and farmland. How does this land contribute to our educational mission, we asked, and our old commitment that here on Howell Mountain “nature and revelation unite in education”? Does our rural location provide today’s students with something they need?
At this point I expected to see the appearance of those well-known personages Brother Liberal and Sister Conservative, and witness a conversation that falls into certain familiar patterns. One side would talk about the “blueprint” and “mission drift,” and the other would warn about the irrelevance of old ways of doing things and the desperate need for radical innovation. But nothing of the kind happened.
Without reference to other controversies, people labeled “liberal” and people said to be “conservative” came to a strong consensus. They found that PUC’s founding ideals retained great power in the twenty-first century. They discovered (or rediscovered) that the college’s location and unique land heritage appealed to today’s students, and to our non-Adventist neighbors.
Soon the campus was abuzz with schemes for organic gardening, enhanced opportunities for student labor, forest preservation, and new classes. The beginning-of-the-year colloquium, involving all faculty and staff, focused on “nature deficit disorder,” and the need for nature education as balance to the distortions of an increasingly “virtual” world.
It’s too soon to say what this ferment will produce. But I am encouraged by the hint that the old categories may be losing their power, at least some of the time. If we look around in other locations and other conversations, we may observe similar changes.
I think of a good friend who is a theologian. When the conversation turns to technical issues of theology, such as the role of history in explicating the New Testament, or how “the facts of natural history” should inform our reading of Genesis, he is distinctly “liberal,” unlikely to be hired at the seminary. Yet he is passionate and eloquent in his defense of the Sabbath. He believes that the Adventist practice of the Sabbath is eroding, sometimes even in “conservative” contexts. And no one is more eloquent in explaining the theological underpinning for the biblical Sabbath. I could see him leading a successful crusade to preserve this pillar of Seventh-day Adventism, not necessarily a known liberal position.
It’s possible, in short, that our denomination will find new language, by the year 2029, that enhances our articulation of the teachings of our faith—new language for our unfailing commitment to “revival and reformation,” however long time may last.
Eric Anderson taught history at Pacific Union College, served as president of Southwestern Adventist University, and now lives with his wife Loretta in Angwin, California.