Adventists in the 21st century

The 57th session of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists is now history. Toronto brought us a sense of fulfillment. We were encouraged by the reports of membership growth in many places, by the enthusiasm of young people joyfully reaffirming their faith, and by concrete plans to witness to the hitherto unreached. How our founding ancestors would have rejoiced and marveled at the vast gathering of more than 60,000 enthusiastic believers from almost every corner of the globe and at the news of a world membership of more than 11 million!

Missiologists marvel at the growth of the Adventist Church, at the breadth of its global outreach, and even more at the stability and faithfulness of the communities it forms. This is enormously encouraging. However, even as we rejoice at what has been accomplished, we are constrained to see the world as God sees it—the needy, the unreached, and the unfulfilled—and be challenged in our own discipleship in the light of eternity.

Upon you, the young people, rests to a great extent the responsibility for the future witness of the church, whatever profession you are preparing for or are now engaged in. Your time to be involved and to lead has come, whether in positions of lay leadership or in direct connection with the gospel ministry. Your effectiveness as a witness will depend on the decisions you now make, the patterns of discipleship you now build into your life, and the vision of the world that you develop.

Dramatic global changes

As far as Adventist mission is concerned, we need to note 20th century’s four striking demographic phenomena:

Staggering global population growth. World population has increased more in just 25 years during the past century than in all the centuries prior to 1900. (See table.)

Urbanization of the world. This has been accompanied by dramatic changes in almost every dimension of the human social situation.

The global spread of Christianity. Not until the early 1940s did Christianity became truly global. The close of the past century saw more than three and one-half times as many Christians as at its beginning.

Astounding growth in Adventism. The church has grown from about 76,000 to 11.5 million during the 20th century. It is now 150 times larger than it was when our pioneers set out on the missionary road.

Christians among the peoples of the world1

As we consider these statistics, we must avoid two temptations. First, triumphalism. The distance to go and the work yet to be done, rather than what has been achieved, should control our thinking and keep us humble. Second, figures are impersonal and the contemplation of statistics tend to depersonalize the equation. We need to remember that each person among the billions is one whose life is of inestimable value before God and whose feelings are subject to the same forces as our own.

Challenges of numbers and cities

The first great challenge we face is that of numbers. While the number of world Christians has grown dramatically from one-half to two billion during the past century, the number of people unreached by Christianity has grown from one to four billion. This is therefore no time for small thinking. But neither is the solution to be sought solely in mass media programs. Members of various cultural and religious groups of the world must be approached in ways that appeal to and engage them personally. Dedicated and competent scholars are needed who can enter deeply enough into the experience of persons in such groups to feel the pull and force of their religion and provide satisfying Christian answers. This is an enormous challenge, which will require much serious study and personal contact. The way is now more open than before because there are Adventists in these societies whose lives are a testimony to the power of the gospel and whose experience is a source from which much can be learned.

The second is the great multifaceted urban challenge. It is here that the greatest opportunities are to be found and perhaps also the greatest failures of the church. Half of the people of the world now live in large cities—the wealthy and the desperately poor, the intelligentsia and the illiterate, the thought leaders of society and the drifters, the cohorts of vibrant Christians and the strongholds of those most opposed to Christianity. Challenges of all kinds abound.

Largely because of who you—the readers—are, we will focus upon a few of the more intellectually oriented aspects of this challenge.

The intellectual challenge

In general, not enough attention has been given to provide Christian answers to the quest of the contemporary generation for meaning in life. There are subtle signs of spiritual hunger—of an intellectual quest for transcendent truth that gives meaning and shape to human existence. Over the last generation, patterns of thought have had a broadly based shift—from the rationalistic positivism of modernism to a general sense of the limitations of human thought and knowledge—that provides both new openings and challenges. The postmodern mindset is characterized by an awareness of the vastness and complexity of reality, of the inadequacy of our physical and theoretical apparatus to plumb the depths of it all, and of the tentativity of all human knowledge. There is no longer brash confidence regarding laws of reality and exact objective knowledge. This new mindset opens up new avenues for the discussion of concepts of a transcendent deity and of a relationship between God and human beings.

Adventist theology provides a positive foundation for such a discussion because of:

Here is a challenge to young Adventist academics and professionals: Translate these great theological themes of Adventism in a way that establishes dialogue and shares the gospel with the intelligentsia of this age.

The challenge of the heart

But there is more to the challenge of meeting urban thinkers than the intellectual elucidation of the message. Religion is as much a matter of the heart—relating to emotions and experience—as of the mind. This finds its general expression in the corporate worship of God. I recall listening to a college professor telling why he left an evangelical church and became an Episcopalian. “I was tired,” he said, “of being endlessly harangued and admonished and told what to do. I wanted to worship the Lord with all my senses, in quietness and beauty, and in congregational participation in prayer, confession and creed, but my group just did not know how to worship.”

Some who have joined the Adventist Church have expressed dissatisfaction with the worship experience among us. Matters mentioned include: failure to adequately cultivate a sense of entering the divine presence; insufficient congregational participation in prayers, confessions of faith, and Scripture reading; not coming to the Lord’s Supper with depth and seriousness, etc. If we succeed in bringing members of the urban elite into the church, will they find the warmth of fellowship and the depth of experience in worship that they are seeking?

The urban multicultural challenge

It was once said that the sun never set on the British empire, but now the world is in London—and in every other large city. The tragic irony of the situation is this: Now that we all live together, there is less mutuality and understanding than previously. In this new situation, the mission field that was once halfway around the world may be our neighbor next door. Another irony: The Christian who would cross the ocean on a missionary commission is hardly concerned enough to cross the street to visit the Jain, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, or the secularist neighbor. And this in spite of the well known fact that in general new immigrants are more likely to respond positively to overtures of friendship and help and are less impeded by the constraints of kith and kin in making a positive response to the gospel than within their traditional society.

In the past many churches have seemed to cherish, even to defend, a mono-cultural style of congregational worship. With the new multi-ethnicism of the cities, this attitude is a challenge to overcome. But if we bring immigrant seekers or other ethnic groups into the church, will we welcome them into a truly warm fellowship without requiring them to become just like us? The gospel confers an identity upon us that transcends all cultural and parochial identities, but we know from experience that even though we genuinely accept this in our hearts, each of us is so shaped by the culture of our society that practical adjustment is not easy. Anthropologists and sociologists suggest that a congregation would benefit enormously by having a Christian social scientist explain the functions of culture to groups within the church, defuse conflict-generating circumstances, and suggest ways of maximizing a truly Christian sense of harmony. Here is a significant challenge to budding young social scientists among us.

More personal concerns

We have noted briefly some of the external challenges facing the church. But we will fail in our duty if we do not consider two major intellectual and cultural influences that can subtly infiltrate the thinking and worldview of the Christian disciple in contemporary society. These are secular humanism and institutionalized individualism.

Secularism refers to the intellectual tendency to regard the physical cosmos as all that there is, and to deny that God is active in human history. The presuppositions of contemporary academic life are largely based on secular humanism. The Christian disciple must recognize this pattern of thought for what it is and not be influenced by it. The alert Christian student should recognize the shallowness and limitations of this worldview and consciously affirm the immense depth and value of Christian theism. It may be helpful to read books by evangelicals who consciously counter these trends.3

Second, our tendency toward self-centeredness makes all of us vulnerable to the institutionalized individualism of our times. Many young people want to hang free and do their own thing—that is, until calamity strikes. And contemporary society, with its achievement orientation and film star complex, encourages them in that direction. But unencumbered individualism offers an empty self. It assumes that the upwardly mobile person may have to leave home and friends and church and whatever else impedes progress in order to achieve position and means in an impersonal world of intense competition. Scholarly literature is replete with evidence of the destructiveness of such individualism to family and society and finally for the self. Many are rediscovering that the life worth living is life in community.

One of the great personal challenges faced by each of us is to recover the profound community outlook in which the church as the biblical people of God was formed. The Christian faith is most intensely experienced within a relationship with others, and the most eloquent witness of the regenerating power of the gospel is that of a loving and caring community of Christian believers.

Our pursuit of academic degrees and professional success should lead to an experience that seizes the joy of witnessing to the truth of the gospel, fosters ever clearer concepts of the greatest truth of the universe, and affirms the warm fellowship of a rejoicing Christian community.

Russell Staples (Ph.D., Princeton Theological Seminary) has served the Adventist Church for more than 50 years as pastor and teacher in different parts of the world. For 30 years he has been connected with the Seminary and the Institute of World Mission at Andrews University. This article is adapted from his book, Community of Faith: The Seventh-day Adventist Church in the Contemporary World (Review and Herald, 1999).Dr. Staples’ address: Theological Seminary; Berrien Springs, Michigan 49104; U.S.A. E-mail: staples@andrews.edu

Notes and references

  1. See David Barrett, “Annual Statistical Table on Global Mission: 2000,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research, January 2000; also 136th Annual Statistical Report, 1998 (Silver Spring, Maryland: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1999).
  2. Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1940), p. 25.
  3. See, for example, George Marsden’s books The Soul of the American University (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994) and The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); and Kelly James Clark, Philosophers Who Believe (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1993).