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. We're certainly not interested in what 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 in Virginia.