Can We Adventists Learn from Others?

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A couple of weeks ago I attended the fifth annual Innovation Conference (IC5), in Columbus, OH. Suzy Welch, wife of GE’s Neutron Jack, was the main event, but I especially enjoyed Michael Lindsay’s presentation about the faith of people in the positions of power, and Samir Selmanovic, who has a knack for refreshing familiar faith concepts by turning them upside down and inside out.

I always go away from the IC realizing how confined the scope of my thinking. The church (this is probably true of any group in which one is long and deeply embedded) encloses us in itself such that we have a hard time seeing anything except through its portholes. The Innovation Conference helps to jar me out of that—not unlike the way foreign travel breaks down one’s cultural biases.

The innovator behind the IC is Elder Raj Attiken, president of the Ohio Conference. If you ask Raj why he’s doing this, he’ll point to the stagnating North American church: to thousands of smug little congregations marinating in the certainty that they have the truth, even as their children leave, the patriarchs and matriarchs die off, and the communities around them (if they know Adventists exist at all) think of them as a benign little cult.

We could use some creative ideas.

The critics’ complaint appears to be that Raj has invited speakers who aren’t Seventh-day Adventists, some of whose opinions and ideas may be quite different from, and in some particulars in opposition to, ours. Because Raj anticipated that an event like this could seem threatening, he relies on independent funding so no one can say he’s used their tithes and offerings for something they might not approve of.

So it wasn’t entirely unexpected when some saints stirred this into a controversy. Vance Ferrell seems always to show up in these kinds of discussions, and Pastor J. Allen Fine agitates on the topic from his base in Looneyville, WV. Although the Ohio Conference seems to like its conference president, a local anti-IC, anti-Raj website popped up, which conceals the identity of many of its contributors.

These Adventist critics haven’t had to do much original research: ironically, they get a lot of their ammunition against IC speakers from other Christian websites, especially Lighthouse Trails Research Project, which draws a bead on Leonard Sweet, Doug Pagitt and Rick Warren, especially, while setting up for straw men buzzwords like “emerging church,” “missional” and “post-modern.”

We Adventists have some profound truths as a movement and some lovely qualities as a people. At our best, we are charitable and gracious, with strong ties and sincere hearts. The dark side of our collective personality, though, is a tendency toward paranoia. We not only fear conspiracies against our Adventist truths, we expect them, and search for them, especially among ourselves. And what we search for, we inevitably find. How often I’ve been reminded by a critical member that the brightest lights will go out (Prophets and Kings, p.188) and that in the end times, “Men of talent and pleasing address, who once rejoiced in the truth, employ their powers to deceive and mislead souls” (The Great Controversy, p.608.)

The critics found a big target in the Leland Kaiser family, who keynoted IC1 and IC2. The Kaisers are Seventh-day Adventists, and cutting edge consultants to the hospital industry. “Cutting edge” is the key descriptor here, because people like these are intellectually adventurous, throwing out new ideas and metaphors without a lot of thought for how they’ll land. Both the Kaisers and Leonard Sweet are at once exciting and bewildering to listen to, because they think and speak rapidly, their thoughts careening through seemingly unconnected disciplines. One sometimes suspects that they’re experimenting with ideas, some of which they themselves may not, after all, wholly subscribe to.

I have this much sympathy for the critics: they can find phrases in the flow of talk from people like the Kaisers and Leonard Sweet that, especially if divorced from context, confirm the fears they were already nursing. There is an abandon in how these visionary speakers explore ideas, not unlike an artist wildly dashing paint on a canvas. I am more careful about what I say than the Kaisers are—but I’m an Adventist pastor, not a change consultant. It isn’t the nature of creative, cutting edge people to be cautious, and that’s why we want to hear them. They think of things we haven’t, and sometimes that can get a little edgy.

But the critics have not been entirely honest. You’d never know from what they write that most of the IC presenters are solid Christians (including some Seventh-day Adventist teachers and clergy) who address topics like trends in worship, evangelism, and church demographics. You’ll only hear about the most criticizable presenters, and most of their quotes are so abstracted from context as to be misleading. Much of the criticism has nothing to do with what was said at the Innovation Conference at all, but is speculation about the speakers’ hidden agendas based on prejudiced readings of their books or articles.

The critics seem to believe that because we’ve invited these speakers, we therefore accept and endorse everything they say. That’s ridiculous, as silly as thinking that we uncritically believe everything we read in the newspaper or see on TV. I’ve heard some wonderful, helpful stuff at each IC, some that didn’t do much for me, and some nonsense. I doubt anyone has trouble sorting it out. I get more benefit from the barrage of creativity than I am troubled by what I disagree with.

How much can we learn from people “out there”? In the Old Testament God warns against interaction with the natives of the land for fear his chosen would adopt heathen ways. The central figures of the New Testament, Jesus and Paul, seem to take a more offensive stance: go out and meet others, show kindness to them, live with them, discuss faith with them, and give them an opportunity to accept Christ. Paul, himself well-versed in Greek philosophy, doesn’t tell us to bury our heads in the sand, but to test everything and retain the good (1 Thessalonians 5:21), and he draws kindly but somewhat condescending comparisons between weak Christians, who can’t be in the presence anything with which they disagree, and strong Christians, who can and should (Romans 14:1-9).

And what about cooperative ministry with other Christians? Jesus once told his disciples that some local competitors—complete strangers—casting out demons in His name were not enemies but allies (Mark 9:38-40).

In the end, though, this is probably not a difference we’ll resolve by argument. Some among us feel extremely vulnerable to the possibility of error, and are deeply, sincerely frightened that there might be a danger to them and the church. It would be nice, though, if they could disagree without so much bile—it is this, not the content of their complaints, that enervates the church even while it seems to energize them.

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Sat, 05/10/2014 | San Diego Adventist Forum
Monique Vincent, PhD candidate, University of Chicago

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