Academic Tihomir Lazić talks about his work for Newbold College and the Trans-European Division finding ways to engage students across Europe in the life of the Adventist church.
Question: You recently took part in a conference for European Adventist students called “We Can't Look Away: The Church and Social Justice.” What did you talk to the students about?
Answer: The church has often been so preoccupied with delivering its message that it has overlooked its responsibility to respond to some burning needs around it. More than a million refugees arrived in Europe last year. More and more people are poor in Europe. There are 30,000 homeless people in the Netherlands, 120,000 in England, 15,000 in Denmark, and almost 400,000 in Germany. And these numbers are growing and growing. If the church is to be true to its calling, it can’t afford to look away. It needs to react to these and other social justice issues.
The goal of my presentations was twofold — first, to put things into perspective by raising the awareness of how important the biblical mandate to care for our neighbours and the "strangers within our gates" is for our Christian identity; and second, to give some practical suggestions how this responsibility should be carried out in our daily realm. The key to this dynamic and socially and environmentally responsible Christian life includes learning how to be sensitive to and participate in the work of God’s Spirit in the ongoing cosmic work of restoration. Identifying and responding to the Spirit’s work in, through and around us, I proposed, can bring a sense of astonishing aliveness of divine presence in our life. Propelled by this same Spirit, we won’t be able to look away.
The conference was held in the Netherlands. Where did the students travel from?
The 45 university students who gathered at a farmhouse in Ter Aar in April 2016 came from various parts of Europe, but mostly from the Netherlands and Denmark.
What did you think was the best thing about the conference?
Probably the very lively and insightful student discussions that followed the presentations of the four guest lecturers, and a special opportunity to listen firsthand to the experience of a migrant who went through a very tough period of adjustment upon leaving his home country. This helped us all to put ourselves into migrants’ shoes and understand their needs better.
At the General Conference last summer you were appointed director of the Adventist Ministry to College and University Students (or Public Campus Ministry) for the Trans-European Division. What does that position entail?
My job involves supporting, training and coordinating youth directors, student leaders, chaplains and mentors in the unions of the Trans-European Division. My role is to assist them in generating new and facilitating ongoing church initiatives, events and projects that seek to meet the spiritual, intellectual, and social needs of Adventist students on secular campuses across Europe.
The aim of this newly-launched ministry in TED is to inspire, connect and equip Adventist students on their journey toward becoming true disciples of Christ. Among other things, this journey of authentic discipleship involves teaching our college and university students how to use their gifts, passions and abilities to make God known in their colleges/universities, churches, communities, and the world at large.
Why is this ministry needed in Europe?
This ministry was established as a response to the increasing identity crisis of Adventist students across Europe. Statistics reveal that a growing number of Seventh-day Adventists are leaving the church during their tertiary education. The questions posed in the secular academic environment are seriously challenging their Christian identity. They feel that their religion is not equipping them for dealing constructively and intelligently with some of the most pertinent intellectual, societal and ethical issues of the 21st century.
The students feel out of place in their local churches, as these communities fail to provide a safe environment for voicing their concerns and doubts, exploring their convictions, deepening their knowledge and experience of God, and developing more informed and nuanced Christian intellectual responses to the questions that they encounter during their undergraduate and postgraduate studies.
TED decided to respond to these needs by starting a new ministry that will focus on strengthening students’ commitment to Adventist beliefs and values, provide an opportunity for their fellowship, prepare them to deal with the intellectual challenges that arise in a secular environment, and train them for outreach.
What is the secret to keeping young people a part of the Adventist church?
Engage with their questions, provide the space for their involvement in church’s life, and, most importantly, love them.
Since Newbold College is one of the very few Adventist tertiary institution in Europe, most Adventist college students attend non-Adventist institutions. What strategies are you using to keep them connected to the church? What else could be done?
The complexity of the challenge requires us to use multiple approaches and strategies when trying to keep the students connected to the church. One of the key aspects is the cultivation of the mentoring culture within the local church. TED is developing different resources and training events that aim to equip the local members to know how to relate to students and provide the space for their growth. The special focus is on developing student leaders and mentors whose main goal is to involve the students in various church ministries and assist them toward a deeper understanding of their faith. Students need to feel that they belong somewhere and that their presence and contribution to the local church matters. The role of mentors in this process of integrating students into church life is absolutely crucial.
In order to strengthen students' commitment to Adventist beliefs and values, TED is going to cooperate with different unions in organising regional student symposiums and conferences that will deal with the most significant intellectual, spiritual, societal and ethical questions that the students within that particular region encounter when trying to understand and share their faith in the secular context. Also, the annual courses on Adventist Identity at Newbold College will provide a safe place where the students can explore and critically engage with various facets of their religious identity. Rather than attempting to provide a ready-made answers, the instructors of these courses will seek to teach students how to think for themselves — creatively, critically and constructively.
Besides weekend trainings, student symposiums and courses, TED is also involved in producing various resources that will focus on questions such as: What does it mean to be an Adventist in the 21st century? How can we deepen our understanding of the uniqueness of Adventist identity, message and mission? What can we learn from other Christians and non-Christians? Is our faith a reasonable faith? Can it assist us in addressing the questions that are posed by some of the most eminent scholars and scientists of our days? How can Adventist students integrate their religious outlook with the insights they gain within their particular area of study? Hopefully, by revisiting and proposing some fresh and academically informed ways of thinking about the rich theological heritage of Adventist church, these resources will help the students to both deepen their understanding of God and discover their unique place and role in the story of redemption.
These resources, while involving written blogs and ebooks, will also feature a number of short Q&A videos that present experts across various academic disciplines addressing some of the most challenging questions that present-day students are facing. The Student Insight videos will be accessible via YouTube, and on the forthcoming TED student ministry website, as well as its official Facebook page. These social media platforms will, I believe, enable Adventist students from different countries to stay in touch and meet other students in their specific academic field.
This year you were named Lecturer in Systematic Theology at Newbold College. How do you like your new job? How do your two positions complement each other?
I feel very fortunate to have an opportunity to work at Newbold College. This place is close to my heart. I did my MA studies in Theology there and met many new friends — I believe, friends for life. Newbold deepened my passion for theology and ministry. Even though upon completing the MA course I moved to Oxford to do my doctoral research at the University of Oxford, I still maintained the close connections with Newbold College and was part of its student life. I taught piano and singing and was a contract lecturer for some of the undergraduate modules in theology.
The common denominator between these two jobs — Director of Student Ministry and Lecturer in Systematic Theology — are students. Most of my life I spent in academic circles, interacting with scholars and students. Frankly, I can’t even imagine life without a community of people that love the truth and continually seek to deepen their understanding of God and the world. As a Lecturer in Systematic Theology, I have a daily opportunity to facilitate such a quest by teaching and mentoring the students. My job is to help them develop a creative and God-fearing Christian mind that is able to engage with some of the most significant life questions, and do so in an informed, critical and constructive manner.
My work as a Director of Student Ministry complements this academic endeavour by giving me a necessary platform to take these theological insights and intellectual tools and help Adventist students in different secular campuses across Europe to think about their faith intelligently and coherently, integrating their religious outlook with the knowledge that they gain in their academic study.
Newbold College has seen some tough times financially. Can it expect to survive?
I personally believe that Newbold College will survive and prosper. Many structural changes have been undertaken and new accreditation partnerships established. This already represents a big step out of the turmoil that the college went through in the past few years. Its financial situation is much more stable now and, given how things have been going in the last year or so, it is reasonable to expect that things are going to be even better in the future. After all, the church in Europe cannot afford to lose one of its finest academic institutions which is doing so much in equipping our pastors and administrators — thought leaders of the church — for a successful ministry.
I believe that music has always been a big part of your life. Can you tell us a little bit about your background in music? Are you involved in music now? How does your musical experience aid you in your work?
I went through 12 years of classical music training in Serbia. Beside teaching piano and singing during my studies at Newbold and in Oxford, I’ve been heavily involved in organizing worships, choir workshops and music concerts in different countries around the globe. The last major event was the 2013 European Youth Congress in Novi Sad, Serbia, where I was tasked with preparing the band and singers, composing the theme-song, and planning the content of morning and evening worships with the AYC creative team. I was given the same responsibility for the European Youth Congress in Valencia, Spain, in 2017, and then during the Global Youth Ministry Congress in Stuttgart, Germany, a year later.
All of us are aware that a music represents a very powerful avenue through which we can experience God deeper and be inspired to do his will. Music opens many doors that words can’t. So, wherever and whenever I can I try to enrich my ministry of teaching and preaching with music. It brings an additional dimension to my life and helps me to explore and express my experience of God in a way that is easily accessible not only to the people in the church but also to the un-churched.
You are completing a doctorate in theology from Oxford University. How has your study at Oxford changed your views and beliefs? How has it strengthened or weakened your faith? How does it is help you in your work?
I realized that there is no better path to deeper self-understanding than a dialogue with somebody who can challenge the unquestioned assumptions that we hold about the world and stimulate fresh thinking. It is only when we are exposed to completely different, and even conflicting, ways of seeing the world that we truly learn about ourselves and our faith. Although it was not easy to be exposed to such rigorous intellectual criticism, I feel that my personal faith in God is now stronger. I am still fascinated with some of the key doctrinal insights that Adventism has to offer, yet learned about many different areas of theology which are often neglected and underdeveloped in our denomination’s theological discourse. No doubt these will shape my future academic endeavours.
You have mentioned that you are originally from Serbia. The Adventist church is much stronger in eastern Europe than western Europe, isn't it? How do you find the Adventist church different in England than in Serbia?
Europe is a very diverse and multicultural environment. The same applies to Adventist churches on this continent. It has many faces and many forms. To compare one form with the other and claim that it is “stronger”, or somehow “superior,” can be a very subjective assessment — one that I will not attempt.
However, I can share something from my personal experience of Adventism in the above-mentioned two countries. The experience of fellowship that I gained in my local church in Novi Sad, Serbia, remained foundational for my spiritual life and sparked my love of exploring the mysteries of God revealed in the church. During the time of war, in the midst of shooting and of bomb explosions, the church brought us a deep sense of hope, fulfilment and fearlessness; surrounded by turbulence and unrest, it stood as an oasis of peace. This is possibly one of the main reasons why I decided to write my doctoral thesis about Adventist identity and the nature of church (ecclesiology).
On the other hand, Adventism in England brought much greater exposure to other cultures and viewpoints. The clash of worldviews and prevailing secularism in UK are presenting a major challenge to church mission in England; however, the church is still active and is continually experimenting with new approaches and trying to find the most adequate and relevant ways of communicating its message in this complex setting. A much more stable economic situation allows the church in the UK to invest in different projects and ministries — ones that are simply not possible within Serbia due to its limited financial resources. At the same time, the people in Serbia who were exposed to greater existential pressures, fighting for survival and “normal” life conditions, generally tend to be more open to the idea of God. This is why the Serbian church experienced the greatest growth during the period of war and shortly afterwards.
What is your ultimate career goal?
I don’t know where life will take me and what the future will bring, but I would like to be able to say that in all times I gave all that I am — my God-given skills, gifts and acquired knowledge — to make God known to the world. Whether teaching, leading, pastoring or making music, I would like the people to see in my life the visible sign of something greater than myself — the power that transcends us and goes beyond human ability to comprehend, the power of the living God.