Seventh-day Adventist Church President Ted N. C. Wilson released, last month, a “State of the Church” address in which he updated the denomination on its mission and membership growth and highlighted concerns, including lack of involvement and disunity. The most prominent annual speech of the Adventist Church president has traditionally been delivered as the Sabbath sermon during Annual Council, a nearly week-long meeting of the denomination’s Executive Committee. But Wilson took his message directly to video viewers in what is believed to be the first such address for an Adventist Church president.
The president’s address is composed of two clearly different sections. In the first one he speaks as the euphoric “Leader” of a worldwide “triumphant” movement. In the second one he speaks as the worried “Pastor” of a deeply demotivated church. At this point, one could ask a simple question: has the Seventh-Day Adventist Church become Bipolar? Psychological bipolar symptoms are, on one side, excessive mood and behaviour excitement, and on the other side, a diffuse feeling of depleted energy characterized by apathy, fatigue, loss of interest, guilt and lack of motivation.
If this is the case, Adventism is being entrapped in this structural duality. The president’s diagnosis and therapy are then probably both mislead and misleading. His unilateral and repeated call to more mission involvement and action – representing the resolutive strategy typical of American and Adventist pragmatism – could actually aggravate the situation. A common sense intervention would instead indicate a balanced strategy of, on one side, selective reduction of some activities, and on the other side, of a moderate augmentation of positive expectations. But that is precisely what the president does not indicate. Instead he keeps increasing the expectation for more activity, ignoring the fact that all this activism becomes, in this way, socially questionable and theologically suspect. Activism and obsession with mission have become now, for Adventism, a true religious malady. And it represents a way of distracting attention from the important identity process going on in the church. The president, and also unfortunately Adventist institutions generally, refuse to see this and superficially tend to catalogue understanding identity as distraction if not apostasy.
It’s true that in the first section of the “Address” president Wilson doesn’t only speak about mission. Considerable time is also dedicated to articulating a vivid call for “revival” as the church’s top priority, quoting Adventism’s co-founder Ellen G. White: “A revival of true godliness among us is the greatest and most urgent of all our needs.” But his approach reinforces even more the already strong and unilaterally pragmatic orientation of the church. He explicitly states that the only convincing result of true revival is “practical mission”. He then lists several initiatives launched since he became president in 2010, including:
· The Great Controversy Project, which has distributed, beyond all expectations, more than 140 million copies of White’s book “The Great Controversy”
· the 777 prayer initiative, which reminds members to pray for revival at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m
· the recent launch of a worldwide comprehensive health ministry
· the “Mission to the Cities” program for evangelizing the six hundred fifty largest cities in the world
But the obsessive and omnipresent activism, praised as a key strategy for resolving all the deep problems and challenges Adventism is facing these days, is not the most problematic aspect of the first part of the “Address”. Rather it is the massive, self-referential idea of Adventism’s centrality in today’s historical scenario. Nobody among us doubts that Adventism is a beautiful, noble and enormously gifted church, charged with a particular mission. But to believe that Adventism and its actions are the central fact of today’s world history is just a pious illusion. Believing this will never make it true. We are almost completely invisible in today’s world, in every metric: sociological, anthropological, economic, political, and worst, in spiritual initiatives. An address like Wilson’s is not helpful in trying to change the situation. This self-centered and self-referential view contradicts not only common sense thinking but also the essence of a serious theology of “God’s kingdom”. In order to regain perspective let’s dispassionately perceive this simple anthropological truth: we Adventist are just humans. This foundational fact is good news. It is liberating. The Adventist church is not the incarnation of “God’s Kingdom”. That would be idolatry. All the adjectives and qualifications used by Wilson in this first section are correct and orthodox: divine, unique, fortress, “will always prevail” etc.; but they are correct only if applied to “God’s Kingdom”, not to the Adventist church or any other church.
In the second section of his address, Wilson went on to explain what he said were four “spiritual maladies” affecting some people in the Adventist Church:
1. A loss of Seventh-day Adventist identity among some pastors and members
2. A “growing tide of worldliness” in many Adventist Churches
3. The “danger of disunity”
4. Spiritual complacency, apathy and lack of involvement in mission
“Too many of our pastors and members either have failed to recognize, or have forgotten, the divine prophetic calling God has given us as a church,” Wilson said.
Regarding “worldliness” entering the church, Wilson stated: “Standards that were once cherished by Seventh-day Adventists in the areas of diet and dress, recreation and amusement, and Sabbath-keeping, are fast becoming things of the past.” He then lamented that the church’s historic commitment to healthful living wasn’t adhered to by many members: “When the Adventist health message, which so many honest-hearted people in the world are embracing, is made of none effect, or considered to be legalism or fanaticism, rather than a glorious gift from a loving Creator, something is tragically wrong.”
Regarding church unity he again quoted Ellen White: “Unity is the strength of the church”. Wilson said God has given the Adventist Church a “divinely inspired organization and “mutual agreements called church policies” that help hold the church together “as a worldwide family.” He later added, “I pray that every one of us will lay aside our personal opinions for the good of the body of Christ, and that we will, together, march forward to the kingdom of God.”
Regarding spiritual apathy, the president said church members would not grow spiritually without active involvement in church life and service activities. “Brothers and sisters, I appeal to you, as I appeal to my own heart, to make a full, complete, total consecration to Christ”, Wilson said, before ending his address with a prayer.
Nobody would deny the relevance and urgency of the challenges in these four areas. But what’s lacking is recognizing the irreversible fact that we Adventists ourselves have changed. We are not the same, quantitatively or qualitatively. Can all this be attributed to sin or apostasy? There is a basic and rudimental failure to understand the “Hermeneutics of Adventism”. We can not invest our best energy only in interpreting the Bible. The same dedication and passion should also be spent trying to interpret ourselves, our sociological and psychological new configurations, our current questions, dilemmas, worries, aspirations, fears or dreams. And it must be done in a differentiated way, recognizing the different geographical regions and cultures we Adventists richly represent.
We particularly need to understand that an identity can’t be assessed only by measuring itself with itself. We are not evaluated independently of external circumstances, but also through what we are in relation to others and by the capacity we have to cope with external situations we can not completely master or change. We can’t always be against everybody, secular or religious. Other churches and other civic entities also have missions and ministries entrusted to them by God. It’s part of a basic religious and ethical attitude to acknowledge this and also to acknowledge that we Adventists are not equipped to do everything. For this reason we need to rely also, albeit critically, on other Christians and people led by the Holy Spirit.
Does Elder Wilson’s address tell us more about the Adventist church, more about today’s social, historic and religious scenario, than about the president himself? I fear that this self-convinced address says little about the real state of the Adventist church and certainly nothing about today’s social and religious history – which is also our history. Rather, this is an address that says a lot about the president himself. This is the psychodrama of some person, of a leader who genuinely, and in spite of all obstacles, wants to serve, to minister, to act, to reach, to accomplish. He doesn’t stop, he can not stop. That would represent failure. In other words we have a “heroic” president. We can not deny that. Not all churches have this privilege. But do our churches need Saints and Heroes today? I’m not personally convinced they do. What I see is the necessity, as faithful Adventists, to do the common, normal, basics. When we learn to take care of the basic situations for ourselves, our families our communities, then we can start changing the world. Otherwise we risk winning the world but losing ourselves.
Hanz Gutierrez, “Villa Aurora”