The March 2008 issue of Adventist World (NAD Edition) contains an article titled We have Circled This Mountain Long Enough, by Ron Clouzet, director of the North American Division Institute of Evangelism. The article (unfortunately not web-accessible) exhorts the reader to join in an NAD-wide effort to evangelize and baptize 100,000 people during 2009.
However, before reaching the article’s practical purpose, Elder Clouzet describes a problem, proposes a diagnosis, and finally a remedy. In the problem section he writes:
“The church in North America is undergoing a crisis of faith. … Are we changing the surrounding culture, as first-century Christians changed theirs? … there appears to be a clear gap. Something is not working. … no part of this division is being truly revolutionized for Jesus by the Seventh-day Adventist church. Why is this?”
Then there is a diagnosis. He writes:
“There was a time when things were different. Adventists … made enormous personal and corporate sacrifices to go where no one had gone before. … They grew numerically because they had a sense of urgency …”
- “The curious thing is that the pioneers of that time were essentially no different from the church of our time. They were people with flaws and weaknesses, subject to misunderstandings from one another and even misinterpretations of God’s intentions.”
Here I must stop quoting and start my response. Those last two sentences are really astonishing. No different? A prototypical 19th century North American SDA vs. a 21st century one? He uses the word essentially then illustrates it with qualities like flaws, weaknesses, etc. Characteristics common to all humanity irrespective of time or place. But are these the sum total of qualities to consider when comparing Adventists then and now? I think not. The first, and likely most obvious societal difference is the radically different technological framework of our day, vs. that of 19th century America. And this alone could be used to challenge Clouzet’s sweeping statement. But, far more central, I would suggest, is both the evolution (through Modernism and Post-Modernism) and the balkanization of world-views now found in North America. The epistemic foundations have dramatically shifted away from the presumption of Biblical literalism. A scientific/humanistic/inductive perspective competes heavily with received authority when people formulate their beliefs. This is not your great-grandfather’s North America. To ignore or discount this – as Clouzet seems to – is fatal to the diagnosis.
“Those were days when faith was not just talked about; it was exercised. … Those folk walked the walk. … Is it time to trust God again?”
His ultimate diagnosis then is – Laodicea. Inaction is due to lack of faith which, by implication, occurs when people are neither cold nor hot. And Adventist eschatology suggests that this Laodicean condition will heavily impact the church near the end of time. So it is a handy explanation.
And it certainly seems plausible because valid examples are readily available in each of our experiences. Lukewarm spirituality, like the poor, will always be with us. The problem here, in my view, is that the diagnosis is severely underdetermined. There is, of course, Laodicea. However, there are many other reasons for both shifts in North American Adventism and surrounding culture that can impact evangelism. None of this is recognized and considered.
His remedy, then, is to have more faith, prayer, surrender. And then church growth will follow. Now, in no way do I mean to denigrate these crucial components of one’s personal Christianity. And certainly there is correlation between such Christianity and church growth. But this is far from the whole picture. And when the diagnosis is built on shaky ground, can the remedy be adequate?
Rich Hannon is a software engineer who lives in Salt Lake City. His reading interests focus on philosophy and medieval history.