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10 Hopes for the Church of Tomorrow

contemporary church

Years ago, as a young editor, I participated in a global seminar for editors of Adventist publications. A large, global group gathered at Glacier View Ranch in the Colorado mountains. One workshop challenged us to write our best title for an Adventist Review lead article 50 years in the future. The winning entry? “President of General Conference Gives Birth to Daughter in African Hospital.”

So far, I have not seen that piece in the Adventist Review. We may soon have a South American or African world church president, but a woman? I am convinced it will happen one day, and I hope to see it. The church is changing—even if far too slowly. 

The Church Has Changed!

Those who say the Adventist church does not change overlook the many ways the church today differs from a few generations ago. A century back, who could have imagined the church’s exponential growth? I remember as a teenager hearing that the Adventist Church reached the one million member mark. Now its membership stands at over 22 million. 

At first, all members lived in North America. In 1900, only a few Adventists lived outside the United States, but today, about 94% reside elsewhere. While in the western church members are graying rapidly, in much of the Global South, the average age is under 30. 

Adventist pioneers would not recognize their church. In many congregations worship patterns have changed dramatically. Traditional hymns, accompanied by organ music, give way to choruses projected on large screens. We prefer 30-minute sermons or less instead of two-hour orations. Many congregations use modern Bible translations. And I, and many others, expect coffee after the service.

Sabbath observance has changed, too. Many wear casual clothes to church instead of formal outfits. Unconcerned Adventists do leisure activities considered taboo a generation ago. 

Church doctrines have evolved. Adventist teachings on the trinity, the nature of Christ, the personhood of the Holy Spirit, and atonement have undergone revisions. Some doctrinal developments worry me, but I feel grateful for greater emphasis on grace than on good works. 

There have been significant ethical developments. In many places Adventists divorce and remarry without affecting their membership. Primarily in western countries, people of all ages move in together without marrying. The days of disfellowshipping members over moviegoing are long gone!

Not all Adventists welcome these changes; some resist fiercely. But no one can deny the changes in the church. Some want to return to the past, and while nostalgia is understandable, the church cannot go back. Those arguing for a return to the old days do so selectively. They want to go back to some things of the past—those that fit their agenda.

The ideal church of tomorrow cannot simply attempt rebirth as the church of yesterday! The now and future church must combine the good from its past with openness to coming challenges. I often wonder, where is my church going? Below I offer ten hopes for the church to come.

1. The church of the future must protect its spiritual heritage. 

Around us we hear constant calls for renewal. New leadership must clean up the mess previous leaders left behind. We hear that we need new people and new rules, including in the church. Many feel things are not going well. The western church is not growing as we hoped. Some consider the church too worldly. Others feel it has deviated from the truth, losing cherished traditions.

I could easily provide a list of things I would like to see changed, but let me emphasize that I also believe some things must remain. We cannot get rid of many facets of our faith and practice without losing our identity. We must protect our spiritual heritage.

2. The church of the future must be open to change.

In the past the church has often manifested willingness to change. We abandoned many ideas once common or popular among us. We have agreed to major reorganizations, and we have never been slow to adopt new technology. 

We can recount many developments in theology and ethics. This must continue if we want the church to remain a living organism.  We must be willing to refine our positions when necessary. This is not a betrayal of tradition but a matter of upholding it. Holding on to the good should accompany openness to change!

3. The church of the future is a diverse church.

Until a few generations ago, the Adventist church predominantly consisted of white members with modest socioeconomic backgrounds. That has changed dramatically. Today, we see not only accelerated ethnic diversity, but also greater variation in education and social backgrounds. In addition, Adventists have grown theologically diverse.

Naturally, this creates problems, but it is naive to think this trend could be reversed. Diversity presents challenges—and enrichment. Just as rainbows’ vivid hues symbolize hope, so should we take hope in the multicolored, multicultural composition of the church. Arrayed in our rich diversity, we are the people of God.

4. The church of the future must be tolerant.

In that church full of diversity we have to keep each other’s interest in mind, and we must give each other the space to do things that fit in our different cultures. We must learn from those who come from elsewhere, and also try to appreciate, or at least tolerate, the things we do not like or do not understand. We must do our utmost to stay together—as one church—with one mission. 

5. The church of the future must remain internationally oriented 

I have had the privilege of traveling extensively and visiting Adventist churches in almost 100 countries. I have seen the Adventist Church’s cosmopolitan flavor and its provincial characteristics. Some people think their local expression of Adventism is unique, that others can learn from them, but they cannot learn from others.

I have also noted places where focus on local problems and limitations causes members to lose courage. While all have unique backgrounds, history and culture, we all make up God’s church where “we live, and move, and have our being.” The Bible characterizes the church as being first of all a local congregation of believers. At the same time, we must remember our place in the world church, and draw inspiration by observing what God is doing elsewhere in the world. It can be frustrating to see the church doing well in other places but not where we are. It might also be encouraging that our wider community—in spite of its problems and its stagnation in some areas—is still a thriving global movement. 

6. The church of the future must know how to communicate.

Being the church is all about communication—another word for proclamation and mission. Every facet of the church’s work requires good communication. I believe the church must work harder to reach its audiences, using the language of our day, and making optimal use of new media. But communication is more than preaching, creating slick websites, and operating strong publishing programs. Communication requires listening, and individually and corporately, we often are not good at that. Do we know what others around us believe? How they think? What is on their mind? We must listen before we can share things that are relevant for the people around us.

7. The church of the future must be relevant.
It is important to clearly articulate what we believe. We may differ on various points, but we must speak clearly about our shared core beliefs and values. People have a right to know what we stand for. But our message must, above all, be relevant. What people see and hear in church on Sabbath has to connect with what happens in their lives Sunday through Friday. 

As I write, I am reminded of a time I visited Kuwait. During a Friday evening church meeting, I ended my talk with a Q & A. Surprisingly, for almost an hour most questions were about celebrating Christmas. This tiny group of Adventist Christians in a 99.9 percent Muslim environment worried most about whether or not to display a Christmas tree! That meeting struck me as a prime example of obsessing over nonessentials.

The church must address issues relevant to the people it hopes to reach. Why answer questions no one is asking? The people the church tries to influence might have different concerns from most churchgoers, but failing to address those concerns will quickly turn people away. And many have left the church because they no longer heard things that connected with their everyday experiences.

8. The church of the future must be spiritual.

Adventists are good at many things, but often struggle with spirituality. We have a tradition of arguing and debating. We want to be right when we talk about our faith and want others to see how reasonable Adventism is. We often found it difficult to address things we could not understand, and recoiled from appeals to our emotions. We need balance. We should not shift entirely from modernist rationality to postmodern emotionality. However, we must realize that faith is more than intellectual assent to a list of 28 beliefs.

The church of the future needs inspiring worship services with carefully curated music, skillful readings of scripture, and inspiring sermons. What happens in church must appeal not only to reason, but also to all the senses. There must be room for meditation and for small group ministries. There must be a focus on the reading of the Word, as well as of spiritual classics. And, of course, the church must be a house of prayer. (We should have a rule that we never criticize our leaders without first praying for them.)

9. The church of the future must be generous.

The members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church used to be champions in per capita giving. Fortunately, the church’s financials look healthy. Even during the pandemic, tithe money in many parts of the world went up. However, the picture is not all rosy when accounting for membership growth and inflation. Yes, Adventists still contribute, but statistics show that in most countries, less than 50-60 percent of the members give at least 10 percent. Some prefer project giving rather than having a tenth of their income sent to the conference. Many merely give a tip.

The church has lots to do, and it all costs money. The church has to be totally transparent in  handling funds. But giving is above all a spiritual activity.  

10. The church of the future is God’s agent in the world.

Should the church’s focus be horizontal or vertical?  Should the church only be concerned with spiritual business, or with social projects, too? It is not either/or, but both/and. Christians—certainly including Adventist Christians—need to stand for compassion and justice. Followers of Christ cannot ignore refugees, human rights, racism, gender inequality, war and genocide, fair trade, economic inequality, climate change, environmental policy, and so on. The choice is not between distributing the water of life and drilling wells in the Sahel. For the church of the future, both remain vitally important. 

We Are the Church

I believe the church has a future by prioritizing these ten points. But you and I constitute the church. It has a future if you and I protect our heritage but stay open to change; if we celebrate the great diversity in our faith community and allow each other space. The church will remain the living body of Christ if we succeed in overcoming our provincialism and can effectively communicate—that is, above all, if we listen to the real concerns of our fellows and speak in ways they understand. Our church can be a healthy community by offering a relevant, clear and spiritual faith; if we show generosity with what God has given us, and move as God’s hands and feet in a twenty-first century world.

About the author

A native of the Netherlands, Reinder Bruinsma retired in 2007 after a long career in pastoral, editorial, teaching, and church leadership assignments in Europe, the United States, and West Africa. After receiving a BA from Newbold College and an MA from Andrews University, he earned a BDiv with honors and a doctorate in church history from the University of London. Before retiring, he was president of the Netherlands Union. More from Reinder Bruinsma.
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