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Does Adventism Inspire Young Adventists? Alexander Carpenter


On Saturday afternoon, March 12, the Loma Linda University School of Religion Humanities Program hosted an afternoon conversation titled "Does Adventism Inspire Young Adventists?" The event featured a panel of six thirty-somethings with varying ties to Adventist academia: Alexander Carpenter, former professor at Pacific Union College; Eric Carter, assistant professor at Loma Linda University; Janice De-Whyte, assistant professor at LLU; Trisha Famisaran, PhD candidate and former director of La Sierra University's Women's Resource Center; Yi Shen Ma, PhD candidate and Development Director for the Adventist Peace Fellowship; and Zane Yi, associate professor at LLU. The discussion featured papers from each of the panelists, followed by moderated cross-talk, and Q & A with audience members.

We present two of the presenters' papers in this edition of the Spectrum Roundtable, focusing on the question, "Does Adventism Inspire Young Adventists?"

Which Adventism?

About a week ago I posted the question this panel is addressing, “does Adventism inspire young Adventists,” on my Facebook page. I got about 40 comments—and given the quality of Facebook religio-political discussions these days—these mostly current students and recent graduates inspired me with their honesty. Here are four examples:

"I feel like any religion that says it holds a traditionalist point of view isn't going to mesh well with a generation that is literally being thrust into the future."

"I try to stay active in a community that I know wouldn't agree with half of what I believe or who I am."

"A religion that doesn't recognize the equality of women and all sexual orientations is a non starter for a majority of strong-minded, intelligent young people."

"Adventist values of wholeness, community, and rest inspire and sustain me. Adventist expressions of fear, bigotry, and isolation demoralize and anger me."

In a Spectrum essay entitled “Challenge,” Molleurus Couperus wrote:

A bewildered and disillusioned generation now gropes for answers that may still save mankind from both utter meaninglessness and doom. Everywhere there seems to be spurning of old patterns of thinking and embracing the new. The participation of the younger generation in this unprecedented passion for rejection of the old and quest of the new is particularly evident in the areas of authority, morals, and personal involvement. Confrontation with political, judicial, cultural, and religious traditions, thus, is unavoidable.”

That was written in 1969.

Today, we are not alone. And as any reader of Seeking a Sanctuary knows, we’ve come a long way. But as any reader of the Adventist Review sees, we have a very long way to go.

I prefer to avoid generational language when possible. Not only because age is only a number, but because an ideological framework can transcend the here and now, for better or worse. A man who grew up in that same aforementioned “bewildered and disillusioned 1960s generation” is now leading our Adventist church. Unfortunately, he has combined a timeless authoritarianism with a rear-facing theology that rejects the eternal need of “new visions and better answers.”

But there’s hope. It’s beyond the church. But not beyond Adventism.

In trying to answer the question for this panel, I’ve really appreciated what my co-panelists contributed and I’d like to add a perspective beyond the church, but grounded in our institutions. Can our Adventist institutions inspire us for a better future?

The church is not just the church. Adventism is more than the church—both global and local as import as both of those are. And Adventist is more than formal beliefs.  I’d like to briefly note two other Adventist religious institutions that actually broaden the definition of Adventist and inspire hope for a more diverse, bold, and inclusive Adventism: education and health care.

Let me offer an example. After six years working in a tight-knit Adventist educational community, I  moved to the Central Valley of California where my wife worked for Adventist Health. It was the largest employer in the county, in a very poor region where the local Adventist churches were very conservative and isolationist. Around town folks associated “Adventist” not with a church, but with health care and good employment. And the very popular farmers market. What really awoke me was when the hospital did a little media campaign in which employees would say in videos: I am Adventist Health, but sometimes they would shorten it to “I am Adventist.” Suddenly several thousand employees were identifying as Adventist and even articulating shared values of wholeness and compassion. Of course, the local pastor would not have called them Adventist. But they are part of our larger identity.

Adventists give about two billion dollars in tithe and another billion in offerings. That’s $3 billion each year going for what?

That’s a lot of global good being wasted via uninspiring leadership. When we could be harnessing our massive global footprint to inspire a worldwide transmission of values beyond cheap grace and clerical obedience.

This summer at the GC Session I interviewed the president of Babcock University, an Adventist institution of higher learning in Nigeria. It has over 10,000 students and many are not Adventist. The school mixes different classes and religious backgrounds. And to accommodate demand it even employees some Muslim professors. As the president stated:  it produces Adventists, maybe not baptised by graduation, but carrying Adventist identity and values into their professional lives. Given that Adventists established strong educational institutions early in organized countries that are early in their modern formation, our schools exist and shape leaders like the elite American institutions of our own post-colonial era.

There are more Adventists in the world than people in the Netherlands or Chile or Rwanda.

If we were a country, we would be in the top quarter—with more people than 180 other nations on earth.

If making the world better inspires, Adventism’s global institutions provide reason for hope.

When the church around us appears uninspired, it’s important to remember that it’s not the only game in town. Our schools and hospitals are Adventist and they model a part of Adventism “spurning of old patterns of thinking and embracing the new.” As Randy Roberts says: you can’t stop the dawn.

The light of the World breaks in. And we become enlightened. Even inspired by that worldly Light.

In his Theology of Hope, Jurgen Moltmann reflects on the meaning of the resurrection and says: “Christ is our future.” Not our past, or even present. But our future. The coming of the resurrected Christ is before us. To be Adventist is to inspired by that coming spiritual reality, the spirit of Jesus lived out in time and space. Even when Jesus was less than inspired by the religious leaders of his day, he critically and compassionately engaged their clerical, educational and even health care systems. Like past Adventist generations and the re-formation example of Jesus—change came to institutions when we bring the inspiration.

What would happen if we broaden the meaning of Adventism—and let the light of the world break in. Power might be threatened. But the Advent of inspiration is always, ready to return. 


Alexander Carpenter is a member of the Adventist Forum Board and the creator of the Spectrum Blog.

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