Should We Be Celebrating?

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A little while ago the Religious News Service put out an article about Seventh-day Adventism being the fastest growing church in North America. On Facebook it appeared that a huge percentage of Adventists were sending links to this article all over the place.

Here is a link to that article.

Well it turns out that while Adventism is growing…it was not as much as originally thought. In addition, it appears that it might be based in immigrants. Here is the Christian Century’s article. It appears as though the 4.3% growth rate has been fixed in the original articles to 2.5%.

Growing But Not As Fast

At any rate, Adventists are still growing…aren’t they? Well they are growing, but like everyone else, we are trying to figure out where our converts are. In addition, like everyone else, we are trying to keep our youth.

Whenever we talked about retention the fingers start coming out. The evangelists point to the pastors for not watering the growth. The pastors point to the elders for not doing their job. Finally, the elders point to the other members for not being loving.

Pointing Fingers Or Fixing The Problem?

I know we have a book come out every so often. we have a discussion every so often about retaining members. But when you have a system where you barely tell people what they are getting into when you dunk them…and then leave them to fend for themselves….What do we expect?

What do we expect when church growth is measured in terms of membership transfer and tithe increase (based largely in membership transfer)? Certainly growth is happening, don’t get me wrong, but much of our growth (not all…but much of it) is simply based in where a particular members will consume her or his religious entertainment. The mega churches are growing because they got the best show in town.

Good News?

But more than that, what is very interesting to me is how quickly we want to jump on “good news.” I mean we were giddy about this. One Facebook friend said “this is surely a sign of the end” as he forwarded this article. We know what it looks like in our particular congregation. We know how the growth looks. We know that 15 of the 20 baptisms in the last evangelistic meeting were gone before they could warm the pew. And yet we jumped at this. “we are important…we are significant…God is using us.”

Growth is fine…but for many of us, We don’t keep our converts. they leave.

I realize this is anecdotal. I hope I am wrong. But, I see baptismal numbers all the time. I see growth numbers all the time. But at the end of the day. where are all these people because they sure ain’t at church? Now some of you will give the exception to the rule. Some of you will condemn me for saying it. That’s fine. I hear you. But maybe we need to stop yelling amen about how well we are doing and come to terms with the facts that our growth is going out the same door they came in on. Spectrum Magazine Blog has a discussion of this topic at this link.

I Don't Know…

“We are certainly at the very end of time. We are seeing a converging of events that are unprecedented at this time. It all points to Jesus Christ returning in the next 5 to 10 years. Don’t you agree pastor?” The question came to me from an excited reader. The person sees Economic crisis added to earthquakes and other terrible events and the person is very sure this is the end.

And my answer, “It could be…It kind of looks like it to me…but I don’t know.” I don’t want to be glib about it. But after years of living through “signs of the end” like economic downturns including gas lines and misery indexes and Tsunamis and wars and crime and Y2K and all of these things, I begin to realize that perhaps gauging the end by crisis is not necessarily the right thing to do.

Is It The Last Days?

I guess, I don’t have a problem with anyone’s prediction that we are close to the end. But let us recognize that we don’t really know and could be wrong. I mean the Bible writer says that the writer was in the “last days.” (Hebrews 1:2)

So please come say it with me “I could be wrong.” That is not to say that I am wrong. Neither is it to say that you are right. But there is something truly liberating about realizing that one can be wrong. I guess if I am consistent then I could be wrong about the fact that I could be wrong, but we ain’t gonna think about that one right now…

Difficult To Deal With “Can’t Be Wrong” Folks

At any rate, it is very difficult to have discussions with people who can’t be wrong. Often people who “can’t be wrong” are always attacking straw men. They are the hard core ideologues. Their ideology may be conservative, liberal, or even the lack thereof, but they know they are right and you are wrong.

Interestingly, it seems that a lot of discussions with Adventists go down that road. I don’t care if you are liberal, conservative, or even former. Many Adventists have this “I can’t be wrong” idea. I don’t know if it is from the “having the truth” or if it is from the “Sister White said.” But whatever it is, Adventists too often have a mindset where they “can’t be wrong.”

The People Who Are Sure

What is funny is when this mindset even carries over into things that they couldn’t know. I know someone who knows for certain that an herb will always heal you. Notwithstanding experience has proven that idea false, it is still something that one will fight you over. Then there are the ones who know for certain that various people are Jesuit infiltrators into the church. They can give you the names of infiltrators. I always wondered how can they so easily identify them if these infiltrators are so good at infiltrating?

Let us not forget the ones who are sure that the last great event in the world is a certain harbinger of the end time. A lot of them said that Y2K was going to be the end. Life went on past that non-event. I remember 1996 was supposed to be the end of the age. Using Ussher’s chronology 1996 was supposedly the 6 thousandth year of earth’s history. And time went on. All the way to the last “great recession” that was supposed to be the very end. What’s funny is some of the same folks predicted all of those events. And now they are still making predictions. Can we all just say it together….”I may believe it…but I Don’t Know.”

This I can’t be wrong mentality seeps into more discussions. In my interdenominational work, I have the opportunity to interact with people of many denominational groups. Some conversations are difficult to have. Whenever one has a conversation with one who can’t be wrong, then the conversation becomes more and more cumbersome.

Hard Discussions With Know-It-All’s

I remember doing a presentation once on vegetarianism. The presentation was not condemning but informing. I presented the speech to a secular audience and had a very good but respectful disagreement and agreement. Some said, I made some good points but was missing some information that would be helpful. Some made some valid critiques of my information. The point was sharing of information.

While preparing for the presentation, an Adventist got wind of it and decided to let me have it. She told me I was a legalist teaching salvation by works and promoting unhealthy living (she alleged that I didn’t consider the need for protein). Please note that the presentation had nothing at all to do with salvation (which would probably cause some others to be mad at it), the Bible, or even how to eat. But one thing I learned early that some Adventists are hard to have discussions with about anything.

I know it ain’t just us. But I must admit that there seems to be a disproportionate number of Adventists who “know it all and can’t be wrong.”

Conversation Is Difficult With Those Who Can’t Be Wrong

I can remember at Vanderbilt as well having interesting discussions about theology where we shared our own positions recognizing that we can learn from each other. But conversation is difficult with people who can’t be wrong.

Some attack those with whom they disagree with a certainty from those who cannot be wrong. Perhaps we Adventists need to add a spiritual discipline to our Bible Study, Prayer, Fasting, Meditation. Let’s add a discipline of regularly saying “I could be wrong.” Let us say together “God knows….I think I am right…But I don’t know.” Ahh…wasn’t that liberating?

The Separated Black And Non Black Conferences In Adventism – Will We Ever Just Talk?

It doesn’t take much to get a discussion going regarding “regional conferences” and “non regional conferences.” I was on Facebook and pointed to this article where a Black and a White church decided to come together to have a worship service. It was an interesting story in and of itself. But in the comments section the discussion quickly turned to a discussion of the Black and White church and Black conferences. This was particularly interesting to me in that the original story was not about Adventists. In addition is wasn’t about dismantling anything. It was only about worshiping together.

Black Churches and Regional Conferences Are Separate Issues

Upon reflection a few points came to mind. the first thing this told me was that we cloud the issue of Regional Conferences[1. Regional Conferences was the name given to the conferences made up of predominantly Black churches. They were called regional because they had jurisdiction over “regions” rather than “states” as the old conference structure of the Adventist church in North America.] and Black Churches.

We had Black churches before regional conferences and we will have them after. Whatever we do about regional conferences will not remove the black church. Arguments that we should worship together are only tangentially related to the “regional conference question.” I think it is interesting that there are black churches in the non regional conferences. So don’t get into a long discussion of how we should worship together and then jump to Black conferences…it is two different issues.

The existence of Black Conferences do not constitute forced segregation. To use the language of “segregation” is to imply that people cannot worship where they please. Are there any black people in the predominately white church in town? Are there any white people in your predominately Black church? Most likely the answer is yes to both of these questions. What is really interesting is that there are Black employees of non regional conferences now and even non black employees of the regional conferences. We all may agree that it is not best that we had to create these conferences, but to compare them to “segregation” is really not a correct comparison.

Our Ability To Work Together Is Questioned

Now I do agree, as noted above, that having these conferences working the same field is not our ultimate goal. The existence of regional and non regional conferences says something about our inability to work things out. Yes all sides had a role to play in this, but be not confused, the split between non regional and regional conferences happened because we allowed white racism to go unchecked. We must look at that history before we can move on.

More than that, it says something that the Black work was being undeserved before the creation of regional conferences in the south. We have seen the African American work blossom as money and resources were now going straight into the inner cities much more than before.

The Split Kept Us Together

But we also must recognize that the creation of regional conferences probably saved a split in the denomination. Look at other denominations in the United States. The Methodists split over the race issue. Baptists split. Presbyterians split. Most have different denominations. Just about everybody split. But we found a way to hold together. I agree that the existence of regional and non regional conferences in the same areas is not best, but it is better than the total split that we see in other denominational bodies.

Can We Understand Each Other?

Some Black folks support the continuance of the regional conferences because they do not trust that their issues will be treated fairly as in the past. Now some folks deny that we should fear that. Some folks get mad that some fear unfair treatment. Some folks will say that “Black folks need to get over it!” But let us for the sake of argument say that some Black folks fears are unfounded. If you don’t understand the fear and apprehension that that group would have then I question if you have done much study at all into the race question in this country.

Some white folks attach the existence of regional conferences to racism and thus accuse any Black person who supports their continuance of promoting racism or playing the race card to the detriment of the church where, according to them, race should not matter.

These white sisters and brothers want to point to a “Post Racial Church” where race does not matter and even appeal to President Barak Obama’s election as a sign that we have reached a post racial place in America. And they think the best resolution of our problem is to ignore race. Many of our Black sisters and brothers believe that racism still exists and that the call to ignore race is at best naive.

Where Do We Go Now?

So here we are. Many of our Black sisters and brothers fear that they will not be treated correctly. They have history that informs that fear. Many of our non black and international sisters and brothers think that they treat all equally and that the call of racism is something that we have largely overcome in the past.

What can we do? It is past time that we come together. It is past time that we have real conversations with one another. It is past time for our African American sisters and brothers to have space to talk about the alienation that they feel. It is past time for our sisters and brothers of other elasticities to give their perspective on the issue. Yes it is past time for us to come together and be real about why the church started these conferences. It is past time that we talk about when is the right time to remove this structural separation.

The answer is not in a top down “You will get rid of these conferences.” Neither is it in the attempt of the previous GC president in telling the young African Americans to tell their presidents that they don’t want these conferences (as if the whole reason for their existence is a “black problem.” The answer is for us to have space for dialog. Before we do anything, let us first talk. Can we stop pointing the finger…and recognize that no side can claim complete innocence…and even more than that recognize that providence has placed us together, because we need each other…