he cover story “Four Big Questions” (May 25, 2006) took up issues of church structure, the role of institutions, the movies, and race relations. It brought heavy mail, much of it unusually thoughtful. Herewith a selection.—Editors.
In the 52 years that I have been reading the Review
, this is the first time that I am compelled to respond to an article. The four questions presented are so relevant. Every pastor ought to have his congregation discuss them—probably in small groups at first; but we need to deal with them honestly and quickly. God bless you for having the courage to raise these questions in the open.
Up to the Plate
Thank you for stepping up to the plate. Your questions drive right to the heart of the state of the church today. Outstanding questions asked with thoughtful respect and class but yet with an expectation of serious dialog and action.
I too read Barna’s “Revolution,” and have quietly pondered how the trends he identifies blend into the prophetic understanding we hold. There is no question that we are living in a moment of radical change. Is it possible, being who we have become as a church, to shift to being proactive instead of reactive? I pray the windows you have thrown open will draw in refreshing breezes.
As you so poignantly reminded us, we are a reflection to a large degree of the culture around us. Representatives of special interests drive stakes on issues that are important and beneficial to themselves and their constituencies. Then compromise occurs, almost always at the lowest common denominator. If the church is to accomplish the mission Jesus gave us, I believe a way must be found to transcend this thinking process and methodology.
Though faced with continual evidences of our frail humanity, I have a growing optimism about God’s plans and purposes deep in the core of my being. Why? Because of who He has demonstrated Himself to be and the promise of His Holy Spirit. The very fact that you have written and published this article in the Adventist Review is evidence to me of a Spirit-led church.
Your courage, vision, and willingness to put your neck on the line is truly inspiring!
Thank you, Dr. Johnsson, for laying your “cranium on the block” with your “Four Big Questions.” You have done more than raise some timely and important issues. You have given legitimacy and credibility to others who, in their own contexts, are asking these and other similar questions.
We can no longer be satisfied presenting and applying nineteenth- and twentieth-century solutions to twenty-first-century cultural, missional, and organizational realities. We must find ways to acknowledge the new DNA that the Spirit of God is embedding in His body, releasing us to engage the changing culture and its emerging generations, and to live the transformational reality of His kingdom in contemporary society.
An organizational culture that begins as a life-giving form can become a barrier to seeing and adapting to the challenge of a changing cultural context. Over time, it tends to develop an assumption in its members that the way it operates is the way things ought to be. The organization then validates and rewards compliance, not innovation. It loses its capacity to enter into dialogue and engagement out of a common, coherent language.
Despite the possible discomfort, pain, and risks, asking the right questions is a necessary discipline for the people of God as we continuously discover what the Spirit is doing in, with, and among us as a community. You have made an important contribution to the process of inviting people into dialogue about the future. Thank you!
president, Ohio Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Mount Vernon, Ohio
What a courageous article!
Changes will take place in the church whether we choose to stem or ignore the surging tide. It is high time we all become more courageous and deal with the reality that the challenges within the church are as potent, if not as lethal, as the assault from the world.
May the Lord help us to individually and collectively consider these questions in an open and accepting dialog.
William Johnsson’s recent “Four Big Questions” article certainly raises some important issues. I fear, though, that Seventh-day Adventism faces many more “big questions.”
The corporate church continues to ignore the apartheid in North America. Blacks, Whites, Asians, Hispanics, and people of other ethnicities, as a rule, don’t worship together on Sabbaths or interact in meaningful, life-changing ways outside of church. And the official events (General Conference sessions, some youth events) that bring us together are infrequent at best.
Adventist apartheid stands in stark contrast to what is happening in the Pentecostal and evangelical churches across the United States, where it is not uncommon to see people of all races worshipping together in some of the large megachurches. Racial reconciliation has also been openly addressed by some of these non-Adventist churches.
I don’t doubt that many others have their own set of four big questions or issues for Adventism to address. What’s beautiful about this process, though, is that our issues or questions emerge out of our passion for the church to be what it purports to be, to live up to its divinely derived creed. We may sometimes be disheartened or frustrated or even angry with the state of our church. But it is still, by God’s grace, our church. And, again by God’s grace, we plan for it to remain our church.
The paragraphs below are excerpted from an extended analysis received from Calvin Rock, former vice president of the General Conference. For the unabridged letter, click here.
While African-Americans now worship and eat where they wish, social distance is still a reality for two clearly identifiable reasons. One is “White flight,” which is very much alive in the Adventist Church (can we not admit it?). In fact, African-Americans have figured it out—the attendance “tipping point” is approximately 30 percent. After that, our White friends tend to abandon the premises and either sell or give the buildings to us. The landscape from Maine to California has numerous examples of this phenomenon as relates to both churches and schools.
Second, is the matter of “Black cultural solidarity.” While Blacks are no longer banned from the GC cafeteria, they usually eat at tables by themselves. This is also a common practice at our colleges and universities. Both of these manifestations (White flight and Black cultural solidarity) tell us that the church, as the rest of America, functions racially with secondary or casual relationships (togetherness in the workplace and public seating, etc.) not intimate or primary relationships (family, church, clubs, etc.). The country and the church should honor the guarantees of “desegregation” (one’s privilege of belonging wherever one wishes) and not feel guilty about the natural associational patterns of the races that make general social “integration” an illusion. Racism (exclusivity based on attitudes of superiority) is the enemy, not racial association with those of common interests or likenesses.
It is inaccurate to ground a discussion that focuses largely on regional conference viability in the reality of “deeply rooted animosities.” The ability to pursue mission, not retaliation, or avoidance of injustice is the main rationale for their existence. By mission I mean more baptisms, increased tithes, and greater employment opportunities.
Your statement “They (regional conferences) were not something demanded by Black Adventists” is incorrect. What is true is that in the wake of the death of a Black Seventh-day Adventist, Lucy Byard, October 1944, in Black-operated Freedman’s Hospital, after having been refused treatment in the then racially exclusive Washington Sanitarium and Hospital, our brethren at headquarters “offered” Black conferences in an apparent attempt to appease the wrath of Black Adventists in the D.C. area. Actually, Black leaders had been unsuccessfully pleading for conferences since 1929.
Your comments about inclusiveness are helpful. The fact that the nine regional conferences house among them 73 non-African-American congregations—White, Hispanic, Korean, Portuguese, as well as thousands from these and other races in individual congregations—speaks volumes for their openness.
I question the negative connotation of your comments about “divided structures.” Every local conference within a union conference is divided from the others. What necessitates that “division” is difference in territory, custom, economy, etc. Such division is beneficial. Black conferences, because of differences in custom, culture, and demographic realities, are also, for reasons of relevance, beneficial. Division need not be harmful or negative. It is a common, and where practical, effective means of mission as long as there is doctrinal unity and policy compliance.
Black leaders are not reacting to indignities, past or present. Rather, they are exercising resolve in the most effective means for mission in their communities and are determined not to be deterred by the hoax of primary association (general assimilation) in the church. We are sorry that this embarrasses so many White Adventists and even some Blacks. But it is the truest and therefore most righteous means of soul winning and nurture.
As long as there are massive Black communities spawning an ever-widening and deepening Black culture, accompanied by massive and highly intentional “White flight,” there will be need for Black accommodation in American structures, including the Seventh-day Adventist Church. To refuse a people who are socially separated (at the living level) from their White counterparts the modified self-determination that allows them maximum focus upon their distinctive needs would be a false application of the principle of unity.
Denial of the apparently unchangeable cultural realities above may not be as obvious a sin as racism, but its consequences are just as lethal and frustrating. Brother Johnsson, please relax. Tell the brethren to relax; tell the church it’s OK to belong to a majority or even all-White or -Black unit as long as it is open to all races. Tell them that integration is a by-product, not the goal. Desegregation is the goal. Tell them that doing away with regional conferences because there will be no White and Black units in heaven makes about as much sense as doing away with marriage because it will not be there either.
Our hope is that you and the others of the majority group who really care will abandon the “love that will not let us go” attitude and accept the principle of modified structural accommodation that regional conferences espouse. They are working marvelously to the glory of God, and continuing to thrust at their vitality does more to damage relationships than to heal them.
I deeply appreciate you and other Caucasians of my acquaintance who I regard as socially liberated, but on this one you have it wrong.
Calvin B. Rock, Ph.D.
Las Vegas, Nevada
I pastor two small churches in South Carolina and, to God be the glory, we partnered with our sister church of a different conference and jointly did a public evangelistic campaign.
I thank you for writing this article, for many today are questioning the basis of our beliefs, and why we can’t do certain things. Sister White tells us that the work will be finished by the laymen. Leaders need to accept this as a part of God’s plan, and not as an eroding of their “position.”
Pastor Patrick Carter
Anderson, South Carolina
Under the Rug
“When will Adventists in North America honestly face the challenge of the movies?” The stark answer is: when we realize we cannot be translated while watching movies. The real issue here is how should a Christian best use his time in order to become more Christlike? It cannot be done on a steady diet of triviality, murder, prostitution, profanity, homosexuality, violence, hedonism, and fantasy.
Should culture be catered to at the local church level? Yes! If the church is going to appeal to people where they are, we must allow for this variation.
Do we need duplicate administrations over the same geographical area based on race? No! Many Adventists don’t even know there are separate conferences. The church establishment refuses to acknowledge that it is wrong. I think the reason the issue is swept under the rug is because it exposes both White and Black leadership’s bias, so neither side wants to discuss it.
Many thanks to the editor for his bold presentation of “Four Big Questions” for the church to seriously consider. Such an article is long overdue and is applicable not just to the North American Division but to the church worldwide. Leadership in every division must wake up and put these questions on their agenda for consideration by executive committees, workers’ meetings, and even church boards.
For too long we have been proceeding as if things are just fine, and often manifest an ostrich syndrome, burying our heads in the sands of neglect, indifference, denial, and bigotry. The questions you have raised lead to other important ones: What about our church standards—not just on movies, but on other issues such as jewelry, materialistic lifestyle, etc.? What about this heavy emphasis on baptisms by a preset number goal, which is always reached, but never have we seen a membership review as to the quality and faithfulness of the millions baptized, and do we provide sufficient nurture for the new members? What is the role of the Sabbath school in steadying our members, in promoting the mission of the church, and in letting Bible study be a significant part of our Sabbath worship and our worldwide unity?
These and others are difficult and embarrassing questions to face, sometimes exposing us as hypocritical to the young and upcoming generation, but we better face them today, lest tomorrow makes us just another church—not the remnant with a mission.
John M. Fowler
Thank you for your willingness to discuss the topic of movies in the Review. What if we began our discussion about movies by acknowledging that the Creator God is the author of the technologies used in moviemaking? Satan cannot create; he can only manipulate what God has already made. If God created the technology, then He created it to be used for His purposes. Satan has stolen and misused God’s technology, but it still belongs to God.
We don’t carry on about how grapes shouldn’t be eaten because many people turn them into wine and strong drink. We delight in the gift of grapes and in the pure grape juice. Yet when it comes to movies, traditional Adventists act like grapes are evil in and of themselves. Even in your attempt to be open, you treated movies as if they are primarily filled with alcohol and something that must be guarded against instead of rejoicing in the fruit of the vine God has given to us.
We know that grape juice is good because we are commanded to drink the fruit of the vine in the Communion service and because God will serve us grape juice at the great banquet in heaven. We know stories are good because God used stories as the primary teaching device in Scripture and because Christ’s primary teaching method was through parables. We even know, through the Spirit of Prophecy, that God is going to show us a phenomenal movie of the history of the earth on our way to heaven.
I look forward to the day when we are willing to encounter God’s will for our lives through storytelling and make use of the media opportunities given to us by God.
I appreciated your comments on the question of race in our denomination. Your candor regarding your experiences in your homeland was most interestingly related to the Aboriginal population.
Prayerfully, our church will do more than just dialogue about our state of race relations among our church. Positive strides can be made if we are willing to be honest, holy, and work together to become “one” as the Father requires without malice, prejudice, or selfishness. Policies can be put in place to embrace fairness and Christlike practices if we are willing to honestly work toward that end.
I appreciate your courage and realism regarding some of the important issues in our church and your willingness to address them candidly.
Chula Vista, California
I was a young Adventist boy living in Cincinnati when my mother, who was reared Catholic, became an Adventist. I am African-American and applied to Mount Vernon Academy, in Mount Vernon, Ohio. The school advised my mother to send me to Pine Forge Academy, almost 700 miles from Cincinnati.
My father, who did not join the Adventist Church, was shocked, and, of course, used this negative act against our denomination for years. My mother wanted so much for the church to be an example of God’s love for man, as she was being taught in her baptismal classes at the time.
My mother, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, sent all three of her children to Pine Forge Academy, where we had a wonderful educational experience in the Lord. It was here that we met other people of color from all over the world. While we were at Pine Forge, 30 miles away was our sister school, Blue Mountain Academy. At the time it was an all-White academy where little, if any, contact was made between our two schools.
I am now 64 years old, and I must admit that if it weren’t for the Black church in central Harlem, New York City, I think my membership in the Adventist Church would have been challenged. The genuine fellowship experienced here is real. I do not have to put on any pretenses, for I’m accepted for who I am.
I, too, dream, and I really do believe that the church will be forced to change, because outside forces are already in motion to cause racial change.
We can talk about internal church politics all we want, but the fact remains: God is going to hold all of us responsible for not sharing this wonderful message to all people. Thanks for this honest discussion.
New York City, New York
On several occasions and in various forums semipublic and private, I have attempted to put a realistic light on this subject. In his article, Bill Johnsson, who is one of our more honest leaders, is simply the latest to raise the same questions and come to the same conclusions as those I have observed from our leaders for decades.
The organized Seventh-day Adventist Church in the United States is not segregated in its institutions, its congregations, or its conferences. The fact that some are predominantly from one specific group or another is not evidence of segregation—if in philosophy and practice—they do not restrict membership or participation based solely on race. Structurally the Adventist Church in the United States is as together as it can ever be. Every local church belongs to a local conference and union and the North American Division, without regard to race. There are White members in the Black churches, predominantly White congregations in Black conferences, and vice versa.
Togetherness, as is often described, really means the dissolving of Black-administered conferences. If you have any doubt, take a moment to examine the Pacific Union. There are no Black conferences in their territory, and the local congregations are not any more diverse than those in the Black conference territories. Although they do not have Black conferences, they have Black, White, and Hispanic “regions.” That is segregation under the masquerade of “togetherness.” If church leadership wants “togetherness” they should encourage White members to join predominantly Black congregations without regard to the color of the local conference leadership. Since Whites are the majority population, they have the numbers to support that level of “togetherness” without disappearing or becoming irrelevant. Black membership is not large enough to support so broad an initiative without disappearing and really becoming irrelevant.
Joseph W. McCoy
Your commentary on race relations reminds me of South Africa. While the racial congregations in America were largely due to choice because of history, in South Africa the divisions were government-imposed due to apartheid. As a young boy with a lot of faith in the Adventist Church, I was very much bothered that in fighting that system of government, it was the Catholic Church that took the lead.
On the other hand, the same practice did not seem to bother Adventists at all. They went ahead and freely formed Black and White conferences. When I asked one visiting pastor why the church headquarters is not strongly condemning apartheid, the answer was, “The church does not want to unnecessarily antagonize the government, because our mission is to tell people about the soon coming of our Lord.” Well, as you might have guessed, that response was not good enough for me.
I hope, as Adventists, that our greatest strength will not become our greatest weakness. Our greatest strength is the voice of prophecy, yet sometimes we spend the whole time talking about prophecy and forget to talk about issues that are relevant this minute. I mean issues such as love, prayer, a personal relationship with Christ, etc. Otherwise, why are we so insensitive to racism?