HE FIRST VICTIM OF THE AMERICAN response to the atrocities of September 11, 2001, wasn’t a Muslim, but a Sikh—slain not in Afghanistan, but in Arizona, where he worked at a filling station. He was gunned down by a misguided “patriot,” to whom anyone wearing a turban seemed un-American and threatening.
Four months after the attacks, in January 2002, a pamphlet was published celebrating 100 years of the Nobel prizes. In its introduction the prominent British scientist, Sir Harry Kroto, blamed humanity’s failure to break away from traditional religious faith for its failure to escape barbarism of the type witnessed on 9/11.
At first sight, there seems little connection between these two stories and little for Adventists to learn from them, other than what might seem an atheist’s predictable attempt to blame religious people in general for the actions of a minority of Muslims. In fact, both stories stem from a phenomenon that affects much of Western society. They highlight an increasing problem for Seventh-day Adventists as citizens in their communities and collectively as an evangelical movement focused on the Second Coming.
This phenomenon can be summarized in a paradox: Western society is both much less
and yet more
religious than in the past. Much less, because religion—any organized religion, but particularly Christianity—is now largely irrelevant to the great majority of people in secularized, postmodern Western societies; yet also more
, because those societies are increasingly multiethnic, multicultural, and, consequently, multifaith. Christian churches—in all their own varieties—no longer have a monopoly in western Europe, North America, Australasia, and southern Africa. They have to compete with a plethora of religions, philosophies, and cults.
This is a vexing challenge for Adventists: How are we to spread the third angel’s message to what is becoming, in effect, “unreached” territory?
More than ever before the Western world is host to sizeable minorities of peoples whose culture and faith are non-Western in origin. Their religious beliefs often evoke suspicion and misunderstanding in the mainstream populace. Those same beliefs sometimes make believers suspicious of the majority population. Conflict in communities increasingly results. Seventh-day Adventist Christians must decide what role we should play as citizens in fragmenting communities. We also face the challenge of relating peacefully to people of other races and faiths, even as we obey the Lord whose last command was to “Go . . . preach the gospel to every creature” and “make disciples of all the nations” (Mark 16:15; Matt. 28:19, NKJV; emphasis supplied).*
Communicating the good news of a crucified and risen Savior requires new strategies. It’s no longer a matter of simply proclaiming the biblical truths that lie at the heart of Seventh-day Adventism. It’s a matter of persuading people not only that what the Bible says is true, but that there is even such a thing as truth in the first place.
Serious difficulties confront our church in what have historically been Christianity’s heartlands, and all Adventists, laypeople or denominational employees, ought to be concerned, regardless of where they live. Part of the solution is to recognize the reality and size of these problems and to order our priorities in facing them.
The happy news is that the church is facing up to the challenges confronting Adventism in Western societies, and that ways to meet them are being sought.
Within and Without
Around the globe, the Adventist Church is discovering that one of the greatest challenges to its mission is diversity
. In recent years Adventists have begun to come to grips with internal
diversity. We’ve started to emphasize equitable treatment of ethnically diverse workforces, congregations, and student bodies. More generally, as a body of believers we are beginning to realize that there is diversity of practice in our worship, our organization, and even our lifestyle.1
What we need to start doing more, however, is thinking about external diversity.
This isn’t an abstract intellectual problem—it’s an urgent practical task. The increasing diversity of Western society and culture poses large challenges to Adventist mission; not only in what used to be thought of as its native soil, but also globally. The offerings of Adventists living in the world’s wealthy, developed nations fund the work of the denomination worldwide. If we decline in the West, it will have global consequences.
A World Turned Upside Down?
Diversity can be difficult to adjust to because it can make the world seem as though it has been turned upside down. Western societies are no longer homogeneous cultural blocks, and traditional assumptions about ethnic, religious, and lifestyle minorities can no longer be taken for granted. This is especially true in Europe.
Three months after the events of 9/11, just before Christmas 2001, a man tried to blow up an Air France jet with plastic explosives hidden in his shoe. Initially it was assumed that his British passport in the name of Richard Reid was a fake. After all, Muslim terrorists are from the Middle East, Africa, or Asia, and have Islamic-sounding names, right? In fact, it quickly became apparent that this Islamist extremist was really called Richard Reid and was a native of London. Nearly four years later, all four of the men who bombed London in July 2005 were British citizens.
In the spring of 2002 the Netherlands was shaken by its first political assassination in 330 years. Maverick politician Pim Fortuyn was gunned down on the eve of an election he was probably about to win, thanks largely to his willingness to verbalize popular anger and frustration on many issues. He had particularly highlighted the threat he believed was posed to Dutch society by émigrés from the Third World. There was a time when a Western politician who denounced immigrant minorities as “backward” could be safely assumed to be a conservative—but Fortuyn was openly homosexual, concerned about Islamic immigrants because they rejected the liberal, secular values that have come to be dominant in Dutch society. On the other hand, although many Christians would instinctively approve of religious leaders who condemn homosexuality and premarital sex, in the Netherlands (and other European countries) they would find themselves in the uncomfortable position of siding with Islamist imams who back stoning women for adultery and preach the gospel of al-Qaeda.
The religious fervor of many immigrants from the developing world is in sharp contrast to the pluralist, postmodernist values of citizens of “developed” nations. But the response of those pluralist citizens is often increasing intolerance, not only of Muslims and members of other apparently “backward” faiths, but also of members of evangelical Christian denominations from outside the historical Christian mainstream—such as Adventists.
In France in the spring of 2004 the wearing of headscarves by daughters of Muslim parents had become so widespread that the French government banned wearing religious symbols or clothing in state schools. As a consequence, however, the wearing of crosses was also banned—and there were many people in France who were pleased to see Christian, as well as Islamic, religious symbols suppressed.
In Great Britain, religious schools have recently been able to obtain state funding. Such schools have an excellent record in educating children of ethnic minorities (unlike state schools). Yet in 2005 British politicians, of all parties, supported by the media, opposed proposals for wider government funding of religious schools. Why? Because of concern at the possibility that the state will end up funding the teaching of anti-Western values. These concerns are across faith boundaries, applying equally to applications for state funding for Islamic schools and applications from conservative, evangelical Protestants. To secular politicians and commentators, the goals of creationists and Islamists seem almost equally alarming!
The End of “Christendom”
The fact is that Europe—once Christendom––is now post-Christian. Where once the language of Christianity was understood by the majority of the population, today biblical knowledge is rare. Society in general embraces postmodern and pluralist values, tolerating all faiths because most people believe in none. As a result, most people are simply uninterested in religions that make claims to absolute truth.
This situation includes the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Historically it has had to overcome perceptions that it is a North American import: now it is also perceived as “fundamentalist”—a grievous crime in twenty-first century Europe. The only religious faiths that are unacceptable are those that threaten the comfortable status quo in which all beliefs are held as more or less equivalent in value and significance.
The choice between belief systems is seen as simply a personal preference, much as different people prefer Nike or Adidas running shoes. Five hundred years ago the Reformation tore the Christian world apart. Today, the differences between the theology and ecclesiology of the papacy, Martin Luther, or John Calvin are reduced to the level of the differences between Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren, or Calvin Klein—a fashion, not a matter of eternal significance.
The Road Ahead
The Seventh-day Adventist Church thus faces new challenges in making disciples in Western societies. In Europe success has mostly been limited to communities of immigrants from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, or eastern Europe. The existing membership drawn from the indigenous population is often aging.
Nor is this a matter for Europe only. The religious veneer of North American society masks increasing secularization; the influence of postmodernism isn’t limited to the Old World!
In America, too, religion is often only a rhetoric or lifestyle, rather than a worldview that regulates thinking and behavior. North America has traditionally been multicultural and multi-racial, but it is becoming ever more heterogeneous––so much so that influential commentators now claim that American society is on the verge of self-destruction.2
The Adventist Church has continued to grow in North America due largely to immigrants, who make up many of the new converts.3
The growing cultural and ethnic diversity within the Adventist Church has sometimes been a cause of friction. Frustrated by the church’s difficulties in reaching the majority population, some members put the blame on fellow believers of immigrant origins. This can never be justified. The “joy in heaven over one sinner who repents” isn’t limited to sinners of one particular ethnicity!4 But our success among immigrant communities shouldn’t blind us to the way the church is perceived by majority populations in many countries. Then, too, throughout the Western world the mostly White, male, middle-aged, middle-class denominational leadership has sometimes not ministered effectively to church members from diverse backgrounds.
All is not doom and gloom: the Holy Spirit continues to move men and women’s hearts, and the Lord continues to bless His people. Indeed, four decades of materialism have left many Western people “increased with goods” but with empty hearts. Many yearn to be made complete. There are strong indications that now, perhaps more than for many years, there is a ready-made market for the good news of a Lord whose “yoke is easy” and “burden is light” and who gives rest for their souls (see Matt. 11:28-30, NKJV). The challenge is to find creative ways to communicate that gospel to those who need to hear it.
Honoring God, Honoring Each Other
Religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity is a challenge to our traditional ways of doing mission, but it shouldn’t be seen only in negative terms. It’s not something we have to “deal” or come to terms with, nor simply an obstacle that must be overcome. Instead, as a people touched by grace, we should welcome it.
Diversity can enrich us both as human beings and as Christians. We serve and worship a God who has demonstrated His love of diversity in the amazing varieties and kinds of His creation.
And we should embrace diversity because it is truly the only way to practice the Lord’s Great Commission. If our church is to flourish in the Western world, our ministers and members must understand the worldviews of people of other cultures and faiths—and often the two go hand in hand together. Only with this understanding will we be ready to interact with those people sensitively. This is usually expertise we require only of missionaries, but, in the postmodern world, the traditional heartlands of Christianity are now the mission fields. The sensitivities of the missionary are now needed right where we live.
To Jesus, there is only one race—the human race, which He died to redeem. In His name and with His methods, we can bring within His arms individuals of “every nation and tribe and language and people” (Rev. 14:6, Phillips; emphasis supplied).†
*Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
†Bible texts credited to Phillips are from J. B. Phillips: The New Testament in Modern English, Revised Edition. © J. B. Phillips 1958, 1960, 1972. Used by permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.
1For recent engagement with these issues, see, e.g., Jan Paulsen, “A Tapestry of Adventism,” and Luka T. Daniel, “What If . . . ? A Reflection on Unity in the Church,” Adventist World, Oct. 2005, pp. 8-10, 12, 13; Walter Douglas, “Diversity With Inclusion: The Future of Seventh-day Adventist Education,” and Chimezie A. Omeonu and Charles H. Tidwell, Jr., “Managing Cultural Differences in Christian Schools: A Religious-Psychological-Social Approach,” Journal of Adventist Education, Oct.-Nov. 2005, pp. 21-32.
2E.g., Samuel Huntington, Who Are We? America’s Great Debate (Free Press, 2004); repr. as Who Are We: The Challenges to America’s National Identity (Simon & Schuster, 2005).
3See Ronald Lawson, “When Immigrants Take Over: The Impact of Immigrant Growth on American Seventh-day Adventism’s Trajectory From Sect to Denomination,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 38, 1 (1999): pp. 83-102.
4Luke 15:7; and see, e.g., Gal. 3:28 and Sigve Tonstad, “A House of Prayer for All Peoples: A Vision of Inclusion,” in Ministry, May 2005.
David J. B. Trim is a professor of history at Newbold College, Binfield, England, and associate director of the Centre for the Study of Religious and Cultural Diversity.