A Passion for Mission: The Trans-European Division at 90
Reviewed by Victor Pilmoor | 8 April 2020 |
It’s been sixty years since a letter from the Northern European Division (NED) disrupted our parochial life in Northern England. Dad received a call to Africa, and for a demobbed RAF (Royal Air Force) pastor, God’s call was a command.
Life was never to be the same for this 9-year-old. Within a week of arriving in Africa we made calls at an Adventist college, a school, two Union offices, a Conference and a Division. This, before arriving at a newly built manse and church which soon became a drop-in centre for missionaries from 500 miles around. Their work included mission stations, schools and hospitals. Before long I was enrolled in an Adventist academy populated with missionary kids — a fearless cluster. The genie was out of the bottle and there could be no return to the quaintness of small-town faith. Adventism was no longer a fellowship of people with quirky beliefs, but a movement intent on building life-changing institutions from which the gospel of Christ’s Kingdom was to be shared.
I can’t claim to have been part of the Trans-European Division (TED) clubhouse. Missionary kids are far too gregarious for such gentility. Nevertheless, they weathered my banter as a contrast to their desire for hallowed hygge. I confess that it is a bit of a cheek for a numbers boy to reflect on the homework of a distinguished historian, and I apologise if my approach offends the niceties of academic analysis. My interest in this work is piqued because I have been down the pit and worked at the coal face, and am familiar with a large number of the faces and places referenced in A Passion for Mission.
“A Passion for Mission” tells the story of people from Europe and other places through Northern Europe who became passionate about their faith when their mission became purposeful. By contrast, it is also a story of the impotence of dogma-based religion to ignite the imagination of post-Christian cultures.
Why This, Why Now?
Common wisdom asserts that “he who pays the piper calls the tune.” A Passion for Mission was commissioned by the officers of the Trans-European Division and published by their friends at Newbold. What is the context? Are there signals of bias? Which issues are smoothed over? Which give a perspective of convenience? Which names are revered, and who is given short shrift? I’m curious to contemplate whether the rivalries described as cultural and national are really about illusions of power and economic control.
90 years is an unusual jubilee other than for a family who suspects that the “old man” might not make 100. Truth be told, the TED is by far the smallest division, and vulnerable. Almost half of its current members trace their roots to other continents, and representatives of the founder nations are in perilous decline. More and more they defer to distant authorities, while the local skill pool shrinks. With more valour than discretion, the Scandinavians are testing the elasticity of policy compliance with principle-based insistence on equality of opportunity for men and women in ministry. A Passion for Mission frequently drops in the contribution of women to remind readers that there is nothing new about their service or significance.
Against this egalitarian profession, and much to the Division’s embarrassment, there have been nagging allegations of institutional racism dating back 25 years—always denied, but of late conceded with an apology offered. Not that any would regard themselves as racist. The dynamics of European association are far more subtle. The current mission statement of the Division with patriarchal majesty directs itself toward its constituent Unions and the populations they represent. The introduction of people from emergent cultures complicates matters now, and always has. In Europe the expression of faith is personal, private and historic, not readily negotiated with outsiders from the new or the developing world.
Unfortunately while members and leaders in our division have in the past demonstrated a passion for foreign mission, it seems not to mitigate the aspiration of new groups.
What This Book Is About
Dr. Trim’s history covers the period from 1929, when European Adventism represented a third of the Adventist world membership and sponsored the missional territory from Greenland in the West to Indonesia in the East, and to Africa north of the equator. The detail of the book represents mergers and demergers of national bodies against a background colonial affiliation, the Great Depression, World War II and decolonisation. The story is about the willingness of members in Scandinavia, the British Isles and the Netherlands to generously support missional endeavour in various parts of Africa, possibly at the expense of consolidation at home, followed by consequential tension when the success of this missional effort came home.
All of the organisational detail will be remote to the disinterested reader. There are statistics and graphs padded out with words to illustrate the ebb and flow. However, the more particular issues that emerge are ripe picking as case studies for broader application within the Adventist faith.
Race, Tribes and Culture in Adventism?
The Northern Europe story begins with mild rivalry between the Scandinavian Union, which was the largest in member numbers and economy, and with those with British aspirations and orientation who had smaller numbers but colonial connections. Within a few years the Scandinavian nations asserted their need to form Unions of their own, giving themselves four votes where they had one. Following WWII there was further realignment. The narrative portrays the proliferation of church structures to accommodate not so much growth or geography, but politics and identity—a trick not missed by those missionised.
The point being, that Adventism is incredibly sensitive to cultural alignment. We see it between European neighbours, we see it between various African and Asian identities even when they congregate in Europe.
The author discusses the Anglo-Caribbean rivalry in the British Union from the 1970’s and the resolving ‘“Pierson package,” for which there is sympathy. There certainly were episodes of which we are not proud, and the problem had to be addressed. Now that there are a handful of Anglo pastors left, with fewer than 5% of members representing the traditional makeup of the nation, some protagonists express triumphalism, while others ask whether administrative interventions offer a solution to changing the hearts of people.
Missionaries may well have engaged in trans-cultural witness, but this did not result in melting pot Adventism—not in mission lands, nor in the lands from which they came. At home there are many examples of successful diverse churches, but the fastest growing churches in metropolitan settings have cultural identity alien to the host identity.
Coming back to the piper and the tune: the Adventist Church operates an open elective structure vulnerable to sectional bias. It gives voice to those who are marginalised in other walks of life. Tensions arise not so much among rank and file members, but between people with vested interests. While donor power by individuals is frowned on, it surfaces as group pressure whether from the General Conference, the unions of Europe, or the new metropolitan collective. Those who provide resources demand a say in their allocation—”It’s the economy, stupid!” to quote Bill Clinton. The largesse of the American church and the former European church in favour of missions has succumbed to the priority for home need, with expected adjustment of appropriations in coming years.
We ought not to confuse politics with racism. Truth be told, the NED/TED has always had a cushion from above such that it did not need to cultivate local donors, be they white, black or others. In the new dispensation, divisions around the world will have to earn their crust and pay attention to influential clusters. Among these are independent ministries who pander to traditional theological positions, not because they are effective in mission, but because they yield dollars.
Passion or Purpose?
The integrity of office holders for the last 90 years is not in question. But is it passion? If we are measuring the flow of attention from Europe in favour of the peoples of Africa, then yes. If we are celebrating the endeavour of those sent, then yes. A Passion for Mission claims to be a high level history of the NED/TED in which foot soldiers do get awards, but it is substantially about the impact of the administrative officer class for whom purpose trumps passion.
The power and genius of divisions, unions and conferences is their capacity to call ordinary but equipped people to further the gospel wherever they are called. “Like a mighty army, moves the church of God.” On the other side there are people with an existential need.
A popular point of conversation among contributors to Adventist Today is the notion that the church is top heavy: “All you need is Jesus” or “The local church is where it happens,” they say. These observations are not without foundation, and need to be heeded for what they are. However, individuals and insular churches do not have the capacity to project the faith to fulfil a world-wide commission. The professed mission of the church is to take the Three Angels’ Messages to all the world, but In practice much of the mission endeavour has been to provide administrators, healers and teachers to create an infrastructure around which the said mission is hung.
Paul in Corinthians comments on the contribution of various gifts, the unity of arms and legs, eyes and parts unmentionable. He does not mention the invisible skeleton, the structure on which the organs rely.
Yet in the DNA of missional leadership has been the proliferation of administrative structures with centralised services. When the mission becomes cloned skeletons, we end up supporting not just essential organs but a chunk of belly fat. ‘Stuffed shirts’ is the phrase used by some of my American friends.
A Passion for Mission describes at length efforts by the church to translate the Bible, literature and songbooks for local need both in Europe and Africa. Metaphors and settings have to be adjusted for local understanding. At the same time the employment statistics indicate that much of the foreign mission endeavour involved education and health institutions, publishing work, and a variety of welfare initiatives alongside administrators and preachers. Mission was geared to the real needs of people, and always broader than proclamation in isolation. “Evangelism, evangelism” may have the power to convict, less so the power to retain. This is a key point differentiating growth in Africa from that in Europe. New immigrants arrive on our shores and expect to be serviced by Adventist schools, and are dismayed at their absence. One has to be amazed at the establishment of colleges, universities and now a medical school in Africa, because they are aware of a need for the church to be purpose-filled.
In Europe we had institutions, most of which were under-capitalised and restrained by narrow tram lines. Resources were always needed elsewhere. Institutional Adventism has the virtue that it exemplifies faith as lived, in contrast to the one-day a week escapism. It requires pragmatism where others demand idealism.
In post-Christian Europe we need an approach that accommodates the need for a starting point where biblical literacy is zero.
As an example: reference is made to a five-year project underwritten by the TED dubbed ‘Life Development’. In the text, it is dismissed in one line as a failure. It would be interesting to inquire what criteria the historian used in this assessment. Why not a similar comment on initiatives such as Mission to the City? Whose prejudice does this represent? Why was consideration not given to the resistance by a sector of the church to any Division initiative at the time in line with the aforesaid allegations?
In the wake of the new millennium and the 9/11 conflagration, the search for an approach to post-Christian society seemed imperative. That it did not gain acceptance is partly due to an intolerance for contextualisation. Members with passion for local witness prefer a “sock-it-to-’em” approach, preferably delivered by a hit-and-run energetic evangelist who represents their own identity.
Our passion for mission worked to change beliefs and behaviour where beneficial. But Africa, with its tribal affiliations, needed no lectures on belonging. They do it well. In Europe a sense of belonging comes out during football tournaments, but in the practice of religion, church is another shop, a bit like a pharmacy—we pop in and out for a bit of pain relief to cure the unmentionable. Somehow, community will need to be rediscovered.
The voices of Scandinavian leaders have become famous in their David-and-Goliath battle for equal recognition of women in ministry. Setting the niceties of theological argument aside for a moment, their appeal is not so much a sudden recognition in the cause of equality, which comes across as a moral crusade—offensive to those who value their tradition—but a request to allow the church to adapt to its context, without which regeneration is unlikely. Women have always had a passion for mission in the fields they served.
The challenge for this Division among others is to find ways to initiate and represent the Christian and Adventist message and mission for our own context. This remains as obscure as ever.
Where to now?
The underlying subtext throughout the book is the need to regenerate a passion for mission, to set a new course.
It is no secret that European young people, both black and white, are hemorrhaging from the church. Retention is an issue that cannot be ignored. That we should contemplate “Churches of Refuge” is an indictment on those who practice toxic faith. For highly educated young people, struggling to afford a home, not to mention metropolitan street sleepers, endless renditions about their home in Glory Land will not cut muster. We have to lock into their familiarity with uncertainty, and provide a purpose for which they can be passionate.
Cultural Europe shares rational thinking, a scientific orientation, art and industry that somehow transcend language. Yet from the beginning we have focused on difference. European history is littered with the pain of religious conflict and the escapades of the powerful. It is sinister for those from afar to exploit these stories as a subterfuge for their local injustice. European people long for a healing narrative of collaboration. Combative expressions will simply not find traction.
A Passion for Mission devotes a chapter to the NED/TED’s relationship with institutions, of which there were many. They were a source for missionaries—including teachers, health workers, technicians and administrators. They were also hubs around which Adventism clustered, sometimes at the expense of parochial churches. Skodsburg in Denmark gets honourable mention.
Newbold College is the one institution directed by the TED. The challenges of funding the college are discussed at length, its illustrious alumni are celebrated, changes in curricula are mentioned, and Trim drops in his agenda for Research Grants. Whether Newbold is viewed as liberal or traditional gets a mention. (Adventist schools are always too liberal for parents and too conservative for students—another example of donor muscle.)
The role of the College for the future seems to be glossed over. For those who attend, Adventist colleges are an exposure to big picture Adventism. Deconstruction and construction happen, which is a shock for those from parochial and narrow cultural backgrounds. As I reflected in my own story, there is no path back to parochial safety. Leaders in the Balkans and Baltics, among others, recognise that students who are drawn to this large picture seldom return. For this reason, and the cost, they affirm their own small seminaries where national orientation gets a look in.
For many years, students had a wide outlet in the missions, and they served with distinction. During my term in office, I talked to many students who spoke well of their learning and interest. So called ‘loony’ liberals I did not find. Newbold has made a foundational contribution to people around the world, but it seems not to spawn public evangelists. Those we import! Students investigate current and contextual issues and once they graduate, fulfillment comes through specialised ministries that cluster around the skeletons of Adventism, sometimes to the envy of those who find purpose in small churches. The college will need to be tasked for an agreed shared purpose beyond exotic theology.
While the TED celebrates its contribution to foreign mission, the current need is not for self-fulfilled administrators orchestrating the politics of Adventism. The need is for a renewed sense of purpose in local settings where people experience community. Why are Adventists needed here? Where would God have us go? What does He want us to do from which missional passion may yet emerge?
Victor Pilmoor trained as a math and science teacher before morphing into a church administrator, ultimately serving as British Union Treasurer for three terms. His reading and writing interests revolve around the development of trust as a spiritual discipline. He has engaged with Adventist social media for the last ten years under the absurd belief that those who ask difficult questions deserve an answer. In retirement years he is serving as publishing house CFO and a part-time grandad.