by Monte Sahlin

“Organization” was a big issue in 1863 when the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists was started and 150 years later it is still a major issue in different ways, but fundamentally the same. Because of the way they had been treated by their various denominations and local congregations when they became part of the Adventist movement through the efforts of William Miller and his allies, early Adventists saw organized religion as a kind of idolatry or apostasy from authentic Christian faith.
Throughout its history, the Adventist Church has been slow to develop rigid organizational rules. The Church Manual was not created until the 1930s and it was originally considered to be largely advisory, not a type of canon law. The official statement of Fundamental Beliefs was not adopted until 1980 and is still in a state of flux, much to the consternation of those who want to see it as a pristine statement of eternal truth.
Today the Adventist movement is increasingly affected by the major religious trend in America; the growing numbers among the population who prefer no religion, although they are not atheists and have a definite interest in spiritual questions. One in five American adults indicated this attitude in the 2012 General Social Survey (GSS), up from about one in 20 when the question was first asked by the GSS in 1972. Those with this view are growing “at a nearly constant rate of 0.6 percentage points per year,” report three noted sociologists of religion in a report published two weeks ago (March 7) by the Institute for the Study of Societal Issues at the University of California.
These data make it possible to project that by 2063, the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Adventist denomination, the majority of Americans will prefer no religion. In fact, a third of young adults have already adopted this position, and it is today the majority view of native-born, white young adults on the Pacific coast and in the Northeast. By the end of the current decade in 2020, the majority of white Americans will likely have moved to this view.
It is important to understand what is meant by “religion.” It is not the same thing as faith or values or ideology. Six out of seven of those who say they prefer no religion also say that they believe in God. There has been little change in this reality over the decades. In fact, historians generally believe that, although survey research had not yet been invented, more Americans were atheists or agnostics in the 19th century than today.
“Religion” is a social construct. It is sometimes more specifically labeled “organized religion,” and this is what large numbers of people have difficulty with. Growing numbers believe that faith is a private matter and reject the social structure that religion places around it.
In some ways this is a uniquely North American issue. The same trend toward private faith is well developed in Europe, but in a different context. Because Europe comes out of a tradition of state religions, faith has taken on the primary form of vast numbers who are nominally part of the established church but do not participate. In many ways Europe is both more secular and more religious than North America. Australia and New Zealand, on the other hand, are more like the most secular regions of North America, or perhaps a picture of the soon-to-arrive future in North America.
Except for a number of the former Soviet nations and very secular Japan—where ideologies much like a state church crashed and burned—the rest of the world is much more religious than North America. Across Africa, Asia and Latin America religious ferment is booming because there is widespread interest in religion. And the Adventist Church is increasingly defined by this reality as its membership grows rapidly in this context, already containing the overwhelming majority of Adventists.
Half of native-born Seventh-day Adventists in North America are age 60 or older. As the Baby Boomers among the clergy retire, it will soon become true that the majority of the pastors in North America are immigrants or ethnic minorities. The trend toward “no religion” among North Americans is already depleting the Adventist Church, causing significant enrollment declines in Adventist schools. Surveys conducted by the Institute of Church Ministry at Andrews University show that volunteer ministries in local churches are also in significant decline.
How will Adventist faith and values function in a context where “no religion” becomes the norm? Is our faith dependent on organization for its existence? Or, will new networks of faithful believers emerge as a kind of informal, unorganized expression of what it means to be Adventist? Dr. Samir Selmanovic, an ordained Adventist minister and community activist in New York City, advocates responding to this trend with “disorganized religion.” He is part of an independent congregation, not formally affiliated with the denomination, but without any theological differences nor schismatic purpose. In fact, there are more than 70 local churches in the NYC metro area not affiliated with the denomination and probably about 500 across North America.
Almost all major metropolitan areas in North America now have at least one Adventist group that is a functioning, healthy fellowship of believers, but post-denominational in organization or a local church affiliated with a conference, but largely disengaged from that relationship. These are often the congregations that attract the significant numbers of the next generation. They have no mechanism for seeking publicity and often would rather be unknown than get into conflict with denominational representatives. They are most likely the future face of Adventist faith in North America, alongside vigorous immigrant churches and institutional communities like Collegedale, Tennessee; Berrien Springs, Michigan; and Loma Linda, California; where an attitude somewhat akin to the relationship Europeans have with the state church exists at a local level.
As these trends grow will “organization” become a testing truth for Adventists? There is already a kind of shunning of independent structures. The current discussions about ordination and whether or not there is a need to tighten up the statement on creation in the Fundamental Beliefs document may result in the global south clamping down on the North American need for more latitude. Will that escalate to the point where a proposal will be put forward to make belief in rigid structure a necessary part of being officially Adventist?
If such a proposal becomes a center of debate how will it be greeted by a generation of young adults already heavily influenced by the “no religion” attitude? How would we avoid substituting “organization” for the basic Bible truths that launched our movement; the Second Advent, the Sabbath, the State of the Dead, etc.? In other words, how would we seek to avoid what happened to the church of Paul and Peter and John in the second, third and fourth centuries? I do not believe that anyone intends to get to that point, but there is a slippery slope already under our feet.