by Raj Attiken, November 25, 2014: When our forebears envisioned Seventh-day Adventism becoming a movement that would eventually have global reach in spreading the good news about Jesus, it is unlikely that they anticipated the day when people from every kindred, nation, and language would be involved in making decisions for the church at the scale we see at a General Conference Session today. The shift from seeing people as our missionary projects to having them by the hundreds at our table with voice and vote is a shift of massive proportions – the ramifications of which we could not have anticipated or planned for in the formative stages of our governance and organizational models. It is one thing to be the carriers of a life-altering message to what was perceived to be the “dark” places of the earth (we didn’t always recognize that God was in these places even before the missionaries got there); it is quite another thing to have people from these regions have significant voice in the decision-making councils of the church.
We once saw ourselves as curators of a “made-in-America” religion who were deeply committed to preserving its content and its form wherever we planted it. As did other faith groups involved in the Christian missionary movements of the past two or three centuries, we took great pains to ensure that the young plant of Adventism remained in the pot in which we transported it, and that it did not get transplanted into native soil. What was then thought to be a wise strategy intended to protect and preserve content, form, and function from the transforming (seen more as adulterating) effects of native cultures, has turned out – in the long run – to be both a liability and an asset. Adventism, along with some other Christian groups, has remained for long as a foreign religion – refusing to adapt and adopt indigenous forms that could have given it a contextual relevance and vibrancy that it has not achieved in many places. At the same time, it has enabled Adventism to have a certain current appeal because of its identity with the West.
Our success in maintaining a Western (mostly American) imprint within Adventism wherever it is present is evidenced in the pleasure we have taken in pointing out that we can travel to any country in the globe and find that the local Seventh-day Adventist churches are very similar to those in the Western world. A common church hymnal, a common Church Manual (only recently with addendums recognizing regional differences), a common Sabbath School Lesson Quarterly, a common order of worship, a common set of fundamental doctrines, common baptismal vows, a common centralized funding system, are all artifacts of our efforts to maintain uniformity. We have thus succeeded in maintaining both a western identity and a degree of global uniformity.
In recent decades, we have witnessed tectonic shifts in our world. Culture has been reshaped. Increased literacy in many countries, global travel, internet technology, social media, broadening of worldviews, and other forces have resulted in the development of a “fusion culture” in many places. Many non-Westerners have become eager to learn the ways of the West. After all, people always want to copy those they perceive as having succeeded. Many see modernization and Westernization as the same thing. As a result, the old high culture and traditional order are gradually vanishing in many developing countries (exceptions remain). Local and modern is growing side by side with global and Western. As the world expands and embraces more of the globe, religion is also becoming a melting pot, with Western forms being overlaid with local elements, or vice versa. This is the state of the world in which Adventism also exists. The church is not exempt from the strong forces at play in a society that is following two narratives: one indigenous, and the other, Western.
It shouldn’t surprise us, therefore, that we have begun to see a strange mixture of insecurity and assertiveness in recent years when such issues as women’s ordination are placed on the church’s global agenda. People worry that the West is now changing the church that the same West brought to them and legitimized. They also harbor the perception of being shaped by powerful, distant forces that are beyond their control. And by people who do not share their values. Feeling uneasy with these trends, they attempt to hold on to some form of religious nationalism for succor and stability.
The rise of pride and confidence among Adventists across the globe, mixed with a degree of fear, insecurity and anxiety regarding the changes occurring in the church, form the landscape in which the 2015 General Conference Session will be held. Elements of the unprecedented changes in many countries will arrive with the delegates in various forms and intensity. The leaders we now elect and appoint to Conferences, Unions, and Divisions, have learned Western protocols and rules on how the game of governance and decision-making is played in the church. They also know how to put their own indigenous imprint on matters of faith and practice. They know how to be moderately Western and thoroughly nationalist. Their influence on delegates from their regions should not be underestimated. All of this adds a degree of complexity to our governance and decision-making processes at a General Conference Session.
Regardless of one’s persuasion on issues such as women’s ordination, there are some foundational and deeply complex governance questions that the church needs to face today, when people in all parts of the world are no longer objects or observers but players in their own right. What should a General Conference Session be about, given a global context that is vastly and radically different from the one that gave birth to such sessions (the first Session reportedly had 20 delegates—all from the Midwest!)? What kinds of substantive decisions, if any, should we expect a global assembly of some 2,500 people from vastly varying cultures and world-views to effectively make for the global church? If we continue to insist that such large numbers of people will make binding decisions for people living in over 200 countries representing some 900 language groups, what steps will we implement to ensure that these delegates are fully informed and understand the issues from theological, cultural, ecclesiastical, social, regional and national perspectives (this will involve far more than mailing out a document and holding briefings based on it)? How will we manage the tension between the weight of General Conference Session actions and the principle of distributed authority that informs how we are organized as a denomination? My sense is that the answers to these questions, if honestly pursued, will radically reshape our governance structures and processes. At the least, it should change our practice of placing substantive issues on the agenda for action.
General Conference Sessions, as they are currently constituted, do not lend themselves to effective decision-making. The issue of women’s ordination – whether we see it as theological, cultural, or ecclesiastical – does not belong on a General Conference Session agenda, for the reasons I have named above. To place it there would be an act of gamesmanship that will do irreparable injustice to the Adventist faith community. That’s my take!