by Alvin Masarira, PhD | 10 October 2019 |
The 61st General Conference (GC) Session of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is a few months away. The session will be held in Indianapolis (Indiana in the United States) from June 25 to July 4, 2020, under the theme “Jesus is Coming! Get Involved.” This is in line with one of the focus areas of the current General Conference administration, namely Total Member Involvement (TMI), where everyone is called to be involved in the mission of the church. It is reported that when the first General Conference Session was held in May 1863 there were only 20 delegates in a small wooden church in Battle Creek (Michigan/US). These delegates represented a few thousand believers who were mainly from the Northeast and Mid-western regions of the US. In contrast, the 2020 GC Session will be held in a 68,000-seat venue where tens of thousands of Seventh-day Adventists from around the world will attend. Of these, some 2,600 will be voting delegates, representing 21 million members from about 200 countries. General Conference Sessions are seen as wonderful opportunities for worldwide Adventist believers to gather together for worship, fellowship and to gain a firsthand look at the way in which church business is conducted.
The church puts its best foot forward at General Conference Sessions and would like to portray the image of a united, loving and harmonious family of believers from all nations, tribes, kindred, tongues and people. It is often said that besides the Roman Catholic Church, the Seventh-day Adventist Church is the other global (universal) church. The Adventist Church started in the United States (US) and spread its message through missionaries it sent to the rest of the world. The Adventist church has a clearly American character, from its organizational structure, systems, policies and administration style. Although the vast majority (almost 90%) of its world membership is outside the US, it still has a very clear American flavor and character. For example, of the 61 General Conference Sessions since 1863, only three have been convened outside the US: the 52nd in 1975 in Vienna (Austria), the 56th in 1995 in Utrecht (Netherlands) and the 57th in 2000 in Toronto (Canada). There are many legitimate reasons for this, one could argue, but this does not stop the question from being asked: Is the Adventist Church really a global (universal and all-inclusive) church? or is it rather a fundamentally Eurocentric-American project that has merely opened its doors to the rest of the world?
Once again there are many valid reasons that one could present to explain and even justify this. One of them would be the question of resources, with the North American church contributing a significant (disproportionate, others would argue) portion of the world church budget. There have been calls by some in the world church outside North America to “de-Americanize” the Adventist Church. There is a sense that the Adventist Church is “too American,” and it should rather adopt the characteristics of whatever locality it finds itself in. For example, many in the Adventist Church in Germany identify themselves more with the Protestant reformer Martin Luther than with some of the American pioneers of the Seventh-day Adventist Church (e.g., Joseph Bates, or even Ellen G White). There are some in Africa who make the call to “decolonize” African society, systems, education, economy and religion. That call also implies the “decolonization” of the Adventist Church (however one understands that call to mean). The historical link between the arrival of Christian missionaries and colonial powers is undeniable and the question often is “If the church had a more African and less American flavor, wouldn’t it become more relevant to the community it operates in?”
In my view, three aspects define a Christian church: (1) theology, biblical understanding or doctrine; (2) governance structure, administration and policies; and (3) worship style, which includes liturgy, music, etc. If we were to assume that there is general consensus among Adventists across the world on major theological issues, or that any differences that may exist are not necessarily based on race, culture or nationality, we are left with the governance and worship style issues to deal with.
The organizational structure of the Adventist church was adopted from some of the prevailing systems among the churches in 19th-century North America, such as the Methodist Church. The organizational structure was therefore an American system that has since been exported to all parts of the world where the Adventist Church has a presence. There is an ongoing debate about giving regions (divisions of the General Conference) greater autonomy in the running of their affairs, adopting more locally relevant practices and ensuring the church reflects the nature of the society it operates in. Some argue that this autonomy is already there but many regions are not using it and this leads to the General Conference being falsely accused of “autocratic rule.” There are lessons that could be learned from other major Christian churches in Africa that have adopted a more African flavor, such as the Methodist Church of Southern Africa and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Southern Africa. These have a distinctly African character, be it in music or liturgy. These seem to have understood the core of their beliefs and have managed to adapt its expression.
Then there is the worship style (and liturgy) which others argue has been imposed all across the world in order to create uniformity. But close scrutiny of the style of worship reveals that there is lots of flexibility built into it and any local church can modify and adapt it to reflect the local culture. In essence the two key aspects of Adventist worship service are the Bible study lesson (based on a common topic across the world) and the preaching service (so-called “divine service”). Since there is nothing theologically wrong about these two, they cannot be a hindrance to churches adopting a local cultural flavor. Some have argued that Adventists across the world sing the same songs/hymns that have been imposed by the American church. Nothing could be further from the truth because in some countries the Adventist Church predominantly sings locally composed hymns. The Adventist Church in Germany and in the German-speaking parts of Switzerland has always had its own Church Hymnal with very few hymns taken and translated from the English/American Church Hymnal. This has even been recently revised, and a new edition entitled Glauben-Hoffen-Singen (Believe-Hope-Sing) with about 700 hymns was published in 2015.
It is therefore clear that the onus is on the local Adventist churches to create a church that reflects the culture in which it operates. Without trivializing the huge influence, authority, power and dominance of the North American Division, as well as the impact of a US-based General Conference headquarters, there is more that the church in its locality could do to “decolonize” or “de-Americanize” the movement. Each division or union conference could compile its own locally relevant and appropriate hymn book with songs that speak to the experiences and life of the people living in that territory. Local congregations could adopt a more culturally relevant approach to Sabbath worship. Each congregation should ask itself why the worship service or any expression of its faith has the flavor it has. Is it because world Adventism has for so long been “brainwashed” to believe that the American Eurocentric style of worship is the only true worship? This calls for a deep reflection on what the Adventist Church is all about and how it can be more relevant and effective in the society it finds itself in.
Although there are lots of changes that are necessary at the level of the General Conference to ensure the church is not a Eurocentric or American project where other cultures are simply tolerated, but becomes a truly universal-global family where all its children’s characteristics are reflected and blended in the whole, there is also a lot that many conferences (union, local) and local churches could do to ensure the Adventism in that locality is really domesticated and becomes relevant and appealing to the local society.
Alvin Masarira is originally from Zimbabwe, and is a structural engineering consultant based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He and his wife, Limakatso, a medical doctor, have three children.