The Power of a Divine Big Story
By Jim Walters, July 7, 2015: Newly re-elected General Conference (GC) president Ted N.C. Wilson fervently believes that his remnant church can usher in the end of this world if it only believes correctly, behaves appropriately and fervently evangelizes. And he leads a believing church, as the standing ovation he received when his reelection was announced testifies. And only under Wilson’s leadership has the denomination begun to grow by 1 million+ each year—now the fifth largest Christian association in the world, by some counts. But despite Wilson’s success, the fact that the nominating committee vote showed 30% opposed to Wilson’s re-election and the delegate vote showed 10-15% opposed indicates some laggards in the triumphal march to the Kingdom.
The success of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination can be explained in religious terms, but human models can also illuminate—and Max Weber’s thesis about the Protestant ethic and capitalism’s origin is relevant. Weber famously argued that John Calvin’s followers worked hard to live a holy life to demonstrate their divine election, and after the initial religious fervor dimmed, the habituated “Protestant ethic” of hard work was the seedbed of western capitalism—a capitalism that today has become the pursuit of money as a seeming end in itself.
As a graduate student I read Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and I saw my personal ethic of devotion and work laid bare—my dedication to hard work, truth, frugality, and pursuit of financial gain. The Adventist Ethic is the Protestant ethic on steroids. I have changed a lot from my initial purist theology and moderated my pursuit of money, but my dedication to pursuit of truth and work is undimmed and my inculcation of a religious wholesome spirit burns deeply.
At this GC Session I particularly sense a deep kindred spirit with almost all the fellow church members with whom I have conversed—regardless of their country of origin or their religious ideology. Among all I sense the Adventist Ethic—a fervor for truth, a decency, an interest in the other, and a commitment to God, and this ethic is present regardless of whether members are from North or South America, Asia or Africa. Typically my conversation partners are educated, knowledgeable, engaging and obviously dedicated to their work as Adventists.
The engaging heart-felt spirit of Adventism is best displayed in the Convention Center, with its 375+ booths, along 2+ miles of aisles—in contrast to the Alamodome where the delegates are conducting church business and the sermons are preached. The two venues are like parallel universes—one where big and important points and counterpoints are vigorously made about Creationism, Women’s Ordination, etc., and the other where decency and congenial conversation reign at booths as ideologically diverse as they are creative.
Walking up and down the 2+ miles of aisles in the cavernous Convention Center, yes, there are some traditional booths—12’ x 8’ areas with a front table accompanied by a couple of chairs. But more typical are creative walk-in, multi-unit, 4-color displays of sometimes huge vinyl pictures vividly displaying a ministry, and some $100,000 interactive, multifaceted constructions hosted by a score of eager and knowledgeable employees. The booths are sponsored by self-supporting shoestring ministries, all the way to multi-billion-dollar Adventist Health operations.
Most US universities have large displays, probably led by Loma Linda University Health’s house-sized foot-print, featuring a full-size replica of a new campus bronze statute: the horse-and-buggy with Ellen White and colleagues designating a new nursing-medical school site.
Other schools are featured—with universities that far outstrip those of the US in terms of student enrollments. Most notable is Brazil Adventist University, with three Sao Paulo campuses—with over 17,000 students (compared to not many more than that in all U.S. Adventist universities combined).
And the huge continent of Africa has its own graduate university—Adventist University of Africa (in Nairobi), now 9 years old, with 700 students earning MAs, PhDs, and DMins, to say nothing of other institutions of higher learning scattered throughout the continent’s three divisions of the Adventist world.
Although some of the displays are breath-taking, most impressive are the people who are running these booths—for the most part energetic, informed and obviously committed to their work. The creativity, vision and individual and corporate initiative are impressive.
- Take two brothers, Thom and Scotty Mayer. They attended Pacific Union College, and as film buffs they were addicted to the movies. After graduation they got into the Hollywood scene and left their church for several years. They have now come back to share their cultural insights, as displayed in their attractive booth of books and videos that critique even Hollywood’s best films as promising a better life without one indispensable element—Jesus Christ as Lord.
- Sabbath Keepers Motorcycle Ministry based in Hollister, CA, with 22+ chapters, and over 250 members across North America—with their own printing of Steps to Christ, with a photo of a hefty road bike on the cover, with Jesus reflected in the chrome gas tank.
- Adventist Frontier Missions, of Berrien Springs, Michigan, works with but beyond the organized church as an incubator of ideas on how to share Adventism with cultures at odds with the Western world—e.g., Islam, Buddhism and animism. Contextualization is taken seriously—accepting other cultures as equally legitimate as our own and demonstrating how the core of the gospel meets common human needs.
- “Tell the World” is an Aussie union president’s $5.5 million dream—a 2½ hour feature film debuting this fall, depicting the origins and early years of the church. Directed by an Adventist, filmed in Canada, with Hollywood supplying much of the talent (95 actors, 150 crew, 1,000 extras), the Australian Union Conference hopes the film will remind members of their distinctive history. And this film’s fall debut demonstrates that dramatic innovation is not just the purview of independent ministries.
- Sexual ministries: Women’s Health and Empowerment Network. This is a ministry to church members who have been abused by spouses, run by Mable Dunbar, PhD, who claims that Adventists have a greater incidence of sexual and physical abuse than other conservative church members, who in turn are more abusive than the general society. A related, but very different ministry has its own booth: Coming Out Ministries, run by three ex-gay Adventist men, separately working from their homes in Arkansas, Tennessee, and Washington state.
- Journalistic/conceptual ministries: Spectrum Magazine, Adventist Today, the Association of Adventist Women, and Adventist Peace Fellowship each have separate, modest booths. The limited budgets, personnel and booth space of these ministries bespeaks how careful, more academic reflection and promotion of controversial and less popular ideas take a back seat to Adventism’s big three—evangelism, health and education.
Just as the Protestant Ethic significantly contributed to the birth and lifeblood of capitalism, so the Adventist Ethic has spawned a dynamic church that spans the world in organized and independent ministries. And it all started with a nucleus of fervent, intelligent, lowly educated youth who had an explosive big story: Jesus’ imminent coming. There is power in a divine meta-narrative: a God who loves, a soon coming Jesus, an inspired Bible that tells us just how to live—including the roles that men and women should supposedly live out. The big issues that vex most humans—where did I come from? where am I going? how do I live my life?—are answered. So the focus can be on evangelism, living healthfully, and education.
And now the big question is whether and how Adventists—many relatively recent converts and some multi-generational members—can achieve something no other significant Protestant denomination has ever accomplished: operate a diverse church spread over 150+ nations under one administrative head.