By Edison Garcia-Creitoff | 17 August 2021 |
The history of the Adventist Church is characterized by tension between conservative and liberal sectors. The tension seems to come from how we think of our identity. That identity that traps some in their defense, others in their rejection, others in their wish to reform the church.
From its beginnings the church has held an identity that is rooted primarily in the prophecies of Daniel, the eschatology of Revelation, the message of the three angels, the notion of a “present [end-time] truth,” and the influence of Ellen White—always with a focus on topics such as the Sunday law, persecution, the cosmic conflict between the good and evil, the remnant, the investigative judgment, the sanctuary, and others. Mrs. White also institutionalized, through her writings and testimonies, a behavioral code that would shape identity through lifestyles rules, such as the form of worship, church music, clothing and adornment, the prohibition of going to the movies, diet, alcohol use, Sabbath keeping, etc.
For centuries, liberals and conservatives have been in conflict, contradiction, and tension. Sometimes these discussions seem to cancel each other, without serious consequences. But another effect of these arguments is erosion and disenchantment, particularly among postmodern young adults and adolescents who are leaving the church.
If there has ever been a time when the “Adventist bubble” has been in jeopardy, it is now. In some churches, a new Adventist church threatens to emerge, one that exalts the master Jesus, his love, his character and the fruit of the Spirit, and deemphasizes the law, behavior, the three angels, the end-time truths and apocalyptic prophecy.
Today, in an age of apocalyptic postmodernism, the Adventist bubble has been torn. Postmodern young adults and a few pastors are leaving behind the typical Adventism of the 19th and 20th century. Those that stay are trying to introduce into the church a Christianity more relevant to the 21st century.
Through the pandemic our isolation and accompanying reliance on technology have imposed a change that is distressing to many traditional Adventists. Something fundamental to the older generations of the church has been torn away. Not getting together depresses them, distresses them. Their lives don’t seem to make sense, their faith falters, and they grieve the loss.
There has been a transformation in the pastorate, too. The typical tasks—evangelism, Bible studies, visiting and praying for the sick and shut-ins, preaching, baptizing—have been inhibited by the danger of Covid-19. Pastors have had to master new technologies, new social platforms—and often the younger, more progressive-thinking pastors do this better and more efficiently, leaving their elders behind. Wise pastors opened space for young people to minister via Zoom, Facebook, Instagram, Tik-Tok. Church leadership has changed: pastors have had to delegate and coach, relying on younger people, the technology-savvy generation that understands the digital tools.
Churches that don’t have pastors interested in the technology, who can’t marshal people with this expertise, may be destined to suffer crises. Many are already feeling paralyzed, waiting only for things to go back to the way they were before.
But this will not happen. The way in which church functions has changed, probably permanently. Denominational leadership will have to change, too. I think of the leadership of Puerto Rico, which I know well. Our congregations, conferences and union conference could need to have a greater presence in the new media.
Furthermore, the future belongs to those able to analyze the social and psychological problems inherent to the pandemic and postmodernism. Problems with mental health, racism, global warming, male patriarchy, mistreatment of women, the deterioration of our civil and democratic liberties and social justice, which have worsened in the pandemic, should become relevant topics for discussion, and such analysis could be encouraged by denominational leadership in this postmodern context, rather than just leaving it to local churches.
The world has changed, and so must the message
Millions of people have been stuck in their homes since March of 2020. Some are unemployed. Some have been sick from Covid-19, and some still are. Family conflicts—probably pre-existing—have come to the surface. Some sources say there is a measurable increase in domestic violence, abuse, and mental illness.
Already many had been caring for elderly parents, with the inherent conflicts that this entails. The pandemic made that harder. Thousands are working remotely, and experiencing the loss of privacy, while feeling harassed by the invasive technology. They have given up on an 8-hour work schedule, replaced by a feeling of never being away from work while that computer is sitting on the kitchen table waiting to ping you, the phone in your pocket having to be answered.
How could our message to the world attend to the needs that arise from these realities? Some that occur to me: churches might be open to food distribution, counseling, guidance and preaching, from the perspective of the problems that are relevant to their reality.
That is the world’s truth right now. The post-modern world has arrived. What does a potential Sunday law have to do with these needs? Perhaps we can stop emphasizing details of Revelation and Daniel. These aren’t relevant to the new apocalyptic postmodernism. They are still important to the church’s identity—but the emphasis now must be to bring Jesus in a relevant way to the new generations in the 21st century.
The message of the church must be adapted to the new needs of postmodern culture.
More about values and wisdom, less about religion
A traditionalist will reject all this, claiming that we are losing our identity and the theological purpose of the church, and that we should not dilute what defines us and gives us identity. Those who think this way are frozen in time. They have lost perspective. In the apocalyptic postmodernism that we live in, in the new generations, there are new ways of thinking.
Young people and adults are looking to the church for a reassuring experience. They are not looking for theories, theology, moral superiority, or the church of ultimate truth.
Nor are they looking for information. They are looking for spiritual connection. They are looking for God and the voice of the Holy Spirit in their lives. Some had sought that experience in worship and music—something hard to do in person now.
Mostly, they are in search of a congruent message that connects their life setting with Jesus, his truths, his teaching, his wisdom and his holiness, without emphasizing only obedience to the law. They are weary of sermons full of cliches and seemingly mechanically generated religious phrases.
They want and desire to have a personal—even an emotional—experience with Jesus, so that the Holy Spirit reveals to them love, forgiveness. They are coping with how to live freely without ties, without selling freedom for a job or the demands of others. They are motivated to learn what it is to love your neighbor and your enemies; about honor, gratitude, fidelity, meekness, stewardship towards nature (neither dominating nor destroying it), humility, and wisdom. They seek the spirituality to accept their mistakes and to know they are forgiven, to have resilience in weakness, to give, to serve, to be silent and mindful, to not criticize, but to be a revolutionary like Jesus, and to be wise like him.
A relevant message
Our message should bring to postmodernists the Spirit of God and Christ through the Word, while making the Word relevant to the 21st century
This will be difficult for church leaders who refuse to inhabit this new context, who choose to live in the culture of a century ago. They will point out that these generations do not respect authority and morality, that they do not know the word of God through the Bible. It is true that new generations do not think biblically all the time, but that is something that even Adventists themselves do not do. Imposing that burden on the new generations is similar to what the Pharisees did with the Jewish people.
I have spoken with dozens of adolescents and young adults who live in the context and values of postmodernity. Some are rejected for their clothing, their tattoos, their critical thinking. I believe they want to live the truths of Christianity, but they are skeptical because, like the Pharisees, the leaders of the church are not consistent in what they say and what they do. Many are disappointed because the message of the church is outdated and repetitive, and they don’t feel the fruit of the Holy Spirit emanating from it.
The postmodern generation wants to have an experience, through the Holy Spirit, of rebuilding—of that personal transformation that Jesus and Paul spoke about. Can we give that to them by doing the same things we’ve always done?
Edison Garcia-Creitoff taught ethics and communication in universities in Puerto Rico. He is a social worker, conflict mediator, attorney and lay chaplain who considers himself a progressive and postmodern Adventist.