by Carsten Thomsen | 29 September 2022 |
Some of the most long-lived organizations are churches and religious groups. Some of the great world religions are thousands of years old, and Christianity has been around for 2,000 years.
Adventism is less than two hundred years old, but has many characteristics of a long-lived, successful religion.
Now a few months after Ted Wilson’s Sabbath sermon from June 11, 2022, which was repeatedly interrupted with applause, I wanted to analyze the characteristics that make successful religions, and how they seem to apply to the Seventh-day Adventist Church:
1. Strong, centralized leadership.
The Adventist church has a strong centralized leadership, which controls the agenda for pseudo-democratic organizations such as the Executive Committee or the General Conference. The majority of members of these groups are church employees, ensuring continuity and stability. As church employees, they may be subject to subtle pressure to vote the party line. Complex working policies can be selectively enforced to permit some local flexibility and creativity—or to exercise control in issues of importance to the leadership.
2. Strong leaders such as prophets, gurus, saints or popes.
Ted Wilson in the Sabbath sermon on June 11 said that “Jesus Christ is the true leader of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I am not, I am just a humble servant along with you”. Though expressed as humility, this implied contact with the Divine creates a special aura around the leader. Such leaders are viewed with a high degree of reverence and respect. They speak well, have strong personalities, and possess excellent skills for inspiring and controlling large organizations. They appeal to individuals attracted to simple answers, communicated in clear, un-nuanced language.
3. A clearly communicated set of stable beliefs supported by holy books.
Interpretation of holy books is simplified by a “plain reading” hermeneutic—as interpreted by the leader. This helps to “hold fast” the core values and beliefs of the church. They are clearly and simply enunciated, trumping science and theology. Whether something is defensible or not does not matter as much as whether it feels good and gives a strong feeling of fellowship of shared beliefs, mission, and traditions.
The courage to modify a fundamental belief to a “literal six-day creation in recent times,” as supported by Ellen White, is seen as a display of strength, implying that God’s perceived word is more reliable than science. And the courage of Ted Wilson to criticize other church leaders and ignore Adventist theologians and scientists is a leadership trait admired by many. Faith must be strong; uncertainty has no place.
4. A demand of members for conformity and active support.
Strong cult-like organizations have a tendency to destroy themselves. In contrast, a successful organization must tread a fine line of conformance, monetary support, and total member involvement, without using overly strong means. Ted Wilson has found a balance, where commonly accepted ethical boundaries are not breached but expectations are clear and sometimes emphatic.
The more a member is involved, time-wise or financially, the stronger the grip of the church. Even with his strong rhetoric, Ted Wilson slowly and patiently advances his agenda in the organization while avoiding extreme measures.
5. A monopolistic view of itself.
Although some religions claim to accommodate different belief systems, most religions have a view of exclusively “having the truth”. This strengthens the believers self-confidence and pride: we belong to the “remnant”. This feeling is leveraged in an enthusiastic mission to proselytize new members. It also is the basis for defining “common enemies”. Many of these enemies, both in thought and person, were enumerated in the June 11 sermon.
6. Claims that make faith seem as certain as fact.
Although faith deals with the realm of things we cannot see or prove, strong religions preach so convincingly that items of faith mutate to be accepted as facts—often called “strong faith”. Once accepted, they are hard to change, collectively and individually, in the minds of true believers. This applies not only to questions surrounding the date of 1844 and the heavenly sanctuary service, but also to the apparent dissonance of the endlessly repeated nearness of the second coming.
7. A world view of “us” vs. a common enemy.
The good and evil scenarios play a strong role in reinforcing the loyalty of members. Because the issues have been essentially escalated to war, it becomes easier to choose sides and find meaning in that choice. Ted Wilson, in the last part of his sermon, masterfully articulates the viewpoint of the Adventist vs. papacy confrontation as the universal battle between good and evil. This gives Adventism a dramatic, defining, and ultimate role in world history.
8. The magic of myths.
Healings, miracles, visions, and superhuman strength play an important role in reinforcing belief and loyalty. Events in this gray zone between miracles and myth are often interpreted from the positive, miraculous perspective. The story-telling at the General Conference supports this. And the reporting of the work and progress of the church focuses almost entirely on the positive, while lacking objectivity, transparency and accountability. In a miserable world people love good news.
9. Repeated rituals and words which sub-consciously control people.
In the fellowship of rituals, be they strange or hard to comprehend, comes a bonding. In Adventism the rituals are mostly in lifestyle, food, drink, and adornment, and are part of the Adventist “brand”. Adventist mantras such as “hold fast” (repeated over sixty times in the June 11 sermon) along with “He is coming soon”, when repeated often, become embedded in the conscience of the true believer, giving a feeling of comfort and certainty.
10. Strong educational and health institutions.
These create environments with a critical mass of believers, and provide clear educational and career paths inside the church system. They also make it easier to find a life partner with shared beliefs, which tends to keep the children of this union in the same bubble. In addition, they play a significant role by creating paths to greater prosperity and health, especially in developing countries. This in turn supports the world-wide outreach of the church.
Because they are led by educated people, an unintended side effect of these institutions is that they also create an environment where open research and questioning are encouraged. This is something that leaders like Elder Wilson, who relies on faith over research, struggle to accept. It is no accident that there is tension between him and these institutions.
Successful, or not?
In looking at these characteristics I believe that the Adventist church excels in most of these points, and thus has a good chance for continuing to grow and become an even more significant world religion.
On the other hand, my guess is that the liberal minority who frequent Adventist Today and Spectrum, as well as those in often less “Adventisty” corners of academia, will continue to be a minority. At the same time they also serve the church with the highly useful purpose of being a common enemy, as in point number 7, above.
What is its value to us?
Finally, I ask myself and you the reader: Does the value that the Adventist church contributes to the well-being of mankind by giving hope and meaning to life, by providing better health, education, financial status, and making members more responsible and caring, outweigh the perceived negatives and challenges to the status quo so often discussed?
For me, the answer is both simple and complex. I believe that the church will continue to make the positive contributions mentioned above. Looking to the future, I see one scenario where the influence of progressive thought gradually nudges the church “forward”. But another possibility is the fracture of the church, if the speed of change is too great.
Sadly, in any of the above cases, I do not see the church as a whole reaching out to the large group of people who feel hurt or disenfranchised by their church. That mission is primarily handled by the valuable pastoral mission of Adventist Today and Spectrum, as well as many private groups who still meet socially, being bound together by their Adventist upbringing and traditions. This may well be a large, unserved missionary field.
Carsten Thomsen is a retired engineer active in the Nærum church in Denmark.