The Adventist church in the eighties

The editor of LIFE & HEALTH ventures five predictions of what the next decade holds for the church——if it is still here.

Leo R. Van Dolson, Ph.D., is editor of Life & Health.


Ever since the publication of Alvin Toffler's book Future Shock there has been a wide interest in looking into the future and trying to predict what various aspects of life will be like within a decade or two. This fad has a beneficial effect in that it leads to more careful planning. We Adventists, of course, hope that we will not be here in the 1980's. Our current emphasis is on finishing God's work before the next General Conference session in 1980. In fact, it has been said that the big "D" for Dallas will actually stand for "disappointment" if we do actually have to hold another General Conference session—disappointment that we have not completed the task we set for ourselves at the 1975 session. But if for some reason Adventist Church life has to be projected into the eighties, we can be sure of one thing—in many respects it will be different from today.

When I compare the church today to the one I remember in my youth in the thirties and forties, it seems to me that it has not only grown in size but in complexity. The increase in complexity, of course, is only to be expected in the context of the phenomenal growth of the church. Our church was less sophisticated, how ever, and more dogmatic doctrinally in those years.

Adventist theology has also moved away from the more simplistic interpretations that I believe characterized earlier years into deeper and broader insights into prophecy, just as Ellen White predicted we would. Probably the battle over Armageddon had more to do with this than any other issue. The conflict over whether Armageddon was spiritual or literal seemed eventually to resolve itself in the fact that it might have elements of both. This led us to realize that even in prophetic interpretation it isn't always a question of either/or.

Another very apparent change that has taken place in the Adventist Church of today compared to the church of the thirties is that even though there are still pockets of misunderstanding, Adventists have been well accepted by their fellow Protestants. Today, for the most part, we are viewed as another Christian denomination. Unless my memory fails me, the church in which I grew up was characterized by a sort of denomination-wide inferiority complex.

Many such illustrations of differences could be cited, but these are enough to make the point that the church is dynamic in its growth and not static. Thus we can expect that by the middle eighties the Adventist Church will be quite different than it is today. I make no claim to prophetic insight, yet being stationed at church headquarters does give one an overall grasp of what the trends seem to be. We also have the ad vantage of the writings that come to us through the pen of inspiration, and these give us a fairly clear picture of what the church of the future will be like.

Putting these together with some of my own hopes and anticipations, I would like to project five possibilities for the church in the 1980's. My purpose in doing so is not to try to establish some sort of predictive batting average but to stimulate thinking and even response on the part of each one who reads this. For if the future of the church is to be what it should be, we can assist the Holy Spirit by careful planning and serious study.

A more loving fellowship

If I am positively convinced about anything taking place in the future it is that the church of the eighties will be a more loving fellowship than it is at present. There will be more unity, sharing, communion, and compassion. This attitude must be before we can finish our mission on earth, for the love of Jesus is to be seen in all its fullness in His people on earth. Perhaps this condition will be brought about by some form of overt pressure or even persecution. If not, greater love certainly will precipitate persecution, which in turn will result in our needing each other more and depending more on each other.

I was impressed recently in reading an article about the way the Mormons provide for each other in cases of disaster or need. The scanty records we have of the apostolic church indicate that this was their custom, too. Perhaps, instead of depending on all levels of government to provide for the needy in our midst, we should begin now to develop a system of internal care and concern. This should in no way be thought of as a welfare program, but should come from a spirit of loving interest in each of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Greater lay participation

The next obvious trend, and one that represents probably our greatest need of emphasis right now, is that of greater lay participation. We can anticipate that this will not only continue but will develop, even as Ezekiel's river did, and fill the whole earth. There is no way that the paid clergy can ever finish God's work. In fact, I am wondering if we are not coming to a time when the paid clergy will have priced itself out of the market.

What I believe will happen by the middle of the eighties, if time should last, is the development of a strong cadre of lay, self-supporting pastors and denominational workers. These will have been trained in an intensive one-year practical, yet professional, training program.

When mention is made of the paid clergy pricing itself out of the market, I believe it already has, but we just haven't recognized this fact yet. The last Annual Council voted a $50 a month pay raise to its workers in North America. If this is applied across the board to the nearly 35,000 workers in this division, denominational payrolls will be increased by $21 million a year. Think of what this amount might mean to the evangelistic program of the church if the funds involved in this pay raise were funneled into specific direct evangelistic projects.

On the other hand, we apparently are not paying our ministers enough, since it is a very unusual minister's wife who doesn't have to work today. When I started out in the ministry it was considered almost a scandal if a minister's wife was working. She was expected to be part of the team, and the compensation her husband received was understood to be for both their services. The local church felt cheated if the wife did not devote a major portion of her time to serving alongside her husband. In recent years, how ever, perhaps mostly attributable to the high cost of Adventist education, ministers' wives have had to go to work. This just isn't right. One of the results is probably seen in the increased number of ministers who have been dismissed because of moral problems in recent years.

What I predict will happen by the mid-eighties is that the denomination will have reevaluated this whole situation and will reduce the number of paid clergy while providing a family salary for those continuing in this profession that will make it possible for the wife to serve next to her husband without having to seek out side employment. This will, of course, necessitate more lay participation in church affairs on all levels.

More dynamic worship services

Third, and as a result of the growing lay participation mentioned above, I see a swing away from the current liturgical trend to a more realistic and meaningful form of worship. This will be beneficial to the church because it will involve those attending the services much more than is being done currently. As one example of what I predict will hap pen, I envision a new and dynamic format for the Sabbath school that may even involve diversification in curriculum.

Perhaps one of the reasons for some lack of interest currently in the Sabbath school is that not every person is keenly interested in studying the prescribed topic for the quarter. This suggested diversification is not viewed as undesirable by the General Conference Sabbath School Department but as a tremendous opportunity and challenge. I was part of a Sabbath school committee that recently laid plans for doing this very thing.

Priority of outreach evangelism

As a result of the 1976 Annual Council action on the priority of evangelism, one does not need a crystal ball to predict that by the middle of the 1980's, if not long be fore then, the response to this revolutionary action will really catch on. This means, of course, that a dramatic shift in basic objectives must take place among Adventists, with much more emphasis being given to outreach than to building institutions.

I wonder if the church as a whole yet realizes how earth-shaking the 1976 Annual Council action really was? If taken seriously it will mean that budgets on every level, including that of the local congregation will include, perhaps for the first time, priority on outreach evangelism. Before any other item is considered an amount will be set aside to provide adequate funds to meet the evangelistic goals of the particular institution or organization involved.

Total dependence on the Spirit

The most dramatic shift of the next decade will undoubtedly be away from dependence upon men and what men can do to dependence upon God and the direct intervention and guidance of the Holy Spirit. We anticipate that soon the time will come when committees and plans will not be able to keep up with the direct providential leading of the full outpouring of the Holy Spirit. This does not mean that there is no room for planning. In fact, if we know this situation will take place in the near future, the demand now must be for larger planning and more adequate preparation to meet the great harvest of souls that lies immediately before us. Think of what this means in terms of logistics. Each of these converts will need a church home (not necessarily an elaborate church structure) and missionary tools to work with as they in turn take up the loud cry of the three angels' mes sages.

Many futurists today look with understandable pessimism upon that which will take place in the next decade or two. As far as the Adventist Church is concerned, our outlook is the most optimistic,imaginable since it is based on a promise that comes from God Himself that the greatest days are yet ahead.

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Leo R. Van Dolson, Ph.D., is editor of Life & Health.

April 1978

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