Crisis: threat or opportunity?

Six keys to retaining the interest, efforts, and membership of the laity of the church.

Christine Feldmann-Neubert, Ph.D., is a dean of girls and an assistant professor of theology at Marienhoehe Seminary, Darmstadt, Germany.

In the highly industrialized countries—the traditionally Christian countries—the mainline churches, especially the Protestant churches, are bleeding to death. Hundreds of tho sands of people are leaving them every year. To believe that the Adventist Church is immune to this development is an illusion.

But my aim in this article is not to point out how and why a crisis has developed in the European and North American segments of the Adventist Church. It is not even to define the nature and range of the crisis that may exist in the church. Instead, I am interested in considering how we deal with crisis situations in the church at any level.

Look at the term crisis itself. What feelings arise when one hears this term? Visions of hopeless conflict, unending quarrels, steady decline? The medical field offers some insight here. In a dis ease, crisis indicates a point at which the patient can just as well take a turn for the better as for the worse. With careful treatment, the crisis can be made the turning point to recovery.

How do we handle crisis in the church? Our answers to the following six questions will do much to determine whether or not we deal with it success fully.

1. Do we regard crisis as a threat to the status quo, or as an opportunity to grow?

It should be quite obvious that whether or not we succeed in managing a crisis depends on whether we regard it as a threat to Adventist faith itself or as an opportunity to realize our faith in a new and reformatory way. If we regard a crisis in the church as threatening faith, we will tend to fear and respond aggressively toward all those in the church who differ with us.

Fortunately, since its beginning Adventism has been characterized by reformation. This characteristic offers help for today's crisis. But the claim to be a reform movement must rest on a more substantial foundation than a mere recollection of our pioneers' courageous actions as to the religious doctrines of their time. Nor does simply instructing other churches about what they should change in their doctrines or practices verify that claim. We can truly be a reform movement only as we continuously hold our selves open to the possibility that new light may shine on us.

The present crisis offers the opportunity of recalling our very roots and of pondering our traditions, old habits, and dogmas. So, for example, the way we traditionally understand the Sabbath is not sacred in itself but should be open to continuous reformation.

2. Do we require perfection of church leaders, or do we allow them the freedom to experiment, even though it means that at times they will make mistakes?

No matter what we think about Gorbachev's policy, one thing is clear to his antagonists as well as to his supporters: he has shown the courage of his convictions. I think this courage shows up primarily in taking positions, in being willing to risk making mistakes. Taking positions compels the respect of one's antagonists, while the inconstancy and vagueness of mind that result from the fear of making mistakes bother even one's own supporters.

Why are our churches not much more courageous? Are we, as redeemed and free people, really forced to have, or even justified in having, this fear of making mistakes? Who has stolen from us the freedom to err? Who has taken from us the freedom to admit openly the mistakes we make ? I think it is time for us as Christians and especially as church leaders to drop the mask of infallibility—which is, by the way, a mask more appropriate to the Catholic Church than to ours!

3. Do we treat church members as children, or do we relate to them as responsible, mature adults?

My work on various committees in the church has led me to believe that too frequently church members are regarded as children, under age, immature. I have often seen new, unconventional ideas that might have been useful to the church rejected, and the rejection justified with a line such as: "Yes, we would surely like to try this new idea, but some brethren would be certain to misunderstand it." Then, instead of acquainting church members with the idea and risking discussion, we avoid the matter.

Interestingly enough, I hear church members saying things that correspond to the leaders' attitudes: "We would like to try, but the church administrators..." So, over and over again, the old ways gain the victory.

Strange phenomenon! Or could this mysterious misunderstanding be the result of the working of the great distorter Satan?

Like other churches, we tend to regard the new and the unusual as alarming in themselves, and any risks, of whatever kind, to be unbearable. But if we avoid risks, we cannot progress or learn. Constructively working our way through conflict stimulates growth. To avoid hindering the church's effectiveness, we must communicate clearly with each other and we must try new approaches.

Some quote Paul's discussion of the weak and the strong (1 Cor. 8; 9) in support of the approach of not taking any risks. But Paul didn't forbid the strong to discuss matters with the weak and thus perhaps convince them. Otherwise, he would not have asked a few verses later why his liberty should depend on another man's conscience (1 Cor. 10:29).

Of course, there is and always will be a natural tension between considering the feelings of the weak and the indispensable further development of the church. However, this tension should not excuse us from taking risks. Life in itself brings risks and opportunities, and only by accepting them will we grow. The alternative is everlasting stagnation in the church.

Jesus' message held the potential of giving offense. Like Him, we must deal with that possibility, not by avoiding risks, but by always relating to the weak in a positive and warm way while also offering them a better foundation on which to base their faith.

Perhaps church administrators should simply trust that their members are more responsible and self-reliant than the leaders may be tempted to believe, that the members' faith is strong enough to handle new ideas. If it is not, instead of leaving those members in their feeble condition, the church should aim to strengthen their faith. The believers will be (and should be) "strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man" (Eph. 3:16). Church members can develop this strength by handling differences in a mature way.

4. Do we construct straw men, or do we face the real problems?

One of the mechanisms some in the church use to manage the changes we face is what I call "magical defense by rationalist means." Much like the magi cal practices of the so-called primitive tribes, these people project the evil they foresee into some area where it can be attacked. Those in churches with roots in the Puritan heritage—like our church—tend to suspect first of all the subconscious, the emotional, the instinctive side of life, because it seems to be uncontrollable. But the suggestion that we must either control nature or be defeated by the uncontrollable is a mere intellectual construction that can be traced through the Enlightenment and the early Christian church back to the Greek philosophers.

Dividing the human entity into good and evil parts misses the fact that the conscious and rational aspect of human life is no less susceptible to evil than is the emotional aspect. So we are lulled into a false security. At the same time, overestimating the susceptibility of the emotional sector cheats us out of the full use and enjoyment of our being.

Attempts to deal with crisis by using projection will likely fail. The better way requires a certain degree of self-confidence: we must face and deal with reality in all its complexity and diversity. We must not allow wishful thinking to displace reality.

5. Do we expect lay members to fol low blindly, or do we allow them to have a critical but active loyalty?

The church cannot any longer pamper itself by expecting of its members blind, unconditional loyalty. The widespread secularization of society has had its part in making this expectation unrealistic. Yet even if secularization has caused a more critical attitude toward religion and the church, it does not necessarily follow that this process does not also have constructive and fructifying aspects.

At any rate, reality shows that in the same measure as the church claims blind loyalty from its members, their numbers lessen. Fundamentalists tend to view those who leave as the apostatized, who weren't following the Lord earnestly any way; they suggest that those who leave the church are leaving God Himself, and that those who stay with the church are the faithful remnant. Those with this attitude show neither regret nor self-criticism when another member leaves the church. Can we afford to be so self-complacent?

I believe that secular processes—and that crisis itself—can offer opportunities instead of simply posing threats. But whether or not we see them as opportunities depends on how we define our selves and our role in society. Is it our role to categorize people as sheep or goats—that is, to exercise judicial powers? Or should we leave this task to the Lord? Meeting crisis by allowing criticism of ourselves and by examining ourselves may offer the opportunity of developing a greater measure of humility and humanity. When, on the other hand, we regard our religious point of view as beyond discussion, we proclaim ourselves the criterion for all others.

Churches often attempt to impel unconditional loyalty by intensifying standards. With the well-meant intention of strengthening Adventist identity, the use of these heightened standards starts a process of separation, and, as a result, it becomes more and more clear who are "inside" and who are "outside." This strategy is dubious in itself and not biblical, but it becomes even more problematic when standards of secondary importance, such as personal preferences in clothing, music, and politics, are used as the instruments of separation. These standards vary in different cultural and historical contexts. When we attempt to demonstrate that they are derived from the Bible, we add the risk of blinding ourselves to our own cultural biases.

Another interesting question arises: Why is it that standards in the field of personal preferences so often become the instrument for separation? I think these standards are chosen because compliance to them can easily be observed. But this strategy will not bring about the true goal—real loyalty. The "remnant" group may meet these standards while claiming that what's in their hearts is no one's business. Yet Adventist identity and loyalty manifest themselves neither in the acceptance of observable outward standards nor in welding members together against an outer enemy, but rather in the feeling of fellowship that comes as a result of the administration's confidence in the church members.

Church members have told me that the objections and doubts raised merely because of the innovative, nontraditional way in which they want to do something dampens their desire to work for the church. I think we must cease to regard tradition as an end in itself; critical loyalty is needed, built by confidence and innovative openness.

6. Do we regard pluralism as evil, or do we admit that there are different ways of walking in the same direction?

It is my conviction that the Adventist faith can be lived in different ways. Adventists need not all have the same opinion about everything! And yet, despite the simplicity of this statement, again and again the term pluralism is marked as negative, as a threat.

Those who regard pluralism as a threat do so because opinions that differ from their own make them uncertain about their own opinions. The intensity of our reaction has much to do with our acceptance of ourselves: the less sure we feel about ourselves, the more threatening pluralism will seem to us. But Paul warns us not to judge others' ways of serving God; they are responsible to God, not to us (Rom. 14:4)!

Accepting pluralism as legitimate doesn't mean that we must become to tally uncertain about our own opinions. It simply means that we have to realize that all our perceptions of reality, both individual and collective (even those of the church), are, in the last analysis, limited. As Paul said, "Now I know in part" (1 Cor. 13:12).

To summarize, I believe that we can make the crisis the church faces an opportunity for growth if we meet it with courage:

  • Courage to change traditions.
  • Courage to make mistakes and admit them, and to allow others to make mistakes.
  • Courage to trust in church members and their ability to grow.
  • Courage to see problems in a realistic way without wishful thinking or projections.
  • Courage to bear criticism rather than to condemn it.
  • Courage to allow a variety of opinions.

I know this calls for a lot of courage, but I believe we have a good and abundant Source for that!

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Christine Feldmann-Neubert, Ph.D., is a dean of girls and an assistant professor of theology at Marienhoehe Seminary, Darmstadt, Germany.

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