Living in a diverse church

Living in a diverse church: a case study

The composition of the Seventh-day Adventist Church has changed drastically in recent decades.

Reinder Bruinsma, Ph.D., is the retired president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the Netherlands, Huis ter Heide, Netherlands.

The composition of the Seventh-day Adventist Church has changed drastically in recent decades. In North America, Australia, and Europe, among other places, church growth has been relatively slow, and, regrettably, in some places there has been no growth at all. At the same time, in other regions of the world the church has grown exponentially. Those who have attended global meetings, such as annual councils or a General Conference session, over the last 20 years or so cannot have failed to notice the outcome of this development in the gradual changing of the color of the audience. Slowly but surely, faces of a darker complexion began to outnumber those who are usually referred to as white, and they now form a substantial majority. In 1950 more than 50 percent of the membership of the Adventist Church lived in North America, Europe, and Australia. In 1980 this percentage had decreased to around 30 percent. According to the latest statistics, the percentage for the western countries combined stands at less than 10 percent of the world membership.

But there is more to be noted, for this 10 percent of the membership that lives in the industrialized world is an increasingly mixed population. People have moved between countries, and signifi cant numbers of members have arrived in the West from other parts of the world in search of more freedom or more economic or educational opportunities. In a number of European countries there has, in particular, been a constant stream of new arrivals from countries that were once the colonies of these respective countries.

If you want to check this out, go to the Ontario province in Canada and you will note that in many Adventist churches a majority of the members have come from Central America. If you pass through Australia, it will not be diffi cult to fi nd several congregations that mainly consist of members who have come from the former Yugoslavia. Visit an Adventist church in Paris or London, and you will hardly see a white face, as multiple thousands of people have migrated to France from a number of African countries and from the Caribbean. Continue to Germany, and you will fi nd churches that are predominantly Romanian. In many of the major cities of western Europe, you will discover Ghanaian Adventist congregations. Talk with an Adventist leader in Belgium, and he will tell you about the infl ux of members with various African nationalities and also about the hundreds of people who have come from Romania and Russia.

Obviously the church membership does not refl ect the actual population mix—in the countries mentioned, the indigenous population is radically underpresented. It must be realized that the mix is primarily an issue of indigenous population as compared to newcomers and not necessarily of color. In some parts of the United States, for example, the membership of African-Americans is signfi cantly underpresented in the church while the newcomers, usually African-Caribbeans, have a much higher ratio of members as compared to their population. I will not attempt to give a complete inventory of the membership diversity in industrialized countries. Nor do I suggest that the phenomenon is limited to such countries. But in this part of the world the phenomenon is most widespread, and of this I know best. This development has drastically changed the present situation of the church and will, to a major extent, determine the future of Adventism in many of these countries.

 

The Netherlands as an example

Even though I think I have a reasonably accurate picture of the diversity in ethnic and cultural composition of the church in the Western world in general, I am, naturally, best informed about the situation in the Netherlands—the country where I was born, where I lived a major part of my life, and where I currently serve as one of the church’s administrators.

 

The Netherlands has a history of cultural diversity. Over the centuries people from other European countries have tended to fi nd refuge in Holland (the name of a part of the Netherlands, but often used as a synonym), and many family names still betray a foreign origin. In the post–World War II years factory workers came from Spain and Portugal— and many stayed. The same is true in more recent years for the hundreds of thousands who have come from countries such as Morocco and Turkey.

Almost none of these immigrants were Seventh-day Adventists, and the infl uence of this stream of migration has had minimal impact on the Adventist Church. However, the infl ux of people from former Dutch colonies from the early 1950s onwards and, to a more limited extent, from some African countries, included a substantial number of Seventhday Adventist Church members, and their arrival and varying degrees of integration into the Adventist Church changed Dutch Adventism forever.

After Indonesia received its independence from the Netherlands in 1949, and when somewhat later (1962) Netherlands New Guinea followed, tens of thousands of people who held Dutch nationality or had been close to the Dutch colonial administration moved to the Netherlands—a few hundred Adventists among them. When in 1975 Surinam, a small country on the northern coast of South America, negotiated its independence from the Dutch, a new stream of non-European Dutch citizens arrived in the former mother-country. Over time, a few hundred thousand Surinamese people settled in Holland— among them at least a few hundred Adventists. But the group of immigrants that would impact most on the church in the Netherlands came from the Dutch Antilles and Aruba—six small islands with a total population of just under three hundred thousand. It could have been almost double that number if all had stayed in their tropical paradises, but many opted for a “cooler” life in the Netherlands. Most of them came since the 1980s. More than one thousand Antillian Seventh-day Adventists who moved to Holland found their way into the Dutch Adventist church, but possibly as many, or even more, arrived in Holland without connecting with the church in their new environment. In addition to these new members from former colonies, some two hundred plus members arrived from Ghana as well as a sprinkling of others from a range of other countries.

To some readers it might appear that we are not talking about enormous numbers. And true enough, the gross fi gures in some other countries are much higher. But remember: These people had to be absorbed into a constituency of a little more than 4,000. Today, the membership in the Netherlands stands at about 4,700. We have no precise statistical data on cultural and ethnic diversity, but possibly as much as 40 to 50 percent of our present members are of foreign origin. It occurred to me, while thinking about this development, that this diversity in the Dutch church might provide a useful case study from which others could benefit.

 

Issues

Honesty demands that we admit that the process outlined above has been far from painless. Many of the new members who have come from elsewhere found (and fi nd) it diffi cult to feel at home in the Dutch church. Some of the Dutch members disappeared when their local church was taken over by those from elsewhere who enthusiastically joined their congregation and soon assumed leadership positions and changed the ways in which things had always been done. Dutch church members, in particular in the churches in the big cities, frequently complain that the church they have been part of for many years is no longer “our” church.

 

Of course, it is hard to say what would have happened if these new members had not come. The total membership would probably have declined, as it has done in those Western European countries where there has been little or no migration. Let me, without any attempt at completeness, list the major issues the Dutch church had to face as a result of the increasing diversity and complexity in its composition.

Theological orientation. Many of the new members have tended to be more conservative in theological outlook and have found it diffi cult to tolerate views that differ from their own.

Behavioral patterns. Most of the new members have been very critical of some behavioral patterns among the original members in their new country without realizing that some behavioral patterns that are part of their cultural baggage tend to raise just as many eyebrows on the part of their Dutch brothers and sisters. • Dealing with rules and regulations. For a majority of the new members the church manual tends to have a semiinspired status, while this and other prescriptive documents have a much lower profi le among the Dutch members. Related to this is the area of church discipline, which the new members tend to emphasize much more.

Time. It has often been remarked that non-Europeans have time, while Europeans have the clock. Many of the Dutch members fi nd it diffi cult to accept that services organized by their non- Dutch fellow believers seldom start at the announced time and will end simply when they will end.

Ellen G. White. The new members often complain that the Dutch Adventists do not pay enough attention to the counsels of Ellen G. White. In reality both groups are selective, but in different ways, in what they stress and what they tend to gloss over.

Evangelistic methods. Those who have come from elsewhere advocate the use of traditional evangelistic methods and are often critical of the evangelistic experiments that are undertaken by the Dutch. These methods still, to a significant degree, work for them in reaching their target audience. Many feel that they would also continue to be successful in addressing the majority population segment of the country.

 

Bases for a strategy

Church leadership—pastors and administrators—had to face the realities just referred to. The last two decades have been a steep learning experience, and there are still many challenges that at times baffle us. But we have made progress. We have learned from others, and we are increasingly trying to be proactive. How successful have we been? It is for others to judge, and there are many aspects where only time will ultimately tell. We realize that, while our situation may have some unique elements, it is not unique. We know that we have made mistakes, have missed opportunities, and need to focus better on particular issues. But we thank God that as a result of recent developments, our church in the Netherlands is growing. Many good things are happening, and while change usually results from many interconnecting factors, the vitality of the faith of the new members is certainly one of them.

 

We realize that we must continue to be intentional in fostering unity in our diversity and in nurturing the entire church—both the original membership and the new members. There are, we feel, a few important points that are part and parcel of our strategy to build and strengthen our multicultural and multiethnic faith community:

Face the issues squarely. Do not try to run away from the facts. Do not kid yourself that everything will just work out nicely with a bit of luck and a bit of patience. A dramatic shift in the cultural and ethnic composition of the church has lasting and many-faceted consequences that need to be studied and need to be confronted. They must be faced, not in a spirit of apprehension and fear, but in a spirit of embracing the challenges and the new possibilities that they bring. However, that can happen only as intensive dialogue takes place in which issues are clearly identified and freely discussed. • Make sure that your fundamental attitude is positive. Yes, diversity causes problems. But diversity, first and foremost, is something to be celebrated. It enriches the church. It adds to its experience. However, it will do that only if there is a fundamental openness to other cultures, and if the various segments of the church treat each other with love and respect.

Do not discriminate in giving credit or in attributing blame. It may be tempting, at times, to give extra praise to the new members, to make them feel good and accepted and to remain silent when things have gone wrong. It may seem wise to be extra careful with criticism and not to upset certain new groups, since this may have undesirable repercussions. But new members must be treated in the same way as the original members. Positive discrimination, I believe, in the long term will not help establish an atmosphere of fairness and equitability.

Give space to each segment of the church to be what they are and to stay that way as long as they choose to. Each segment must feel that they did not have to conquer this space for themselves, but that it simply is there, and that they are encouraged to take and fi ll this space in which they can enjoy their own uniqueness and develop their potential.

Organize events that will cater to the various segments of the church in an equitable way but also provide for meetings and other events at which all will feel welcome and at ease. Ensure that in the organization of such events the selection of speakers and of musical groups reflects the diversity of the audience.

Be proactive in developing a ministerial force and in creating committees and boards that reflect the reality of the church composition. Do not operate on the basis of a policy of wait and see until pressure groups demand fairer representation and force this upon your organization by means of vigorous protests. Fair representation is a right for all, and responsible leadership will give this a high priority. Responsible leadership includes leadership training opportunities for new leaders from all segments of the church.

Be intentional in communicating about the different segments of the church to the church as a whole. Emphasize the potential for growth and enrichment. Build on the various strengths and the vitality that the new members bring to the church, and explain what made the church in the host country what it is today. With evangelistic methodology as a key area of communication, new members must come to the realization that many traditional evangelistic methods do not work in the environment where they now live and must accept that methods they are not familiar with are being tried. On the other hand, the original segment of the church must realize that evangelism by the new members in their community represents hard work. It is not as if they can hold a tree above the baptistry, shake it a little, and have twenty or so candidates fall into the baptismal waters. Evangelism is a way of life to them from which others can learn vital lessons and gain deep inspiration.

 

Conclusion

The Adventist church in the Netherlands has to deal with many challenges, just as sister churches do in almost any part of the world. But we do believe we are ahead of some fields in the way we have approached the diversity in our ranks. We are determined to remain intentional in dealing with the challenges of diversity in a positive and constructive manner. If our situation and the manner in which we have approached this can be of some help to others—like those in the local church or in the conference/union level who face similar challenges—presenting this case study will have been worthwhile.

 

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Reinder Bruinsma, Ph.D., is the retired president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the Netherlands, Huis ter Heide, Netherlands.

January 2007

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