Sunday, February 04, 2007

Adventism in Europe.

(This is an article written for and published on the blog "Re-Inventing the Adventist Wheel").

The Danish Union of (Adventist) Churches announced Feb. 1. that, due to financial problems, it had fired two of its ministers and was retiring a further four ministers in the summer.* The Union also announced this will mean that some congregations will not be appointed a minister. The Unions financial problems are due to falling church membership and tithe income.

Membership in the Danish Adventist church has been falling for many years, and stands today at 60% of its 1960's level. The church has already been through several financial crises and has cut back its activities and and institutions in the last 15 years. With one controversial church plant as an exception, all Adventist churches in Denmark fit into what church growth theorists call ‘dying churches’, i.e. churches long past their growth or plateau phases. So while Denmark was one of the first countries in Europe in which the Adventist church had a presence, it might be just the first one in which the church disappears.

The really sad thing is that Denmark is not an exception in this part of the world. Although the Adventist church in Europe is growing numerically (with the exception of Scandinavia), this growth is based on immigration or through evangelistic efforts amongst immigrant groups. In Germany the church has numerous Yugoslavians and other Eastern European members. In Spain growth is fueled by immigration from Romania, while In the Netherlands its from West Indian and African immigration. In Britain the church is almost entirely made up of members with West Indian, African, Eastern European or Asian backgrounds. Without immigration the decline in membership in these countries would have been more rapid than in Denmark.

Is all this a problem? Not if church membership is the parameter on which we evaluate the work of the church and if we don’t mind simply being a cultural phenomenon. Migration to Western Europe is likely to continue in large numbers and will continue to boost the church's membership. But if, on the other hand, we believe the church has a calling to reach all nations and peoples, then the church is failing the hundreds of millions people living in Western Europe who are not recent immigrants or decendents thereof.

I don't have a single answer of what do with this problem. I do, however, believe in the power of the gospel. That telling the story of Jesus will affect and change the lives of those hearing it, even secular Europeans.

To tell the story of Jesus effectively, I believe we must face the challenge of breaking out from the cultural norms that surrounds our form of christianity. We must be able to speak to people who do not accept the bible as normative or authoritative. In doing this we cannot get by with mediocre teaching and unsound biblical exegesis. If we can approach the bible without our presupposition and cultural baggage, then in there, I believe, is a powerful message relevant to all people, nations and tongues.

*The official announcement can be read (in Danish) on www.adventist.dk, or click here.

5 Comments:

At 04 February, 2007 17:52, Blogger Charles said...

Amen and AMEN!

I definitely agree with your position, Torsten. As is the case in Europe, the SDA church is losing members by the "church-load" here in America. I believe that part of this phenomena is due to the old paradigm of focusing on dogma, rules/standards, and prophesy instead of MENTORING a close, GRACE-BASED RELATIONSHIP with Jesus Christ. It is almost as if we want to scare people into becoming converts.

Another reason of interest here in America, and I am aware of the same in Europe, is that we are losing members due to antiquated and outdated notions of gender-based roles, jewelry, music, and clothing. The interesting paradox is that we are rapidly gaining membership in Third-World male dominated societies which tend to me more conservative - even radical conservative. With that rise, Western societies like Europe and America are outnumbered when it comes to doctrinal decisions within the church. And with the high immigration rates into Western societies by these Third-world nations, the male dominated and ultra conservative bias against female leadership and standards "outguns" the Western and more open societal norm that is present. What we are getting, then, is a majority Third-world membership dictating dogma and internal affairs for the entire world denomination. That is why I believe we are losing members. To change this, we MUST BRING OUR FOCUS BACK TO JESUS AND HIS AMAZING LOVE AND GRACE.

Anyways, it's an interesting dynamic to be sure. One would wonder if there would ever be a schism between Europe/America and the rest of the world? In fact, I believe that such a schism is in our future. I pray that our unique and inspired vision and message can be sustained through such an upheaval. May God grant us grace, understanding, and love.

 
At 06 February, 2007 09:00, Anonymous Andrew said...

I agree with your thoughts here. In scotland I crunched the numbers 4 years ago and showed that we were on the path to extinction. 3 years later we are "growing" and look healthy... except that the growth is all from immigration. Whilst this brings many benefits to the church it fools us into thinking we are ok. One of the church's I pastored for a while went from an average attendance of 25-30 to 80-100, however I can think of only 2 people who came from the communities around the church, the rest were immigrants.

The problem is that the church in Britain does not want to recognise it has a problem. It is the richest and the fastest/only (depending who you listen to) growing union in the division. the new/currant leadership are not interested in church planting/indigenous evangelism. A copy of the strategy I saw before I left (they forgot to ask for it back) failed to even mention the words “church planting” or “life development” (the last floated solution...). I have personally heard the currant BUC president state that he does not believe church planting (as encouraged by the former division church growth dept.) works. When he was at the division he stamped on it hard and now in the UK all those who supported planting in the administration have either been moved elsewhere or have seen the writing on the wall and left of their own accord.

So our churches survival seems secure, however we are failing in our “mission”, if we still think we have one.

 
At 06 February, 2007 22:32, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Andrew, knowing that the BUC president was at division before, I was afraid the scenario you are describing is true.

But somehow it feels good to actually hear it outspoken...

 
At 22 February, 2007 19:51, Blogger Gordon said...

I wonder about all the concern I hear regarding the loss of members in the SDA church. Is there not a similar decline in in non-Adventist churches in the UK and others areas of Europe - and also the USA?

Everywhere I seem to hear that the Christian church needs to change - and so it should, the Adventist church included. There is an interesting article by John Drane in the Bible Society's ‘Bible in Transmission' (Summer - Spirituality found at: http://www.biblesociety.org.uk/l3.php?id=321). The UK, and I suspect many other countries in Europe, are experiencing a surge in spirituality of another kind - are we as Christians aware that such phenomena often betrays a deep longing for a sense of certainty and comfort in our materialistic environment - perhaps a need to make contact with the great God himself? We only need to walk into any high street bookshop and notice the large amount of books on spirituality and New Age/Eastern belief systems. Look at the bookshelves on Christianity - just a few volumes here and there. In the introduction to Drane's article on ‘The new spirituality and Christian mission' the editor comments: "Drane recognises that mission begins with God and therefore we should be collaborating with the new expressions of spirituality to discern where God has already begun his work". That is certainly a challenge to SDA's - let alone other Christian churches.

The fastest growing edge of the Christian church seems to be the charismatic/pentecostal movement. I have often worshipped with them - however I wonder once again whether that is a lasting solution for a hungry people. I am hoping that as education and the globalisation of knowledge increases, the Christian church will be forced to take a fresh look at the Jesus who walked the fields and roads of Galilee before Christianity ever occurred. Perhaps we may learn a lesson from Him at last. He truly needs to be rediscovered.

 
At 26 February, 2007 21:39, Blogger Julian Kastrati said...

To help complete this painful, yet much-needed analysis that Torsten has initiated, let me mention a couple of facts about the Eastern European story.

In almost every issue during the early 1990s, the "Adventist Review" used to make gleeful reports on the thousands that were being baptised by western (mostly North American and Australian evangelists) (If i recall correctly, on one occasion in a former USSR Republic, three thousand people were baptised in one day by a North American evangelist), yet, no-one made any official report that at least 80% of these thousands stopped attending either straight after their baptism, or during the same year. To be fair, this phenomenon affected all evangelical denominations, not just Adventists. Whether for superstitious reasons, (Eastern Orthodox Culture), emotional reasons (Freedom, post-communist euphoria), or for purely economical reasons (ADRA sending food and clothes to baptised members!), thousands joined the church for less then ideal reasons. This phenomenon is technically called "imperialistic evangelism." A lot of cash was poured into Eastern Europe during 1990-1995, in exhange for thousands of "converts", most of whom became backsliders in less than a year following their baptism. The sad truth was that in most cases there was no follow-up strategy whatsoever; baptism was clearly an end to itself and hardly any emphasis on discipleship and/or stewardship. Worse, the evangelical churches, including the Adventist Church, were and still are viewed as foreign imports, (the Adventist Church specifically being viewed as an American import), rather than a domestic movement/denomination.

Hoping I don't sound too negative or skeptical, I wonder what the real records are concerning the current state of the Adventist Church in East Europe. How many of the people that were baptised in the 1990s then are still attending church? True, some of them have left for the more affluent Western Europe, and I wouldn't be surprised if, say in 5 years, there will be more Polish and Czech than white British Adventists in the UK.
The other sinde of the coin is that since the second half of the 90s, with East European population becoming as secular and materialistic as the West, the number of baptism dwindled significantly, and consequently, that of Western evangelists. There was, of course, no report on this development in the "Adventist Review."

Having said all this, due credit must be given to many Western evangelists who came to the East for the right reasons and worked with endless efforts to build healthy and stable congregations. They opted not to follow a populist/imperialistic agenda,
In other words, the church in Eastern Europe today faces pretty much the same challenges like in US/West Europe.However, it seems to me that a fair and honest reporting of baptisms and regular attendance in part of the unions/conferences/missions from both EAD and TED would be a good starting point toward gradual recovery. Only then can we begin to work our way up by facing TASK NUMBER ONE: Cultivating A SENSE OF OWNERSHIP in our members. But more on this later. Sorry this comment got so long.

 

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