by Carsten Thomsen | September 29, 2022 |
Some of the oldest organizations are churches and religious groups. Some of the world’s major religions are thousands of years old and Christianity has been around for 2000 years.
Adventism is less than two hundred years old, but has many characteristics of a long-lived and successful religion.
Now a few months later by Ted Wilson Sabbath Sermon June 11, 2022which was repeatedly interrupted by applause, I wanted to analyze the characteristics that make religions successful, and how they seem to apply to the Seventh-day Adventist Church:
- Strong and centralized direction.
The Adventist Church has a strong centralized leadership, which controls the agenda of pseudo-democratic organizations such as the Executive Committee or the General Conference. The majority of members of these groups are church employees, providing continuity and stability. As church employees, they may be under subtle pressure to toe the party line. Complex working policies can be applied selectively to allow for local flexibility and creativity or to exercise control over matters important to management.
- Strong leaders such as prophets, gurus, saints or popes.
Ted Wilson in the June 11 Sabbath sermon said, “Jesus Christ is the true head of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I am not, I am only a humble servant with you”. Although expressed in the form of humility, this implicit contact with the Divine creates a special aura around the leader. These leaders are regarded 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 are aimed at individuals attracted by simple answers, communicated in clear language without nuance.
- A clearly communicated set of stable beliefs supported by holy books.
The interpretation of the holy books is simplified by a hermeneutic of “plain reading” – as interpreted by the leader. This helps to “hold firm” to the core values and beliefs of the church. They are clearly and simply stated, taking precedence over science and theology. Whether something is defensible or not doesn’t matter as much as whether it feels good and gives a strong sense of brotherhood of shared beliefs, mission, and traditions.
The courage to alter a core belief into a “literal creation in six days lately”, as Ellen White argues, is seen as a show of force, implying that the perceived word of God is more reliable than science. And Ted Wilson’s courage 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.
- A requirement for compliance and active member support
Strong sectarian organizations tend to self-destruct. In contrast, a successful organization must walk a fine line of compliance, financial support, and full member involvement, without using overpowering means. Ted Wilson has struck a balance, where commonly accepted ethical boundaries are not crossed but expectations are clear and sometimes emphatic.
The more a member is involved, in time or financially, the stronger the influence of the church. Even with his strong rhetoric, Ted Wilson slowly and patiently pushes his agenda through the organization while avoiding extreme measures.
- A monopolistic view of itself.
Although some religions claim to accommodate different belief systems, most religions have the sole purpose of “holding the truth.” This reinforces the self-confidence and pride of believers: we belong to the “remnant”. This feeling is put to good use in an enthusiastic mission of proselytizing among new members. This is also the basis of the definition of “common enemies”. Many of these enemies, both in thought and in person, were listed in the June 11 sermon.
- Statements that make one believe in faith are as certain as the facts.
Although faith deals with the realm of things we cannot see or prove, strong religions preach so convincingly that the elements of faith mutate to be accepted as fact – often referred to as “strong faith”. Once accepted, they are difficult to change, collectively and individually, in the minds of true believers. This applies not only to the issues surrounding the 1844 date and the heavenly sanctuary service, but also to the apparent dissonance of the ever-repeated closeness of the second coming.
- A worldview of “us” against a common enemy.
Good and bad scenarios play an important role in building member loyalty. By essentially turning issues into wars, it becomes easier to choose sides and find meaning in that choice. Ted Wilson, in the final part of his sermon, masterfully articulates the view of Adventist confrontation against the papacy as the universal battle between good and evil. This gives Adventism a dramatic, defining, and ultimate role in world history.
- The magic of myths
Healings, miracles, visions and superhuman strength play an important role in strengthening belief and loyalty. Events in this gray area between miracles and myths are often interpreted from a positive and miraculous point of view. The story at General Conference supports this. And reporting on the work and progress of the church focuses almost entirely on the positive and lacks objectivity, transparency and accountability. In a miserable world, people love good news.
- Rituals and repeated words that subconsciously control people.
In the communion of rituals, whether strange or difficult to understand, a bond is born. In Adventism, rituals relate primarily to lifestyle, food, drink, and adornment, and are part of the Adventist “brand.” Adventist mantras such as “hold on” (repeated more than sixty times in the June 11 sermon) as well as “He is coming soon”, when repeated often, become embedded in the consciousness of the true believer, giving a feeling comfort and certainty.
- Strong educational and health institutions.
These create environments with a critical mass of believers and provide clear educational and professional pathways within the church system. They also make it easier to find a life partner with shared convictions, which tends to keep the children of this union in the same bubble. Furthermore, they play an important role in creating pathways to greater prosperity and health, especially in developing countries. This in turn supports the global reach 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 inquiry and questioning are encouraged. This is something that leaders like Elder Wilson, who rely on faith rather than research, have a hard time accepting. It is not by chance that there are tensions between him and these institutions.
Successful or not?
Looking at these characteristics, I believe the Adventist Church excels in most of these areas, and therefore has a good chance of continuing to grow and becoming an even larger world religion.
On the other hand, I suppose the liberal minority who attend Adventist today and Spectrum, as well as those in often less “Adventist” corners of academia, will continue to be a minority. At the same time, they also serve the church for the very useful purpose of being a common enemy, as in point 7 above.
What is its value to us?
Finally, I ask myself and you the reader: what value does the Adventist Church contribute to the well-being of humanity by giving hope and meaning to life, by offering better health, better education, better 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 the church will continue to make the positive contributions mentioned above. Looking to the future, I see a scenario where the influence of progressive thinking is gradually pushing the church “forward”. But another possibility is the fracture of the church, if the speed of change is too great.
Unfortunately, in none of the above cases do I see the church as a whole reaching out to the large group of people who feel hurt or disenfranchised by their church. This mission is mainly ensured by the precious pastoral mission of Adventist today and Spectrum, as well as many private groups who still meet socially, being bound by their Adventist upbringing and traditions. This may well be a vast unserved mission field.
Carsten Thomsen is a retired engineer active in the Church of Nærum in Denmark.
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