Trans-European Division

Diversity from modern mobility can enrich the church

Cultural context can blur the line between theology and sociology

Commentary | Reinder Bruinsma

Cultural context can blur the line between theology and sociology

Adventists have taken their mission mandate seriously and have been quite successful in taking their message 'into all the world'.

This had a consequence we may not have predicted even half a century ago: people are more mobile than ever. We have seen large-scale migration from former colonies to the former colonizing nations; but also millions of refugees and asylum seekers, and vast numbers of migrant laborers have gone to live elsewhere. This, in turn, led to a continuing stream of newcomers, as family members go to join those who went before them.

This phenomenon has greatly affected Adventist Church life. American Adventism not only had to cope with issues of integration between Anglo- and African-Americans, but increasingly also saw large numbers of Latinos, Middle-Easterners, Asians and Africans join their ranks and change the composition of the church. In many European countries the effect might be even more dramatic. The Adventist Church in countries like England and France has changed forever, and is now largely of African decent. In Spain, almost half of church membership comes from Romania. In a small country like Belgium, the situation is probably more complex than anywhere, with a large percentage of its membership now consisting of Rwandans, Congolese, Romanians, Russians and maybe a dozen other segments.

I have lived for a number of years in Britain and am familiar with the recent history of Adventism in that country, and have also been very deeply involved with the administration of the church in the Netherlands. I have come to a number of conclusions and have tried to contribute to a process that would help the church to creatively and effectively accept the new situation and use it as a basis for greater strength.

No one can (or should) deny that the new reality causes problems. But leaders should do what they can to underline that the arrival of so many members from elsewhere also brings an enormous potential. It has in many places given a new vitality to a totally stagnant and discouraged church.

The new diversity can easily lead to an ugly struggle for influence, to division or an unhealthy competition between churches and pastors. Stereotyping of groups leads to bias and prevents openness to what others have to offer.

I have come to believe that a few basic elements will help us appreciate the new situation. There needs to be a genuine conviction that the new diversity means enrichment, and that learning from each other helps the church become more mature. The diversity must not just be tolerated in the sense of living with the inescapable, but needs to be positively valued. At the same time there must be enough space for all to retain their identity, in the realization that people can have more than one identity. There must be a combination of real togetherness and of enjoying the particular cultural expressions that are very much part of one's identity.

The important thing is that somehow the church finds a way to communicate about the issues. People often need help in understanding that differences are not primarily ethnic but rather cultural. Diversity in worship styles, in degrees of punctuality, in Sabbath keeping and youth activities are often presented as having great theological implications, while most aspects are primarily cultural.

In the long run, the most difficult aspect to deal with might be theological diversity. It often seems that newcomers are more conservative in their theology and ethics than "original" membership. Honest and tactfully led discussions will reveal that the main issue is usually in the selection of what is considered "real" Adventism, and what is secondary. I have more and more concluded that the line of division in the church runs in particular between "modern" and "postmodern" and that it is essential to help people understand what this entails and then to develop ways of dealing with this fundamental diversity.

Reinder Bruinsma is former president of the Adventist Church in the Netherlands.