24 Apr


So, the question is: how does Adventism impact the surrounding culture?

The answer I am tempted to offer, from where I sit, is: somewhere on a continuum between “not at all” and “very little.”

But that is not very helpful, nor is it quite fair. A better response would be that the impact is “patchy.”

I write from Europe, from England, where the situation is no doubt different from the place where many readers of this journal live. In the whole of Europe, there is only one Adventist hospital—in Berlin. There are a couple of institutions which bear the name “university,” but they are very small and do not really resemble what I understand by the term. Fine institutions that they are, and well-qualified though the faculties may be, they enroll relatively few students and offer a narrow range of courses rather than a “universe” of options.

There are a few residential homes for the elderly. There are some scattered elementary and secondary schools in European countries, and they no doubt make their mark on local communities. The biggest presence is in what might loosely be called “seminaries.” Many European countries have their own small Adventist colleges which focus largely on the education of intending pastors and biblical studies. As the students find their way into ministry, they do, of course, influence the communities in which they serve.

So, the answer to the original question may be towards the “very little” end of the spectrum. Publishing houses do exist, but the glory days of vegetarian food factories, and sanitoria, like the famous Skodsborg San in Denmark, are gone. Yet all this only deals with Adventist institutions, just one aspect of the picture.

I could tell you another side of the story.

I could tell you about the London Adventist Chorale which has sung at great state occasions—at Buckingham Palace for the golden jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II and at other premier venues like Toronto’s Sky Dome. They sing a wide repertoire from spirituals to the western choral tradition. One music critic said their music is distinguished by “discipline with fervor.” Their conductor, Ken Burton, is the BBC’s go-to person for Gospel music and more.

I could tell you about Herbert Blomstedt, a Swede, who has been one of the world’s leading orchestral conductors for a long time. Now in his mid-1990s, he is still conducting. It is well-known in classical music circles that he is a Christian and a Sabbath keeper who will perform on Sabbaths, but will not practice because performance is joy, but practice is work.

I could tell you about Marianne Thieme in the Netherlands who founded the Party for the Animals in 2002 and became an Adventist four years later. Though this is a secular party, Marianne draws inspiration from the Adventist commitment to vegetarianism and Ellen G. White’s writings more generally. The Party has had representatives at all political levels from the European Parliament to the Dutch Parliament to regional governments.

I could tell you about the Adventist bikers in Serbia, the “Three Angels,” rather than the Hell’s Angels. They combine their passion for Jesus with love for being on the road. They organize rides, do “ordinary stuff,” as they say, and allow the Spirit to work gently.

I could tell you about Alan Collins, an English Adventist sculptor. “The Good Samaritan” sculpture at Loma Linda is his work. He fashioned the “Gilded Angel” atop the tower of the Anglican cathedral in Guildford, southeast of London, as well as its nine statues of “The Gifts of the Spirit.” He also has other work in various public spaces.

I could tell you about the recent prime time TV program in the UK which focused on those places in the world where people live longest. Loma Linda is featured alongside a Greek Island and a Japanese mountain community. Exercise, diet, a sense of community, and finding meaningful work well into retirement were common themes and, in Loma Linda’s case, an undergirding faith in a generous God.

I could tell you about Jean-Claude Verrecchia, my friend and former colleague at Newbold College. He is a New Testament scholar of some distinction who has long helped to direct the French Bible Society.

I could tell you more stories such as these about individuals or small groups who exercise influence in various groups in different countries in Europe. The influence is significant, but largely local. For Seventh-day Adventists in Europe, name recognition remains poor and understanding of what the Church represents is, I suspect, no better.

In trying, with difficulty, to understand these different measures of the Church’s success or “impact,” I have wondered whether the ideas of H. Richard Niebuhr, the American scholar (1894-1962), might help. In his great classic Christ and Culture, he tried to trace the relationship between Christ’s church and the surrounding culture.

Niebuhr suggested five possible relationships—and here I must simplify greatly because of the restrictions of space.

Is Christ against culture? This view holds that the values of Christ are simply at odds with those of the wider secular society.

Should we speak of the Christ of culture? That history is the story of the Spirit of Christ infusing itself at every turn in our civilization?

Perhaps, rather, it is a matter of the Christ above culture. That is to say that all history is a preparation of the soul for communion with God.

Another option is Christ and culture in paradox. There is an ongoing struggle between faith and unbelief, and we are now in the time between the moment of promise and its fulfillment.

Lastly, there is Christ transforming culture. History is the story of humanity’s transforming responses to the presence of God in time.

In the case of the Adventist church in Europe, we might well see elements of all the above, but none is adequate in itself. Adventists do recognize the evils and excesses of the world in which we live. We are to be “in the world but not of it.” That means that we affirm that God’s good Spirit is constantly at work in human affairs. The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes says Jesus of the Holy Spirit to Nicodemus in John 3.8. We do seek to prepare ourselves and others to come into relationship with God. Many of us are inevitably children of our culture, and at some time struggle between faith and unbelief and know what it is to doubt the goodness of God. We do believe in God’s transforming power even if we do not expect it to revolutionize the structures of our societies.

Helpful as Niebuhr’s model may be, it does not offer a full account of our lives lived between the extremities of our flawed societies and the overwhelming love of the Lord of the Church, of the Lord of all.

Adventists in Europe live in among all these tensions. It is clear now that the answer does not lie principally in the establishment of thriving institutions. These reach the end of their usefulness at some stage. We have shown, by much of our organized activity, that we do not believe in an ongoing head-on crash with the wider world. Indeed, in Europe we increasingly seek varying but real involvement of our Church in wider community ventures, as the sterling efforts of all the European country Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) offices show.

Not only that, but local Adventist churches are increasingly much involved in community services of various kinds. The response to needs which arose during the Covid pandemic and to food poverty show that well enough. We do see the life and work of outstanding Adventist individuals and groups being highly regarded.

So, to come back to the original question about Adventism’s impact on culture, none of the responses I offered at the outset is adequate. No impact at all? Clearly not the case. Little? Yes, but at certain times and in certain places, it has been and is quite marked. Patchy then? But that is not very flattering, and it really does not do the Church justice.

The word “impact” is a strong one implying something forceful, dramatic, muscular, public.

Maybe we can more helpfully talk about “influence” rather than “impact.” Adventist influence where I live is, I think, best described as “local” and “gentle.” Maybe not unlike the impact of Jesus in his own lifetime, in his own culture. For the most part, that influence took a long time to show itself. A slow burn rather than an explosion.

I believe that the wind still blows. The Spirit still moves. That gentle Spirit still woos us with its fierce tenderness.

Michael Pearson is Principal Lecturer Emeritus at Newbold College in the UK. For many years he taught topics in ethics, philosophy, and spirituality. He and his wife, Helen, write a weekly blog pearsonsperspectives.com Email him at: [email protected]

24 Apr


I remember the first time I ever saw a movie in the movie theater—as well as the lecture I received from my mother as a result. I was 10 or 11 years old and had a sleepover at one of my neighbors’ houses on a Saturday night. When they announced that the plans for the evening consisted of going to a movie, I gulped.

I had been taught from very early on that going to a movie at the theater was wrong and perhaps even sinful—that somehow, some way, the same movie you’d watch in your house was more evil and less holy if you watched it in a theater. I knew that didn’t quite make sense, but being a pretty obedient young boy who didn’t like to get in trouble, I’d carefully followed that line of thinking, despite the fact that my older siblings had been less compliant.

Nevertheless, my opportunity finally came, and I was unwilling to be a difficult guest. So I went and felt an overwhelming sense of guilt the whole time I sat in that dark theater—a guilt which was only exacerbated when I returned home the next day. My mother had somehow learned of my great sin and took me privately into her room, where she expressed great sadness and disappointment about my decision.

For the record, my mother is a very kind, gracious, and Jesus-loving person who, I believe, was just doing the best she knew how. And also, for the record, I’m not even necessarily trying to address whether going to a movie theater is right or wrong. I respect everyone’s personal convictions on that.

What I’m speaking more to, and what strikes me as interesting, is how Seventh-day Adventists have, historically, had a bit of a complicated relationship with the wider culture. We don’t know exactly how to relate to it.

There are many people who have a very adversarial stance toward it. Everything the “world” produces is evil and must be resisted and avoided. Popular culture—movies, music, television, even social media—is a prime tool of the devil to draw people away from God and His truth.

There are plenty of other Adventists, of course, who take the opposite approach. Culture is something to be celebrated and embraced. Not only should we fully imbibe our surrounding culture, but we should be active participants in it and even positively contribute to it. At the same time, whether one has explicit Christian goals when engaging and participating in culture, is somewhat irrelevant under this model.

Somewhere in between is perhaps the biggest group of Adventists. There is an underlying ambivalence and perhaps even cognitive dissonance when it comes to culture. There’s some participation and consumption of the surrounding culture, but not a full embracing of it. It’s like my upbringing where we wouldn’t watch movies in the theater but would watch those same movies in our home. We aren’t quite sure how to relate to culture—on the one hand, we enjoy it, but on the other hand, we’re also a little nervous about it.

What’s more, with this stance, if we do participate in the surrounding culture, we only do so with explicitly Christian goals. The music we create, the services we provide, ever have in mind some larger evangelistic goal. We would have a hard time writing a song, for example, that didn’t have explicitly Christian lyrics. Or we couldn’t imagine serving a marginalized population without making sure we provided them with plenty of Christian literature.

Simply put, to whatever degree we do step into our surrounding culture under such a model, we want to clearly communicate we’re doing so because of Christ, and with an eye toward inviting them into a commitment to Christ.

So, what are we to make of all this—and how should we relate to and either participate in or avoid our surrounding culture?

Christ and Culture

Seventy years ago, H. Richard Niebuhr, who was one of the twentieth century’s most influential theologians, wrote a seminal work entitled Christ and Culture. The book addressed the topic we’re presently discussing and largely set the parameters within for discussion over the next many decades among Christians.

Niebuhr proposed that there were essentially five different models of how Christ—and, by extension, Christ’s followers—relates to culture. Those five models, to some degree, map very well on to the three categories I outlined above. The first model is Christ against culture, where “the world” is so corrupt and irredeemable that one must avoid it altogether, living in complete isolation from and ignorance of the culture. The second is the Christ of culture, where there’s very little distinction between the values of “the world” and the values of Christ, encouraging the Christian to fully participate in it.

The last three have significant overlap and represent the sort of “middle road” that has been characteristic of much of Christian history—the Christ above culture model, the Christ and culture in paradox model, and Christ the transformer of culture model. These three approaches, to various degrees, basically propose that one shouldn’t wholly avoid culture, recognizing there are important reasons to participate in it, while keeping one’s Christian commitments and priorities firmly intact while doing so.

For Niebuhr’s part, he never fully revealed which model he preferred or embraced, though many have noted that he seemed most sympathetic to the last view—that the Christian should choose to participate in the culture for the purpose of ultimately trying to transform it for Christ’s purposes and glory.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I think the first model is very problematic—the idea that Christ is against culture. As Niebuhr points out, seeing “the world” as purely evil fails to account for the fact that we are all evil—even us Christians. Trying to therefore escape from culture does not at all remove us from the influences of evil because evil resides in all our hearts. And, unfortunately, and ironically, sometimes that evil is even more pronounced—and hidden—in separatist religious groups, where it can exist under the cloak of darkness and remain unchallenged. At the same time, completely separating from “the world” makes it really difficult to reach, much less love, the people of “the world,” which Christ clearly calls us to do.

And yet the Christ of culture approach also seems to inadequately account for the ways in which “the world” does have its challenges and limitations. Not everything created in the name of culture is praiseworthy. Similarly, we do have a God who, while embodying Himself in this world in the Person of Jesus, does stand outside this world and points beyond it. Indeed, we do live with an eye toward a “new earth” that we want to tell people about—a new earth that more fully aligns with God’s heartbeat than the present one does.

At the same time, I don’t think we should be myopically focused on trying to “convert” the world, only participating in it if we can be annoyingly explicit about our evangelistic agenda. Serving and blessing and benefiting others, whether they know we’re doing it because of Jesus or not, is worth doing no matter what.

This doesn’t at all mean we should bury the gospel component; we should ever want to be open about our faith in Christ and how He has been our only true source of hope. But we don’t merely focus on proselytizing others in our cultural engagement, and we recognize how the full range of human experiences and emotions reflect God, whether we ever mention Him or not.

On the other hand, we also recognize, as those who believe Christ will return before the whole world gets fully transformed, that cultural transformation will ever be an unfinished task this side of heaven. At best, we can be, as N. T. Wright likes to put it, “signposts” of what the new heavens and new earth will look like, but never its full realization. So, we seek cultural transformation with the understanding that it will ultimately be incomplete.

Christians have traditionally said, playing off Christ’s words in John 17, that we should be in, but not of, the world. I’m not sure if this is or isn’t a good way of explaining it, but I think I prefer another way I’ve heard it articulated: following the lead of Christ, who loved the world so much that He stepped into it and gave His life for it, we should be in and for the world.

In so doing, we don’t run away from culture, but we also recognize the ways it can be used to ultimately undermine the world’s well-being. We recognize the ways we’re all evil, and yet we recognize the ways the Spirit is working on every heart, since, in the words of Paul, the Spirit is not far from each one of us (Acts 17:27).

So, yes, let’s listen to the ways the Spirit is working on everyone’s heart—through the culture they create—and ultimately point to God’s other-worldly love through the culture we create.

Shawn Brace is a pastor in Bangor, Maine, whose life, ministry, and writing focus on incarnational expressions of faith. The author of four books and a columnist for Adventist Review, he is also a DPhil student at the University of Oxford, focusing on nineteenth-century American Christianity. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @shawnbrace, and sign up for his weekly newsletter at: shawnbrace.substack.com  

20 Apr

The Adventist Calling: Nurturing a Culture of Hope

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
– Jeremiah 29:11

This article is about despair and about hope—in the personal realm, in the society in which we live, and in what is happening on a global scale. It is about the culture of despair that dominates the context of our twenty-first century lives. And it is about the culture of hope that flows from the good news of Jesus Christ.

A Culture of Despair

Dictionaries, and books that analyze our time, provide us with various definitions of despair. Some authors point out how despair results from being so much concerned with the present that it clouds people’s eyes for the future. Others emphasize that despair is, first, a deep discontentment with today’s culture and with our own role in it. All descriptions have in common that despair is a total loss of hope.  Former pastor and author Rob Bell pointedly said, “Despair is believing that tomorrow will be just like today!”

As I write this article, it was twelve days since the powerful earthquake destroyed parts or Turkey and Syria and left thousands of men and women in utter despair, silently waiting till the bodies of their loved ones are recovered from under the rubble. They have no idea where and how they will live a month or a year from now. Tens of thousands of wives and mothers in Ukraine and in Russia are despairing about the fate of their husbands and sons who are fighting in a war that is as terrible as it is senseless. A culture of despair envelops the western world as one crisis follows the other, and as leaders are unable to provide political and economic stability, while ever-increasing polarization rips nations and societies apart.  In his book The American Culture of Despair, sociologist Richard K. Fenn (b. 1984) writes about the cycles of crisis that create wide-ranging despair and are undeniable evidence that America, like other parts of the world, is running out of time. The recent Covid-pandemic caused millions of people world-wide to wonder in desperation whether they would also fall victim to this sword of Damocles that was hanging over our world.

Despair has assumed global proportions as wars, natural disasters, hunger, and poverty ravage entire regions of planet Earth. But beneath these global dimensions is the anguish of the millions of individuals who have lost all sense of hope: people who have no roof over their head, as well as men and women whose relationships have been shipwrecked and who experience unbearable loneliness. Annually, in the United States alone almost two million people get the devastating diagnosis that they have cancer. Each year more than 800,000 people world-wide see no other escape from their misery than to end their own lives—that is: one suicide every 39 seconds!

The Antidote for Despair

Christians maintain that there is another way of looking at the world at large, and at our personal lives. They claim to have a message of hope, and echo what the apostle Paul wrote to encourage the believers in the city of Rome, May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13). For most non-Christians these words may sound quite hollow. Can there really be hope amid all the hopelessness they see around them, and which they so often experience themselves? The reply of the Christian is: Yes, there can be hope! The words of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah are as true today as when they were first spoken: there is a God who looks after us, and this God wants nothing more fervently than to provide us with a solid hope and firm trust in the future (Jeremiah 29:11).

It is crucial, however, that we have a clear concept of what real hope consists of.  For many, hope is little more than wishful thinking. Hope often is the unrealistic expectation of winning a big prize in a lottery, or it is focused on tomorrow’s weather. For others hope equals optimism. True hope, however, goes far beyond this. It is certainly good to be an optimist and to be able to see the good aspects of a given situation and not be entirely absorbed by its negative elements. True Christian hope is inextricably connected with our faith—with our trust in the One whom we have accepted as our Lord. Hope is, therefore, not just a matter of feelings. It is primarily an attitude, a state of mind. In some sense it may even be called a decision. It is a divine gift that can change our outlook on life and deliver us from anxieties. Vincent McNabb (1868-1943), an Irish poet and priest, expressed it like this: “Hope is some extraordinary spiritual grace, that God gives to control our fears. Not to oust them.” 1

Christian hope is centered in a Person—in the risen Christ. Faith in the risen Christ means the inner certainty that there is life after death; that there is a new world, even though many things seem to indicate that our present world is hopelessly falling apart. Our hope is not based on an idea. It is not based on a clever philosophy, but it is anchored in a Person. Not just in any person, but in the God, who created us, who sent his Son for us as our Redeemer, and who continues to guide us through his Holy Spirit. Our hope is based on our trust in who He is. With such a God there is always reason for true hope. Charles Allen (1913-2005), a well-known American Methodist minister once said, “When you say a situation or a person is hopeless, you are slamming the door in the face of God.”  The poet who wrote Psalm 147 assures us, The Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope
in his unfailing love

A Culture of Hope

There is a widespread misunderstanding that hope is primarily a matter of emotion. It is difficult—or it maybe even impossible—to hang on to an emotion when circumstances deteriorate. In his book Making Hope Happen, psychologist Shane J. Lopez (who has been called “the world’s most preeminent expert on hope”), argues that true hope is active. People who have hope can imagine the future and dare to set goals. Hope precipitates action. Our faith allows us to harness the kind of hope that enables us to endure the present and set realistic goals for bringing about change in the future. At the beginning of this article, despair was defined as “believing that tomorrow will be just like today!” This is in stark contrast with hope, which is the trust that tomorrow can and will be different.

Seventh-day Adventists enjoy singing the hymn that Wayne Hooper (1920-2007) wrote as the theme song for the 1962 Adventist world congress, and has ever since been the favorite of countless church members: We have this hope that burns within our hearts … The sad reality, however, is that, for many Adventist believers, their hope is mingled with a firm dose of despair. They believe that Christ is coming back, and that He is the hope for our eternal future in a new and perfect world. But they have also been taught that before He appears on the clouds, when the dead of the past will be resurrected and those who are alive and expect Him will be changed from mortal into immortal, lots of terrible things must first take place. For many Adventists the prophecies about end-time events have been a source of deep-seated fear rather than the basis for a joyful expectation. Unfortunately, Adventist eschatology has often been part of a culture of despair, rather than the epitome of a culture of hope.

Seventh-day Adventists face the momentous challenge to create and nurture in their community a culture of hope. It is only when genuine hope becomes the main denominator of the Adventist fellowship of faith, that the Advent message of hope become attractive and credible.

Adventist Christians are called to first foster a culture of hope in their local churches. The ways in which they express and live their faith, and how they share it with others, must emanate hope in such a way that it can chart a path of positive Christian action—for the individual believers and for the denomination.

Surrounded by a culture of despair, Adventists are called to be a people of hope, who impact trends and events by their counterculture of hope. Bringing hope to others will continue to strengthen their own hope—as the prophet Isaiah so powerfully underlined, Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary; they will walk and not be faint (Isaiah 40:31).

Reinder Bruinsma, PhD, has served the Seventh-day Adventist Church in publishing, education, and church administration on three continents. He writes from the Netherlands where he lives with his wife Aafie. Among his latest books is I Have a Future: Christ’s  Resurrection and Mine. Email him at: [email protected]

1  https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/vincent_mcnabb_105844

2  I lifted these two paragraphs from one of my recent books: Bruinsma, R. (2019). I Have a Future: Christ’s Resurrection and Mine. Autumn House.

20 Apr


We have big dreams, we Adventists. With a prophetic mandate woven into our DNA, we want to impact our world for Jesus and His kingdom. And as we watch what impacts our culture today, we see that it takes big stuff to get the world’s attention.

Well, we have some big stuff, too. God has richly blessed us with a highly visible and fully professional hospital system. We have major media outreach ministries, both church-sponsored and independent. We have a nationally known medical school along with several colleges and universities, some of which show up high on the list of the U.S. News & World Report rankings of colleges.

We’re proud of these entities and ministries, and we stand behind them. And not just as a statement of support. Often what we do is stand behind them in terms of expecting them to be the big stuff that captures the world’s attention. So, we stand back and let them be our big splash. After all, it takes big stuff to impact our world.

And, of course, that feels safer. Standing behind something big makes us feel less vulnerable. Plus, we are always anxious about being too close to the world, because, well, we worry about what the world might do to us if we stand too close. After all, if you take a clean, white glove and grab some wet mud with it, you don’t end up with glovey mud, you end up with a muddy glove. So, we keep our distance from the mud and depend on other things, bigger things, to interface and impact the culture. Bigger things are more immune to culture’s potential contamination.

When I was senior pastor of the Keene Adventist Church on the campus of Southwestern Adventist University, our church and the university partnered to present a full-on depiction of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as other campuses have done around the North American Division. It took about 450 volunteers to make it work, and we used various settings all over the campus and in the church to depict important scenes in the life and death of Jesus. Some 5,500 people saw the presentations annually, with most of the viewers being either non-churched folks or people who were members of other denominations. Every year we would get busloads of members of other churches bringing many of their members to walk through our two-and-a-half-hour program, many walking on an Adventist campus and in an Adventist church for the first time in their lives.

In addition to the major goal of telling the gospel story to as many people as we could, one of our goals in this large event was to be an entrée, if you will, to the Adventist name and to let them know that we believe in Jesus and His sacrifice as our only means for salvation. It was big stuff. But we did it because we wanted to make it easier for our local Adventist churches to reach their own neighbors since the big stuff of our program introduced Adventists easily in a positive, Jesus-connected way.

So, it wasn’t the big stuff, in the end, that would be the touchpoint for connecting with people. For that, we depended on the willingness of the members of our local churches to take good advantage of the seeds we’d planted. In the end, it still takes individual men and women, young and old, to reach out on a very personal level and make the contacts that can lead to changed lives and connection with the Savior.

Do we need the big stuff? Absolutely. But those things alone are not enough. The real impact on our culture comes one person at a time, when we, when YOU, become the hands and feet of Jesus. You want to impact your culture? Good. So do I. But it happens best one person at a time, reaching out for one person at a time. You might think that one person at a time hardly impacts the culture. But in the end, it may be the only thing powerful enough to actually do it. 

Mic Thurber is the RMC president. Email him at: [email protected]