By Chelsea and Doug Inglish — Doug: Well, this could be interesting. It’s not the first time you and I have talked about issues in the church, but it has pretty much always been about the present or the near future. The question of what we imagine Adventism will be further down the road is a lot more speculative, and it is based on very little evidence.
Chelsea: True. It is impossible to predict the future, but I think a lot of people are wondering what the future of Adventism is, as we near the Second Coming.
D: Which brings up what ultimately every Adventist knows is our ultimate future–the Second Coming. But pretty much every generation thought it was so soon that speculation on our future was a waste of time. Naturally, I hope that today’s conversation will be made pointless by Jesus’ immediate return, but so far, we are still here.
C: I know you’ve been an Adventist your whole life. What kind of changes have you seen in the denomination over the years?
D: Fortunately, I don’t think those changes have primarily been doctrinal or theological, as in most denominations. There are exceptions, of course, such as our initial reluctance to accept the existence of the Holy Spirit and fringe elements still fight over that. Some would also argue that seismic shifts have occurred at one point or another, and the points of some matters may not necessarily be fully settled. There have also been attacks from time to time on settled points of doctrine, but things have been mostly stable in my view, although saying so will likely generate some letters with contrary opinions.
Instead, most of the changes within the church are cultural. When I was in boarding academy, wearing jeans to class was just not done. When I started pastoring, I could drop in on members unannounced. Now we laugh at the strictness of some of the dress codes but are much more careful about calling ahead.
Another big change is administrative styles. Churches and pastors have more input on pastoral changes. That’s just one example, but there is a far less authoritarian model at work in most places.
What about you? Notice any differences from the time you left college?
C: I’d say the fact that I am a woman in ministry is a big change, maybe not since college, but since my childhood. I never thought of women as pastors when I was a kid, because I didn’t see them, and yet here I am today with an entirely different outlook and deeper insight into issues of equality in the church because of my personal experience. I know this isn’t a doctrinal issue, but the division of opinion over it can make it seem so, at times.
D: I agree. There were women involved decades ago, but I appreciate that it is now common enough that it generates very little comment. In some ways, that has followed cultural trends of more women working outside the home since the end of WWII. When I was a kid, few women were doctors, and now that doesn’t seem even mildly curious. I believe ministry is becoming that way, and I appreciate the perspective that it brings to congregations and to the pastoral work force.
So, what are we saying? That most of the changes to Adventism in the future, like women in ministry and fewer neckties in church, are mostly cultural?
C: I think that the changes we see are mostly cultural, but as people of the Word, it is important for us to remain open to the Holy Spirit, should He guide us into further truth, as we continue to root ourselves in the Word.
D: I don’t see a coming change in beliefs, but I am aware that the Holy Spirit may lead us to further understanding our beliefs. “New Truth” is always being peddled, but I haven’t seen any in my lifetime that stood up to the scrutiny of the Bible or got a wide and sustained following. Nevertheless, we can’t close our minds to God presenting things that are as of yet hidden.
C: As far as cultural changes go, I think it is important for us to be able to distinguish culture from doctrine, so that we continue to be people in the world, adapting to changes that do not actually defy doctrine. I think we often struggle with this, holding onto the past culture as if it is doctrine, when it is simply tradition.
D: These are very good points. Of course, you are also getting into uncomfortable territory for a lot of people. There have always been, and still are, significant battles over whether a particular practice is doctrinal or merely cultural. I remember my elementary school teacher saying that when she was a little girl, the church was split over feathers in women’s hats! For some, that was a doctrinal matter. On the other hand, we can’t blithely say that everything is cultural, either.
But even in solid doctrinal matters, we must adapt to a changing environment. Fifty years ago, a public meeting in which truth was presented by a gifted evangelist standing in front of a crowd yielded results. Now there are diminishing returns with that approach. But in its place are new methods of outreach, mostly driven by technology, but not entirely. The way that people respond to any kind of information is changing, and I am glad to see the church exploring different options. I am convinced that those methodologies will continue to adapt to cultural changes while the truth we teach remains stable, but honestly, I can’t predict how.
C: I agree. Culture is like a language. We can translate the Bible into any and all languages in the world, but the message remains the same. I think it is important to be able to spread the message in the cultural language of today, and I believe we can do that without diluting the message. It may take some work, but it is well worth it, and it is what we are called to do.
D: Absolutely. I don’t believe for a second that the future of Adventism involves a change in beliefs or in mission. It does involve remaining sensitive to changing cultures and methods, but that has always been true. The leaders of the church in the past resisted pastors owning cars, doing radio evangelism, and producing their own television programs. Now we take all those things for granted, while other methods have had to be abandoned. Ingathering didn’t die, as some would argue, because members got lazy. It died because strangers knocking on your door became offensive to the culture. Staying in touch with a changing world is key to our future.
C: None of us can know exactly what the future of Adventism will look like any more than we can predict how our day will turn out when we wake up in the morning. But I do have hopes for the future of Adventism. I hope the future of Adventism involves a willingness to listen and learn in love. I hope it involves the courage to admit when we’ve been wrong and to grow when necessary. I hope it involves a strong commitment to loving people as Christ does, both within our culture and, in some cases, despite the culture around us. I see that happening right now, and I hope it will continue!
D: I see that as well, and having conversations with your generation, and with the generation that follows yours, solidifies that conviction. For all that we have in common, being related as we are, you and I are not only of different generations, but we are also different genders and involved in different parts of church work. But I have enough interactions on topics like this with teachers, young pastors, lay leaders, students, and others to know that the viewpoints we just shared are widely accepted.
C: Yes, we do have differences, but we also have some strong similarities of experience, such as growing up in the church and being employed by the church as pastors. It’s interesting to discuss topics like this, coming from our own points of view. I know it is easy for us to discuss because we are in the same family, but I hope that others in the church are also able to discuss topics like this, despite differences in perspectives. Open and loving communication, even of sensitive topics, is critical to a successful future for our denomination.
— Chelsea Inglish is youth pastor of Madison Campus Church, Madison, Tennessee, and daughter of Doug Inglish, RMC vice president of administration, Denver, Colorado. Email Chelsea at [email protected] madisoncampus.org; email him at [email protected]