What is Really Happening Out There?
W. Lawson is Professor of Urban Studies at Queens College, City University
of New York. He is no backwater college teacher. He was voted College
Teacher of the Year by Queens College students in 1991-1992, and by
administrators in 1992-1993.
Lawson has made a specialty of investigating Seventh-day Adventists in
North America--and especially elsewhere in the world. But he did not
merely take polls.. Lawson did something far more accurate, though
exhausting, he went directly to local church members and pastors and
interviewed them. He has also interviewed former Adventists.
top of this, he spent years doing this and all over the world field!
carried out over 3,000 in-depth interviews with church administrators,
teachers, hospital administrators and medical personnel, pastors,
students, and leading laypersons in 54 countries and all 11 divisions of
the world church.
countries chosen were those in which the denomination was more established
and/or experiencing rapid growth. Lawson planned his tours and interviews
with the help of individuals who knew the regions involved.
initially conducted interviews in the United States at all eight union
headquarters and many local conferences, the 12 colleges and universities,
several academies, the major hospitals, both publishing houses, and the
media center. He also carried out interviews at a large number of urban
and rural churches, making sure to include the various ethnic groupings.
he traveled through Canada, although less extensively than in America.
to going overseas, he returned to Andrews University and interviewed
foreign students on the undergraduate, graduate, and seminary level. The
objective here was to learn about relevant issues back home.
over a period of time, he toured through 52 other nations, and conducted
interviews at headquarters, seminaries, schools, hospitals, and among
pastors, leading laymen, as well as Adventist students at outside
1985 and 1990, he attended our General Conference Sessions, where he
conducted still more interviews--especially with significant people whom
he had missed when he visited their country.
did Lawson conduct his interviews? Because he always promised complete
confidentiality, he was assured of excellent cooperation. He took detailed
notes, but never made tapes. Each interview was generally two to three
hours in length, although some were longer.
dug for information on the church unit they represented, as well as
special changes and issues, and how they viewed them.
about earlier decades was gleaned from secondary sources.
this point, would you agree with me that Dr. Lawson did competent
research? Surely, his conclusions ought to be worth our careful attention.
He has published his data widely in various sociological journals.
is a brief overview of his research findings.
Adventism began in the United States and is now carrying on work in 208 of
the 236 countries recognized by the United Nations. The first foreign
missionary was sent to Switzerland in 1874.
countries where Christianity was religiously dominant (most of Europe,
Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa), Adventists were considered an
heretical sect. Because of this, growth has been slow in those regions.
Most Adventists there are now second-generation church members. They have
experienced less upward mobility, because they have fewer and poorer
educational facilities (poorer in the sense of inferior to the
course offerings available elsewhere in the territory).
as soon as Adventism reached beyond Europe, it began growing more
quickly. This growth rate has rocketed into a crescendo in recent years.
What is happening in those third-world nations is significant.
Adventist missionaries arrived in those third world nations,
representatives of the mainline churches, already there, tried to
stigmatize them in the eyes of the people. They declared that this was
nothing but a small, schismatic sect from America which should be ignored.
the nationals did not perceive it thus. To them, all the missionaries were
alike. The inhabitants were religious, pluralistic, and welcomed another
denomination into their midst. In their eyes, none of the missionaries
were more orthodox than the others.
they discovered significant benefits to be derived from the Adventists.
But more on this later.
advantage Adventist missionaries encountered in disadvantaged nations, was
one which they made for themselves: They did not try to separate
themselves from the government or from other religious bodies, as was done
back in America.
frequently joined ecumenical mission councils, and even national council
of churches. These ecumenical bodies negotiated important issues with
colonial authorities. These were issues which were important to Adventist
missionaries learned that, by developing close friendships with other
denominational workers, they could more easily enter unworked territories
and obtain better favors from governmental units. There was no question
but that there were lots of indigenous peoples; so non-Adventist
missionaries were more willing to share the territory with us--when our
workers were friendly.
of course, this developed friendships which could produce accommodations
and compromise on various points.
these factors helped open doors for our workers in the third world. But
another factor--a large one, was the fact that Adventism shaped its
proselytizing strategies around institutions. First, it set up grade
schools and clinics, then hospitals and high schools, and finally colleges
and even universities.
situation has produced a variety of effects. One is that governments liked
the Adventist presence. We were educating the population and treating the
sick. This brought us into favor with governmental leaders.
is that Adventism in developing nations is far less sectarian than in the
U.S. (although, in recent decades, American Adventism is rapidly becoming
very friendly with governments and other denominations also). Whereas
historic Adventists make an issue of Great Controversy separatist
issues, warning about Protestantism, Catholicism, governments,
etc., such sectarianism is mellowing away to a very contented mutual
toleration--both among most Adventists in developing countries, and
Laodicean Adventists in America.
which greatly helped this government accommodation process was the
Wilson Dictum: the announcement by Neal C. Wilson in the 1980s of a new
principle: The official branch of the world church was that recognized by
the state. This horrific position won him the full favor of the
U.S.S.R. leaders in Moscow during his visit there. They had had trouble
with independent Adventists, who refused to bear arms or send their
children to school on Saturday. But Wilson was quite willing to
compromise. (In doing so, he sacrificed many faithful believers.) More on
emphasis on schools in third world nations ultimately led to still other
was upward mobility. Indigenous peoples recognized that formal education
was the doorway out of their impoverished situation, and were quick to
discover that the Adventist mission station held the key to that door.
the opportunity for better employment positions later, students would
obtain an education in our schools, and frequently later compromise key
church moral and other standards, leaving the church in even higher
numbers than in America! In the process, they would rise up into key
positions in business, and local and national politics.
tensions with the state would arise, prominent members have been able to
ease them with considerable success. They are willing to help the church,
because they now or formerly belonged to it, and are indebted for the
training that placed them where they are.
the developing world, Adventism is growing so rapidly that it is still
largely a first-generation religion. This single-generation aspect is
partly due to the rapid growth, and partly to the high apostasy rate. It
is well-known among church leaders that, at times, groups of only
partially-prepared novitiates are hurried into mass baptisms, because a
visiting church leader has arrived, or so union officials can report it in
see, church leaders themselves, themselves, have their own pathway to
upward mobility. They move up in the ranks more quickly if they are
able to produce lots of baptisms.
Lawson questioned members from New Guinea, for example, he was told that
people are pouring into the church. When asked why, he was told that they
join the church because God is blessing this church, and the evidence is
that Adventists get rich! And the formula seems to work. Even though most
of the Adventist members in Papua New Guinea are in the highlands, nearly
all of the ministers must be brought in from the coastal areas. This is
because the highlands youth go into business. Unlike their neighbors, who
have swine, alcohol, and spirit parties, young Adventists are taught to
shun such things--so they turn their eyes to business and politics and
greatly improve their lot in life.
it could be said that part of the problem is that Adventism teaches
self-control, a positive work ethic, and broadens the perspective. But the
deeper cause is that many of these individuals did not receive a thorough
indoctrination before being admitted to the school and church. As a
result, they were more likely to become worldly and later fall away.
Adventists wanted schools so they could train their teachers, pastors,
hospital workers, accountants, and secretaries. But, over the years, the
result, both in America and overseas, has been to produce young adults who
can more easily enter highly-paid positions in the world.
taught literacy, essential for reading the Bible and becoming a church
worker. Did you know that, in many overseas countries, elementary literacy
was required in order for a person to be baptized?
was seen to be the key to better-paid positions in rapidly changing
societies. Graduates, instead of entering denominational work, would take
higher-paying outside jobs.
worker wrote: This is largely a waste of training effort and money . .
We are not [to be] training teachers at Malamulo, Solusi, and Kamagambo to
provide the government and other agencies with educated help.
as in America, the situation became comical. Just as Adventist colleges
here dropped Adventist and Missionary from their names, in
order to provide their students with better passports to outside jobs, so
overseas the students rose up in rebellion for similar name changes.
the early 1980s, students at the Adventist university of Eastern Africa
(in Kenya; founded in 1978), stage demonstrations and strikes that
eventually forced the university council to change the institutions
name to the University of Eastern Africa Baraton. Why? because the
students said they did not want to limit their employment opportunities if
there was a church name on the school.
different pattern prevails in India. There are already too many university
graduates there, so most of our graduates accept church jobs. Many of them
use their qualifications and church contacts as a means of moving, on one
pretext or another, to the U.S. In recent years, over half of the
graduates of our college in India (Spicer College) have migrated out of
the nation! That is rather successful outward mobility.
some lands (especially much of Europe and parts of Latin America and
Asia), Adventist and other youth find it more difficult to attend
Adventist schools. Either they do not have the funds to do so, or the
schools have limited course offerings, or they are not accredited with the
situation in southern Mexico is an interesting one: The Adventists cannot
afford to go north and attend an Adventist school, but they have learned
to pay tithe, be careful with their means, and live cleaner lives than
others. As a result, they can only obtain modest training at local
government schools. But their way of life enables them to more resolutely
carry on evangelism. The lack of advanced training produced missionaries,
instead of businessmen and government workers! Ellen White said to give
short courses, and then send them out to work as missionaries. Have we
lost something in our craze for higher education, doctorates, and
even in missionary evangelism, the devil has gotten his foot in. In the
early 1980s, Adventist leaders began a strong campaign for more baptisms.
Pastors and evangelists were pressured to bring in the crowds and dunk
produced an accelerated growth rate throughout the world field. It went
from 69.9 percent in 1970-1980, to 92.4 percent during 1982-1992.
it occurred at a great cost to the work of God. Instead of converting
people, the fields were being burned over. Half-converted,
slightly-indoctrinated men and women were being hurried into the rivers
and lakes. Some of these would quickly leave, but others go on to become
Africa, for example, people had been required to be members of a baptismal
class for two years before being admitted to membership. But times have
changed. Now they are typically baptized at the end of a three-week
evangelistic campaign. The length of time required before baptism has also
been sharply reduced to a few weeks in other parts of the world field as
make matters worse, post-baptismal generally disappeared also. Why?
Because pastors remained under severe pressure to rush out and find more
to dunk. All so church leaders, at church meetings, can tell about the
marvelous things happening in their field.
of various factors, cited above, the apostasy rate is high. On the entry
level, people are rushed in so fast, that they hardly become a part of the
Adventist community and so wander right on out. On the advanced level,
trained young people find it preferable to take business and government
jobs. The official apostasy rate is 26.3 percent of conversions in the
developing world during 1994. However, Lawson's interviews revealed a
situation which was far different. Part of the problem is that local
pastors are required to follow a complex system of tallying number of
members, which is beyond their abilities. Another part is that local
pastors at times fudge on the figures. Lawson learned that pastors who can
show good growth are rewarded and those who do not are penalized. He
learned that the one thing they are very reliable at reporting is
cites a meeting he had with all the church pastors in the city of
Kinshasa, capital of Zaire. Visiting Afro-American evangelists had
conducted evangelistic efforts during the previous three years--resulting
in 1,500 baptisms.
home, they told thrilled audiences about their wonderful successes, but
Lawson painstakingly found that only 50 were still in the church--3.3
percent of the 1,500!
to this situation yet another problem: In the African culture, people tend
to think they can adhere to several different religious views at the same
time. Lawson, as well as other researchers, and that it is a rarity for a
church member in any of the denominations in Africa to be exclusively the
member of one church!
of this, people may be baptized into the Adventist Church one month, and
into a Pentecostal group the next; all the while thinking they are still
Adventist, as well as a number of other identifications as well.
earlier decades, the seriousness of this problem was such that church
leaders would require those wanting to become Adventists to withdraw to a
separate, newly-formed Adventist village built by a church and church
school. This strengthened their relationship to the denomination. But this
is no longer done (In Kenya it was terminated by government edict in the
when the long period of training in baptismal classes was done away with,
one of the last links to solidarity was removed.
there is the Sabbath problem. Whereas, in America, Adventists fought the
matter all the way to the Supreme Court, which issued decisions protecting
their rights to observe their holy day, in other lands the situation is
Africa, most parents send their youth to classes and examinations
scheduled on the Sabbath. Throughout eastern Europe, Russia, Korea, and
and many other countries, the situation is about the same.
India and Korea, so many members spend Saturday mornings at their jobs,
that churches arrange special afternoon worship services for them. Lawson
found that, even in the U.S., fewer members object to being called to work
on the Sabbath.
the Adventist Reform Church, the pattern is somewhat different: They let
their youth go through outside schools on Sabbath, and then, following
final graduation, they baptize them. They are now washed clean from the
sins of the past, and, it is hoped, they will not again work on Gods
throughout third world nations, Adventist-trained individuals climbed to
influential positions in business and government. Because they have more
education than average citizens, Adventists have become a political
presence Jamaica, Papua New Guinea, and other island groups in the South
Pacific. The president of Palau (in Micronesia), and the former prime
minister, and later vice-president, of Uganda were Adventists. This has
become so extensive that a special denominational series of seminars was
held in various parts of the world field for members involved in politics.
pioneer missionary to the highlands of Peru, Fernando Stahl, did such an
excellent job in training the natives, that Adventists ultimately became
the largest Protestant group in the nation. Being better educated than
other natives, they gradually rose to positions of great
influence--especially following local government reorganization so
non-Catholics could enter public office.
the same time, our church leaders were busily making friends with
governmental leaders in high places. Successful efforts have been made to
reduce political tensions with authoritarian regimes in the Philippines,
South Korea, Latin America, Kenya, and Ghana.
this was going on, church leaders encouraged lower-level union leaders to
join ecumenical organizations. Each one represented nearly all the
denominational mission organizations in a given nation. Working together,
they had great power with the government. Lawson found that, in Africa,
church leaders regularly joined these organizations (each of which would
be equivalent to our own National Council of Churches in America).
the South American and Inter-American Divisions were more conservative,
and, for many years, remained aloof from the Ecumenicals. A decided factor
was the concern of high-placed church leaders, especially in South
America, to maintain distinctive Adventist positions and avoid contact
with the apostate daughters of Babylon.
times have changed, In the 1960s and 1970s, they decided that acceptance
as evangelical Christians was more important than old-fashioned isolation.
To a great extent, they have succeeded in coming together.
in the United States, church leaders found it increasingly difficult to
determine what was this wall of separation. They were supposed to stay
away from the government, but there were so many reasons for making friends
they had helped defeat 150 congressional Sunday observance bills between
1888 and 1933. But such initiatives then ceased.
World War II, Jehovah's Witnesses won for everyone significant religious
freedoms. From 1944 to 1972, our school and hospital administrators wanted
to accept government funding, while the Religious Liberty staff opposed
it. During that time, our church began approving vaccinations for school
1949, the church agreed to accept war surplus and capital funds. Finally,
in 1972, the debate reached its conclusion. Schools had high expenses and
declining enrollment. So it was agreed that a broad range of government
aid could be accepted for buildings, salaries, equipment, and other
operating costs, as long the schools could somehow remain independent
while receiving it.
in the early 1980s, a vast new channel of government money was discovered:
Immense sums could be obtained from USAID, to be used primarily in
overseas areas. So our disaster and famine relief agency was changed to
ADRA: Adventist Development and Relief Agency.
was hoped that funds flowing through ADRA could enable an Adventist
presence to reach new, previously unentered areas. But a variety of
government restrictions changed ADRA into an arm of U.S. foreign policy.
became so successful, that General Conference leaders began wondering if a
closer arrangement with foreign governments might also help the church
further its mission. (distance the church from its mission
might be a more accurate term.)
the world (Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the communist nations of
eastern Europe and the Soviet Union), overtures were made to government
leaders. By agreement, our church received special favors in return for
being useful to the regime, such as lending it legitimacy. To say it
another way, government leaders were assured the Adventists would not
oppose anything they wanted to to do. This cozy relationship worked very
well with the atheistic leaders of communism.
examples were particularly flagrant: The U.S.S.R. and Hungary.
the Soviet Union, the True and Faithful Seventh-day Adventists had been a
source of irritation to the Kremlin for decades. (See our book, True
Witness: the Story of Seventh-day Adventists in the Soviet Union, by
Marite Sapiets for remarkable details.) The TFSDA opposed such things as
military conscription and Sabbath schooling, and actually constituted the
only truly historic believers in the country. But N.C. Wilson, in his capacity
as General Conference president, visited Moscow and gave away the
faithful. He told Kremlin leaders that the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist
Church, with headquarters (at that time) in Takoma Park, fully endorsed
Moscow's decision that only the State-controlled Adventist Church was
at his words, Soviet leaders eagerly shook hands with Wilson in this
iniquitous partnership of power. N.C. Wilson told them, what became known
back home, as the Wilson Dictim: The official branch of the world church
to be recognized in any nation would only be the one recognized by the
national government ! ! ! This was the biggest sell-out of all.
subsequent visits to Moscow, Wilson deepened the relationships with
Konstantin Kharchev, head of the Council on Religious Affairs.
a result, government approval was given for the construction of an
Adventist Seminary near Moscow, and an Adventist publishing house--which
alone would be authorized to print all governmentally-approved Protestant,
readers are well acquainted with the story of what happened in Hungary.
From 1984 to 1989, the present writer wrote 32 tracts on the history of
the Hungarian Union crisis. In January 1984, N.C. Wilson went to Hungary
to decide what should be done there. Prior to his departure, two Hungarian
workers from Canada warned him at General Conference headquarters that, if
he rejected the faithful, they would henceforth be in danger of heavy
persecution by the government, because of a ruling that only one
organization with a certain set of religious beliefs would be accepted.
Others would be heavily persecuted.
his arrival in Budapest, Wilson went to the national capital and met with
the head of the Department of Religion, who assured him that, whichever
group he sided with, would be acceptable to the government. The next two
or three days were spent in conference with officials from the SDA
Hungarian Union office and representatives of the 1500 faithful believers
who refused to countenance the ongoing apostasy by the union leaders.
mind seemed made up from the beginning: He would back the union office. So
the cream of Adventism in that nation were either ousted, or remained
ousted. To this date, they worship in separate churches. (See our
Hungarian/Ecumenical Tractbook for much more information.)
is no doubt that, in recent decades, church leadershipfrom the General
Conference on downhas made reducing tensions between the denomination
and its environment a priority. The pendulum has swung the other way. Now,
instead of preferring exclusion and separation; the church has become
deeply concerned about its public image. Gaining respect and
acceptance by the world, the other churches, and the government has become
something of an obsession. Involvement in Ecumenical gatherings of various
types, such as pastoral councils, Easter Sunrise services, joint worship
services, and other involvements. Through private representatives,
our denomination is involved in a number of national councils of churches,
as well as the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland. (See our
Hungary/Ecumenical Tractbook for more on this.)
by the world, increase of institutional facilities, numerical growth,
governmental approval; all are interlinked with one another and with
watered-down doctrinal presentations, lowered standards, and remarkable
toleration of sin, even to the practice of abortion.
example, nowhere in the world field will you hear about the mark of the
beast on an Adventist radio or television program. Never will you find a
powerful indictment of sin in the pages of our denominational journals.
rapid growth rate among impoverished nations all over the world is
spreading resources very thin, especially since most of the available
funds come from the United States.
on an analysis of total tithe and offerings per capita in the world
church, from 1950 to 1994, we find that the decline in constant dollars is
as follows: 1950 - 100%, 1960 - 92.4%, 1970 - 94.9%, 1980 - 80.3%, 1990 -
45.2%, 1992 - 37.2%.
the above statistics (compiled by Don Yost at the General Conference), you
will note that an immense drop occurred between 1980 and 1990. It was in
that decade that church leaders in the North American Division decided to
side with the liberals, in protests by conservatives that the church
should return to its earlier beliefs and standards.
far too many of the faithful were chased out of their local churches by
liberal pastors, yet appeals to conference offices were consistently
ignored. Now the denomination is suffering financially as a result.
of this, Adventist schools in developing nations are falling behind, and
are no longer educational leaders. The state of Adventist hospitals is
often far worse. This has led to a switch from institutional evangelism
(via schools and medical institutions) to public evangelism.
the upward mobility factor which our schools provided, local areas
throughout the world field are not likely to attract converts as rapidly
as they once did.
addition, this is leading toward instability and the likelihood that major
schisms could occur. This has already happened in Africa, eastern Europe,
and southern and eastern Asia.
the seeds of rebellion were sown when we tried so hard to accommodate the
world, and ape its practices. Adventism worldwide is becoming increasingly
his research, Bryan Wilson, an Oxford University sociologist, categorized
the churches as revolutionist and conversionist. The former
are those who demand that converts first become thoroughly indoctrinated
into special teachings. The latter are those which are interested in
quickly adding new members. Since the late 1970s, the Adventist
denomination has shifted sharply to belief priority to baptism priority.
This has greatly weakened the church, and, in coming decades (if time
lasts), it will become very weak, poorly funded, and time-serving.
is the solution? Individually, right where you are--make sure you are
right with God! Read the Bible and Spirit of Prophecy every day, and, in
the strength of Christ, obey what you discover. Do what you can to be a
blessing to all those around you, and pray that Jesus will come soon.
end will come more quickly than we expect.