Dietrich Bonhoeffer, penned these words to Eberhard Bethge on May 21,1944, “Our church, which has been fighting in these years only for its self-preservation, as though that were an end in itself, is incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to mankind and the world. Our earlier words are therefore bound to lose their force and cease, and our being Christians today will be limited to two things: prayer and righteous action among people.”
Seventy three years later, the words rang through my mind as I carefully read Dr. Johnsson’s short but thoughtful work, Where are We Headed?: Adventism After San Antonio. In light of Bonhoeffer’s statement, I observed Dr. Johnsson reflecting on several points of our Seventh-day Adventist drive for self-preservation in the first eight chapters. For each chapter I would retitle as follows:
1. The Preservation of Prestige – Dealing With Women’s Ordination.
2. The Preservation of Peculiarity – Dealing with the Seventh-day Adventist tendency toward drastic exclusivity.
3. The Preservation of the Promise – Concerning Our Constant, Yet Misguided Preoccupation With “When” Christ Will Return.
4. The Preservation of Proclamation – Examining the Message We Are Called to Proclaim
5. The Preservation of Power – Structural and Organizational Challenges and Our Need for Revision
6. The Preservation of Process – The Adventist Battle With Evoluntionist to Uphold the “Young Earth” and Literal Six-day Creation
7. The Preservation of Purpose: A Look at the Nature of “Mission”
8. The Preservation of Prophet: Examining Our Church’s Often Abusive and Misguided Use of Ellen White in Our Hermeneutical Practice
As my personal re-titles have noted, Johnsson is well aware of the struggles our church has had over the past several decades to preserve Seventh-day Adventism—meaning Seventh-day Adventism not as the movement we love, but as an institution. Millennials such as myself would agree with Bonhoeffer that our attempts as a denomination to save ourselves from whatever “threats” of destruction we believe are there, have made the church, especially in North America, ineffective and “incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to mankind and the world.” How are we as a church able to truly address the issues of members at the local church level if we are constantly on edge? Constantly looking over our shoulder at evolutionists, rebellious unions, and other threats to unity! We miss the fact that young African Americans (those who are not of Caribbean heritage, like myself) in our denomination have been leaving the church consistently. These young people are struggling to see the value of being part of a denomination that could care less about them and finding solace in traditionally Black denominations with a preached and lived gospel compatible with the God of justice they read in Scripture. We miss the opportunities we have as a church to partake in true revitalization and development of our neighborhoods through intentional community development and partnership with local development corporations. We miss ways to minister prophetically and passionately, living out the now of the kingdom while patiently, yet eagerly waiting for the not yet. We miss so much when we believe our church to be so fragile that “unity in diversity” is seen as ending the church as we know it.
I believe Dr. Johnsson sees this too, and I appreciate the way in which he communicates all of the above. Dr. Johnsson concludes in the last two chapters with a call to be the movement God has called us to be. Dr. Johnsson calls us to move beyond our preoccupation with self-preservation and return to prayer, righteous action, and effectual kingdom living and ministry.
Danielle M. Barnard is a Master of Divinity Student at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary located on the campus of Andrews University, President of the Black Student Association of the Seminary, and Creative Pastor at the One Place Fellowship