If Seventh-day Adventists worry community members see their church negatively, it's time to rethink how they communicate its values, world church President Jan Paulsen told Dutch youth and young professionals this week.
The Adventist Church is "alive and dynamic," Paulsen said, but dependent on its members to ensure onlookers see a community of people whose values "contribute to a good life," not one driven by a seemingly arbitrary list of "thou shalt nots."
"Being a Christian is not an imprisonment -- it's a wonderful, creative way of living," he told the group during a March 7 taping of Let's Talk, the 27th episode in a series of unscripted, unedited conversations with young people worldwide. While the discussion, recorded at DutchView studios in Hilversum, the Netherlands, covered typical Let's Talk topics -- such as church involvement and ownership of one's faith -- new issues emerged as the group asked frank questions. One inquired if Paulsen was worried the church's prioritization of its young people under his watch would wane if he isn't reelected this summer.
"Young people have said to me, 'If the church doesn't need me today, I'm not going to be here tomorrow,'" Paulsen said, adding that his fellow church leaders are equally aware that involving young professionals in positions of leadership is crucial and anyone elected as world church president would doubtless continue to expand their role.
When one participant suggested efforts to shape a positive impression of the church might backfire, resulting in compromised values, Paulsen disagreed.
In sharing our faith, we should showcase the "immeasurable love" of God, Paulsen said. "There is nothing more powerful than to convey the message that we care for people," he said. "You're not going to get anywhere if you sit there and condemn others ... [If] the church comes across as something negative that restricts freedom, that won't draw them in. We can communicate this without losing our values," he said.
Paulsen upheld that statement in his adamant answer to a question on whether homosexuals could serve as ministers in the Adventist Church: "Obviously not." Paulsen explained that while God's love for and "interest" in people is not influenced by their sexual orientation, his reading of the Bible led him to conclude that "a homosexual lifestyle as a chosen, preferred conduct, is not acceptable within the church."
When another participant expressed concern over rumors circulating that the Adventist Church in the Netherlands had signed an ecumenical document, Paulsen said the church's practice is to maintain "cordial and respectful relationships" with other churches.
"We do not sit in judgment of any church's purpose or goals. We have simply said, 'We want to be understood and we want to understand you,'" a conversation Paulsen said can take place without membership or participation in ecumenical groups.
Can the church -- which has made such strides in championing social and economic justice -- do more to urge environmental awareness, one participant asked.
"I think we are making progress," Paulsen said. "If we go back even 5 years, [the church] was virtually silent on this issue." Paulsen did allow that some members might still be reluctant to support environmental issues because of their "political nature," but that ultimately "we have a responsibility to our global community, all of which is impacted by the environment, and God expects it of us."
Within a forward-thinking church, one participant asked, are the seemingly "dated" writings of Adventist Church pioneer Ellen G. White at all relevant?
While culture and time have indeed shaped the Adventist Church, its "central, core values" remain, and White speaks to them, Paulsen said, adding that many members critical of White don't dismiss the Bible as "irrelevant," even though it was written more than 2,000 years ago.
After one participant asked whether believing the Adventist Church is the "true church" is elitist, Paulsen told the group that each person's "place in eternity" is ultimately based on his or her "personal commitment to Jesus Christ," not membership in any one community of believers.
"It is important that you maintain the convictions that have led you to the Adventist Church, but at the same time, realize that there are people who may not have the same convictions, but whose loyalty to the Lord is just as strong," Paulsen said.