Open dialogue sessions with top Seventh-day Adventist officials at several locations throughout Germany offer perspective on leaders' goals for the church in that and other secular societies.
During a visit earlier this month, Adventist Church President Ted N. C. Wilson and other church officials supported local leaders in their push for outreach, offered clarification of denominational initiatives and highlighted the biblical base of the Adventist Church's beliefs during discussions on theological unity.
"Germany has a variety of theological issues that are being discussed from different ends of a spectrum," said Mark Finley, assistant to the president for evangelism, who accompanied Wilson in Europe. "I think the [president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church] accepting an invitation to visit was helpful."
Finley said common themes arose during different dialogues, including questions about the denomination's Revival and Reformation initiative.
Of the word "revival," Finley said it's "the renewal of spiritual grace in the soul. Revival is something that every generation needs to look forward to and experience. It's the moving of the Holy Spirit in the heart, life, mind and soul. Because our natures are fallen we constantly need spiritual renewal -- like Lamentations 3:23 says, "'His mercies are new every morning.'"
Finley defined "reformation" as "the reforming of the though patterns to live life in the image of Christ, to think thoughts of Jesus. You have to have reformed thinking before you can have reformed behavior. ... What God is longing for is for people who are committed to Him. For people who have undivided allegiance in their hearts, the spirit of God will take care of their behavior."
Many question-and-answer periods with members, pastors, professors and students over the 10-day visit raised similar discussions held in other countries as members from a variety of perspectives offer support or seek further clarification about the goals of the denomination's officials.
Wilson and other leaders accepting international invitations for special events and ceremonies often include open dialogues as part of scheduled itineraries.
Several members and students also asked about the church's 28 Fundamental Beliefs and the necessity of accepting all of them to be a faithful Adventist.
"We pointed out that they are all biblical teachings and not just determined by an administrative committee at the [church's world headquarters]" Finley said. "The world church has come together and discussed and mutually agreed upon them."
"Also, if you drop one belief, it seriously impacts other beliefs," he said. "They are not a creedal statement, they are inter-related."
"Still, there may be different understandings of these beliefs -- not everyone may understand them the same, and there is room for growth in our individual lives."
Finley also pointed out that the church has added a 28th Fundamental Belief to the original 27 officially voted in 1980. "There is a process for doing so," he said.
The new belief, Growing in Christ, was added in 2005, and the General Conference Session last year began a process that would allow for the rewording of the church's belief on Creation. The move, which would specifically state Creation was a six-literal-day event, was met with opposition by some Session delegates from the Euro-Africa Division, which includes Germany.
Still, Wilson said he wasn't worried about the unity of the church. "I know that the Holy Spirit is in charge," he told some 3,500 attendees of the Bavarian Conference Convocation at Schwaben Halle in Augsburg on July 2.
"The Adventist Church was raised up for a special purpose: to spread the message of salvation. ...This message unites us," he said.
Later responding to a question on why he quotes church co-founder Ellen White so frequently in sermons, Wilson responded, "You can write a wonderful sermon without using a quote from Ellen White. Her writings should never take the place of the Bible, but I find her statements very helpful, so I like to quote them."
Throughout his sermon at Augsburg and at visits at Darmstadt and Friedensau Adventist University, Wilson repeatedly emphasized the denomination was a "prophetic movement," and that "The Lord [had] entrusted an enormous mission in the hands of His Remnant Church of declaring the Three Angels' Message," he said, referring to Revelation 14.
He and other leaders encouraged a renewed emphasis on mission and local outreach, much like the church pioneers there in the late 1800s. Today, there are about 35,000 members in the country, down from about 44,000 members in the 1950s.
"I think leaders have an obligation to create a wide smorgasbord of opportunities for involvement," said Mike Ryan, a general vice president of the Adventist Church.
He said mission has sometimes been too narrowly defined as preaching and giving Bible studies. "If you read Ellen White, the horizon of opportunities is much wider than those two methods. It's delivering food to someone who's sick or visiting people in prison, or getting involved in a community organization."
"People need to pick one," Ryan said. He said lay involvement in mission has been demonstrated to drive church growth.
Recognizing that traditional Adventist outreach of the Three Angel's Message Mission can be difficult in a secular, post-modern society, Finley shared how that message might have been specifically designed for such a mindset.
"Post-modern young people want to be involved in something large, the Gospel affects the whole world -- what could be larger?" Finley said. "Giving glory to God in every aspect of your life -- physically, mentally, spiritually -- that's a holistic approach and the post-modern mind is looking for something holistic. We talked about the hour of God's judgment -- the post modern mind wants justice."
For Wilson, the visits in Germany were a chance to support leaders and better understand their challenges.
"I'd like to enlist the support of the world church in praying for our members in Germany, that they will have success with the daunting task of reaching people in a sophisticated, secular society," he said. "It's a very tough challenge."
--additional reporting by Corrado Cozzi