If the 1950s were to come back, many churches would be ready to receive the culture and people of the day. In some cases, it would be as though things had never changed! To be sure, America and the world have come a long way since then. Consider the following feats that were accomplished during that 10 year period:
- Color TV introduced (1951)
- Car seat belts introduced (1952)
- DNA discovered (1953)
- Report says cigarettes cause cancer (1954)
- Segregation ruled illegal in U.S. (1954)
- Ray Kroc opens his first McDonald’s (1955)
- Velcro and T.V. remote control invented (1956)
- NASA founded (1958)
Yet, I have a theory that the 1950s were also the heyday of Adventism. Why? Because many great things that were produced in that time period are still used today (more on that later). But just like any time period that’s looked upon fondly, it’s always possible that we may look at the past and elevate it to a revered status.
Here are 3 areas where Adventism still finds itself in the 1950s.
- Redundant and “Separate but Equal” Church Structures
Apart from the fact that there is currently positional redundancy in the administrative departmental structure at the conference, union, and division levels, we still operate in a church which not only condones, but in some cases justifies a “separate but equal” administrative divide based primarily on race. In the 1950s, there were black bathrooms and white bathrooms, black schools and white schools, and black churches and white churches (in Adventism, the black churches were overseen by black conferences and white churches by white conferences).
However, even though the country outlawed segregation in 1954, the federal government could not impose this ban in churches. So, the racial split that existed in the church by 1950 still exists today within Adventism. Regional Conferences still work within a predominantly black administrative structure, while State Conferences work within a predominantly white administration.
To be sure, Regional Conferences have made it possible for incredible growth and progress to happen among the many minority groups it serves, not just within the Black community. The question today is not whether Regional Conferences were beneficial, effective, or even if they are still relevant. The answer to all would be a resounding yes! The question is, “Is this the message that we as a church want to give to the world?”
Because here is the message that I see the Adventist church sending to the rest of the world:
“In order to effectively reach different ethnic groups in North America, Adventism needs administrative structures comprised of the target people group because we don’t trust believers of a different skin color.”
Here is another issue I have based on this message. If we were to look at the baptism rates for both the State and Regional Conferences, there is no doubt in my mind that Hispanics would account for a large percentage for baptisms on both sides. One point I’ve always argued is that,
If Regional Conferences were established in Adventism in the wake of hiring discrimination, underrepresentation in leadership, unfair financial practices, and persistent segregation of policies towards the Black community in the U.S., why not create new Latin American Conferences for the same reasons they face today?
Come 2050, only 47 percent of Americans will call themselves white, while the majority will belong to a minority group. Blacks will remain steady at 13 percent of the population, while Asians will grow to 8 percent. Hispanics, on the other hand, will explode to 28 percent of all U.S. population, up from 19 percent in 2010.
Even though Hispanics already outnumber all other ethnic groups, they are largely underrepresented in the leadership of both conferences (more so in the Regional Conferences). Yet, is the answer to racism in this world further division and segregation?
Personally, I think this is a terrible idea. The answer to racism is not further division. Jesus didn’t pray in John 15-17 for unity among his people only for his Adventist followers to condone the charade we present to the world today.
Furthermore, with all of the racial tension that has come to the surface within the past few years in the wake of cases like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Treyvon Martin, Adventists have sought in different ways to bring awareness to those marginalized by society. Yet, for all of our talk about wanting justice for the racial wrongs that have happened, we mostly ignore or justify our own elephant in the room. It’s time to put up or shut up on racial issues unless we deal with our own skeletons. Otherwise, we tell people, “Do as I say, not as I do.”
The fallout from the now-defunct University of Oklahoma fraternity tell us that we are far from a post-racial America. I take inspiration from a few lines in John Legend’s song Glory:
Now we right the wrongs in history
No one can win the war individually
It takes the wisdom of the elders and young people’s energy
Let’s be a part of the change we want to see in society.
- Felt Boards
Don’t get me wrong: I loved felt boards. I even have an extra set at home that my parents gave me that is currently sitting around in storage. They were one of the best innovations of the day to engage children’s imagination. If you take a good look at them, though, you’ll notice very little ethnic diversity in the art. This is because, even though most felt sets date to the 1960s, the art style is essentially 1950s White America.
Again, I’m not saying to burn the felts. They still provide great memories for us older Adventists and entertainment for the younger ones. Yet, there is no escaping the fact that the world that inspired felts is not the one we live in today.
More than that, because this is what we saw and were taught as “good and wholesome” when we were kids, there a good chance that subtly we’ve set up the 50s as the standard of “correct dress” and look. Many churches by-and-large have accepted this as truth. Hook, line and sinker.
It’s been over 60 years; it’s time for a felt board update! Innovation still happens today.
Did good ideas stop in the 1950s? Did God-honoring music only exist pre-1950s? Is 1950s fashion God’s first choice for church attire for men and women?
Have we made an idol out of a time period?
- Traditional Evangelism
What images come to mind when you think of the word “evangelism”? If you’ve been around church long enough, you’ll most likely picture a 4-6 week series where people come to church several nights a week to listen to a 2-hour presentation about prophecy, doctrine, or general revival. These methods were the “bread and butter” of 1950s evangelism and had tons of success under the great Adventist preachers of the day, like E.E. Cleveland, Fordyce Detamore, and H.M.S. Richards Sr.
On this point, I can say that we have started changing things as a whole (although not without a lot of resistance). Part of what made this form of outreach effective was because it capitalized on the predominant cultural trends at the time. A Gallup poll found the following about that time period:
The most religious era of the past 75 years — at least based on this measure of weekly church attendance — was from the mid-to-late 1950s into the early 1960s, when, at some points, almost half of American adults said they had attended religious services in the past seven days. During this era, marked by the high fertility rates and family formation that was the foundation of the baby boomer generation, the percentage who reported that religion was important also reached high points, and almost all Americans identified with a religion.
People were also much more likely to say that religion was more important to them back then.
We need to stay committed to the mission but be willing to explore other methods to reach the current culture.
I recently shared the following on Facebook that generated a lot of discussion:
“Adventism’s default setting is stuck in 1950s segregated America. Doubt? Ask the felt boards and segregated conferences. #UnpopularOpinions”
In response, a great nugget was shared by my friend, David Hamstra:
There’s much about the Adventist Church in the 50s we would do well to recover. Evangelistic methods that got results, engagement with evangelicals, relevant and cutting-edge media ministries, top notch writing and publishing, sacrificial giving to institutions and missions—in many ways it was a high-water mark for Adventism’s influence in North America. Unfortunately, we have sought to preserve the forms of mid-20th cent. Adventism, rather than learning from the principles that drove it’s success.
So what was it that made the 1950s such a positive watershed moment within Adventism? I think it’s because they were willing to use something we today are generally unwilling to touch: culture.
Cultural Engagement vs. Cultural Aversion
Regional Conference issue aside, when you look at what led to the innovations of the felt boards, evangelistic methods, and other advancements, you’ll notice the general trend of a willingness to engage the predominant popular culture at the time. Adventists were willing to explore the values that the larger society held dear and tweak their outreach methods to meet the culture where they were, and thus transform culture into one of the most engaged generations ever.
By and large, modern Adventism does not know what to do with or how to deal with modern culture.
Some Adventists today even suggest that the problem with today’s spiritual malaise is today’s culture itself, which is saturated in social media. The solution by some is to reject culture altogether. We have not learned the lessons of the past.
The Adventist church is currently going through a crisis of culture. I am a part of the Millennial Generation who has been connected to technology and pop culture since birth. Rather than engaging culture, looking at the values that drive it, and contextualizing the gospel to speak to the heart, the church is mostly tone-deaf. They are oblivious to what is going on around them.
What’s even more baffling is the fact that rejecting or escaping culture is seen as a virtue, or the goal of spirituality; it’s as if being detached from society is a badge of honor. I’m not denying what the Bible says about light and darkness or its metaphors about adopting to the negative parts of a culture. But if you think the answer is to teach your children to reject the culture around them, you might as well become an Amish or a Mennonite. You don’t reject one culture without simultaneously adopting another.
What some people consider “godly culture” is to go back to the 1950s in dress and music. Some might even consider the 1950s too liberal and think that the best time period was somewhere between the 1800-1900s, before the modern age even came about. My point is, there is no such thing as a culture that was holier than any other; they all had issues and needed transformation. Stop running and learn to speak to the needs of today.
How can we witness to someone with whom we don’t share a common vocabulary?
In the 50s there was a wiliness to engage culture and build common ground with the popular culture through shared common core values by using the technological means available at the time. Maybe we should do the same.
And what about the Regional-State Conferences? The solution has always been under our noses since the 1950s.
In 1950, the president of the world church, W. H. Branson, sent a letter to denominational leadership (including every Union president and every local conference president) urging integration. He pointed out that the progress of the rest of the world was passing by the church in this area. He said:
“Perhaps no religious group in United States or the world claims so fully that it is intentional in its attitudes and services as do the Seventh-day Adventists and yet, in this manner of Negro segregation, we are trailing behind the procession.”
In many ways, we’re still trailing the procession. Maybe it’s time to admit mistakes were made, think of solutions together, and bring back the positive aspects of the 1950s instead of kicking the can down the road.
I’ll finish with what Ed Stetzer, a church researcher, pastor, church planter, and Christian missiologist said about the 1950’s:
It’s remarkable, and I’ve said it many times: if the 1950’s came back, many churches are ready. (Or the 1600’s, or the boomer 80’s, depending on your denomination, I guess.)
There is nothing wrong with the fifties, except we don’t live there anymore. We must love those who live here, now, not yearn for the way things used to be. The cultural sensibilities of the fifties are long past in most of the United States. The values and norms of our current context are drastically different and continue to change. The task of contextualization is paramount to the mission of the church because we are called to understand and speak to those around us in a meaningful way. We can learn much from the Apostle Paul’s example recorded in Acts 17:16-34.
So, a church on mission– in this time and place– engages the people around it. Yes, in some ways, it resembles its context– a biblically faithful church living in its cultural concept. But, if your church loves a past era more than the current mission, it loves the wrong thing.
Have any thoughts? Leave them below!