3 Areas Where Adventism is Stuck in the 1950s (And Why We Need the ’50s Again)

March 10, 2015

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.

  1. 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?

Suddenly Latin American Conferences sound pretty good…but is this the way to go?

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.

  1. 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.

Typical teenage fashion in the 1950s.

I dare you to tell me there isn’t at least a similarity between this and 1950’s hair and dress fashion.

You may be cool, but you will never be “Moses high-fiveing himself” cool.

Examples of “modern people” in the felt sets…have I made my point about the 50’s yet?

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?

  1. 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!

  • Kendall Turcios

    Dude, your Dave Hamster quote was worth the cost of admission alone! UNREAL! Keep up the awesome work Nelson.

  • Interesting insights. Concerning the 1950s, I need to concur with the leading theologian and philosopher in Adventism–my (and probably your) teacher in the Seminary– Dr Fernando Canale who builds the most comprehensive survey of theological shift in Adventism since the 50s. It was not at ‘all for the good’ as bro. Stetzer or bro. Hamstra posited responding to your social media post.

    I going to do what ‘true education’ should encourage us not to do–reflect Dr Canale’s thoughts. Essentially he convincingly argues by accurately documenting how the engagement with the 1950’s religious culture (conversations of leading Adventist theologians with Drs. Martin and Barnhouse that eventually led to the publication of ‘Question on Doctrines’) ultimately was a significant unmooring of biblical principles that have led to the vessel of Adventism presently precariously threatened to be dashed on the shores of ‘relativism’ and ‘relevantism’ (my word). I cannot put it better than he can so here are four (actually five) links to Dr Canale’s work on this subject that has far-reaching consequences.
    If you want a summary of the four parts you can find it here.
    If you find it interesting enough to find the reasons in detail I suggest the forepart series.
    1) From Vision to System: Finishing the Task of Adventist Theology
    Part I: Historical Review P 5-39

    2)From Vision to System: Finishing the Task of Adventist Biblical and Systematic Theologies—Part II P 114-142

    3)From Vision to System: Finishing the Task of Adventist Theology
    Part III Sanctuary and Hermeneutics Page 36-80

    and finally
    4)The Eclipse of Scripture and the Protestantization of the Adventist Mind: Part 1: The Assumed Compatibility of Adventism with Evangelical Theology and Ministerial Practices p 133-165

    You have been patient to read this far. It will take seven-fold more patience to read Dr Canale and seriously consider his reorienting perspective.

    This post is so long that I am tempted to thank you for the guest blog status that its length implies. Blessings to you for attempting these pertinent issues.

    • Thanks for your thoughts Rick! I love Dr. Canale and have great respect for him! He gave me some of the best classes I can remember at Seminary.

      I only ready the “summary” post you provided (I took one look at the length of pt 1 of the 4 part series and almost began to hyperventilate-I think I’ll pass on that one, lol). Having said that, based on the post that I did read, I don’t disagree with your or Dr. Canale’s conclusions. As a matter of fact, in my experience, I can affirm what he’s saying.

      This will probably be another post altogether, but Adventists are starting to become, in practice, Seventh-day Baptists more than Adventists. That being said, don’t I think that Canale would discount the need for Adventists to both simplify and contextualize our doctrines (after all, even Jesus used simple metaphors from an Agrarian society to explain deep truths to others). Dr. Canale once famously said in our class that modern Christianity should stop trying to be gimmicky and get people connected to deeper truth by saying “put down the guitar and pick up the Bible.”

      One thing that I will say of Dr. Canale’s work, which you may agree with or not, is that it is deep; beyond the level of the common person in terms of its content and concept. As a theologian and philosopher, his duty is to give us the explanation behind our beliefs, however long it takes (His book “the Cognitive Principle,” is probably considered “light reading” by a select handful of people – one of which was probably Einstein). However, our job as pastors is to break it down and make it practical for others to understand.

      On that note, I’ll give a brief plug for a theological website that’s in the works with myself and a few other of Dr. Canale’s former students in order to write practical papers explaining our theology in practical terms and exploring how it looks in today’s world. We hope that Dr. Canale will be proud of us. It’s called “round table theology” and it should roll out in a few weeks. Blessings!

  • Marlon Moodie Jr

    I like to use the word “Depends”
    The article is very true, and we can say the majority of our churches are like that in the States.
    White churches, more conservative,
    Black churches, more “open minded”
    Latino churches, a lil bit of both.

    But it depends. Because I know black churches, that will test your soundtrack first, to see if it has to much drums in it, and then will let you know if you can sing or not.

    Its a cultural thing but more a preference thing. People will worship where they fill more comfortable. And it happens to be that it falls right with their race as well.

    Some churches are afraid of change. Some churches will not change until they hear an “order” straight from the General Conference. Some will stick to what the church manual says. That’s why some churches find it difficult to keep the youth in church, but its not because of the youth, but because of the lack of change, lack of loving discipleship, and because of the constant criticism.

    I’m glad for my church, and thank God for it (Miami Temple SDA… Goooolll) Because its a mix church, and we do a little bit of everything in worship. We have once a year an “Internationals day” were members from our church march with their flags from all over the world that are represented in our church. Its very diverse. But hopefully other churches may find balance in worship, so that they can break barriers from other races, ages, and cultural barriers.
    Great article!

    • I have great memories visiting Miami Temple many years ago. Good group of people there. With every local church situation being different, I’m with you: it depends. 🙂

  • Janice Long

    although things have changed, I have been told that blacks like their own churches. I have always wonder how come we have black, spanish, etc churches, when we will all be together in heaven. I know two churches in this area that have black pastors in white churches. so there is some changes. I remember the felt boards in Sabbath school when I taught my grandchildren, and we had all colors of felt children. that was in the 90’s. so not all churches are the same. Lets be ready for Jesus to come.

    • Thanks for your thoughts Janice. My wife and I are both bi-racial and serving in a bilingual district. The diversity we have in our family and churches is a taste of what we hope will catch on in the rest of the world! Blessings to you.

  • Stan

    The fact is that few churches are using any felts at all, and worship styles with extended praise team sessions has become the norm in many churches today. These changes certainly don’t reflect the 50s. The writer seems to suggest that our religious approaches need to reflect today’s culture. In a sense this is true i.e. Bible Study and evangelistic materials need to reflect diversity. However, I take issue with the premise that no cultural time period is more holier or better morally. The truth is that our culture has become more debased since the 50s. In the 50s there were no curse words on television or movies; popular music today more explicitly openly defies God and glorifies graphic violence and sex, no other time in history where the definition of marriage has been re-defined to allow same sex marriage; a standard that has been unchanged for thousands of years. Today’s standards of dress both in the church and outside the church reflect almost open nakedness. The legalization of the recreational use of marijuana, just to name a few things. If you think that things are the same as they were back then, then perhaps your moral compass needs adjusting to discern the signs of the times. We as a church need to go back to embracing some of the principles of a by gone era of the 50s, principles of modesty, respect, reverence, Godly living, with the love of God in our hearts, will more than any methodology we may adopt, give us credibility with the unchurched generation.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Stan.

      I’m willing to engage you in your thoughts. I try to be conscious of making a distinction between opinion and fact. If I state something as a fact, I try to provide some evidence to the case. So, I’d be willing to consider your claims about felts and worship with some proof to back it up. It’s totally possible that I could be basing my perception of these things on personal opinion. But if your thoughts on this are also based on personal opinion or experience, rather than research and actual fact, let me know.

      I’d also agree with you that our 2015 culture on the surface seems publicly more debased than the 50s. However, even though there was not as much violence, sex, and drugs on television and in public display, I would be remiss to suggest that these things didn’t also exist back then. There were many great things that happened in the 50s but let’s not forget that the 50s were also full of:

      -Publicly accepted racism
      -Condoned national segregation
      -Blatant sexism
      -Hysteria about communism

      Within Adventism, though, it’s important to point out that this was one of the most legalistic times that our church ever had. I have a book in my library from the time period where our church had “Bible studies” using only quotes from Ellen White. It was no wonder why people thought we were just like Mormons with our own prophet with greater authority that the Bible.

      Finally, according family historian Stephanie Coontz, “25 percent of Americans were poor in the mid-50s, a time before food stamps and housing programs. Forty percent of black women with small children worked outside their homes. African-Americans, whose labor sustained the economic expansion of the time, were restricted from living in white neighborhoods.”

      So even though Leave It To Beaver did reflect the values that were more in line with Biblical principles, the reality is that in order to live the American Dream in that day, you really had to be a white middle-class man.

      Their culture needed Jesus and transformation just as much as we do today.

  • Alberto Valenzuela

    Well said. Sadly our young people see the dichotomy in our church between what we say we believe and the way we act or behave and consider us to be hypocritical and out of touch. They end up leaving the church that we still claim we love but haven’t done much to bring up to be relevant.

    • Well said. Thanks for sharing!

  • Jason ORourke