Organisations decline and there’s no human reason to expect that the Adventist Church is exempt.
In 1965 psychologist Bruce Tucker came up with five memorable labels for the stages of organisational development: forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning.
“Forming” is exciting—it’s when a group has its first enthusiasm and begins to work spontaneously towards a goal. But you’ll never see a sequel to Tell the World. Because the next chapters of our Church’s history deal with the difficult “storming” phase: 1888, the Kelloggs, Ellen White’s removal to far-off Australia. Not particularly inspirational.
Since the Adventist Church’s establishment in 1863, there has certainly been a lot of “norming”—establishing leadership, institutions, official statements—and “performing”—membership growth to nearly 20 million and an incredible global impact in health and education.
So far our denomination has followed the inexorable trajectory of organisational development—from a grassroots movement to an established institution. “Adjourning” is next. The organisation is approaching the end of its natural life cycle.
The plateauing of membership numbers in parts of the world where Adventism is the oldest could be seen as an early sign of organisational decline, along with ageing demographics and an increasing willingness to minimise our peculiarities.
Is this the end? Here are three strategies that may help us avoid the inevitable.
". . . if Adventism is to recover its movement mentality it needs to nurture the innovation at its margins . . ."
- Empower the margins. To find the authentic spirit of movement Adventism look to new converts, church plants, student outreach groups, pioneer missionaries and emerging ministries. That’s where the action is. Lines are increasingly blurred as you approach the borders. Budgets are hazy, plans are fluid. But if Adventism is to recover its movement mentality it needs to nurture the innovation at its margins—to offer effective support without strangling fresh initiatives in red tape.
- Revitalise the centre. Adventism is institutionalised. It has to be. Legally, financially and in terms of human resources Church leaders are accountable for their decisions. But it’s so easy to get bogged down in the bureaucracy and forget the reasons these institutions exist. We need to find ways to increase the exposure of institutional personnel to the frontlines as well as improving the representation of innovators at key decision-making forums. Meaningful shifts in organisational culture will only be achieved by structural change—streamlining, transparency, responsiveness, democratisation.
- First things first. It’s a pity Dr Ted Wilson’s “Revival and Reformation” is now yesterday’s catchcry, because it encapsulates a message we need to keep hearing. Whether we’re on the cutting edge of mission efforts or deep in the bowels of the denomination we need Jesus. All the clever strategies in the world will founder unless there is genuine spiritual power infusing us and driving us forward.
Interestingly, theorists stress that organisational decline is not necessarily a bad thing. A legitimate reason—surely the best reason—for an organisation to end its existence is that it has achieved its goals. I’m looking forward to that final committee meeting, adjourned due to an unexpected shout and trumpet blast from the skies.