Why are Adventist Churches Always 10 Years Behind?

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Have you ever heard the phrase, "Adventists are always 10 years behind everyone else"?

The statement comes up in a variety of settings. When it comes to innovation, for example, Adventists tend to crawl behind other denominations. They were using PowerPoint and Keynote way before us. They were paying tithe electronically way before my local church had the option (or at least promoted it). They have updated, modern websites whereas most SDA churches have terribly outdated websites that look like they were designed in the 90's. When it comes to shifts in the culture, Adventists usually start realizing the shift occurred ten or more years after it occurred. Post-modernism dates back to the 1980's to 90's, but it was only around 2010 that I first heard it mentioned in local Adventist circles. Reaching millennials is a trending topic in Adventism nowadays even though millennials are now pushing 40 years of age. The post-millennials are now on the scene and entering university and I rarely hear anything related to reaching their generation. Perhaps in 10 years we will catch up? Problem is, by the time we do catch up everyone else has moved on.

When it comes to new trends within Christianity, Adventists are usually ten years behind everyone else as well. For example, by the time the Emergent Church became a thing Adventists were discussing, the rest of the Christian world was kind of getting over it. The movement began around the 1970's-80's. By 2003 it was already crumbling and in 2008 Christianity Today published the article "R.I.P. Emerging Church: An overused and corrupted term now sleeps with the fishes" followed by Relevant Magazines 2010 piece, "The End of the Emergent Movement? A look back at the controversial movement's history and forward to its uncertain future."

However, the first articles on the Emergent Church in popular SDA publications such as Spectrum Magazine and the Adventist Review date to between 2008 to 2011. It was around this time that the topic became a point of discussion in many of the churches I was connected with as well. It seemed that Adventists were getting riled up over something that many outside of Adventism where already moving past.

But is it objectively true that Adventists are 10 years behind everyone else? Honestly, I don't know. The above examples aren't exactly air tight. Other factors may be at play. But the phrase has become a sort of joke many Adventists toss around. Perhaps, even though we don't have any official studies to prove the validity of the phrase, we all know in both anecdotal and experiential ways, that Adventists are usually at the tail end of most cultural developments.

In my personal experience as a life-long Adventist, I would have to agree that there is truth to this phrase. For a long time I wondered why. The answer mattered to me because being 10 years behind the rest of the world means our ministries and strategies are always reactive. And reactive warfare is no way to gain ground. It is an act of desperation reserved for those who have lost, but are hanging on for a miracle. However, just recently, I came across a concept introduced by scholar James P. Carse in his 1986 book (yeah, I'm way late myself), "Finite and Infinite Games" that, once understood, helped me make sense of our "laggish" reputation and what to do about it.

Finite VS Infinite Games

First, allow me to define the terms. In the article, "Are you playing a finite game, or an infinite one?" the author quotes Carse's own definition of finite games:

“[F]inite games as those which have a definite beginning and ending, and are bounded by specific rules.” [1]
— James P. Carse

In other words, a finite game is the typical game. Baseball, pool, spades, chess - all of these are finite games. They have specific players with specific rules and a specific outcome. Another way of understanding a finite game is that, in essense, "[a] finite game is played to win." [2]

But what about an infinite game? That one is a bit tougher to understand. Kevin Kelly provides a neat definition in his article, "Playing the Infinite Game"

An infinite game, on the other hand, is played to keep the game going. It does not terminate because there is no winner. An infinite game, however, can keep going only by changing its rules. [3]
— Kevin Kelly

Some examples of infinite games are things like politics. There isn't a winner or loser in politics. No one ever takes home the politics trophy. Instead, people come and go into the game. They play for as long as they can, and then they drop out and others take their place. There aren't set rules either. Instead, the rules change and evolve to accommodate societal shifts and at times, to lead those societal shifts. The same can be said for the stock market. There are no set players. They come and go. There are no set rules, they shift as well. Education is also an infinite game. It evolves over time as new developments come to light. No one ever wins that game. Its infinite. It never ends and the rules just keep changing. Culture, philosophy, business, empire, fashion - all of these are examples of infinite games.

But why does this matter and what does it have to do with Adventism being 10 years behind? Leadership expert Simon Sinek makes an interesting observation on this whole finite VS infinite game thing. "When a finite player goes against a finite player", he says, "the system is stable". Both are playing by the same rules with the same expected outcome - someone will win and take home the prize. When an infinite player goes against an infinite player the game is also stable. Both play, not to win, but to stay in the game. Things stay smooth. However, Simon observes that real problems emerge when you pit a finite versus an infinite player. In this scenario, things become unstable. [4]

Think of the Vietnam War. The US was playing to win. They were playing a finite game. The Vietcong's were playing to stay in the game. They were playing an infinite game. Eventually the finite players walked away. They had won every major battle in the war, but it was irrelevant. The Vietnamese won the war anyways because they weren't playing to win, they were playing to stay in the game. Another way of looking at it is like this: finite players play to outclass their opponent. Infinite players play to outlast them. They aren't interested in being better, faster or stronger. They aren't interested in temporary wins and trophies. They are interested in playing the game in such a way that they never have to pull out. They outlast their opponents because, rather than aiming for some ethereal goal they simply play to stay in the game.

So what does this have to do with local Adventist churches? Here is my observation. Satan is playing an infinite game. He knows he has lost the war. He knows his judgment is soon to come. So he plays an infinite game. His goal is to stay in the game as long as possible, not to win the game. So he influences cultural shifts to keep him in the game. He influences political narratives to keep him in the game. He influences trends and ideological shifts to keep him in the game. He is playing to outlast the church as long as possible.

Churches, on the other hand, play a finite game. They establish rules for how they will do certain things, pick certain people to do those things and set goals for what winning the game will look like (x number of baptisms, y number of members, z number of churches). The end result is a catalyst of churches that may very well be winning battles but are still losing the war. Most of the time they are playing catch-up with the culture, reacting to new shifts as they come instead of anticipating them, and demonizing the culture instead of influencing it. All of these are symptoms of frustrated churches. They are frustrated because when you pit a finite player against an infinite player the finite player is always one step behind. 

Churches need to learn to play the infinite game. Rather than playing to win we need to play to stay in the game. What does this look like? Instead of attacking culture (a finite strategy) we need to influence culture (an infinite strategy that requires friendship and earning trust). Rather than measuring success by baptisms (a finite metric) we need to measure success by discipleship (an infinite metric). Instead of having a few people playing the game (pastors, elders, Bible workers) we need to invest in training every member to get in the game. Rather than reacting to new shifts, we need to be students of the culture and anticipate the shifts, adapting as necessary to meet the needs of new generations with the power of the gospel. Finite churches don't adapt because they have set rules. Infinite churches adapt because they don't have set rules. They are comfortable with changing the rules to fulfill the mission. [5]

So why are Adventist churches always 10 years behind? I think the answer is because Adventist churches are playing a finite game. And as the world around them changes they don't change because finite games have established rules that never change. But the problem is that Satan is playing an infinite game. His tactics frustrate our strategies because he is always one step ahead. We may be winning battles here and there, but we are still losing the war over our communities and culture. And unless we begin to play an infinite game we will continue to stay 10 years behind, reacting instead of anticipating, demonizing instead of influencing, preserving instead of innovating.

It's time we switched the way we play the game.

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[1] https://patrickhollingworth.com/are-you-playing-a-finite-game-or-an-infinite-one/

[2] http://realitysandwich.com/78780/playing_infinite_game/

[3] ibid

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KbYzF6Zy5tY

[5] Note: Changing the rules is not to be confused with changing our message or theology. The message is unchangeable, but the method to reveal the message is what needs to evolve and change in order to remain effective with the emergence of diverse cultures and generations.