Adventist Church division was created in 1928 to better support mission, historian says.
Published on: 05-28-2019
A good party has three essentials: guests, a cake, and a good speech. Leaders of the Trans-European Division had all three aplenty when they gathered for a 90th-anniversary celebration at Newbold College of Higher Education in Bracknell, United Kingdom, on May 18, 2019.
David Trim, historian and director of the Archives, Statistics and Research (ASTR) office at the world church headquarters in the United States, returned to the Seventh-day Adventist school, his alma mater, to present a lecture entitled, “Becoming European: The Trans-European Division after 90 years.”
Trim’s presentation briefly reviewed the history of the regional church and discussed a way forward for mission across the 22 countries included in the territory.
A Vision for Mission
In August 1928, European Adventist leaders, together with leaders of the world church, met at Marienhoehe Seminary near Darmstadt, Germany, to map out a future for the church in Europe. At the time there was just one European division. However, Europe had a vision for mission and, quite apart from evangelism within its territories, was sending out missionaries to large swathes of Africa, Asia, and beyond. Leaders had a strong consciousness that, to improve mission, this single division needed to divide.
The result? On December 31, 1928, the European Division ceased to exist, replaced on New Year’s Day by the Southern European Division (SED), the Central European Division (CED) and the Northern European Division (NED). In the ninety years since then, the NED has gone through several name changes, various territory changes, and a change in focus. It has also lived through the great depression, World War II, the Cold War, the move from colonialism to independence in its traditional mission territories, and with it a vibrant and robust growth in home-grown leadership in those same territories.
At Home and Overseas
Yet with all of that, mission has always been at the core of the Trans-European Division. During the first winter council following the formation of the division territory, leaders stated, “We pledge ourselves under God to make every effort to carry the Advent Message to the many millions in the countries of the Northern European Division, including its large mission fields.”
Those mission territories for the NED were mainly in West Africa, where, over the years, European Adventists supported more than a thousand missionaries. The church in Africa grew strong while, in more recent years, the European “mother church” faced the new issues of growing secularism and materialism. Growth rates at home slowed except in those countries, like the British Isles, that saw significant immigration.
European Adventism, and particularly Scandinavian and British Adventism, historically had a significant impact on church growth in large swathes of the world. Today the focus has changed. Territorial realignments mean that what is now known as the Trans-European Division no longer has a mission territory outside of itself. Today the focus is on building mission in Europe.
To illustrate this, Trim noted that “Europe” has always been in the Division’s title but that in the early days, passion for mission was focused on Africa, and later on Asia. This was referenced via its name changes, at one time being known as the Northern European West Africa Division, then with the last change to the Trans-European Division, still maintaining mission connections to South Sudan, the Middle East, and Pakistan.
In the past decade, those territories were also realigned elsewhere. For the first time in its history, the TED was only European. Mission is now primarily focused within Europe and on the myriad challenges facing the continent today.
Reviewing a history lined with statistics and anecdotes, Trim posed the question, “Did church growth in mission fields come at the expense of evangelism in home countries?” With a challenging lesson for today, he asked, “Was as much effort put into translating Adventism into cultural language in Europe as it was in Africa?” He noted that the organized institutional church did not invest as much into translating from American idiom into a European context. Part of this was on the basis that Europe was seen as “already Christian.”
Trim provided a detailed analysis of trends in the Division, with the original heartland of the territory in Scandinavia gradually being replaced more by countries further south. Yet the statistics that provide important lessons are perhaps best seen in the context of the full lecture.
Ultimately Trim’s lecture was about mission. The big questions for him were: “Are European Adventists in the 21st century able to adjust to the changes?” “Can TED simply be European?” “Can the church here learn to thrive in the midst of secularism, apathy, and the ‘isms’ that seem to surround it?”
Perhaps, Trim suggests, European Adventism needs to focus its energies on being as fluent in the cultural languages of the Division as they once were in the languages of the mission field — to truly focus its energies on being European.