Karl Wilcox presented two papers at the General Conference last year, focussing on Dortch's Diaries, an original manuscript collection in the Southwestern Adventist University Library. Wilcox's presentations focus on Dortch's relations with his rural neighbors in Tennessee and what Dortch's methods of evangelism might teach us about evangelism for postmoderns. The first paper is presented in the video, and the second paper is summarized below.
I have been working for a few months now on a set of diaries written by a certain Mr. Dortch in the mid-1880's. The diaries are part of the original manuscript collection in the Southwestern Adventist University Library. In this lecture, I focus particularly on Dortch's relations with his rural neighbors in Tennessee; a relatively new convert to the SDA Church, Dortch, and a farmer, regularly socialized and met with his fellow farmers and frequently shared with them the SDA doctrine of the Seventh-Day Sabbath (Saturday) and other doctrines peculiar to Adventists (such as the 'Nature of Man' as in the rejection of the standard Christian belief in the immortality of the human soul). A pattern emerges from the diaries that shows Dortch engaging with his neighbors not only in matters religious, but also in more practical terms, as well. Dortch shared religious beliefs specific to his SDA faith, but he also both extended and received hospitality from his non-Adventist but presumably Christian neighbors. In other words, Dortch as a member of the SDA Church maintained consistently natural and friendly relations with his non-Adventist neighbors. The diary mentions that a number of other families and individuals in the surrounding farms became Seventh-Day Adventists as a direct result of Dortch's ministry to them; a ministry that generally involved simple conversations and informal Bible studies.
In the lecture, I observe that Dortch embodies an Adventist denomination in the 19th century fully rooted in rural life. The Adventist beliefs were unusual, but Dortch's farmer occupation implied a necessary level of communal interaction with his neighbors. I note that this kind of communal interaction is much less likely to happen in today's suburban/urban environment where persons are significantly less tied to village or rural systems. In a society where communal values are, at best fragmented, and persons tend to lead independent lives relative to 19th century rural America, Dortch's diary represents a way of life remote from our own. This difference, however, does pose a problem: how can postmodern Adventists replicate Dortch's approach to personal evangelism given that we do not enjoy as many natural or dependent relations with our neighbors? How can Adventists today, establish the kind of relations with non-Adventists which are based not just on difference, but also on similarities? We are not likely to find ourselves discussing religious topics with our neighbors while working with each other and for each other in the fields, as it were. What are the places and activities in the postmodern society which promise the best chances for Adventists to establish normative and natural relationships with secular persons?
I suggest a number of possible ways in which postmodern Adventists might replicate Dortch's approach to non-Adventists: first, most postmodern seculars identify with some kind of sub-culture or niche-culture which an Adventist is likely to share. For instance, outdoor recreation enjoys a massive postmodern and secular following; also, many postmoderns engage in community service projects and environmental activities. These kinds of group activities are congruent with Adventist values, and they also tend to allow for long-term, regular participation. As the postmodern society continues to diversify and fragment, numerous small-interest groups and niche groups will continue to form around common interests. Given that the postmodern society no longer subscribes to general religious mores or macro-belief systems, these niche groups appear to function in ways quite similar to the way in which churches functioned in the late 19th and early to mid 20th century. Dortch could interact with his neighbors on the common ground of both Christian beliefs and farming; today's Adventists will need to find ways to become part of postmodern niche groups which, like the churches of the 19th century, function to give secular persons purpose and meaning in their lives.
Of course, even if Adventists join their local Sierra Club Chapter or participate in weekly cycling trips at their local Bike Shop, the fact remains that most postmodern persons do not believe in the Bible as the Word of God. This, of course, represents a massive change from Dortch's time. I suggest that, at present, Adventists ought to become part of the niche culture, but they cannot expect to engage with secular persons regarding religion in the same way the Dortch was able to do, since, for the most part, postmodern persons, while tolerant of various religions, do not exhibit strong interest in learning about them. This lack of interest in traditional Bible-centered Christianity among postmoderns must be respected, but it could change if and when material or social circumstance in the postmodern society change.