Up front, let me say that this isn’t something I’d ever have risked writing while on the church payroll! I suppose, though, that I could be risking certain publishing projects for church entities that are part of my current workload. Still, I’m not so old yet as to opt for playing life safe. So herewith, my Top Ten:
10. I wish that in this social-media, digitally based world, the church didn’t cling so tenaciously to the nineteenth-century “evangelism” methods of a world long gone. I’m sure God works His best to bless—and does—even “crusades” and “evangelistic meetings,” but we no longer live in a time when getting busy, private, defensively fearful people out of their homes to travel to hear us works all that well. We must increasingly reach people where they are. And where is that? On social media, on their smartphones, their tablets and e-readers, their laptops—or in those unplanned yet “divine appointment” opportunities for one-on-one conversation.
9. Even in those “divine appointments,” however, the goal isn’t to move as quickly as possible to “make Adventists out of them,” or even to focus on spiritual things at all—at least initially. Jesus modeled for us that meeting human needs was the starting point. Where are people hurting? What do they most urgently need? I’ve actually heard church members scoff at the idea of focusing on human needs. I wish the church could be far more interested in connecting people with the Truth than with “the truth.” I could so wish that as Christians, we weren’t in such a rush to tell people what we think they need to hear, that we don’t listen much at all to what’s important to them.
8. I so wish the church could moderate its fascination with the cerebral, intellectual side of spirituality. I’ve seen plenty more than enough of splitting theological hairs, of endlessly debating doctrinal fine points, of making the simple hopelessly complex. Am I campaigning for a purely emotional religion? Hardly. That too is a trap. The two—reason and emotion, facts and feeling, propositional truth and experiential faith—need to be in balance. But if Adventists err in that balance, in my opinion the church is far more enamored with knowing doctrines than with knowing Jesus. The church therefore uses this approach in its “evangelism”—if it can get people to assent to 28 creedal statements, they’re ready for baptism and membership.
It’s a question of priorities: Is Jesus really “foremost” and paramount? Is sharing our experience with Him our driving motivator—or is it to convince people that we’re right? Spirituality is at its most basic, a relationship with a Person, not a commitment to a set of facts. Those two need to be kept in their proper places. And as in any relationship, we must often choose between always being right—and being loved.
7. Related to the above, I so wish church media could be radically refocused. People, I’m convinced that we’re mostly preaching to the choir! The “NET” TV evangelism efforts of a few years back were laudable in at least using mass media. But they, too, were a hybrid of the new with the old: TV, yes—but then streamed locally to churches, where yet again, we invited people out of their homes to come to us if they were to hear what we have to say.
And what about Adventist TV networks? Lots of sincere people work in those places—and good work is being done. But again, the programming is so focused on the preaching of Adventist distinctives—complete with “insider” church lingo and references—that I have to wonder how many non-members are actually being reached, as would be if the programming were primarily on how to know and walk with Jesus and on offering solutions to the most pressing human needs. Even some Adventists admit that when they want help with their own Christian walk, they turn to non-church Christian programming. Yes, I anticipate the protests that Adventist broadcasting does speak of knowing and walking with Jesus. My concern is again the relative priority. And I’m not alone in concluding that the highest priority is the presenting of Adventist distinctives. I’d like to see the balance reversed.
6. When it comes to Adventism, I fear that the church far, far too often shoots its wounded. An Adventist church—and especially the organizational levels—should be a place of redemptive safety. The goal should be to restore and never to rush to expose but rather, to follow 1 Corinthians 13:6 in never rejoicing in iniquity. Too often, I’ve seen Matthew 18 ignored in the knee-jerk effort of some church leaders to close ranks to keep the church’s reputational boat from rocking, at the price of rejecting or even ejecting someone who has either done wrong—or perhaps even only been accused of wrong-doing.
5. I could wish that, since Adventists like to see themselves as “Modern Israel,” the church might reflect more fully on where ancient Israel left the tracks. You read of Old Testament Israel and think, “What was wrong with those people? Why did they so repeatedly reject their God-given role to wander off after the gods and values of the pagans around them?” And why did they hoard the truth God had given them to share—and see that truth as a mark of their own superiority? And why did they end up almost exclusively focused on the letter, rather than the spirit, of the law? We’re appalled by the density of ancient Israel. But is not modern Israel often tracking in the same path?
4. Which brings me to the issue of legalism. Yes, that’s not universal in the Adventist Church. But from pioneer days, through the appeals of 1888, to the present day, we’ve struggled with a legalism that not only alienates those around us but that robs us of the calm security God wants us to enjoy concerning our own present salvation and future destiny. If being a Seventh-day Adventist is far more than a day we keep or an advent for which we hope—and instead is the celebration of a Person who lived and died to offer us a finished, certain salvation—then we have a way yet to go to shake off our endemic legalism.
3. I also wish that the church would play more to its strengths and less to its comparatively minor concerns. To my knowledge, no other religion or denomination on the planet shares our unique Big Picture of the great controversy between good and evil. At its most basic, that theme is all about restoration—God restoring, both now and in eternity, all that was lost in the Fall of Lucifer, Adam, and Eve. That Adventist perspective is the foundation, too, of our emphasis on health. I live maybe a half mile from Loma Linda University, whose motto is: “To Make Man Whole” (and Woman too, I’m sure!). Restoration.
The great controversy overview also helps answer some of life’s most intractable questions, such as, “How can a good God let this bad world go on?” Or, “Where is God when people hurt?” Or, “What’s the point of life—if there even is one?” The great controversy/restoration theme can be an even more powerful magnet to draw others in, were we to intentionally and innovatively give it higher priority.
2. I’m dismayed by the increasing polarity in the church. Left and right. Conservative and liberal. To some degree, this polarity seems to reflect the same divide seen in the more general, secular society—and sometimes, even the issues in contention overlap. Adventists too may line up on either side of gun control, gay rights, abortion, and political allegiance. But the church also has its own unique issues: women’s ordination, Creation versus evolution, the role of Ellen White’s writings, worship styles, remnant triumphalism, and many others.
I’m dismayed by all this, because it distracts the church from its primary and urgent mission: To share the Good News of salvation as a fait accompli, of the return of a magnificent Jesus, of the hope of a far better world soon coming, of the ultimate triumph of life over death, and in the meantime, of a daily life of more abundance. Do we really want to invest so much time in quibbling over what’s politically or religiously correct? Do we really want to keep fiddling as Rome burns—as this world accelerates to hell in a hand-basket? Do we risk becoming far better known for what we’re against—than what we’re for? I’ve personally stood so close to eternity in the past year or so, that I’ve lost virtually all interest in taking sides and in generating heat instead of light. My eyes are now focused on what’s on “the other side.”
1. And now, the number one thing I wish I could change about the Adventist Church: I wish it could use only God’s tools and leave the devil’s alone. Fear, guilt, shame, control, and force all issue from the dark side of the great controversy. The other side uses only love and freedom. Yet the church relies far too much and often on keeping “the saints” in line with fear, guilt, control, and coercion (even subtle coercion).
The Word says that “perfect love casts out fear.” That said, there’s no room whatever for appealing to fear. Yet I’ve heard a lot of Adventist preachers and leaders doing their level best to instill fear in the flock—keeping member adrenaline (and often their funds) flowing by scaring them silly about oh, say, the Time of Trouble, a coming apostasy, prophecies that “prove” a world-wide disaster—or even the world’s end—is imminent. Fear-purveyors know that the fearful are drawn to the sensational, so they pour on the conspiracy theories. They know that the fearful are afraid of the devil, so they focus more on the devil’s power than on God’s and neglect to note that the devil is a beaten foe.
Fear goes hand in hand with control and force. And when church leaders become enamored of control, disastrous things can happen in the church. Fear also spills over into our outreach efforts: “We have to warn the world of the Second Coming.” Shouldn’t it rather be our privilege to announce to the world the Good News that Jesus is almost here? That we can all be ready for that because of what He’s already done before we were even born? That if we daily choose Him, we have nothing to fear?
So yes, I do have issues with the Adventist Church. But I also could easily write a Top Ten list of the things I like about it. Perhaps in due course. . .
Ken McFarland is a retired yet active author-publisher living in Loma Linda, California. He’s a former Adventist pastor and editor, having served as Editorial Vice President at Pacific Press—and is the author of 28 published books, including Your Friends, the Seventh-day Adventists.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5365