Like many of my fellow Seventh-day Adventists, I feel great sorrow about the level of spirituality that characterizes the church today – including in my own life. As one examines the landscape of Adventism, it would be hard to argue with the idea that, overall, the church looks more and more like the culture around it (I will resist using the term “worldly,” because I find it to be somewhat ambiguous).
Some could argue, of course, that the culture around us – as a general concept – is not bad, per se, and I would agree to a large extent (after all, the word “culture” is a morally-neutral word in an objective sense). However, the reality is, we as a people have become more and more enamored with the ways, practices, and fashions of Hollywood and have lowered the bar when it comes to our “standards,” to say nothing of how many of our views about sexuality have become troublingly liberalized.
For some, this is all a good thing. I am not completely convinced.
At the same time, it is also evident that, theologically speaking, the Adventist message has become more and more watered down and seems to be hardly discernible from evangelical perspectives. Our “peculiar” teachings are irrelevant to many and even a point of embarrassment to some. We hear more sermons about God’s love and grace than about sanctification and overcoming sin.
So why is this? Why does it seem as though Adventism and Adventists, whether in worship or in practice, look a lot less “unique” than we did 50 or 100 years ago – save for the fact that we go to church on Saturday?
And what do we do about it?
Many have offered various proposals: we need to preach the “straight testimony” and call sin by its right name. We need to stop reading evangelical authors. We need to emphasize the standards again and help our people know what it is that we believe and what makes us unique.
While all these proposals may have some level of truth, they fail to really understand the pathology of the problem. They fail to recognize what lies at the root – and, subsequently, what the solution is.
Here’s a thought: Adventism became more “worldly” not because people simply decided to get more rebellious. Adventism became more “worldly” because we failed to produce a gospel that was more attractive to them than the “world.”
At the same time, Adventist worship services became more amped up not because attendees wanted to be idolatrous but because our traditional services (saying nothing of the actual style) were genuinely lifeless, dry and – at their root – devoid of the Holy Spirit.
Similarly, Adventists became enamored with the love and grace that evangelicals offered not because they simply wanted to live a life of disobedience but because they were desperate for an escape from the guilt and shame they felt – something that Adventism had failed to deliver.
This last thought is an idea that became more clearly articulated in my own mind after listening to a series of sermons by the late J.W. “Bill” Lehman. He noted that we cannot underestimate the power of guilt and the lengths to which a person will go to escape from it. Every person experiences guilt and shame – and if they are not presented with a gospel solution to such guilt, they will either go looking for it elsewhere (hello evangelicalism) or deny the sin that produced the guilt in the first place (hello secular humanism).
Thus, in the absence of a clear articulation of grace within Adventism, Adventists don’t want to hear about obedience, sanctification – and especially not perfection. If there is, after all, no balm for the times we fail to obey, we’re just going to throw the whole program out altogether.
This last critical point is, I think, the root of it all. Laxity in standards, liberality in worship, all these other things, are coping mechanisms in the quest to escape from guilt and shame. We thus go to great lengths to medicate and numb the pain.
This is not to deny, of course, that some of us have rejected the standards and theology of classic Adventism simply because we are rebellious. But, among other things, I choose to ascribe the best motives to people – just as I’d hope they would do with me!
At the same time, we know, based on history, why we are where we are. We, as leaders, rejected the message that would lead to Adventism embracing its unique identity, rather than running away from it. The message of Christ’s boundless love and grace – which presented Christ not only as the solution to the feelings of guilt and shame, but would eventuate in the sanctification that our conservative brothers and sisters crave – was turned away. And we’ve been wandering ever since.
So the solution to our compromise is not to try to get more strict in our enforcement of standards or to ban evangelical books or to preach the “straight testimony” from our pulpits. Such tactics would simply address the fruit and not the root; they would deal with the external and not the heart. They would rob our people of the only medication they have found that works – leaving them to search for other sources of pain-relief that are perhaps more lethal. Indeed, we would leave them as the man that Jesus spoke of in Matthew 12:43-45 who had a demon cast out of him, only to have seven more inhabit him because he was left empty and not filled with something better, “the last state of that man . . . worse than the first” (v. 45).
Instead, the solution is to acknowledge our rejection of the gospel, repent of it, and then univocally present the message of God’s love and grace that would attract people away from the theology and practices that so trouble us.
In short, no one has ever experienced lasting change because they were told what they were doing was wrong. Such an approach can lead to conviction but not to victory. The only way lasting change can be realized is to present something better, something more beautiful, something more attractive.
Indeed, let’s light a candle instead of cursing the darkness.