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Growing Up Adventist: Dysfunction and Healing


I was nine years old playing with my brother in the balcony of our Adventist church. We were having a great time with a microphone stand, pretending to sing and acting like we were preaching. Then a deacon walked in. A deacon who took his job very seriously. A deacon who was not pleased to see children laughing in church. A deacon whose face looked like he drank vinegar for breakfast. He caught us red-handed and rebuked us harshly for desecrating the Lord’s house. I was certain that lightning was about to strike! 

At least that is how I remember it. It is very likely that in reality, he calmly said, “Boys, don’t play with that microphone stand.” But my emotional memory of the event is one of judgement and condemnation. It felt like church was not a safe place to be. It felt like having fun was wrong. It felt like God was angry when we laughed and enjoyed ourselves in his house. As a result, I wasn’t sure that church was a place I wanted to be.

I am grateful today that I grew up Adventist. A few years ago, the voice of judgement and condemnation stuck in my mind may have prevented me from feeling any gratitude at all.  I associated the Adventist church with the feeling of being judged, a perpetual voice that kept saying to me that I wasn’t “good enough.” At first, I was convinced that I was called to fix this situation by changing the church and the people around me. Then, since I didn’t come close to achieving that, I wondered if I should just leave. Finally, I realized that the most effective solution for me was to change the voice in my head. But where did that voice come from? And what role did the Adventist church play in putting it there?

There are several aspects of growing up Adventist that contributed to the strength of this negative voice of judgment in my head. The church I grew up in seemed to be dominated by fear. Mostly, it was the fear of being wrong. Everyone was very focused on being right. Discussions of an investigative judgement put the thought in my mind that if I was wrong, then something really bad would happen to me. Reading Messages to Young People convinced me that almost everything I wanted to do was wrong. This fear restricted my growth and paralyzed me spiritually. I told myself that if I always did the right thing in every circumstance, then everything in my life would work out. But, alas, reality got in the way of this belief, and after a while I just couldn’t sustain it anymore. Through pain and failure, I began to realize that perfection was not an option. I was forced to look for another solution to the monstrous voice in my head.

Fortunately, growing up Adventist also provided a way to escape this spiritual foe. In the church, I learned about grace. When I was in the sixth grade, Pastor LeClare Litchfield came to my little SDA school, Greeneville Adventist Academy in Tennessee, and spoke for our week of prayer. He gave me an entirely new picture of God that was gracious and loving. All he did was tell stories about Jesus and his own life; but it planted in my soul the seeds of genuine spiritual health. And so eventually, I became friends with the monster — that condemning voice in my head — and through acceptance, I have experienced a much deeper sense of internal well-being.

So growing up Adventist encouraged both my dysfunction and my healing. But it also gave me a good foundation for dealing with real life. The well-defined Adventist community that I grew up in created a strong sense of security for me growing up. I knew what to expect and that was good for me as a child. Within that environment, the Adventist emphasis on education inspired a habit of lifelong learning that has served me very well over the years. The church promotes education even if it attempts to prevent certain types of inquiry for fear of losing members. In addition, I am grateful for the Biblical literacy that I gained within the church. In sixth grade, I read my Bible through in its entirety because of a Bible class assignment. Knowing what the Bible says has been the bedrock to my spiritual journey, and I’m glad I learned it growing up. Those scriptures that were focused on grace were brought to mind when I needed them most as I began to turn the corner spiritually. Finally, I’m grateful that I learned good health habits as a child. As a result, I have been able to stay relatively fit without having to exert a lot of discipline. (Although my new appreciation for food is making that more difficult!).

So today, I show up at my local Adventist church and I feel safe to share my real struggles with the people I trust, who, instead of speaking judgment into my life, speak a word of sympathy or grace. I enjoy learning from others about their 

After studying spiritual formation at the doctoral level, I have begun to recognize that my spiritual journey has followed certain stages of growth that are common to most people. These stages are true for people in the Adventist church and for those outside of it. Once I realized that everyone goes through similar challenges on the path of life — whether they are Adventist or not — I was able to let go of the resentment that I felt towards the church. Everything I have experienced is a part of the journey of life. Pain is the price I pay to play the game and as far as I can tell, no one gets a pass on that.

I recognize that my experience growing up in the church may not be everyone’s. Some have had better experiences than me and others far worse.  It is my hope that as my own children grow up Adventist, they will do so without the needless fear or paralyzing perfectionism that I experienced. I hope that they will encounter a God of love and grace like I did. I hope that they will enjoy the community of faith and the knowledge of the Bible that I gained in the church. I hope they will develop health habits that make staying fit a breeze. I hope that they will become lifetime learners and feel like the church gave them the tools they needed to be all that God created them to be. I hope they will look back one day, as I do, with gratefulness that they grew up Adventist. 

Will Johns is the pastor of worship and community outreach at the Beltsville SDA church in Beltsville, Maryland.

Will Johns as a child.

Top Image: The author with his son.

Look for more more Growing Up Adventist stories in the run-up to this year’s Spectrum/Adventist Forum conference in San Diego, California, October 2-5.  If you would like to share your story or know someone who has an interesting story, please send a note to expressing your interest.

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