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Keeping our church vibrant and on course

During the past four or five decades the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the Western world has changed dramatically. Today we see in the church a far broader range of ideas and behavior than would once have been tolerated. But not everyone feels comfortable with the concept of tolerance.

One group in our church looks to the past and wishes we could recapture a spiritual quality they feel we’ve lost. The other group looks to the future and longs for something they feel hasn’t yet existed.

One group looks for more guidelines and clearer definitions. The other group advocates focusing on principles and leaving most final decisions to the individual.

One group rejoices when “the trumpet is given a certain sound.” The other group is heartened when someone admits that we don’t have all the answers.

I suggest that until we learn to appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of both approaches, the church will suffer. As a colleague of mine puts it: In order to fly, a bird needs a right wing, a left wing, and a good body between. The same applies to the church.

The church needs people who constantly question the wisdom of change, who are deeply concerned lest we lose sight of our organization’s original mission.

And the church equally needs a group who ever push us on to new frontiers, who clamor for greater consistency, who force us to re-evaluate our mission, who seek to ensure that we ‘re speaking to and meeting the needs of our world today.

One group safeguards us from going off on a tangent. The other safeguards us from slipping into a rut. Each type of thinking has its merits. And its shortfalls.

For example, the more a message is presented in black-and-white terms, the more likely it is to attract converts. By contrast, tolerance makes great friends. But it doesn’t make people sense that they must join or risk damnation.

Openness creates a healthy environment for discussion and the exchange of ideas. But certainty gets people into the baptismal font. Certainty also gets them into tithing, giving generous offerings and working long hours for the church.

Both aspects are important. And we need to keep the long term in mind as well as the short term. Subsequent generations of Adventists need room to forge their own faith. And unless they find a tolerant environment for their own spiritual quest, they’ll simply drop out.

So when I hear people on the left murmuring about the need to muzzle the right, I become a champion of the right. And when those on the right want to muzzle—or even disenfranchise—the left, I champion the left.

Rather than thinking we’d be better off if we eliminated “the opposition,” we need to recognize that, even though people with a differing view may cause us discomfort, they play a vital role in keeping the church vibrant and on course.


James Coffin is senior pastor of the Markham Woods Church in Longwood, Florida. He adapted the foregoing from his book One Thing I Know––and Other Stuff I Strongly Suspect (Review and Herald Publishing Association, 2002).

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