There’s a bench on a hill behind the house where I grew up. I used to go there every night during the summers and look out on the San Francisco Bay. The lights from the refineries spilled out across the water and stretched openness where occasionally a tanker would slide out to sea. The emptiness begged to be filled with conversation, so my friends and I would go there to talk.
Recently, I was there with a friend. He went to academy, spent his weekends in Sabbath School, and graduated from an Adventist university, but he’d given up his belief in god. He said there’s a difference between an atheist who never believed and one who grew up with an image of divinity. He says his atheism is Adventist atheism. How could it not be? When he thinks of god, he thinks of one he learned through 28 beliefs. When asked if he’s religious, he says he’s Post-Adventist. His relation to religion is defined by his Adventist upbringing.
This fascinates me; defining yourself by a community to which you don’t want to belong. I keep meeting Post-Adventists. Some don’t believe in God, some are believers, some work for justice, and some pastor congregations. The thing that unites them is where they came from, and their decision to leave poses a challenge to the church.
Last summer I was on tour with my band. We spent our weekends at churches and our weekdays anywhere that would let us play. This meant most of the time was in places good Adventist kids are taught not to go. Our purpose was to raise money for Canvasback Missions to bring medical care to Micronesia, so we figured anywhere that people would give a few bucks was a place we wanted to play.
Over the summer I started to get disheartened by a pattern that kept showing up. We’d leave a church where our music’s conversations about poverty elicited questions like, “Are you guys socialists? I don’t want to go back to the days of feudal lords,” and play at secular venues where 50 year old business men would cheer with suburban revolutionary students and stuff $20 into our donation jar. Where was the conscience of the church? Where was their dedication to the hungry, the stranger, and the widow?
The last week of tour, we pulled into the parking lot of Set Free Christian Fellowship in Medford, Oregon and met Chad and Debi McComas. They reignited my hope in Christians and offered my Adventism a challenge.
Chad used to be an SDA pastor. He grew up Adventist and, along with his wife Debi, chose to dedicate his life to ministry. It wasn’t easy. Debi had an accident and was prescribed painkillers. They were addictive and the pain was strong, so she got caught up in it. The church found out and asked her not stand by her husband at the end of the services. The whole process of overcoming addiction was not easy for the couple. They told us it broke them down.
When they came out the other side, they saw their faith differently. They wanted to help the hurting, to let addiction ministries use their church, and make meals for the hungry in the community. The church leaders argued that the visitors would leave cigarette butts in the parking lot. The conflicts grew and Chad and Debi decided they had to do ministry somewhere else.
They moved across town and started Set Free. For seventeen years they’ve lived the gospel with meth addicts, homeless families, and people who understood pain. They feed 50 families a week. They have four apartment complexes where they give homeless families a safe place to live. As payment for the housing, the tenants must come to weekly life-skills classes. They run four children’s classes for the families’ kids. They offer twelve step programs for addiction and hold a church service on Saturday and two Sundays. They’ve dedicated their finances, their time, and every ounce of energy to caring for people they believe Jesus loves.
Chad told me, “I think the Adventist church really does want to love the addict but they just don’t know how. They haven’t been there. You can’t be a good leader until you’ve been broken and they haven’t been. Our church had nice homes, good jobs. They didn’t know. The people we work with now don’t need condemnation they need love. A loved person can change but a condemned person doesn’t even have the energy to try.”
That’s the challenge from Post-Adventism that I’ve been working with. How am I, a kid from a wealthy, safe, American church, going to understand the plight of the broken? How I am going to learn a Christianity for the hurt?
-Sterling Spence graduated from La Sierra University and is working through his MA program at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA. He plays in the band The Coyote Bandits and blogs for Canvasback Missions.