Adventism was born out of the experience often called the Great Disappointment – an October 22, 1844 non-event when followers of William Miller waited in vain for Jesus to come. In part as reaction, early Adventists immersed themselves in trying to understand biblical prophecy and eschatology. This extended into attempting to more clearly determine what the Bible did and did not say on many other topics. From this came an Adventist understanding of the Sabbath, the state of the dead, non-eternal hellfire and more. In 1863 the church incorporated, and the chosen name – Seventh-day Adventism – was a declaration of the fledgling organization’s focus on two major doctrines: the 7th day as the still-valid Sabbath for Christians, and the Second Coming. Thus it is completely understandable that early Adventist evangelism focused on these things, and more broadly on what correct Bible doctrine was. They typically contrasted Adventism with the alternate surrounding denominations, as well as, unfortunately, disparaging Catholicism and “apostate Protestantism”.
Somewhat recently my cousin – the genealogist in the family – and I visited a small Adventist cemetery in rural Wisconsin where my great-grandfather is buried. He was the first Adventist in the family, converting in about 1879. She was able to piece together, with some clarity, the circumstances of his conversion, and I think it is typical of Adventist evangelism at the time. In his case, a French-speaking SDA preacher named D.T. Bordeau came to the little town, where the two primary churches were Catholic and Presbyterian. A tent was erected and meetings held. The evangelist propounded the doctrinal differences between Adventism and the alternatives. I’m happy to concede (but don’t really know) that the core, salvation-central components of Christianity were also preached. But in those days and contexts practically all the potential converts were Christian-literate, even if their practice might be nominal. So the primary thrust of early Adventist evangelism was contrasting the “Remnant Church” with the denominations that the attendees were likely currently affiliated with. The evangelistic call was to “come out of her, my people”. And my great-grandfather, his wife and others did. Six entire families converted, left their churches, and eventually an 86-member Adventist church was established. Hannons of earlier generations can be found in both the Catholic and Presbyterian cemeteries adjacent to their respective churches in that now-dying little town. But my G.G.F. came out and is buried among the Adventists. All the graves in that little SDA cemetery start with people who would have been converted at the same time.
Then in 1888, a landmark event within Adventism occurred. The church-wide General Conference session was held in Minneapolis MN, and a major doctrinal re-orientation was debated and subsequently slowly gained acceptance. Stated simply, the church moved its emphasis more toward the core Christian message of righteousness by faith. Previously the church had been seriously legalistic and, as I illustrated above, evangelized by contrasting Adventist doctrine with current orthodoxy held by so-called nominal Christianity. For a much more thorough detailing of the whole 1888 controversy see the Wikipedia article here. The shift was anything but immediate, thorough or smooth. Reverberations of such early Adventist emphases are with the church today. But this was a major change. Some (including me) would call it a corrective. Others, especially at the time, felt it was apostasy.
The next thirty years showed evidence of this slow and evolving change, with the debate/dialog exemplified in the now famous (within the subculture) minutes of the 1919 Bible Conference. Then a conservative shift toward fundamentalism occurred in the 1920s. The following years, including my own lifetime, have seen an ebb and flow between conservative and liberal views within the denomination. I think it is fair to say that a slow move toward Christian centrism has occurred throughout this time, especially in countries one might loosely label the “economic first-world”. But Adventism has plenty of members who lament this perceived drift away from historic priorities. For a fair and very readable treatment of this theological history see George Knight’s article in Ministry Magazine – here.
All right, enough background. This essay intends to explore what I claim is a dilemma for Adventist evangelism. Unsurprisingly, technology and culture have necessitated some shifts. Most notably in form, but there is less clarity when it comes to substance.
When I was young, continuing through much of my adulthood, Adventism evangelized using public meetings, beginning in neutral auditoriums, then typically moving to the local SDA church. The tents were gone, and the message was less us-vs.-them, but the focus was still on prophecy and doctrinal correctness. Perhaps it would be more charitable to say that “last-days” prophecy was used as an entering wedge, something to gather attention. A “ripped from the headlines” sort of approach. More core Christian content would follow on after initially getting the potential convert to attend, often out of curiosity. If so, then it could be argued that the prophetic/eschatological beginning was a pragmatic choice by the evangelist, and more generally by the denomination. But it was also following a long tradition.
Since perhaps the 1970s there has been a shift, especially in the economic first-world, away from this sort of evangelism, both in style and content. One reason is that the populace at-large has significantly changed from Bible-literate and church-going, to a much more diverse, secular and skeptical public. A second possible reason is increased aversion by many Adventists, especially those who might be expected to fund such efforts, to the sort of often sensationalized, biblically-peripheral approach they grew up on.
This history, I now propose, has all led up to a lingering and unresolved dilemma for the denomination. There are multiple facets to it, but the key disconnect is this:
Any move to focus more on core Christianity could correspondingly diminish the uniqueness of the historic Adventist message.
More core Christianity, less uniqueness. So what formerly distinguished Adventism gets subordinated. And the historic motivator for moving from the hearer’s current religious context, to Adventism, is reduced. So why should someone convert if the destination denomination more and more resembles their current one? The trouble is (at minimum), in a rapidly secularizing society the old approach is becoming much less effective.
So, let’s drill down on this problem.
To begin with, there are several things about traditional SDA evangelism that should not be controversial.
1. Historically the evangelism has been distinctive, contrasting with the more mainstream Christian milieu that surrounded it. The Sabbath, State of the Dead, no ever-burning hell, Catholicism in prophecy, a remnant church, etc., made the message attention-grabbing when those in the surrounding culture were virtually all church-going and somewhat literate about Bible basics.
2. This emphasis on prophecy, eschatology and the importance of various SDA near-unique doctrines, was a choice that emphasized material not central to Christianity. Even if true, these doctrines are not salvific. The “Third Angel’s Message” was considered to be “Present Truth” – i.e. a special end-time message. It’s not that the pioneers intended to replace core Christianity with this message. I think it was implicitly believed that their hearers already understood the fundamentals and Adventists were called to bring people out from nominal religion into a fuller realization. Something important because we were in the “last days”.
But, irrespective of whether they were right about the message, that is less and less the cultural environment in a growing percentage of the world. So the old methods have also become increasingly impotent to that same, growing, population.
This topic of Adventist evangelism has been a sore one within the denomination for a long time. Especially because of that, let me attempt to head-off what I think are some potential digressions.
- Disaffected and ex-Adventists will likely be drawn to the question of whether such theology is, in fact, just plain wrong. Thus, the whole enterprise would be misguided. And this “fact” then washes out any other considerations. The question of right-or-wrong theology is obviously legitimate and important. However, for my purposes in this essay, it is a digression. Readers who have already concluded that everything Adventist is a big mess are not likely to be invested in further considering the topic.
- Some might wonder whether the pioneers should have approached evangelism differently. Perhaps the whole “Remnant Church” concept smacks of hubris. And, as noted above, the emphasis is on peripheral biblical doctrine rather than core Christianity. The problem with this question is that it is hypothetical, and probably mostly of interest in the context of an argument that Adventism, being somewhat sub-Christian in its 19th century evangelism, should be abandoned due to its shaky foundations. But one could agree that the pioneers were shortsighted, perhaps seriously, without this necessitating tossing the movement into the discard dumpster. The history is what it is. And the early leadership operated from within the framework of their experience. It’s easy, with 20-20 hindsight, to critique their potential failings. But those who remain or are open to remain if correctives were applied, ought not to bail just on the basis of such history. The more relevant issue is what to do today.
The initial question I wish to consider about this “dilemma” is whether contemporary Adventism ought to believe that the historic message is necessary. I think if anyone had asked church leaders in the late 1800s whether the SDA evangelistic content was appropriate, they would generally be regarded with suspicion, or even incredulity. This was the “last day” message! Adventism had a calling from God to preach exactly what they were preaching. Any deviation would constitute compromise. And I’m sure quite a few members and leaders still hold this view. Perhaps you eliminate the tents and in-person evangelists and move to satellites and DVD stand-ins. But the message, essentially as always presented, must remain inviolate! Yet others in the church would view this historic approach as a tactical choice. And, if the culture changes, the content ought to change. With the obvious caveat of course that everything must be biblically sound.
This, I would argue, is an existential question for Adventism. Is historic evangelistic content God-ordained irrespective of time and circumstance? I am unaware of any formal effort within the church to confront this. What has happened, at least within North America, is a slow abandonment of the former hard-edge, confrontational rhetoric. With it has come a much more Christ-centered approach. But I also see significant ambivalence and angst. The so-called progressive mindset likely would view this shift as a move in the right direction – more Christian, less exclusivist. The so-called historic mindset likely would see this trend as regressive, Laodicean, and a sell-out of Adventism’s God-ordained calling.
But I think the denomination would be hard-pressed to equate itself with this constellation of doctrines alone, and still claim to be Christian. You don’t really evangelize legitimately without the central focus of heart-conversion to Christ. Yet it has been very doable, throughout denominational history, for someone to convert instead to merely a set of propositions: 7th-day Sabbath, State-of-the-Dead, etc. And there has been a serious shift in the past 50 years toward a more robust Christ-centered grounding in the local churches, varied though that might be from place-to-place. Public evangelism, I would argue, has lagged. But you cannot do what the people in the local church won’t support. So evangelism has also experienced the shift.
Crucially, I think the question comes down to whether there is, and whether the denomination can find, balance between uniqueness and more “generic”, but core, Christianity. I think this has been a serious struggle throughout my adulthood, now moving into my 70s, with no signs of abating. But the problem I alluded to above – “converting” to Adventism without also needing to have a heart-transforming conversion to Christ – will remain a severe danger to the church. The Bible talks about being “born again” (John 3:1-10), a concept so radical Nicodemus couldn’t wrap his mind around it. This radical transformative act of genuine conversion is of a different scope and category from doctrinal acceptance after being convinced by arguments. It also has power to reach people in any time and culture, whereas simply arguing for correctness of biblical doctrine fades in cultures that do not take the Bible as normative. The short-cut conversion to propositions, even if those propositions are true, is a worse risk than loss of uniqueness. Still, the problem ought not to result in an either-or false dilemma. So, can the denomination remain distinctively Adventist with the clear, obviously needed, Christ-centric salvation message at the center?
My best guess is that church administrators will, in general, never address this head-on. Evangelism will drift more and more away from the old emphases. And, as a self-identified progressive, I see that direction as positive. But it would be far better for the organization to proactively deal with such a foundational dilemma, rather than allowing generational die-off to glacially assimilate change.
Rich Hannon, a retired software engineer, is Columns Editor for SpectrumMagazine.org.
Previous Spectrum columns by Rich Hannon can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/author/rich-hannon
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
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