So What?

So What?

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Written by: 
Published:
November 5, 2021

If Adventist teachings have any hope of being relevant to young people and society at large, we have to address the question “So What?” in a meaningful and credible way. The days when people accepted truth simply because the Bible says so are long gone. The vast majority of non-Adventists only pay attention to and accept what can make a demonstrable difference in their lives.

Most people in North America simply don’t care that we can prove from scripture with undisputable arithmetical accuracy exactly when the Heavenly Judgment began on October 22, 1844. They don’t care that we can prove from scripture that Sabbath is on Saturday, that when you die you really die, or that immersion is the only legitimate way to be baptized. They yawn then flip through their smartphone to see what else Google, Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook might have to say.     

When I was a pastor, I remember giving Bible studies to older individuals about the Sabbath. At the end, I’d ask, “Is it clear what the scriptures teach about the seventh-day Sabbath?” If they answered yes, the next step was to follow that truth or not. They accepted the scriptures as the arbiter of truth.

I’d also give the same Bible study to young adults. At the end, I’d ask the same question, “Is it clear what the scriptures teach about the seventh-day Sabbath?” If they also answered yes, they would then add, “I’ll have to pray about whether it is true for me or not.”

At first I was perplexed, but now I understand. The problem is postmodern thinking. Douglas Brown identifies key aspects of postmodern culture and philosophy.

Absolute truths do not exist in postmodern thinking. Instead, postmodernism sees truth as relative and subjective. Each interpreter creates his or her own truth. What is true for one may not be true for another. The ultimate authority is not found in God but the individual. [1]

Bryan Davidson captures the challenge Adventism faces,

Today, evangelism is harder than it has ever been, because it takes our very lives to [inspire] true life change. Paul said to the church at Corinth, “We did not just give you the gospel, we imparted our very lives.” To preach the word faithfully isn’t enough. We have to preach the gospel with our lives. We have to live the truth in front of them. [2]

The only way to have credibility in today’s postmodern world is to demonstrate the difference our beliefs have made in our everyday lives. I’m not talking about simply worshipping on Saturday and not eating pork. I’m talking about caring, kindness, empathy, and unconditional love. Only then will people be drawn to inquire about what beliefs make us that way.

Too many of our evangelism programs today are relics of the 1950s. Walking into some evangelistic series is like strolling through a museum. Pointing to the hundreds that we are still baptizing as justification for myopically pursuing our out-of-date strategy is like writing about the fabulous things you can see when you stick your head in the sand. “Don’t tell me it’s not beautiful down here!”

Prior to the 1960s, society had lots of relationships but was very low on information. News came through the local newspaper and a few channels on TV. Our primary approach to evangelism as dispenser of authoritative information garnered considerable interest.           

Since then, however, the picture has changed dramatically, a full 180 degrees. Society at large is now low on relationships and overwhelmed with information. Unfortunately, we have not shifted with it. We are still plugging away as purveyors of truth, as the “Information Denomination.” Our evangelism is a complete mismatch in terms of society’s perceived needs.

Jesus laid out his priorities in the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25—“Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matt 25:40, NIV).

The apostle Paul laid out his priorities in 1 Corinthians 13—“If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1Cor 13:2 NIV).

Many Adventist leaders tell us that our primary mission as Seventh-day Adventists is to “preach the 3 Angel’s Messages.” I strongly disagree! Our most important mission is to live the 3 Angel’s Messages.

Continually characterizing Adventism’s most important purpose as spreading correct biblical information has had a devastating impact on church life.

Programs and media, instead of individuals in the pew, take center stage because they can spread the information the best.

The spiritual gifts of teaching and evangelism are elevated and given priority above others.

Being right becomes more important than being kind.

Discipleship and small groups are seen as extracurricular rather than essential features of congregational life because once you accept the doctrines and are baptized you have become a graduate rather than an enrollee.

Church life becomes sterile, formulaic, and routine.

The only metric that really matters is how many people accepted the information.

Sabbath School discussions engage the head far more than the heart.

Top leaders exert ever-increasing hierarchical control to make sure the information is not compromised or distorted in any way.  

And on and on.

I’m sure some would accuse me of depreciating the value of biblical truth. I am not. I am simply saying that we need to stop treating doctrine as an end in itself. Truth is intended to be a means to an end of creating Christlike people. Jesus made that clear when he was asked about the greatest commandment. The Lord replied, “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself’ ” (Matt 22:37-39 NIV).

He then made what is one of his clearest statements regarding the purpose of truth:  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matt 22:40 NIV). According to Christ, all of the Old Testament Bible stories, all of the prophecies, all of the Psalms and Proverbs, all of the laws, all of the teachings, have one overall purpose—to make us more loving. The greater the truth, potentially, the greater the love. Separate doctrines and teachings from that ultimate purpose and they lose their power.

As a starting place, I would urge that we re-imagine how we might present our Statement of Beliefs. I propose that instead we develop a Statement of Values, followed by the biblical basis for including each one. For instance:

“Adventists value empathy because of the incarnation of Christ.”  

“Adventists value living a balanced life because of the seventh-day Sabbath.”

“Adventists value hope because of our belief in the Second Coming.”         

“Adventist value transparent relationships because of our belief in the Millennium.”

“Adventists value new beginnings and resilience because we believe in baptism by immersion.”

“Adventists value sacrificial love because of the cross.”

Etc.

At least that would begin to address the “So What” question, get the horse back in front of the cart, and put the primary focus on exhibiting the multi-dimensional facets of unconditional love.  

 

Notes & References:

[1] Douglas Brown, PhD, “Biblical Hermeneutics and Postmodernism,” Faith Pulpit, July 2020.  

[2] Bryan Davidson, “How To Reach The Unchurched In A Postmodern Culture,” Lifeway Young Adults.

 


Kim Allan Johnson retired in 2014 as the Undertreasurer of the Florida Conference. He and his wife Ann live in Maitland, Florida. Kim has written a number of articles for SDA journals plus three books published by Pacific Press: The GiftThe Morning, and The Team. He has also written three sets of small group lessons for churches that can be viewed at www.transformyourchurch.com (this website is run by the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists). He is also the author of eight "Life Guides" on CREATION Health.

Kim has recently started an exciting new ministry to teachers at www.hi54teachers.com, which is currently accepting donations. Read an interview about this organization here.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

 

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