We’re on the brink of summer in the Northern Hemisphere. If you’re like me, that means you’ve attended a multitude of graduations this season (congrats grads!). And if those ceremonies have been within the Adventist system, you may have noticed our ever-dwindling number of students, and consequently, graduates. Most of our schools were never huge to begin with. A few outliers like Loma Linda Academy notwithstanding, most of our elementary and high schools typically yielded double or even single-digit graduating classes. Decades ago, my 8th-grade class only had 18 students and my 12th-grade class had just 30. That’s not exactly bursting at the seams. But now, neither school even exists in its previous form. They’ve been consolidated with other schools and become a preschool and junior academy, respectively. Our colleges and universities are facing shrinking populations too. Friends who went to Atlantic Union College saw their alma mater disappear years ago. And if things don’t turn around, more of our institutions will likely follow the same fate.
I’ve often testified that I owe my conversion to Adventism to the witness of my teachers and classmates. Because of my experience, I’ve long wondered why our schools have resisted welcoming more non-Adventist students. Not only would casting a wider net help address our enrollment issues but we have been informed—both from empirical evidence and the testimony of Ellen White—that the best time for people to be reached for Christ is in childhood. Furthermore, if we truly believe in the benefits of Adventist education, we should want to share it with everyone. Intentionally advertising to students beyond our Adventist bubble would be a win-win all around. Nevertheless, discussions along this line are often met with high levels of resistance and even revulsion.
In discussing this hesitancy with friends and colleagues, the reasons ranged from the benignly humorous to outrageously bigoted. I’ve been told that, particularly as it pertains to high school and college, Adventist parents want to send their kids to Adventist schools to find Adventist spouses. So, if the student body becomes too saturated with non-Adventists, it decreases those odds to a point where they won’t send their kids. Although there is a laundry list of things wrong with that statement on so many levels, the most practical flaw is that parents aren’t sending their kids now anyway!
But more disturbing are the disgusting comments cautioning us that non-Adventist students (particularly K-12) would “taint” Adventist students. I’ve been shocked and horrified by sentiments from administrators and pastors who’ve described non-Adventist children in terms like “recalcitrants” and warned against how much they might introduce “perverse” ideas to Adventist students. If these statements were made about an ethnic group or race, it would be readily apparent how discriminatory such ideas are. But targeting other faiths somehow makes it acceptable.
Too many in our denomination ignorantly believe that there are no other Christians besides us; they can’t comprehend that there are non-Adventists who subscribe to Christian values too. And obviously, if that’s an incredible concept, it’s outright unfathomable for them to believe people don’t have to be Christian to have morals. Yes, shockingly, even among those who aren’t Christian, people teach their children to have ethics and standards. Wait until some in our church learn that Adventist kids themselves seek out and participate in unsavory behaviors—no outside “contamination” required! The level of denominational hubris is embarrassing and borderline cultic.
We have a longstanding superiority complex. Decades of boasting about our uniqueness have cultivated a collective cockiness. Even now, some reader is thinking, “but we are a special, peculiar people!” We relish this identity to an unhealthy degree. Such haughtiness permeates the organization. The General Conference president himself has warned Adventists to stay within denominational circles for materials for spiritual growth and mischaracterized others outside the denomination. The ideological isolationism we promote is only slightly edged out by the Amish. Undoubtedly, if some could go to the hills and live on a remote compound right now, they would (some have).
With equal parts amusement and embarrassment, I read an article by the editor of the adult Sabbath school lesson that reflected this conceited view of ourselves. He lamented that people of other faiths didn’t warmly embrace him upon learning he was Adventist. He describes being crestfallen that others sometimes are “cool, cold, perhaps even hostile.” And in the very next paragraph, he admits to similarly snubbing people of other faiths himself: “When approached by a Jehovah’s Witness, or a Mormon (especially a Mormon), I respond to them the way others sometimes respond to us. Of course, we’re not Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons, not even close—and so the reactions are often built on ignorance. . . . To be scorned by someone who confuses us with Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons—that hurts.” So others should naturally embrace us, but we have no qualms about treating them with disdain? If church leaders have these perspectives, it’s no wonder they’ve been taught and absorbed throughout our congregations and schools—to our detriment.
There’s an old joke about Peter standing at the pearly gates checking people into heaven. People of various denominations come in. As each person arrives, he cautions them to be quiet while passing Room 8. Finally, someone asks what’s in Room 8. He reveals that the Adventists are in Room 8, and they think they’re the only ones who made it to heaven. Sadly, there truly are Adventists who genuinely believe similarly. Of course, this is just a joke; don’t nitpick it too much. If we study our Bibles, we should all know why that’s clearly unrealistic—people who have that attitude probably won’t be there at all.
Courtney Ray, MDiv, PhD, is an ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and a clinical neuropsychologist. She is president of the Society for Black Neuropsychology.
Previous Spectrum columns by Courtney Ray can be found by clicking here.
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