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Is the Adventist Mission Impossible?

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The 2023 4th quarter Adult Sabbath School study guide is about mission. It’s an attempt to explain why Seventh-day Adventists are, or should be, committed to sharing the gospel with our neighbors, as well as strangers in distant places. This essay will consider the plausibility of these mission claims.

The word “mission” is not found in the Bible. It was first used in 1598 to describe the actions of Jesuits, who sent some of their members abroad as Bible workers. Its Latin root, missionem, simply means “the act of sending” or “to send.” The word would go on to find an obvious biblical analogy to Jesus’ “Great Commission,” specifically through missionaries sent by European and American denominations to non-Christian cultures that the Western church thought needed evangelizing. Over time, many people would travel to foreign lands, armed with the blessing of their sponsoring organizations and the all-important missionary tag.

So, in 1874, when John Nevins Andrews traveled to Switzerland as Adventism’s first official missionary, he was not really breaking new ground. What was unique about Andrews’s missionary conception was its underlying theology, which insisted that the barely eleven-year-old church he represented had been raised by God to prepare humanity for Jesus’s imminent return. This preparation involved reaching the whole world with the Three Angels’ Messages (3AM) (Rev 14:6-12).

Since then, as the promised Advent has been delayed, our church’s eschatological posture has sharpened, hardening into the proposition that Adventism is God’s remnant and conduit for salvation. As we conceive it, the main purpose of Jesus’s return is to punish the “wicked”—for example, those who spurn the 3AM—and to redeem those who accept it.

But the details of this mission are nebulous and not uniformly understood or accepted within the church. What does it mean to “reach the world” with the 3AM? We seem to be of two minds regarding what’s expected of us: serve humanity in this world, or preach an identity gospel. This latter task separates Adventists from the larger world by imploring others to join us or risk God’s wrath. In contrast, the service conception model finds Adventism at its finest, as it establishes institutions—schools, healthcare, humanitarian outlets, etc.—focused on the betterment of society. The church’s global educational system takes students from elementary schools through universities. Its fine clinics and hospitals provide medical care throughout the world, from small villages to big cities. And when global disaster strikes, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) is often the first comforting presence victims see. These are the public faces of our people-centered efforts.

As inspiring as these service-focused undertakings are, the core Adventist constituency and a majority of the denomination's leadership seem unconvinced that the church’s calling is to societal betterment. Instead, they view Adventist identity and essential mission in belief terms: a confessional proposition steeped in doctrinal near-certainty. Christianity has been distilled into an ideological contest in which the church with the best belief-set wins. And we have the best one, as found in our 28 Fundamental Beliefs. In this framework, an understanding of scripture produces a separation between “sheep and goats,” between “God’s seal and the Beast’s mark.” This ultimately leads to a final showdown between God, embodied in all who heed the Adventist call, versus Satan and his horde.

But we don’t get to the epic showdown unless the church succeeds in its assigned mission. Our official belief statement #13 (Remnant and its Mission) explains:

In the last days, a time of widespread apostasy, a remnant has been called out to keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus. This remnant announces the arrival of the judgment hour, proclaims salvation through Christ, and heralds the approach of His second advent. This proclamation is symbolized by the three angels of Revelation 14; it coincides with the work of judgment in heaven and results in a work of repentance and reform on earth.

So we preach the gospel through these Adventist lenses, emphasizing the immutability of the Ten Commandments and the seventh-day Sabbath. But what does it mean to saturate the world with the Adventist message, and how do we do it? These questions have preoccupied the church throughout its history. Is the ultimate object of our mission to make Adventists of our contacts by pleading with them to “come out of Babylon?”

This prompts a nagging question: could one be a Christian in these “last days” without becoming Adventist? If the answer is yes, then why do we spend so much time and so many resources proselytizing non-Adventist Christians? This distinction has not been sufficiently clarified in our theology and thus, in practice, much of our outreach resembles poaching. This is illustrated by evangelistic efforts in Ghana, where we concentrate much of our missionary work in the south and middle belt of the country. These are areas with a heavy Christian presence. But we hardly make any serious inroads to the north, which is Muslim country. Why?

We have vacillated between carrying a conceptual vision, where the 3AM are directed to individuals, versus establishing a frontier presence in areas where the church has little or no visibility. Thus, we employ varying approaches, ranging from traditional to esoteric. For example, we have utilized evangelistic tent meetings, Daniel & Revelation seminars, Bible correspondence schools, prayer walking/warrior bands, etc. And, depending on the vision of a given administration, the evangelistic focus may be individualistic—illustrated by the slogan “a thousand days of reaping”—or collective in a geographic area, like the “10/40 corridor” target.

The results, based on baptized membership, are mixed. People in the global South have, in recent decades, shown increasing receptiveness to the Adventist vision. But the Northern world has shed members during this same period. That’s why the church should view contemporary growth in developing countries with some caution. Unless we address the underlying reasons for stagnation in the North, the current growth in the South could be short-lived.

However we conceive this, the numbers are not on our side if we still hope to reach everyone on earth with the 3AM, thus allowing Jesus’ return. Adventists been around for 180 years and have an impressive world membership of roughly 22 million. This is phenomenal by any measure: we top the chart when examined alongside comparable churches that have been around for the same amount of time.

There were three major denominations founded in the United States during the 19th century’s Great Awakening: the Latter Day Saints (1830) with 17 million members, Seventh-Day Adventists (1863) with 21.9 million, and Jehovah’s Witnesses (1870) with 8.5 million. None has more international presence and following than Adventists. At our origination in 1863, the church totaled 125 congregations and about 3,500 members, so our current 22 million members is a huge increase. The present ratio of Adventists to world population should be a cause for celebration, if membership count is our goal.

But during this same period, world population has ballooned from roughly 800 million to the current 8 billion, a tenfold increase. This is a depressing number when faced with the task of exposing those eight billion people to the 3AM. Daunting even, because this population needs the type of exposure that produces a sufficient amount of comprehension to warrant an informed choice.

No matter how the Adventist mission is understood—whether as service oriented in this world or as God’s didactic agency charged with heading humanity away from an impending doom—there is a transcendent assumption that unites the two competing conceptions. The membership views Adventism as a singularity. The church teaches that we are God’s Remnant and that our actions have a direct bearing on the future of humanity. So, a great deal rides on how faithful Adventists both understand and execute their purpose.

But in embracing this remnant role, have we bitten off more than we can chew? Is God truly only on our side, simultaneously rooting for and depending on us to “finish the work” and trigger the Second Coming? Or is it time to reassess our vision and mission? It is a common human predilection; when we are young we trust everything, especially from people who claim to be God-diviners. And even as we become more aware, we habitually learn to hide our doubts in order to stay safe, liked, and comfortable. But we can’t pretend to be young forever. We would risk succumbing to the seductive allure of indoctrination: comfortable followers and full-time apologists who don’t remember what it’s all for.

To the degree that we’ve made this a “numbers game,” we must consider the conundrum we’ve boxed ourselves into. At the core of our mission is a narcissistic tendency. What non-Adventists hear when we talk of our eschatological role is, “Only Adventists can do this.” While the humanity-saving hero persona we’ve carved for ourselves comes with good feelings, it also serves as an opiate, numbing us from a proper assessment of reality. Humanity is too large, and its conception of the god-idea too diverse, to credibly “sell” a notion that the survival of our species rests with a single denomination which has managed to crack the Bible’s eschatological mysteries.


Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home. 

Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found by clicking here.

Title image: Anne Nygård on Unsplash.

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