Monday, August 10, 2009

Spiritual Survival Strategies for Adventists

By Bill Colburn

My journey in Adventism has been one that often raises the question among many of my non-Adventist friends, 'why have you remained a member, even a pastor, after the many negative experiences you have had in that church?' It has taken more than an acceptance of the Adventist paradigm - to be sure! The Serenity Prayer has been instrumental.

I remember my first brush with the underbelly of Adventism when, shortly after my baptism in 1976 at 22 years of age, I was confronted by a 'lifer' who had heard that my mom was raised in the Roman Catholic tradition. "How are we to know", he demanded, "that you are not a Jesuit spy just pretending to be one of us?" That dazed me for an extended moment, then I replied, "guess you don't", smiled and left it at that. What an odd fellow, I thought. I was wrong.

I soon began to regularly encounter a curious set of 'adjunctive (and dsyfunctional) fundamental' beliefs that had not been shared with me during my baptismal studies. I frequently got clobbered by such things as: appropriate beach apparel, interpretations of Sabbath keeping such as hiking was OK, but swimming was not, the 'law' against inter-racial marriages or marrying another Christian who wasn't an 'Adventist' Christian or even the 'right kind of Adventist Christian', the sacred hour for sabbath worship being at 11 am only, that I should always wear a suit to church because that is what I would wear to visit the president of the United States, to make gelatin wasn't an ingredient in my foods, to love 'hay stacks' and popcorn, that only Adventist truly knew God, and - well, the list goes on and on and on. These 'other 613' commandments actually formed the reality of Adventism far more than the 27 (er, 28).

Cultural Adventism stood out far more distinctly at the local church than the doctrinal Adventism I had initially imagined 'defined' membership. An early mentor shared with me one significant spiritual survival strategy that has worked: to differentiate between Adventist atheists and Adventist Christians. I had to accept that the church has always had and would always include both. He helped me to see that real Adventism was built on a love for Jesus not on a love for the Adventism folklore. Much that bills itself as Adventism is merely a finicky selection from the buffet of unbiblical 'street' Adventism. To be sure, this is not merely an issue among Adventists!

More painful encounters often and painfully kept challenging my commitment to the church. Usually these had to do with accusations of a sexual nature. It seemed strange to me, as a convert, that many Adventists spent a whole lot of time thinking about sex. Prior to my baptism, non-converts thought a lot about sex as well - but with the desire to enjoy it personally. After my baptism, church members spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about sex, but to make sure no one would ever 'get' what they couldn't have. I could only conclude, after some therapy of course, that if Adventists spent more time having sex they would be a far happier group of people to worship with on Sabbath. I've met a lot of madventists and sadventist, but only the sexually fulfilled could be truly happy Adventists. Maybe we ought to designate every Friday nights as.... Think how pleased the pastor would be to see his whole congregation genuinely smiling on Sabbath mornings rather than wearing a plastic smile while holding a dagger to meet him with at the front door after the sermon.

Some time after becoming an Adventist pastor I was called by my conference president about a complaint stating that I was having an affair. Turned out that an elderly member was riding by a large hotel in a Handi-van and happened to see me open the door for a young woman. No one said anything to me about it until the whole church knew and reported me to the conference. It was rather awkward to address my congregations sexual addiction from the pulpit, but I did. I invited them to all join me at that same hotel once each month - the only times I went there - to participate in the American Cancer Society board meetings with me. They could meet the woman I opened the door for - as she was the president of the local group. I got to keep my job.

Probably far more disturbing has been the necessity to not be fully honest. Seems strange to even express this in these terms, but it is what it is. To function 'healthfully' in the church - intentionally designed for sinners - I've got to be 'unhealthy' by pretending not to be a sinner.

One of our more insidious Adventist 'atheistic' beliefs is that pastors - and members - are supposed to be perfect. This, actually, is translated to mean: "good pastors always agree with what each member believes". To voice a different perspective is to be violently labeled as anti-Christ, demon-possessed, the devil incarnate, and the ever present 'Jesuit spy'. Church members have pejoratively labeled me in many different ways over my years. My favorite is being called a heretic. But, why is it this way? I think it is because we believe we have a 'calling' to be 'faith gate-keepers', rather than faith builders. Gate-keeping always engenders fear. Fear begets dishonesty and pretentiousness, which in turn stifles spiritual growth, which in turn creates 'christian' atheists.

Let me be fair, though. I have many wonderful, spiritually mature Adventist friends. They live above the culture of shame, guilting, and name-calling. They have a deep commitment to the Lord - keeping first things (Jesus) always the best thing, not allowing any foolishness distract them from Him. I feel for them, only in that they find little safety in sharing their love for Jesus openly within the church because of those who define love for God in narrow and angry tones.

Thankfully, maturation in the Spirit is designed to succeed in all places and at all times. So, I remain a member of this church, ceasing all efforts to change what I cannot change, making efforts to change only that which God has asked me to change (me), and continuing to pray that God grants me the wisdom to know the difference.


  1. "One of our more insidious Adventist 'atheistic' beliefs is that pastors - and members - are supposed to be perfect."

    This is a belief the my wife and I struggle with. Not because we struggle with the judgementalism of people (life is too short to even care.) But Adentist tend to put on their "spiritual" mask for church events and so you never are dealing with the actual person, but some projection. And although all humans tend to behave that way at some level (we always want to put our best foot forward,) it never is as bad as it is at church.

  2. I truly appreciated this post. I deal with these issues and have been the one to dole them out. So I've been on both sides of the coin. I'm glad the author has stayed in and rode out the stormy seas. I'm also glad the Lord has mercifully brought me back in a different form from the kind of mAdventist I used to be. It all changed when I met Jesus and His gracious love. What a difference a Savior makes! Now I can be reconciled to Him and His people wherever they are, in whatever denomination they are, in whatever atheistic secular or religious persuit they have.

    But most of all, I'm glad to stay in the Advent movement and to ride out the storm. Because the good ship Seventh-day Adventism is going through all the way, with or without the buildings.

    Can't we work to re-inflate the Adventist wheel?

  3. Wow! A great post!

    I would be interested in hearing more of this writer's views concerning "faith gate-keepig" and "faith-building".

    While I think I know what he is talking about here, I would be curious to have this elaborated on--perhaps in another post?

  4. I applaud the author for successfully avoiding the mines in the minefield for 33 years. I haven't done so well. My first attempt at Adventism was a horrible experience of guilt and shame - I abandoned the rules for about a decade - and it nearly cost me my life.

    My second attempt at Adventism has been very rewarding. I found the grace, the love, and vision to move forward. It has been awesome.

    Until recently. My wife and I can only describe our recent firing in Oregon as surreal. We are still trying to wrap our minds around it. My only conclusion, so far, is that there really isn't room for a Jeremiah in today's church - of course, he didn't exactly enjoy rave popularity in Jerusalem either.

    Thanks for sharing Bill - all I can say is wow.

  5. Wow! Very powerful and I almost missed the ending solution. "So, I remain a member of this church, ceasing all efforts to change what I cannot change, making efforts to change only that which God has asked me to change (me), and continuing to pray that God grants me the wisdom to know the difference."
    I agree the change has to start with the individual and a relinquishing of ourselves to God, and I pray that the church is in His hands to change, not mine.
    I am also human enough to say if He wants to use me to knock some heads together, I'm ready!
    Being new to the church I am constantly wondering why they call it organized religion when it seems anything but. Could it be true that we will only be united in Heaven?

  6. Having worked in the denomination for 20 years among "men" who were generally intellectually astute, I did not run into the superstitious and the judges as you have. However, I have heard they are out there and today I think many have found refuge with some of the marginal groups.
    It was the power plays and politcs that bothered me and the way women were treated. Now the politicians may have been only a small percentage but they were in crucial positions.
    Through this church I have known some of the most loving and brilliant Christians and some of the most disappointing.
    I could find no other organization that would meet most of my need for biblical rationality and spiritual insight.

  7. Dear Perpetualstudent:
    How did you know the people at church were putting on masks? Did you expect them to tell you all their problems? Did you take time to really know them? Could you be judging them?
    I am sure I have not always put my most friendly foot forward. Or sometimes we need to act happy even when we are hurting.
    That term "how are you?" is a greeting these days and no one expects you tell them, though I doubt most would mind if you did.
    My advice is to think the best of people until they prove otherwise--and then love them anyway.