In my head, there is a difference between a “reason” and an “excuse.”

A reason is a good excuse. An excuse is not always a good reason.

I like reasons, but I don’t usually like excuses. Although, I will acknowledge respecting a well-crafted and clever excuse even if I don’t believe it to be a valid reason.

Also, a reason is something that prevented us from doing what we set out to do. An excuse is what we provided to get out of doing something we needed to do but didn’t want to do.

Or an excuse is what we told ourselves so that we could justify doing things a certain way even if there wasn’t a true reason to do so.

The dog ate my homework. I caught all the stoplights. The cops were really out in force today. I was hangry. This is a therapy animal, I swear. All common excuses for something we didn’t get right. Sometimes they are technically true, and sometimes they are complete fabrications.

Which brings me to the last difference between a reason and an excuse.

One is honest and true, and the other one is a lie by intent whether technically true or not.

Unfortunately, I have been guilty a time or two of leaning on excuses when I didn’t have a good reason.

And now that I have clarified for you how I see these two concepts in my own head, I want to use this as a segue to what this article is really about, which isn’t reason or excuses specifically.

When I was a kid in church, I remember sitting through the Mission Spotlight videos that they used to show a lot. I’m sure some churches still do. They were stories of missionaries going to some country and starting churches and baptizing people as converts from some version of tribal paganism. And I remember thinking, even back then, that there were always some similarities between all the recorded stories even though I didn’t really understand what it meant. As an adult, however, I see those stories very differently.

The missionaries would do their work and the video would show their success. And their success was all these former tribes sitting in rudimentary churches on rudimentary pews singing American church songs (sometimes even in English) wearing shirts, ties, and, sometimes, full-on suits and American style churchy cloths.

I’ve had this conversation several times with other pastors and chaplains, and we’ve all recognized some of the same things. What many of these missionaries were doing wasn’t simply teaching these people about Jesus, they were attempting to change their culture. We know this because there isn’t one good reason to make them dress like us when they weren’t already. And they didn’t need to learn English to sing songs about God. They didn’t need to adopt the American Adventist order of service to worship God, and they didn’t even need to do it in any overtly church oriented way.

These people had a culture. They didn’t need to look and act American to meet God. As a result of these practices, we have found that when some of these converts eventually come to America, they are disappointed that we aren’t all like what the missionaries said. Because, as it turns out, the missionaries weren’t all using accurate theology and, instead, were teaching them a version of Adventist cultural Christianity as opposed to introducing them to Jesus.

Ask any pastor how difficult navigating imported theology is within their church.

Now, I want to be very clear here. I’m not against missionaries. I’m not against cultures being altered to create better environments for people to be healthy and thrive.

But there is a difference between helping lift a people up and simply imposing our comfort level upon them.

And now, 630 words in, I get to the actual purpose of this article. What are we actually doing as Adventists to contribute positively to the world around us, including here in our own country?

To Adventism’s credit, we have a lot of hospitals here in America and have done health work around the world. We do have an education system that has done some good as well. I want to acknowledge these things. These efforts aren’t perfect, but no effort is.

But neither of those are large culture impacting phenomenon.

Adventists are known for a couple of things primarily by those who are not. Sabbath keeping and vegetarianism.

Adventists have been leaning into vegetarianism since the late 1800s. And yet we had almost nothing to do with huge rise in vegetarianism in America that has taken place over the last 25 years. That has been driven by other forces. Eastern spiritualities account for some of it, and a combination of better mainstream health research combined with companies willing to cash in on it by utilizing better science to create quality non-meat foods.

Other factors are in play as well including counterculture reactions against excessive lifestyles and the accumulation of material things. The need to live a simple, stress reduced, and healthy life. The roots of some of this can be traced back to the late 1960s and early 1970s in the peace and love era.

Where it doesn’t trace back to is Adventism. We’ve been making and selling vegetarian foods for well over 100 years that anyone can buy … as long as they weren’t looking in any mainstream grocery stores. In fact, you usually couldn’t find any of it outside of a conference office or local church, with some rare exceptions.

Adventism had a useful health message the whole time, and we did nothing but try to use it as a tool to get baptisms. Health became a spiritual test as opposed to simply trying to alter the culture of our world’s health.

This is simply an example of how Adventism has approached culture. We somehow took the idea of being “in the world, but not of the world,” a saying that does not actually exist in the Bible but is an interpretation of a broader point, and instead just said, “stay out of the world.”

We interpreted it in an ostrich head-in-sand sort of way. This mentality resulted in us using missions and evangelism to try to change culture into Adventist culture by pulling people out of their own culture.

When we try to impact culture what we are really doing is trying to make people like us and bring them to us so that we don’t have to change ourselves and go to them. And by “go to them” I don’t mean travel to their country. I mean live with them. Be a part of their lives. Lift them up to be the best they can be in their setting, instead of forcing them into our own setting.

This is why I don’t like the term “culture” as we use it. It’s a noun. It has a static definition. It’s about preserving what was. It’s an excuse for being a certain way and not moving forward to become more. It promotes stagnation and stagnation promotes death.

But culture is also a verb. In this usage it’s about creating an environment where growth can happen. It’s how live bacteria are created that we use to benefit digestion, for example. It’s a biochemical process.

Maybe instead of impacting culture or changing culture, both noun realities, we could instead culture our people and our towns and our cities and our churches and our communities. What if we fostered an environment where people could grow uninhibited and healthy without someone holding them back and tethering them to the past? Anchoring them to bad theology and isolated, controlled realities?

Until we change the Us vs Them mentality that drives us organizationally, we will never truly be relevant to the culture around us because we will never have anything meaningful to contribute to the growth of humanity. We will be too busy fortifying our walls.

But if we could change our corporate mindset, we might stop making excuses for not truly being a part of our communities and as a result might finally have a good reason for existing
as a group.

And I do like good reasons.

Tony Hunter is a Seventh-day Adventist pastor and a hospice chaplain working for Gateway Hospice in Northern Colorado. Tony, his wife Nirma, and daughter Amryn live in Firestone, Colorado. Email him at: [email protected]