Last year, the Southern Baptists denomination in the United States lost half a million members. This means that in just twelve months, roughly one of every 25 members decided to walk away from their church. Although there are some specific reasons that contributed to this extraordinary exodus, in recent decades most Christian denominations in the western world had to face a constant and intensifying hemorrhage of members, suffering an even more dramatic decline in church attendance.

Numerous books have been written about the reasons why people leave the church, and, indeed, there are many different factors that play a role. But one element is mentioned more often than any other reason—in particular by members of the younger generations—namely: hypocrisy. David Kinnaman, the president of the Barna Group which researches developments in Christianity, wrote: “Whether we like it or not, the term ‘hypocritical’ has become fused to young people’s experience with Christianity.” He added that 85 percent of all young people who have had at least some exposure to Christians and to the church have concluded that Christianity is hypocritical (p. 42).1

Countless people give up on the institutional church—and often also on their faith—because of the glaring inconsistencies between the words and the actions of fellow believers and, in particular, of church leaders. The sexual scandals in the Roman Catholic Church as well as the numerous cases of sexual indiscretion, or worse, among prominent pastors in Protestant churches, have done colossal damage to the credibility of Christianity. Also, many erstwhile strong believers have become totally disillusioned about the church, as they observed the dubious lifestyles and selfish behavior of many faithful churchgoers. And the fact that extreme piety often disguises serious moral problems does not go unnoticed.

In addition, other forms of hypocrisy leave many believers wondering to what extent they can still trust their leaders. Too often, they discover that there is a substantial discrepancy between what pastors teach and preach and the convictions they privately hold. Is it a matter of not wanting to jeopardize their job and their career opportunities? Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe that the Adventist Church is faring any better in this respect than most other faith communities.

An Issue of All Times

Hypocrisy is not a new phenomenon. We find it already in Bible times. Jesus did not mince words when He accused the spiritual leaders of his days of hypocrisy. He called them “blind guides,” “snakes,” and “white-washed tombs” (Matt. 23:13-36). They sadly lacked what should have characterized them most: authenticity.

Even in the earliest days of the Christian church, hypocrisy raised its ugly head. Ananias and Sapphira appeared to be generous people. They decided to sell a piece of land and to give a large chunk of the money to the church. But their generosity was phony. They wanted to look good and enhance their reputation as pillars of the newly established church. They pretended that they were giving the entire proceeds of the sale to the church, while in reality they kept part of the money for themselves. Their lack of authenticity cost them their lives (Acts 5:1-10).

But let’s be honest. Hypocrisy and pretense are not just things of the past and do not only occur in other faith communities. There is also much window dressing among Seventh-day Adventist Christians. As church members, we know we are supposed to act in certain ways. We must do certain things and abstain from particular activities if we want to safeguard our reputation as members in “good and regular standing.” Alas, when other church members are in sight, we may behave differently from when we think we are “safe.” But the critical question is not who we are when we are on the platform of our church on Sabbath morning, but who we are when no one is looking!

A Corporate Issue

The Seventh-day Adventist Church has tended to pride itself with various complimentary labels. We have called ourselves the “remnant church,” meaning: We are the only last-day community of people who are truly loyal to God. We have pointed to ourselves as members of a global missionary movement who are “totally involved.” And we have often claimed to be a “caring” church. But how true is that?

I have no doubt that there are many local Adventist communities that do indeed “care” for their members and for those they come into contact with. But what do we see when we take a more comprehensive look? What is the quality of pastoral care in many of our churches? How inclusive is the average Adventist congregation when it concerns men and women (and others) with a “different” sexual orientation or with some “liberal” theological ideas? How much care do local congregations manifest towards the people with specific needs in the wider community? Must we not regretfully conclude that many (if not most) Adventist churches have a long way to go in practicing what they preach?

What Our Church Needs

The church needs authenticity and, as individual members of the church, we must be authentic. Dictionaries provide us with many synonyms for the term authentic, such as real, genuine, worthy of trust, not fake or phony, pure, credible. In the past, the first question most people asked when choosing a church would be whether that church teaches biblical truth. Today, this is still an important aspect, but the question “What do you people believe and preach?” has taken second place to: “What kind of people are you? Do you practice what you preach?”

My mother once (now some decades ago) told me about the quarrels and bitter disagreements between members in the small church in which she grew up. I asked her why she decided to stay in that kind of a church. Her answer was quite straightforward: “Because, whatever happens, our church has the truth.” Today, many react in a different way. They turn their back on a church where people cannot get along with one another and miserably fail to reflect the attitude of the One they profess to follow.

As a church—globally, regionally, nationally, and, foremost, locally—we must radiate authenticity if we want to be a living, attractive, and growing church. We must do away with all false pretenses and all the promises we cannot keep. The reputation, programs, slogans, and strategies of our church must, at all times, be credible and genuine. Our message is to be based on biblical truth, but it must also embody true love and care. Our church must be an authentic beacon of positivity and hope in our community.

What I Need

My individual challenge as a Seventh-day Adventist Christian is directly linked to what I just said about our church: How can I become, be, and remain, an authentic person?

The Old Testament story of the anointing of David as the king of Israel reminds us of a crucial fact. The prophet Elia preferred Eliab, an older brother of David, as the royal candidate, but God told him that David was the one He had chosen. The lesson of the story is summarized in just a few words: “People look at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

This is in many ways reassuring. God does not build his assessment of me on my external qualities and on what people say about me, but on what I really am deep down. However, it remains true that people do get a particular impression of me when they meet me and talk to me. When they interact with me, they will wonder whether I am for real, or am I hiding behind a façade. When they wonder whether my Christianity is make-believe, will they somehow sense that it is genuine?

If we want to share our faith with others in the western world of 2023, it remains, of course, essential that we have something important to say and that we are able to say this in words and images that can be understood by people around us. But, beyond anything else, the key for any meaningful sharing of the gospel is that we are authentic. People—and especially young people—nowadays smell phoniness from miles away. As I try to live as a Seventh-day Adventist Christian, I have to take a good look at myself.

Am I someone who is for real? Am I honest about myself, not only willing to talk about my successes, but also about my shortcomings? Do I have the courage to tell other people about my faith, but also about my doubts? Am I prepared to listen to the stories of the people around me, but also to make myself vulnerable by telling my own story? This is all part of being authentic.

What counts in the end is not primarily whether people see me as a pious person with a lot of Bible knowledge, but rather, first and foremost, as a genuinely nice person who models acceptance and forgiveness. Christ was and is the true I AM. He was perfect in his authenticity. It should be my most earnest wish to reflect my Lord’s authenticity to the best of my ability in all I do and speak.

Reinder Bruinsma, PhD, has served the Seventh-day Adventist Church in publishing, education, and church administration on three continents. He writes from the Netherlands where he lives with his wife Aafie. Among his latest books is I Have a Future: Christ’s  Resurrection and Mine. Email him at: [email protected]


1 Kinnaman, D., & Lyons, G. (2012). Unchristian: What a new generation really thinks about Christianity—and why it matters. Baker Books.