I grew up in the Seventh-day Adventist faith tradition, and, as a young person attending Adventist churches and schools, I frequently heard that I was supposed to be “in the world but not of the world.” Don’t hang out with those people because you’ll become more like them. Don’t watch the wrong television shows or you’ll become less sensitive to the evil in the world. Don’t read the wrong books or you won’t want to read the right ones. Perhaps there was a degree of wisdom in this counsel, but I don’t recall hearing much about how to be “in the world.”  There was much more focus on how to stay separate from the world than how to impact it.

When we think about how Seventh-day Adventists influence the world around us, we tend to focus on famous Adventists. The famous singers, physicians, preachers, and authors. The famous hospitals and schools. These people and organizations have impacted the world in many positive ways, but what about ordinary Adventists leading ordinary lives? How can we be in the world and influence it positively for the kingdom? Albert Einstein said, “Setting an example is not the main means of influencing others; it is the only means.”

We can set a good example by focusing on the right things. I knew a woman who worked with several Adventists and had positive interactions and experiences with them, but she didn’t know much about Adventist beliefs. She knew what these people didn’t eat, what they didn’t wear, and when they went to church, but that was about it. One day she saw a preacher on television and called the phone number on the screen. They sent her a book. It eventually led to Bible studies with a local pastor and her decision to be baptized into the Adventist church.

Her friends celebrated with her and showed up at the service to support her. As she stepped into the water, the sweet preacher who helped lead her to choose a new life in Jesus leaned down and said, “Your toenails shouldn’t be painted red. God didn’t make them like that.” Thankfully, she had the wisdom and maturity to put his criticism in perspective and laugh it off, but not everyone could have done that.

This is a silly (but true) story. It happened a long time ago and likely wouldn’t happen today, but in many other ways, it’s still happening. While living in a world that desperately needs our Savior, we focus on the wrong things and set terrible examples of what freedom and joy in Christ look like. How can we positively impact the culture outside our faith community when we can’t focus on what really matters in our own spaces? While we sling arrows at each other on the inside, the culture around us considers us out of touch and even irrelevant.

There is disagreement within our faith community about what really matters, and this is perplexing for people who claim to be “People of the Book.” The Bible states repeatedly that God’s law is fulfilled when we love our neighbors as ourselves. When Jesus was asked to clarify who our neighbors are, He replied with a story about showing kindness and mercy. He didn’t reply with a list of qualities of worthy neighbors. If we had such a definitive list, we would no doubt study the lives of the people we don’t like and diagnose them as unworthy based upon their lacking enough of the stated qualities. Who are our neighbors? Everybody. All of them. Each other. No exceptions.

We would have an out-sized influence on the culture around us if we were known as people who love our God and love each other. Full stop. We try to make it so complicated, and it just isn’t. Neither is it easy.

Truly loving each other within the Adventist community would require an extraordinary level of humility. We’d have to admit that we’ve focused on the wrong things. We’d have to stop trying to control each other with our own preferences and let love guide our every action. If we demonstrated that love is our greatest commandment, we would celebrate and ordain women who are called by the Spirit to preach the gospel and minister in our communities. If love were our guide, we wouldn’t tolerate racism in any form and would use every position and platform to fight it. If love was our highest goal, the LGBTQ community would view our church as a refuge from hate, fear, and judgment. If we really learned to love, mental health challenges would no longer be judged as weakness and lack of faith.

Imagine what influence we would have on society if we could be known as people who love really, really well. We would be more inclusive, more accessible, more compelling, more relevant. Perhaps more people would want to belong to our communities, and sometimes it seems like that might actually be the problem. If we become more relevant, are we subject to being diluted? Will we become more “of the world” if we become more inclusive? Of course, this is ridiculous, yet we’ve all seen newcomers to our faith pressured to assimilate and become more like us and less like, well, them. If we just love them, are we somehow less like us? Have we influenced the culture around us, or has it now influenced us?

Loving all our neighbors is extraordinarily complicated when we’re faced with the prospect of loving people who behave horribly. I’m having a very difficult time contemplating how to love the man who recently killed a young mother and her child, dumping their bodies just down the road from our home. It’s almost inconceivable that God loves him as much as He loves me, and yet, He does. I’ve concluded that loving neighbors like this requires a love that is only possible when Jesus abides in us. When we commit to living lives that represent Jesus to the culture around us, He creates in us a love that makes no sense whatsoever. It’s impossible on our own.

Love is a simple concept, but it requires a miracle within each of us to do it well. We’re accustomed to picking and choosing where and how we love, but Jesus didn’t leave us that option.

Jesus told His disciples, So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples (John 13:34-35, New Living Translation).

Jesus made it very clear how we can impact the world and culture around us: Love each other.

Joyce Newmyer is a member of Crosswalk Portland in Portland, Oregon. She loves people and immensely dislikes snakes. She is the Chief People Officer and Oregon Network President for Adventist Health. Email her at: [email protected]