I was picking up folding chairs with the head elder of a small church after a service. A very small church. I was a sponsor on a mission trip within the United States, and our group quadrupled the size of the congregation at services that morning. They also reduced the average age to about 70, all of whom treated the students like royalty and fed them a wonderful meal. The elder was now enthusiastically telling me about his church and the new pastor they would be welcoming soon.

“He’s young, which is a good thing because we are all getting older, and he believes we can do some successful evangelism here. I’m excited about it because we want to grow.”

Then he paused, and with a concerned look on his face, continued in a lower tone. “Well, the truth is, we do want to grow, but I want to make certain it’s the right kind of growth.”

I nodded in understanding. “In other words, you want to have more people, but you don’t want to change.”

His demeanor brightened. “Yes, that’s it exactly. We want to stay the same.”

“Well, you know, growth is change. The people who join a church are blessed with gifts of the Spirit, and God expects them to use those gifts. I imagine that many of them will have gifts that you may not have among your members right now, and they will allow you to do new ministries that a small group of retirees might not have the skills or energy to do. Things that can bless not only the church but the community. You can’t grow and expect to not change.”

His response almost floored me: “Then I don’t want to grow.”

To him, the great gospel commission was far less precious than the view from inside his cocoon. Dying off was preferable to passing the light on to another generation. To preserve his way of worship, he would deny others the truth that he claimed to treasure. But it was not his attitude that shocked me, only his transparency about it. I had encountered many people who felt the same way but were too cagey to admit it. At least he was honest.

Before I make a statement that should be obvious to everyone, let me lay down some markers: truth is eternal, the Bible is the only reliable source of spiritual truth, and I believe in the interpretation of the Scriptures as found in the 28 fundamental beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Now for the obvious statement: we don’t live in the same world as James and Ellen White. While the truth has not changed, the world has, and we must adapt to new realities that affect how Adventism is practiced in the changing world.

When I was a boy growing up in a small Indiana town in the 1960s, I loved going Ingathering. At first I rode in the car with my father, a reel-to-reel tape recorder on the seat beside him blaring the King’s Herald’s Christmas album through the giant loudspeaker strapped to the top of the Studebaker. When I got a little older, I would go door to door with my uncle, who eventually began to coach me on what to say and let me try it. Before I was off to academy, I was going to the doors alone trying to reach my goal without my parents chipping in.

They quit making Studebakers after 1966. You must go to a museum to see a reel-to-reel recorder. The King’s Herald’s musical style has changed. And in the few communities that have not legislated against door-to-door collections, it is not safe after dark to go to doors or open them to strangers, with or without a live choir in tow.

How can we re-imagine Adventism so that it stays relevant while remaining faithful to truth? If the problem is Ingathering, we can simply recognize that its time is over and move on. After all, not pounding on doors to ask for cash isn’t in violation of any of the 28. But it is more challenging to come up with answers to other changes in the world.

  • The response to public evangelism is growing weaker
  • Systematic, disinterested giving is becoming rare
  • Fewer members see the value of Adventist education
  • It is easier to watch worship from home than participate at church
  • The overhead of our schools, churches, and institutions are being driven higher by inflation, regulatory burdens, medical costs, and legal fees
  • Our colleges and universities are finding fewer and fewer students willing to take education or theology, resulting in critical shortages of essential workers to replace retiring baby boomers

We have no choice but to re-imagine Adventism. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I am aware that new models must be explored for how we staff our schools and churches, how we spend our dollars, how we communicate our message, and how to appropriately praise God in a service that draws people in. If we don’t shake off our Laodicean tendency to cling to the familiar, then God will not be alone in spewing us out.

Already there are generations raised in the church who have decided that lukewarm is not good enough. They can’t relate to hymns about keeping the lower lights burning. They have, through no fault of their own, attention spans that are short enough to begin with, and shorter still when they must sit in motionless rows while someone talks. They can’t see a good reason why they are shut out of the decision-making process. And if they are frustrated enough to not hang around, why would we expect great success in attracting others from their generation who did not have the advantages of growing up in the church?

Change can be made without sacrificing truth. In fact, change is imperative. Without it, there is no growth. Which takes me back to my story of the elder who admitted what many others believe, but most will deny. Once I had recovered from his stunning declaration, a response popped into my mind.

“Well, you have that choice. You don’t have to change, and you don’t have to grow. But there are some words you need to remember, because you are going to need them someday. ‘I was afraid I would lose your money, so I hid it in the earth. Look, here is your money back’, “(Matthew 25:25, NLT)

Douglas Inglish is RMC vice president for administration. Email him at [email protected]