You may need to leave the church to find Jesus.

I do not say this lightly. I say it with sincere sadness and deep regret. But I have heard countless stories and have witnessed many examples of those who have experienced a lack of grace, love, respect, or honesty from someone representing the church. You may have been cheated financially, abused mentally, damaged spiritually, misrepresented theologically, or molested physically by someone you felt was trustworthy. Your pain, guilt, anger, bitterness, or fear may be crippling and overwhelming.

Seeing beyond it may not be feasible. The barriers you have built for self-preservation may make it impossible for you to find the love of God in your current relationship with the church. To you I say, with great sorrow, go. But don’t stop searching, for He is there, and His love is unconditional.

Unconditional. That’s a word we bandy about as if we think we understand its meaning. I question that we do. In the context in which I’ve used it, it means that there is nothing—no act, no behavior, no thought, no mistake, no sin, no sexual involvement or orientation, no substance use or abuse, no broken relationship, no unethical motive, no level of doubt, no attitude, no criminal behavior, no doctrinal belief, no church council, no academic censure, no judgmental humiliation, nothing—that can separate you from the love of God. It’s a biblical promise (Romans 8:38, 39).

The problem with most large organizations, like churches and the people in them, is that their delivery does not always live up to their promise or their intent. They harbor leaders and members who are cruel, self-centered, and manipulative. And so, I say, even to those in my own denomination, if you need to leave this church to find the unconditional love of God, go quickly. And I pray with all sincerity that you find it.

It’s a good thing I didn’t work for the church. Because I would have missed out on many wonderful friendships, I don’t always play well with others, and, as you can see from my comments thus far, I’m not very good at sales. Whether we wish to admit it or not, much of what a church does resembles marketing and sales.

There are at least three conventional ways to make a sale. The first is to unveil something new that is highly attractive. Think Apple iPhone. The second is to identify a fear, a need, or a desire, and show how you can resolve it. Think toothpaste or deodorant. The third is by threat. In January 1973, the cover of the counterculture magazine, National Lampoon, had a picture of a man holding a gun to the head of a dog with the caption, “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog.” I bought a copy. I hope the dog survived.

Historically, churches have used all three of these methods. Christians claim that their mission is to spread a new and improved understanding of the Good News about God as revealed by Jesus in His life and death. To do this, they have held out on one hand the promise of eternal bliss for those who believe them. On the other hand, they have threatened a fearful judgment and the fires of hell for those who do not. Just like Job’s friends, they have also implied that God will hurt or kill you, or your children, or your livestock, or your dog, if you don’t buy what they are selling.

This approach has worked fairly well for some. St. Peter’s Basilica, Notre Dame, and many other medieval cathedrals, hospitals, and orphanages bear witness to the effectiveness of playing on fear and guilt and selling forgiveness. So do the mansions, jet airplanes, and fleets of luxury automobiles of some of today’s most successful pastors and televangelists. Tickets to heaven and protection from calamity now, as well as from a hell to come, are great assets for both consumers and suppliers.

Attempting to work, or buy, one’s way into heaven may now be out of style theologically.  But the transactional attitude of “what’s in it for me” still appears to be a prevalent religious philosophy. So, perhaps the question we must answer is, what does our church have to offer, since eternal life is now agreed by most to be a gift of grace?

Well, what is it that people want?

I think I know. They want to be loved. They want to be free and independent. They want to be creative and productive. They want to live a healthy, safe, and financially secure life. They want to live in a community of loving friends and family members. They want a worldview that makes sense. They want to find meaning in their life and feel that they have served a worthwhile purpose. They want to die young at an old age from a painless cause of death. If in the afterlife there is a wonderful paradise, that will be nice, but even more than that, they want the assurance that there is no painful punishment awaiting them. Moving from fear of the unknown to fear of a judgment is not great progress.

Through research and the work of such projects as National Geographic’s Blue Zones, we have learned that the Adventist way of life can fulfill many of these widely held desires. Our emphasis on mission and volunteerism addresses the need for meaning and a worthwhile purpose in life. Our focus on educational achievement, combined with abstinence and a strong Protestant work ethic, supports a creative, stable, productive, and financially secure career. Our emphasis on nutrition, exercise, rest, and other health-related activities has garnered worldwide attention for our increased longevity. And our relatively close-knit community potentially provides a place of belonging and social stability.

But you don’t need to join our church, and you certainly don’t have to give tithes and offerings, to reap most of the rewards of our lifestyle. Volunteerism and educational achievement can be found elsewhere. Social cohesion can be found in many places, including sports leagues, political parties, taverns, and country clubs. And we have struggled in our attempts to capitalize on the significant wisdom we have on a healthful lifestyle. We have in large part lost the marketing edge on this to many other interests and organizations outside of our church. Even the unique properties we placed in our very name, a Sabbath-day rest and an emphasis on Christ’s return, are now ideas and beliefs that many others share.

But what about the more profound needs, wants, and wishes that we identified? Those such as love, freedom, a coherent view of the universe, and a fair and righteous accounting in the end for how we have lived. I believe Adventism is uniquely prepared to address these fundamental human desires, too. In fact, I believe Adventism is the ideal religion for a secular world because, at its best, it emphasizes sanctified reason.

While all Christians share the Great Commission of Christ to go everywhere and make disciples for Him, each church takes a slightly different approach to the assignment. I believe the central Adventist focus is meant to be on the truth about the character and government of God that was revealed by the life and death of Jesus. That He is not the kind of person his enemies have made Him out to be—arbitrary, unforgiving, and severe. That the Father is just as loving and trustworthy as Jesus, just as willing to forgive and heal. That He is mighty and powerful, but equally gracious. That He values nothing higher than the freedom, dignity, and individuality of His intelligent creatures. That He is actively searching for loving, trusting, and trustworthy friends with whom He can share infinite freedom for eternity. And that the results of living a rebellious life are natural consequences, not imposed punishments.1

We have too often focused on “what.” The comprehensive Adventist “package” can be seen as requiring a lot of “whats” from its adherents. It can be very attractive to people with strong wills and over-developed guilt complexes. It’s a great church for people who abstain from everything unhealthful, who, through sheer determination, refrain from sinful activities, who floss every day, and run marathons, attempting to prevent plaque in all the wrong places.

I believe God is more concerned with why. The comprehensive Adventist “package” can then be seen as full of helpful promises rather than grueling demands. Even weak and struggling folks can find rest, health, forgiveness, and freedom. Instead of focusing on a life of work and servitude, it can lead to a life of repose and friendship with God. No force, no guilt, no drudgery. And no fear that God may kill your dog if you do something that displeases Him.

Mark Johnson, MD, is a retired public health physician and the chairman of the Boulder Vision Board. Email him at: [email protected]


See Maxwell, A. Graham (1992). Servants or Friends: Another Look at God. Pineknoll Publications.