I didn’t win the $1.337 billion Mega Millions lottery.

I’ll bet you didn’t either.

I would assume, though, that many of us played the “what if…” game.

The first thing I would do if I won a huge lottery, of course, would be to pay my tithe and give a generous offering to the church. I have been assured by more than one pastor that the church would gladly accept my ill-gotten gains.

Next, I’d take care of my children and grandchildren. I like Warren Buffett’s philosophy on this–give them “enough money so that they would feel they could do anything, but not so much that they could do nothing.”

Then I’d work on building a bigger library in my basement.

Finally, I’d probably tell my wife I’d won some money, just to see if there was anything she wanted.

I don’t think anybody really expects to win the lottery, but it is fun to play “what if….”

Well, “what if…” you could significantly change, or even start the Adventist church all over again today? I mean it in the sense that an appellate court hears a case de novo.  That means that as we play this mental game, in addition to what we know now, we assume we have all the knowledge and understanding available to us that were present when the church was originally established, but we start again, brand new.

The world has changed dramatically since our church was founded, but has the church?  Should it?

In the mid- to late-1800s, the birth and growth of the Seventh-day Adventist Church was powerfully influenced by the current events. Notwithstanding renewed interest in the second coming of Christ, manifested most prominently in America by William Miller and his date-specific predictions, the predominant Christian belief was in the imminent establishment of Christ’s kingdom on earth, with the promise of a thousand years of righteousness, peace, and prosperity.

The knowledge of medicine was rudimentary. Most medical facilities were tuberculosis sanitaria, or glorified health spas for the rich and famous. Most “educated” physicians were the products of relatively short courses at proprietary diploma mills.

Poverty and civil unrest in the new Kingdom of Italy, and the Potato Famine in Ireland, sent a wave of unwelcome Roman Catholic immigrants to the “Protestant” United States. In 1888, the American Sabbath Union was formed by representatives from major Protestant denominations (It continues as The Lord’s Day Alliance and is an ecumenical Christian first-day Sabbatarian organization that lobbies for the passage of Sunday-rest laws). It had some very powerful congressional champions in the late 1800s.

Into this environment came a new church. It addressed these social, political, and theological positions aggressively, but not always winsomely. It espoused the soon return of Christ, a radical dietary and health message, and the seventh day of the week as the true biblical Sabbath. It accused the Roman Catholic Church and “apostate” Protestantism of attempting to break down the wall of separation between church and state. This defiant organization had the temerity to clothe itself in the mantle of the Three Angels’ Message of Revelation, and to call itself the Remnant Church. It claimed it did so with the endorsement of a last-day prophet.

In response, mainstream denominations labelled it a legalistic, quasi-Christian cult.

Religion in America is much more diverse today. The three major religious traditions in most states are Catholicism, white evangelical Protestantism, and the religiously unaffiliated. The controversial theological and political issues facing many churches are now same-sex marriage, abortion, the role of women in ministry, public funding of private religious schools, and immigration reform. To many of the unchurched, “Christianity” and “evangelical” are words of contempt and derision.

How has Adventism responded to these changes?

It really hasn’t. It appears that the things for which we are still best known to the public, in no particular order, are: (1) an emphasis on last-day events, the second coming of Christ, and a day of judgment; (2) a concentration on health; (3) worshipping on Saturday instead of Sunday; and (4) having a founding prophet.

For the most part, those to whom I speak think we Adventists make good neighbors, but they are rather confused about Adventism. They usually know about our hospital systems. They believe we are all non-smoking, teetotalling vegetarians. They know little about our religious beliefs, and are either unaware of, or are too polite to mention, our rather embarrassing beginnings. A few still aren’t sure if we’re Christian. The majority vaguely remember that we had a prophet, but they’re not sure if it was Joseph Smith or Mary Baker Eddy.

So, what if…?

This game is not new, nor is it original with me. Many Adventist thought leaders have been playing it for years. George Knight and William G. Johnsson, among others, have written extensively on the subject. If you haven’t heard, or read, some of their reflections and projections, it is probably because they are so painful that they have not been widely disseminated. It is not easy to admit we might need to change, or that we are a deeply divided church. Change implies error, which is particularly embarrassing for us.  We have boasted for years about our “remnancy” and have preached that we are the ones who will in perfect unity finally and perfectly reflect the character of Christ to the world.

When we speak about possible flaws in today’s Adventist church, we usually focus on organizational, administrative, or doctrinal issues. But if I could change the Adventist church, I wouldn’t start by changing its fundamental beliefs (much) or its administrative and organizational structure (much). I also wouldn’t begin by addressing the major controversial religious and political issues facing Christianity today. While each of those arenas may need to eventually be addressed, I believe our primary problem is much more basic–we are viscerally afraid of God.

We whistle in the dark, and pretend we are not really afraid, but our presentations of last-day events, the day of judgment, Christ’s work in the heavenly sanctuary, the second coming of Christ, and the final destruction of the wicked are dripping with fear.  In the short term, fear may work well as a motivator, and may be necessary for immediate survival. Over a longer period, however, it is usually detrimental to performance, relationships, and well-being. A constant state of fear causes chronic stress, and eventually either breaks one’s body and spirit or leads to a complete disregard of important warnings. We’ve all heard recalcitrant smokers say, “Well, we’re all going to die of something, it might as well be lung cancer.”

If I could change the church, I would change its focus.

I would focus it on what Jesus said His mission was. Both the Bible and our prophet claim He came to show us the true character of the Father. That was the basic problem of sin in the first place—we, as creatures, did not trust God or believe He had our best interests at heart. The serpent in the garden claimed the Creator had lied to us, and that He was holding us back from our full inherent potential. We literally fell for the shiny object–a beautiful, shimmering, miraculously talking snake. Since then, because of our lack of trust in God, we have taken the gifts He gave us to help reconcile us back to Him and have legalistically either turned them into heavy ritualistic burdens or made them into objects of worship themselves.

The legalistic solution to this problem is to attempt to either appease our angry God or somehow buy His forgiveness. The biblical solution is to learn to trust Him.

To trust God, we must first find Him trustworthy. This was Christ’s whole mission on earth. In the upper room, Christ reminded the disciples that in His life and work on earth, He had irrefutably revealed the loving and trustworthy character of the Father to the universe. Moreover, He told them He was going to die as if He was a sinner to demonstrate that the Father had not lied about sin leading to death. If this led us back to trust, there was no need for us to die.

Our primary mission should be spreading the Good News that God can be trusted and that He is searching for friends whom He, in turn, can unconditionally trust for eternity with infinite freedom. To become such friends, we must believe that He can heal all that is wrong with us. That is a promising message of love, and love obliterates fear.

It might be well for us Adventists to remember that we are not the first Sabbath-keeping, tithe-paying, Bible-believing people with rigorous dietary restrictions and prophetic “proof” that we are God’s special people. I imagine there were many colorful, wall-sized charts, graphs, and beast-filled illustrations predicting a glorious future for Israel that went up in flames in Jerusalem in 70 C.E.

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