Maintaining the Adventist vision

Adventist vision can be vibrant and alive only as we remain faithful to our Lord, His message, and His mission.

Russell Staples, Ph.D., is a former professor of missions at the Seventhday Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

The driving force of vision in a religious movement can hardly be overestimated. Powerful religious visions function in several ways. First, they generate commitment to a core of beliefs and values. Second, they guide in the selection of appropriate courses of action, and even more so if the vision is clearly defined theologically. Third, an abiding vision functions as a standard for correction when expansion and altered circumstances lead to internal change. For instance, agencies and institutions that are developed as instruments of mission tend to develop purposes that may slowly deviate from the original purposes for which they were established. In such cases the light of the original vision may call the community back to faithfulness and guide in the resetting of its course.

The Wesleyan revival in mid-eighteenth-century Britain is a good example of the motivating and life-changing power of a great religious vision, and to a lesser degree of developments that may deflect a community of faith from its original course. As the evangelical revival in Britain was gaining strength, John Wesley came to a personal conviction regarding the way of salvation a synthesis of justification by faith learned from the Moravians and an understanding of sanctification as a gracious healing of the corruption of human nature learned from the early Eastern Fathers. He became the apostle of a great movement. The vision was contagious. It is estimated that 10 years after his death, around the turn of the century, one out of every 30 English adults was a Methodist. 1

The Methodist Church in America at its founding conference hi 1784 accepted and endorsed Wesley's vision as its defining purpose. Inspired by this vision, a faithful core of circuit-riding preachers proclaimed in every city and settlement the doctrine of human renewal and god-likeness by the power of God's grace. To the amazement of historians, within 75 years of its founding Methodism became the largest denomination in the United States and is generally regarded as the "most powerful religious movement in American history."2

Methodism changed lives and made people better citizens. It also engendered characteristics that made members prosperous. However, with the accumulation of wealth they became less intent upon the heavenly quest. Wesley anguished over this. In addition to frequent denunciations of greed and surplus accumulation by professed Christians, six of his 150 published sermons deal specifically with the danger of riches. His last published sermon, written with "dim eyes, shaking hands, and tottering feet,"3 is an almost despairing appeal to Methodists to rise above the temptation of riches that distracts from the quest for scriptural holiness. Yet it is ironic that the discipline and qualities engendered in the Methodist classes and societies were precisely those that equipped the Methodists to gain riches.

The Wesleyan revival is thus an example on more than one continent of the tremendous force and power of a great religious vision and of the subtlety with which detracting factors may arise and operate.

The origin of Adventist vision

Few churches owe their origin to the unfolding of as bright a vision of God's purposes as our own. And yet for all this, factors giving rise to the expansion and subsequent developments in the church are not entirely dissimilar to those that can be seen to have been operative in other movements.

The Millerite vision of a soon-coming Christ generated contagious enthusiasm and attracted a phenomenal body of disciples whose dedication to the cause was without reserve. Inspired by and trusting in this vision, which received new direction and shape by the vision of the three angels, the Seventh-day Adventist Church launched a great worldwide missionary movement.

By the end of the 1901-1903 reorganization the General Conference in fact, the entire church became a great missionary society that dedicated almost all of its resources to the proclamation of the three angels' messages in every place. Everybody lived for the proclamation of the message. A vast network of missionary ventures of all kinds, from personal Bible studies and public evangelistic endeavors to educational and medical institutions and literature ministries, were established all around the world with a dedicated corps of workers. In fact, this missionary movement and the level of support given to it by the churches everywhere became the envy of the wider Protestant missionary community.

The above description is characteristic of the church of my youth. As I look back, it seems as if the majority of teenage Adventists looked forward to service in "the work," whether at home or abroad, and significant members of most established Adventist families were "workers" of one kind or another. Members of the "Adventist family" (a term W. A. Spicer loved to use) lived for the "cause" and sought to hasten the day of the coming of the Lord.

The fact and force of all this did not fully dawn on my consciousness until it was triggered by three events in the year 1939. At family worship one evening my father, reading from the Review, announced that the church had achieved a membership of 500,000. I had seen many small Adventist churches and thought of the denomination as being relatively small. But this was a very large number, and I was overjoyed.

Second, World War II broke out that year, and among other things this led to a heightening of the Adventist eschatological vision.

Third, toward the end of the year a vast congregation of Adventists filled the city hall in Sydney, Australia, to hear Elder Spicer. I remember the occasion almost as if it were yesterday. Spicer spoke of the hand of God in history and of the special mission and purpose of the Adventist Church. As he described the triumphs of the gospel, with many references to the faithfulness of believers in nation after nation, from east to west and north to south, the conviction seemed to grow that the Adventist Church was the hinge of history and that the work was almost done. I had grown up on the sawdust trail and heard much Adventist preaching, but I had never experienced a meeting like this nor heard as clear a portrayal of the special mission and purpose of the Adventist Church.

Decline in Adventist sense of mission

The Adventist Church has a strong sense of identity and is possessed with a zeal for the things of God. In most places it is growing steadily and rapidly. However, during the past 30 years there has been a gradual slowing of the outward missionary thrust from home land churches. Whereas earlier it was the missionary zeal of the Adventist Church that amazed mission analysts, they now ask why both the missionary consciousness of Adventists and their outreach programs have declined as much as they have.

Factors accounting for this would seem to be many and complex. Perhaps the most significant is the very success of the missionary movement and the fact that large, responsible, and very zealous young Adventist churches have been established in many places of earth. The younger churches now comprise approximately 90 percent of the Adventist world membership. It is easy to reason that the younger churches must now complete the work that has been so well begun in their countries, while we in the secular West get on with the difficult task of mission in our own lands.

Perhaps our selfishness has turned back upon us. Preserving our resources for better church buildings and schools and our own use generally has deprived us of the heartwarming feedback regarding the triumphs of the gospel experienced by our own missionaries in their soul-winning endeavors.

Perhaps thinking of the world in terms of nations has lulled us into complacency with the feeling that the work is almost done and blinded us to the many unreached people groups. Or have we perhaps tended to concentrate on the external aspects of the great vision that launched us on our cause blame for the change of the Sabbath, the judgment of Babylon and her daughters, the future link between church and state, and so on until there is no song of joy in the soul about the wonders of redeeming grace and the blessed hope of union with our Lord?

We could easily advance a dozen more equally valid reasons to account for this complex phenomenon, but this is a Ministry magazine and not a missions journal. In any case, it is not the external factors that are of primary interest to us here. Our concern is with the basic question regarding the maintenance of the spiritual vision that defines what it means to be an Adventist.

Being an Adventist: two dimensions

It would seem that there are two major dimensions to this challenge. The first relates to the intellectual/theological task of maintaining the clarity and relevance of the mission. The second, a less tangible and more difficult to define dimension of the human religious experience, relates to the maintenance of a spiritual vitality and ethos that give power and force to the vision.

In a seminar session I attended, two experienced anthropologists, one having worked in the South Pacific, the other in Africa, concurred in saying that the Adventist Church tended to produce a "schoolroom religion." That is to say, we tend to emphasize knowledge of doctrine and correct belief to the neglect of those aspects of religion having to do with the effect. In other words, the Adventist experience is intellectual but not spiritually powerful. This analysis immediately raised a set of questions in my mind: How would they evaluate the contemporary religious consciousness of the Adventist Church in the U.S.A.? Would they think it was adequately intellectual to engage the Western secular mind? And what about our corporate spirituality? I mention this not to endorse their judgment such evaluations are relative but to stimulate thought. Are we doing all we can and should to maintain the vision in both of the above respects?

Regarding the intellectual/theological task, we certainly teach doctrine diligently, but are we paying sufficient attention to making the vision clear and credible to the secular intellectual of our time? Because understandings of reality and ways of knowing are constantly changing and never has change been more rapid than at present the theological task is never completed.

There are two parts to this task. The first is that of providing an intellectually credible portrayal of the message and meaning of the vision in contemporary thought forms. The second is to avoid cluttering it with so many ancillary concerns that the vision itself gets blurred in the haze. Both of these require much study and prayer for divine guidance. The vision must be explicated with compelling clarity if we hope to pass it on to our young people and attract those of the wider society to join us on our heavenward pilgrimage.

Vision and discipleship

But intellectual assent to the vision does not of itself inspire to action. As Wesley was fond of saying: "The devils believe but they be devils still." We cannot master the task rationally. It takes spiritual conviction, the working of the Holy Spirit within the soul, to bring the vision to life and to motivate to discipleship. Our anthropologist friends would certainly say that experience is the most powerful part of religion. How do we do when it comes to this dimension of what it means to be an Adventist Christian walking in the full assurance of faith and rejoicing in the hope of the coming of our Lord? Have we learned to really rejoice in the Lord in our corporate experience, to confess together our well-founded hope, to sing songs of praise with full-throated voice, to pray, as before His presence, with solemnity and joy? Would those strangers among us at the table of our Lord sense that we partake of the emblems with the full depths of our being, identifying in every respect with our Lord?

While there are certainly other dimensions to the faithful maintenance and transmission of that great vision and task delivered to our forebears in the faith, I believe that these are two major aspects of the challenge at present confronting every pastor.

The Christian Church was born at Pentecost in a great transforming experience that led people to God. So also the Adventist Church was launched on its course by a vision that called people to worship the soon-coming Lord in Spirit and truth and live in a closeness with Him that grows into a fitness for the kingdom of heaven. It is the task of every Adventist generation to keep this flame and sense of purpose beaming brightly. Mind and heart, study and prayer, sanctified reason, and a waiting for divine illumination must be united in this enterprise. Effectiveness in evangelism and mission demands that we offer a faith that is vibrant and alive. It is only the Holy Spirit that can lead beyond a dull rationalism to an intimacy with God and a power to witness for which we all long.

1 Howard A. Snyder, The Radical Wesley
(Downers Grove, 111.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1980), p. 54.

2 Nathan O. Hatch, "The Puzzle of American
Methodism," Church History 63, No. 2 (June 1994):
177, 180.

3 Albert C. Outler, ed., The Works of John Wesley
(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1987), vol. 4, Sermons
IV, pp. 177-186.


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Russell Staples, Ph.D., is a former professor of missions at the Seventhday Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

February 1997

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