If I were the devil!

Paper presented at the General Conference session on challenges facing the Seventh-day Adventist Church

George R. Knight is professor of church history at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

Seventh-day Adventism at the edge of the twenty-first century is somewhere t never expected to be—on earth. Beyond that, it has expanded beyond the wildest dreams of its founders and continues to expand.

When I joined the Church in 1961 there were somewhat over 1 million Adventists worldwide. That figure had expanded to over 2 million in 1970,3.5 million in 1980, nearly 7 million in 1990, and roughly 11 million in 2000. At the present rate of growth we might expect to find 20 million Adventists in 2013 and 40 million sometime between 2025 and 2030, if time should last.

What a change from 1848 when there were about 100 believers. To them Ellen White's publishing vision that Adventism would someday be like streams of light extending clear round the earth must have seemed like the wildest non sense. If one of them had predicted 11 million Adventists, the others, like Sarah of old, probably would have laughed out loud.

Those early believers were few, poor, and weak. The Church today is many, with the most widespread unified worldwide presence of any Protestant church in history, and with billions of dollars of assets and means.

Yet growth brought about its own complications and challenges. Things were simple in the early days of the Church. They all spoke the same language, belonged to the same race, lived in the northeastern United States, and had been reared in a culture that provided them with a shared value system and set of expectations.

In the year 2000, Adventism is far from simple. We hail from over two hundred nations, speak over seven hundred languages, and vary widely in our cultural backgrounds and expectations.

Adventism today has unparalleled finances and reservoirs of skilled workers, yet it faces unprecedented challenges. If it has already accomplished the impossible in its past history, it still faces the challenge of again accomplishing the impossible in its future. Fortunately, our God is an expert at the impossible. For better or worse, however, He has chosen to use fallible human instruments to finish His work.

Now, if I were the devil I would pit all of my energies against the human element in God's plan as His church seeks to move from the present into the future. In fact, if I were the devil I would carefully plan my strategy for frustrating the Church in its mission.

1. Frustrate the young of the Church.

The first thing on my agenda would be the upcoming generation of Adventists. If I were the devil I would put my best energies into getting the Church to reject the ideas and plans of the coming generation. That shouldn't be too difficult, since in many parts of the world they don't dress like their elders, sing like them, or even think like them. I would also help the Adventist Church forget that their movement was largely begun by young people whose ideas were innovative and creative.

Our devil knows that if he can dis courage the best of the young from taking over the Church, it will end up dead or dying. To reach the new generation, we must learn to communicate in the language of their day, just as Jesus used the language and idioms of His, and James White did in his.

The Church needs to recognize that the upcoming generations don't think like those of us born in the 1940s and earlier. Brand loyalty is gone. The post- Watergate, post-Vietnam, post-modern world tends to be post-denominational. The Church can no longer expect mind less or guilt-ridden loyalty just because people were born Adventist or because they think Adventism has the truth. On the contrary, to retain their loyalty the Church will need to demonstrate that it truly is what it claims to be and that it is using its funds and resources faithfully.

The youth are Adventism's great est opportunity and its most serious challenge. The Church must formulate plans to reach their minds and enlist their support.

2. Think negatively.

If I were the devil I would get the Church to think small. This tactic is closely related to that of frustrating the young people, because the young have not yet discovered that everything is impossible. I know Adventists who can give 110 reasons why almost anything that is suggested can't be done. And they usually buttress their argument with Bible verses and Ellen White quotations taken out of their historical context.

Such apostles of negativism have apparently never read the following: "New methods and new plans will spring from new circumstances. New thoughts will come with new workers who give themselves to the work... They will receive plans devised by the Lord Himself"1 (New workers, of course, are often young workers.)

The apostles of negativism need to learn the lesson of the bumblebee. It is aerodynamically impossible for bumblebees to fly, but they don't know it, so they do it anyway.

Thinking small in Adventism means church "X" baptizing 50 in 2001 rather than 25; it means topping the 20 million mark by 2004 instead of 2013. With small thinking the Church will be on the planet for a long time to come.

The Church needs to reach the en tire world for Christ. While that may seem like an impossibility, we must never forget the impossible task of the early Christian church or of our Adventist forebears. What, we need to ask, is the magnitude of latter-rain faith? How can we think big and best utilize our funds and working force to make our God-given dreams come true?

3. Limit the Church's vision.

If I were the devil I would get people to believe that there is only one way to do something and that everybody has to do it that one way. Take worship, for ex ample. A few years ago the North American Division had some tension over what was called "celebration worship." I don't know that much about celebration worship, but I do know that in the average Adventist service I can fall asleep during the invocation, wake up at the benediction, and still confidently tell you every thing that happened in between.

The Church needs to realize, as Ellen White puts it, that "not all minds are to be reached by the same methods." Worship styles, for example, are related to socio-economic class. What may reach an upper-middle class community may not appeal to other groups. Adventism doesn't need one or two ways of worshiping. It needs 50 or more if it is to reach all the people.

The same can be said for evangelism. Our God has created variety everywhere. We need to consciously develop methods and procedures that are quite unlike our traditional ones if we are going to reach those most unlike us.

4. Downplay promising technology.

If I were the devil I would downplay the importance of new technologies in finishing the Church's work. New technology has tremendous power for both good and evil. H. M. S. Richards once told me that he had to fight the Church leaders at every step. Radio was too new in 1930, too radical, too innovative, too untried, a waste of the Lord's money.

Today we stand at the frontier of technologies that possess immense potential for spreading the three angels' messages that Richards couldn't even dream of. Today as never before we need a generation with the H. M. S. Richards spirit but with twenty-first century imaginations.

5. Make corporate Church leadership central.

If were the devil I would make pastors and administrators the center of the work of the Church. It must have been the devil who gave us the idea that the pastor should do all the preaching, give all the Bible studies, be a church's primary soul winner, and the one to make and carry out all business decisions for the church.

We need to move beyond the place where we see churches as entertainment centers for the saints. Adventism needs to get more priests into the priesthood of the believers. If we wait for the clergy to finish the work, Adventism will be on planet Earth for a little longer than eternity.

The challenge is to create a generation of Adventist pastors and administrators who become equippers, who are skilled at helping people use their talents in the work of reaching the world.

6. Undermine the local congregation.

If I were the devil I would undermine the importance of the local congregation. One of the great needs of Adventism is the creation and maintenance of vibrant local congregations. A healthy congregation is not a group of independent individuals but a unit of believers reaching out to the community around them.

The task of the world Church in its General Conference organization is to coordinate funds and personnel in order to send Christ's message to the far corners of the earth. Thus, Congregationalism as a form of organization is not sufficient in itself. On the other hand, in the long run the denomination will only be as healthy as its congregations. What can be done to create healthier local congregations?

7. Make the Church top-heavy.

If were the devil I would create more administrative levels and generate more administrators. In fact, if I were the devil I would get as many successful Church employees as far from the scene of action as possible. I would put them behind desks, cover them with paper, and inundate them with committees. If that wasn't enough, I would remove them to so-called "higher" and "higher" levels until they had little direct and sustained contact with the people who make up the Church.

Now don't get me wrong. I believe in church organization. But I also believe in food, and I know that too much of a good thing has less than healthy results.

More and more Adventists are realizing that there are other ways to structure the Church in the post-modern world that would free up both workers and money for finishing God's work on earth. This task may be one of the greatest challenges of our day.

8. Fear the Holy Spirit.

If I were the devil I would make Adventists afraid of the Holy Spirit. Too many of us fear Pentecostalism when we think of the topic of the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, we need to remember the Bible teaching about the necessity of the Spirit in Christian work, and Ellen White's thought that the reception of the Holy Spirit brings all other blessings in its train.

How much do we think about the Holy Spirit and the outpouring of the latter rain? Are we so focused on goals, structures, and human endeavor that we have forgotten the essential power be hind each of them? What steps can be taken to allow the Spirit His proper place in Adventism? Or do we hope to finish our work without His presence?

9. Promote the numbers game.

If I were the devil I would encourage the denomination to keep playing the numbers game. The worst thing that ever happened to Adventism is when it learned to count. We count members, churches, institutions, money, and everything else. While numbers have their proper place, they may have very little to do with the reality of a finished work.

One result of the numbers game is that we tend to put our money where we can get the most baptisms for the least money. That means that we have not put the effort needed into those parts of the world that are the most difficult. The numbers problem takes on different configurations in various parts of the world, but we need to consistently face it in our planning if we ever hope to reach all God's children.

10. Downplay the apocalyptic heritage.

If I were the devil I would get Seventh-day Adventists to forget or at least downplay their apocalyptic heritage. Adventism has never seen itself as just another denomination, but rather as a movement of prophecy with its roots in Revelation 10-14. It is that belief in Adventism as a special, called-out people with an urgent message that has driven the Church to the ends of the earth.

When that vision is gone, Adventism will become just another toothless religious group that just happens to be a little more peculiar in some of its beliefs than some of the others.

Adventism's approach to apocalyptic in the future will determine whether it will continue to be a movement or will be transmuted into a monument of the movement and eventually into a museum commemorating the movement.

While we are on the topic of apocalypse, it is important that we speak to the people of our day. It just doesn't get people excited about the nearness of the Advent to tell them that there was a great earthquake in Lisbon in 1755 and that the stars fell in 1833.1 have no problem with those events in terms of their historicity and their power on people in the nineteenth century, but we need to help people see the ongoing apocalpytic events in the framework of our day.

11. Major on minors.

If I were the devil I would get Adventists to hold that all of their beliefs are of equal importance. On the contrary, the plain fact is that having a saving relationship with Jesus is at the very center of Adventism. That relationship is not at the same level as eating a pork chop. I have known Sabbath keepers who are meaner than the devil. I have even known vegetarians who are meaner than the devil. The Church needs to think of its beliefs in terms of what is central and what is peripheral.

The Bible picture is clear that all genuine Christianity flows out of a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. It is all too easy to be an Adventist without being a Christian. In our evangelism and in Adventism's entire outreach pro gram, the centrality of Christ needs to be made crystal clear.

12. Encourage contention.

If I were the devil I would get Adventists fighting with each other. In this, any old topic will do—worship styles, theology, dress standards. After all, if Adventists are busy shooting all their bullets at each other, they won't have many left for me. The devil has been quite successful in this strategy. What can be done to help us find and defeat the real enemy?

13. Champion only the cause of one's own kind.

If I were the devil I would get as many Adventists as possible to think tribally, nationally, and racially. I would make the Church one big power struggle without regard to mission or efficiency.

Having made that statement, I hasten to add that there are injustices that need to be rectified and complex situations that can never be made completely straight. My plea is that even in the most difficult and unjust situations we need to behave as born-again sisters and brothers who are able to discuss these things without losing sight of the mission of the Church that makes the issues meaningful in the first place. Along this line, Adventism needs to develop mechanisms to enrich and enlighten its multiculturalism and internationalism.

14. Look miserable.

Finally, if I were the devil I would get Adventists to look miserable on Sabbath.

When do Adventists rejoice—sundown Friday or sundown Saturday? Too many of us act as if Sabbath was a penalty for being an Adventist instead of a sign of our salvation and the greatest blessing of the week. This unfortunate attitude shows up in too many of our churches. I have been to Adventist churches where no one even greeted me.

It takes more than correct doctrine to fill a church. We need not only doctrinal truth but the truth as it is in Jesus (John 13:35).


I'm tired of playing the role of the devil. Where does God come into all of this? If I were God I would encourage the Seventh-day Adventist Church to start thinking, planning, and acting in a manner that will defeat the devil's game plan. I would encourage Advent ism to multiply the power of its blessings; treat its challenges in an open, honest, and Christian manner; and put all its energies into maximizing its missiological opportunities.

Success will not come about by accident, but will be the product of deliberate thought, planning, and action done under the leadership of the Holy Spirit.

1. Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Nampa, Idaho-. Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), 6:476, italics supplied.

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George R. Knight is professor of church history at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

September 2000

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