In many respects, the story of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is one of success. Officially organized in 1863 as a peculiar, misunderstood group with around 3,500 members, the church is now a global organization with nearly 22 million members1 and an annual tithe of US$2.5 billion.2 Its ministry has positively changed millions of lives.
However, while in 2019, the global population grew by 1.05 percent,3 the membership of the Adventist Church increased by just 0.66 percent.4 Are we losing ground at worst and stagnant at best? Have we become lukewarm? Is the world resistant to the truth? Should we increase our focus on evangelism? Are there things we could do to revitalize our witness and increase our impact in a broken world?
I believe the answer to these questions is—“Yes!” More specifically, I believe there are three areas of missional effectiveness that can be strengthened. But addressing these areas is challenging because, in many ways, they embrace habits deeply woven into our fabric. Openly and honestly discussing such needs, however, can be a healthy step toward a better future and stronger church.
Here are the three areas that may need reexamination: first, emphasizing excellent preaching as the way to share our faith; second, priding ourselves on sharing the whole truth with others; and third, having as our goal to baptize people into our faith. Let’s explore these three tendencies and see if Scripture has missional principles that, at times, we may overlook.
1. Stressing preaching well rather than living well
I spent a summer as a literature evangelist during college. People often asked, “What church do you belong to?” It fascinated me how they would react when I told them I was a Seventh-day Adventist.
Many had never heard of Adventists, and some would confuse us with another religious group. Perhaps the most unique response came from an overly confident man who said, “Oh, I know about Adventists! You’re the ones who give your fiancé a wristwatch instead of a ring, and the church members have to gather around and wash the pastor’s feet!”
Generally speaking, however, most of what people knew about Adventism centered on the unique religious beliefs we typically share in our witnessing and evangelistic preaching efforts. In short, the religious beliefs we preach about (regarding Sabbath, prophecy, health, etc.) stood out.
Is this a good thing? Yes, in a sense, it is. Beliefs matter, and preaching is obviously important in the Bible. But have we sometimes neglected something even more central? Is preaching the most effective way of reaching hearts?
Let’s pay close attention to Jesus on this point. Never did He say that our identity as His disciples would be known “if you correctly preach doctrinal truth.” Instead, He said, “ ‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another’ ” (John 13:35).5 In the parable of the sheep and the goats, He invited His “sheep” into the kingdom because they fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and visited the sick. Preaching is important, but unless supported by our way of life, it alone has no impact on others. Christ’s followers, then, are known and judged more by how they live than by what they say.6 Actions speak louder than words.
Reflecting on the preaching of the apostle Paul, Ellen White writes, “The fact that his own life exemplified the truth he proclaimed, gave convincing power to his preaching. Here lies the power of truth. The unstudied, unconscious influence of a holy life is the most convincing sermon that can be given in favor of Christianity.”7
Throughout our history, Adventists have been quite busy preaching biblical truth. That’s good. But we should never downplay living the truth. If we, as a church, will live what we preach and love more fully, people will notice, and we will be a more vibrant movement. It is still true that “a kind, courteous Christian is the most powerful argument that can be produced in favor of Christianity.”8
2. Sharing all the truth rather than just present truth
Many years ago, a member of my congregation “welcomed” a new, non-Adventist neighbor with the gift of a single sheet of paper. On it, the church member had painstakingly typed up quotations from the Bible. Were they biblical words of welcome? A blessing on their new home? Promises of God’s presence?
No. The sheet of paper listed Bible passages dealing with the seventh-day Sabbath. The member’s reasoning went like this: “I’ve shared the truth with them; now it’s up to them how they will respond.” That church member thought that sharing the truth made him or her a faithful witness.
Thankfully, I suspect that their approach is less common among Adventists today. Let’s contrast this approach with that of Jesus. Near the end of His public ministry, He said to His twelve disciples: “ ‘I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth’ ” (John 16:12, 13).
The passage clearly indicates that Jesus actively withheld truth from His closest followers, even after talking and traveling with them for more than three years. Why? Because it was more than they could handle. They were not ready to receive it. Jesus knew that for truth to be beneficial and convicting, it must be shared at the right time, in the right manner, with the right person.
As followers of Jesus, we have not always reflected His example on this point. Some of us are sometimes too quick to present difficult teachings of the Bible in large, public settings before understanding the nature of the audience. We may send out mass mailings containing challenging and, at times, potentially offensive claims, without knowing precisely who will receive our literature.
Our message will not always be popular. There exists a time for sharing hard truths. But the example of Jesus reminds us that we must be wise, patient, and kind to our audience. We should seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit so that we share the truths our audience most needs to hear and is best prepared to receive at the moment. We should teach the truth gradually so they can understand and benefit from it.
3. Converting people rather than blessing them
Seventh-day Adventists often work to convert others to our faith. For us, baptism signifies conversion and represents our central task. We track who joins our church and generally view high baptism numbers within a region as a sign of success. That is as it should be. We should rejoice for every single individual who decides to get baptized. However, baptism should not be the sole goal.
The word proselytize (to convert someone from one religion to another) comes from the New Testament Greek word prosēlytos. Given the missional focus of the New Testament, we might expect the word to show up everywhere. It does not. In fact, although the New Testament writers knew the word meant “convert,” they never used it to describe someone who came to faith in Jesus. Instead, they only employed the word to describe someone who converted to Judaism (Matt. 23:15; Acts 2:10; 6:5; 13:43). The association is so strong that many versions of the Bible will translate the noun prosēlytos as “a convert to Judaism.”
This surprising point must be made clear: the Bible does not emphasize that followers of Jesus are to convert others.9 Instead of the goal to convert others to our religious organization, the greater biblical concern centers on blessing others as well as showing them God’s character and love, helping them to know Him, giving them the good news of salvation. The real blessing comes when we unite the temporal love, care, and blessings with the good news of salvation. The centrality of blessing is clear from the very first chapters of Genesis, which introduce God as One who blesses. His first words to the creatures of the sea and sky and to humanity are ones of blessing (Gen. 1:22, 28). He blessed the seventh day (Gen. 2:3), Adam and Eve (Gen. 5:2), and Noah and his sons (Gen. 9:1).
Genesis 12 again emphasizes God’s desire to bless when He calls Abram, saying, “ ‘I will make you into a great nation, / and I will bless you; / I will make your name great, / and you will be a blessing. / . . . [A]nd all peoples on earth / will be blessed through you’ ” (Gen. 12:2, 3).
Scripture explicitly states God’s purpose in calling and blessing Abram: His chosen people are the channel through which God will bless all peoples on earth. Through them, others will have a chance to know Christ and then follow Him.
Again, we should not understand this call to bless as a weakening or a “watering down” of our evangelistic calling. Blessing others does not mean that we forget about repentance, obedience, and genuine discipleship. After all, salvation is the greatest blessing that anyone can experience! We want everyone to respond to the call of Jesus and know the joy of salvation. So, living a life of blessing will certainly include sharing our testimony, studying the Bible with others, and inviting them to commit to Jesus. But it will also mean a willingness to do whatever the Holy Spirit asks, even if it is as simple as offering a “ ‘cup of cold water’ ” (Matt. 10:42) to someone who needs it.
Something profound happens when we approach others while prayerfully asking the simple but powerful question, “Lord, how can I be a blessing to this person?” Asking it benefits us in at least three ways.
First, it opens us to the Holy Spirit because “How can I be a blessing?” isn’t always easy to ask. It means we must humbly ask God for help and then patiently listen for the Spirit’s guidance specifically for how we should proceed in that precise moment.
Second, it fosters genuine relationships and creative ministry. We will not feel undue pressure to complete a certain curriculum or immediately transmit a full dosage of religious knowledge to everyone we encounter. If we meet someone who is mourning, we may be a blessing by grieving with them. Should they be lonely, we may be a blessing by listening. As a true friend would, we can patiently listen, support, and encourage them. When we live like this, we will find that our circle of friends will grow and our family of faith will increase.
Third, asking this question of blessing encourages us to serve in difficult regions among those we may see as enemies. Jesus instructed us to “ ‘bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you’ ” (Luke 6:28). So, when faced with resistance and hatred, we need not immediately move on to a new territory where it seems easier to reach people for Christ. The call to be a blessing inspires us to stay among those who seem closed to spiritual things, blessing them in whatever ways we can and trusting that, in God’s time, a harvest will result.
Make no mistake about it, the words of Jesus are still true: the fields are ripe for harvest. May we labor faithfully in those fields as a people who do not just preach well but also live well. May we share the right truth at the right time so that people will be able to receive it. Finally, may we do our best to be a blessing. God has called us to this noble task. Let us be faithful to what our Master has asked.
- “Seventh-day Adventist World Church Statistics 2020,” Seventh-day Adventist Church, updated January 13, 2021, https://www.adventist.org/articles/seventh-day-adventist-world-church-statistics-2020/.
- Adventist Review and Adventist News Network, “Adventist Church Financial Report Framed in a Spirit of Gratitude and Trust,” April 9, 2019, https://adventist.news/en/news/adventist-church-financial-report-framed-in-a-spirit-of-gratitude-and-trust.
- Max Roser, Hannah Ritchie, and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina, “World Population Growth,” Our World in Data, revised May 2019, https://ourworldindata.org/world-population-growth.
- Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, “Seventh-day Adventist World Church Interesting Facts and Figures,” updated April 14, 2020,https://documents.adventistarchives.org/Statistics/Other/InterestingFacts2019.pdf.
- Scripture is from the New International Version.
- We should note that, according to Galatians 5:22, 23, the evidence of the Spirit’s work in our life is the “fruit” of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. They are not abstract doctrines to believe but qualities that are necessarily lived out in the real world.
- Ellen White, The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), 511.
- Ellen White, Gospel Workers (Battle Creek, MI: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1892), 122.
- In the New Testament, the words used to describe someone joining the Jesus movement varied. A new believer was “newly planted” or someone who was “born again.” They became a “follower” or a “disciple.” These are organic and relational words, while proselyte is a more ecclesial, organizational designation.