Back to the Altar

A cause for every pastor

Dwain N. Esmond, PhD (cand.), serves as associate director and editor of the Ellen G. White Estate and evangelist for the global Back to the Altar worship initiative. His doctoral research in leadership focuses on innovation in missional organizations.

According to research by the Christian publisher Lifeway, the average American home contains more than three Bibles. Fifty-two percent of Americans think the Bible is an excellent source of moral teaching, 35 percent say it is life-changing, and 36 percent believe it to be true. That said, Lifeway reported that “more than half of Americans have read little or none of the Bible,” and less “than a quarter of those who have ever read a Bible have a systematic plan for reading the Christian scriptures each day.”1 Why don’t more Americans read it? The excuses ranged from “I don’t prioritize it” (27 percent) to “I have read enough of it” (13 percent).

These data would, no doubt, vary by country should similar studies be undertaken, but one thing is sure: Bible reading is a fairly good predictor of devotional life. The 2018 Global Church Member Survey of Seventh-day Adventists reported that only 48 percent of Adventists read their Bibles daily. The study also found that while 65 percent have daily prayer, only 36 percent of Adventist members study the Sabbath School lesson daily. Those results may be best explained by two other critical findings from the survey: only 52 percent of Adventists engage in personal devotions, and only 37 percent of Adventist families have morning or evening worship.2

Whether or not we choose to accept it, the data suggests that a large percentage of Seventh-day Adventist members lack a consistent personal devotional experience with God. The broken worship altar in the Adventist Church represents the single greatest threat to Seventh-day Adventist life and purpose, and every pastor should be alarmed. People who lack a consistent devotional walk with God cannot know Him, love Him, or effectively share Him with others. Godless living is a tree filled with the poisonous fruits of selfishness, pride, idolatry, and countless other harbingers of spiritual death.

We know the signs

As pastors, we see it every time a call for evangelism is met with yawns, an outreach initiative fizzles due to lack of involvement, or an invitation to koinonia falls prey to a more stimulating digital endeavor. We know when members have been with God and when they have not. We also know when we have been at our altars and when we have not. There is a marked lack of peace, power, and purpose in our ministry as we try to manufacture what God wants to manifest in and through us.

The restoration of personal and family worship among Seventh-day Adventists is the most pressing need of our time, but doing so will require much prayer and effort from pastors. Today, we face the challenge of technologies that, while providing some efficiencies, increasingly occupy our time while altering our minds. Digital addictions have left many of us anxious, irritable, lonely, stressed, depressed, sleepless, and unhappy with life. Ironically, personal and family worship practices calm our minds, decrease loneliness, reduce stress, increase peace, fulfill our emotional needs, and teach us contentment.

How important is this endeavor? Ellen White gives us a clue: “God should be the highest object of our thoughts. Meditating upon him [God], and pleading with him, elevates the soul and quickens the affections. A neglect of meditation and prayer will surely result in a declension in religious interests.”3 Are we not witnessing signs of that neglect in God’s church?

Jesus had an altar

Time spent with God was Jesus’ secret to wise decision-making and life-transforming power. In Luke 16:12, 13, before choosing the 12 disciples, Jesus spent all night at the altar of prayer with His Father. Ellen White writes, “His spirit was often sorrowful as he felt the powers of the darkness of this world, and he left the busy city and the noisy throng, to seek a retired place to make his intercessions.” She later adds, “His example is left for his followers.”4

Jesus knew that His followers would need a thriving altar to endure life on Earth. He prayed “ ‘that [we] may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent’ ” (John 17:3, NKJV). His disciples’ knowing God and knowing Him were the twin desires of His heart, which was not lost on the disciples or those who later followed Him. The redeemed apostle Paul so craved this knowledge that he wrote, “What things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ” (Phil. 3:7, 8, NKJV). This is the core competency of the Christian life—knowing and possessing God!

A cause every pastor should embrace

Pastoral ministry today has been impacted by many changes in our world. Many of us were dragged, kicking and screaming, into the digital age as the COVID-19 pandemic closed our houses of worship. We developed new ways of reaching hearts and touching lives, but this has not been easy!5 Several studies have found that while religious participation tends to benefit health and wellness, this is not always true for religious professionals. Stress and burnout among clergy members have led to severe mental distress, anxiety, and depression.6 Because of this, I hesitate to add anything else to our already full plate of responsibilities, but we must add one more thing: rebuilding the worship altar among Adventist individuals and families.

This year the Seventh-day Adventist Church launched the Back to the Altar initiative, a movement to encourage daily personal and family worship in the life of every Seventh-day Adventist. By 2027, we hope to see at least 70 percent of Adventist members engaged in daily morning and evening worship.

As pastors, we set the “spiritual diet” of the church. What we emphasize gets priority, and what we fail to emphasize dies. Here are the most critical things that pastors can do to help members rebuild their broken worship altars:

1. Start with your own worship altar. Amid your many responsibilities, are you leading your family to the worship altar, or have you outsourced that responsibility to someone else in the family? Ellen White comments, “Nothing can excuse the minister for neglecting the inner circle for the larger circle outside. The spiritual welfare of his family comes first.”7 We must lead by example.

2. Share your walk with God often. One of the best ways to strengthen members’ devotional altars is to share what God is doing with you at yours. Communion with God is so effectual that “men will take knowledge of us, as of the first disciples, that we have been with Jesus. This will impart to the worker a power that nothing else can give.”8 Show members the joy that you find in worshiping God, and they will crave their own experience with God!

3. Encourage healthy digital mental hygiene. This may seem like an odd inclusion on this list, but it is crucial to rebuilding our altars. Studies show that digital media occupies ever-increasing amounts of our time, and constant digital connection leaves us emotionally spent, anxious, stressed, and burdened.9 A critical part of rebuilding our altars is making space for God. Private piety is the stage for personal revival and reformation. It is also the fuel for outreach with real-world impact—the Isaiah 58 call to do righteousness and justice in the world. Pastors must teach—or bring in resource persons who can teach—healthy digital culture for individuals and families to safeguard the spiritual lives and witness of members.

4. Pray, pray, pray. Pray for the personal spiritual lives of your members.

A church tasked with proclaiming the worship-centered messages of Revelation 14’s first, second, and third angels cannot do so while its members are not worshiping. We cannot do publicly what we are not doing privately. Ask God to rebuild the worship altars in your home and church, and He will.

  1. Bob Smietana, “Lifeway Research: Americans Are Fond of the Bible, Don’t Actually Read It,” Lifeway, April 25, 2017, https://research.lifeway.com/2017/04/25/lifeway-research-americans-are-fond-of-the-bible-dont-actually-read-it/.
  2. 2017-2018 Global Church Member Study: Meta-Analysis Final Report (Silver Spring, MD: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2019), 39, https://documents.adventistarchives.org/Resources/Global%20Church%20Membership%20Survey%20Meta-Analysis%20Report/GCMSMetaAnalysis%20Report_2019-08-19.pdf.
  3. Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Battle Creek, MI: Review and Herald Pub. Assn, 1892), 106.
  4. White, 106.
  5. Erin F. Johnston, David E. Eagle, Jennifer Headley, and Anna Holleman, “Pastoral Ministry in Unsettled Times: A Qualitative Study of the Experiences of Clergy During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Review of Religious Research 64, no. 2 (June 2022): 375–397, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13644-021-00465-y.
  6. Andrew Miles and Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, “Overcoming the Challenges of Pastoral Work? Peer Support Groups and Mental Distress Among United Methodist Church Clergy,” Sociology of Religion 74, no. 2 (Summer 2013): 199–226, https://doi.org/10.1093/socrel/srs055; a pre-peer-reviewed copy may be seen at https://divinity.duke.edu/sites/divinity.duke.edu/files/documents/chi/Overcoming%20the%20Challenges%20of%20Pastoral%20Work%20preprint%20-%20web%20version.pdf.
  7. Ellen G. White, The Adventist Home (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1980), 353.
  8. Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1905), 512.
  9. “The Social Dilemma: Social Media and Your Mental Health,” McLean Hospital, January 21, 2022, https://www.mcleanhospital.org/essential/it-or-not-social-medias-affecting-your-mental-health.

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Dwain N. Esmond, PhD (cand.), serves as associate director and editor of the Ellen G. White Estate and evangelist for the global Back to the Altar worship initiative. His doctoral research in leadership focuses on innovation in missional organizations.

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