March 23, 2006

When the Time Comes

NE MONDAY MORNING A NEWSPAPER reporter called. “Can I interview you over the phone, Pastor?”
“Regarding what?” I wanted to know.
He went on to tell me about an Internet site that had been developed by an individual in our community. By clicking on the site’s “warning button,” articles appeared that describe the Seventh-day Adventist Church as “a non-Christian cult.”
“Can I ask you some questions concerning these allegations?” the reporter asked.
For the next several minutes I knew that every word I said had the potential of ending up on the front page of our local newspaper. I shot up a quick prayer and replied to the first inquiry: “How do you feel when you’re called a ‘non-Christian cult’?”
“My initial reaction is one of hurt,” I confessed. “We’re not a cult; we’re a group of people who have a heart for God.”
“Why would someone even accuse you of being a cult?” he asked.
I explained the role of Ellen G. White’s writings in our church and guessed that possibly someone who misunderstood that role could accuse us of being led by her more than by Scripture. I explained the value that we place on her counsels, but I was careful not to elevate them higher than those of the Bible.

Braced for the Fallout

On Wednesday evening the Daily News arrived in our mailbox. One of the headlines on the front page said simply: “Cyber-Pulpit.” The article that followed concerned the Web site developed in our city. I quickly looked for my name and how I was quoted, and the context in which those quotes existed. I was relieved to see that the reporter was fair with our interview. But the article reported about the “warning button,” along with the words “The Seventh-day Adventist Church is a non-Christian cult.”

My heart felt heavy. The next sentence startled me. Quoting the author of the Web site, it said, “Seventh-day Adventists need to be beaten back in their efforts to convert others because they are, in fact, not Christians.”
What will my friends think? What will the guys at the gym think? What about my children’s friends’ parents? Our neighbors? Our new church members? My mind swirled.
Our congregation had worked tirelessly to be involved in our community. We participated in the Christian softball league with 10 other churches. I wrote monthly articles for our newspaper in “The Ministers Corner.” We held a Christmas experience for our community called Journey to Bethlehem, a reenactment of Mary and Joseph’s journey to pay their taxes. While groups wait to be taken on their “journey,” they listen to performers in our fellowship hall provide Christian music. Over four nights of the event we had 12 area churches involved in the performances. One year “Journey” drew more than 2,000 people to our church. Our worship services are on our local access television station twice a week. Our Community Services program served 3,500 people one year. Would all of this work be undone, simply by the comments of some uninformed Christian?

Calls and Letters

On Thursday morning I was in my office when my secretary opened the door and said, “Three pastors are here to see you.”

Three men I did not know came and sat down in my office. They told me that they had just come from a prayer breakfast where they meet weekly and pray together. They said they had seen the newspaper article and they were praying for our church. “We just wanted to come by and make sure you’re OK,” they said.
I was dumbfounded. We talked and prayed together, and they assured me that they did not view Adventists as cultish, but as part of the body of Christ in our community. One of the pastors spoke about Journey to Bethlehem, and how he and his congregation had provided music for the event. He spoke proudly about their participation and said they looked forward to being involved in it again. When they left, I was reeling from how God was taking something potentially threatening and using it to build our confidence.
That afternoon my secretary received a phone call from a woman who would not identify herself. But she said she had read the article, and she wanted us to know that she did not agree with it. She stated that many in our community did not agree with the article, either.
On Friday evening I found this letter in our church’s mailbox. It read:

Questions for Reflection

1. What community activities is your congregation involved in to increase its profile in the community?

2. Try to recall the comments of a person whose opinion of Seventh-day Adventists changed as a result of attending a program sponsored by the church. What were the lasting results?

If your congregation, as a group, is too small or otherwise uninterested in community outreach, what avenues of service are available to you as an individual, perhaps in connection with another, more established, community group?

What is the major obstacle that prevents most Adventists from being involved in their communities? How can it be overcome?

Dear David,
Greetings! I am the pastor of East Hills Alliance Church in Kelso. I told myself that as soon as I got to the office today I needed to write to you.
I read the article on the front page of the Daily News and was extremely grieved for you and the church God has given you to shepherd. As a small part of the body of Christ in Kelso, I want you to know that we appreciate you and your church. I was able to take some of my unsaved friends to Journey to Bethlehem, which was held at your church, and through their experience there my wife and I were able to share Jesus with this family as they asked questions later that week. I was also part of the Jesus Video task force, and I know that you and your church gave money to see the gospel hand-delivered to people who live in Longview and Kelso. I grew up in the mission field in Southeast Asia, and if it wasn’t for the Seventh-day Adventists, there would have been no hospital in the town I lived in to care for me. Thank you for your love for people and your ministry. Please don’t be discouraged by the comments made. Be encouraged because we see you as a valuable part of the body of Christ, and I personally appreciate you, even though we have never met.
I wish there was some way I could convey to your congregation that we don’t view them as cultish. We may think differently on some issues, but both our churches love Jesus and recognize that through Him we have been redeemed. Please convey our sadness as a church to how you have been treated. And please convey our love as brothers and sisters in Christ to your fellowship.
Your colaborer and brother in Christ,
Pastor Steve Fowler

Going Public

On Sabbath morning my sermon theme was “The State of the Church.” Our church was packed; some community people came just to hear how I would respond to the accusation in the newspaper. I was careful, and I stayed positive. I told our members that trials in and of themselves are not bad; it’s how we respond to them that matters.

I challenged our membership to realize that people who matter to God were watching us, looking for those who take Christianity seriously. Now was an opportunity for our congregation to be examined by our community. Now was the time to grasp the value of Christian living.
Years ago Ellen White wrote: “Let us remember that a Christlike life is the most powerful argument that can be advanced in favor of Christianity.
 . . . Not all the books written can serve the purpose of a holy life. Men [and women] will believe, not what the minister preaches, but what the church lives” (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 9, p. 21).
I challenged our congregation to form relationships with people, to answer their questions, to listen to their problems. I told them that we can be so careful not to compromise our message that we might run the risk of compromising our mission. I urged them to be bolder, to recognize that many people are just one “ask” away from coming to Christ and joining His remnant church.
I said we must always remember that people find it harder to be prejudiced against those they know. Being known in our communities is not an option; it’s an imperative.
Dave Livermore pastors the Kelso-Longview Seventh-day Adventist Church in Kelso, Washington.