April 1, 2006

Growing Up Adventist: No Apologies Needed

 “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6, KJV).
ANY OF US WHO WERE BORN INTO Adventist families grew up during years now considered by some among us as a time of embarrassment. A rising chorus of voices declares that much of what our church taught and did back in the 1950s and 1960s, in both theology and lifestyle, was simplistic, legalistic, or just mistaken.
The claim is made that in the church of our youth we were taught that salvation was gained by what we did, not by whom we knew. Because we saw ourselves as the remnant described in Revelation 12, and we believed that we had a unique end-time message found in Revelation 14 to share with the world before Christ’s return, the church we were raised in must have been self-righteous, self-centered, and bigoted. In the view of these individuals Ellen White was crammed down our throats, or at least was set up as some kind of final judge over almost everything pertaining to Adventism. On and on goes the litany of criticism of the way the church treated (or mistreated) us. As a result, many of the oncoming generation now believe that was the way things really were.
There are undoubtedly at least a few who experienced the Adventist Church of the 1950s and 1960s so negatively. But fortunately, not everyone living in those years did. At the risk of being considered either naive or brainwashed, I want to state why I’m glad that I was raised in the Adventist Church when I was. Instead of focusing on the problems, I want to celebrate Adventism. I want to share some of the many reasons why I feel blessed for growing up Adventist during an era some find embarrassing to remember.
In fairness, I should note that I’m the product of my church: in fact, I’m a sixth-generation Adventist. I attended Adventist schools from first grade through the seminary, as well as Sabbath school, church, and Pathfinders. Along the way I gave my heart to Jesus and decided that I wanted to spend my life serving Him. Both my conversion and my walk with Christ are linked directly to my Adventist upbringing, thanks to family, teachers, pastors, and others in the church who modeled God’s love to me.
Here are eight reasons why I’m not only glad I’m a Seventh-day Adventist but that I grew up in the church when I did.
1. Respect for God’s Word
I’m glad for the emphasis on the Bible that my church taught me. Admittedly, things were simpler back then: most of us in North America used the same version of the Bible. This helped unify the church. Memory verses in Sabbath school and Bible texts in school were to be learned and lived. In Sabbath school we had “Bible sword drills.” The Bible verses I use today were being stored in my memory in those drills.
At the risk of seeming “legalistic” to some, here’s another thing I learned. My church taught me that I should never place anything on top of the Bible. That habit always placed the Bible in a category by itself. My church taught me, even as a young child, that God’s Word is always uppermost, and for that I will always be grateful.
2. The Soon Return of Jesus
I’m glad that when I grew up in the church, there was a sense of urgency about the second coming of Christ. My teachers taught me that Jesus was coming--soon. They didn’t know when, but they were convinced that it was soon, very soon. Long-range plans were always tempered with the thought “If Jesus hasn’t come by then.”
Some now look back on that age and laugh about how naive people were then. But I’m thankful I was raised by a church that was excited about Christ’s return and that believed it would happen during my lifetime. This belief prevents me from settling down and becoming enamored with this world and its allurements. I was taught clearly that there’s a better place being prepared for me, and that Jesus plans to return soon to take me there. This belief helps me keep my earthly possessions in perspective.
As I’ve grown older I’ve also adopted some of William Miller’s thinking as my own. In one of his most famous statements, written shortly after the great disappointment of October 22, 1844, Miller wrote:
“I have fixed my mind on another time, and here I mean to stand until God gives me more light, and that is, to-day, to-day, and to-day, until he comes.”1
I still believe with all my heart that Jesus will return soon. But if He chooses not to come during my lifetime because He wants to save a few more of those for whom He died, what is that to me? Like Miller, I believe that Jesus will do all things right.2
As I was growing up, we sang about the Second Coming a lot more than we do now. Back then no hymn could stir an Adventist audience quite like “Lift Up the Trumpet.” When Brad Braley at some large church gathering would strike the first chord on the large organ, the congregation in unison would fill the hall with the glad anthem. The excitement seemed literally to make the rafters vibrate!
Does my heart still thrill at the thought that Jesus is coming soon? Indeed it does! Thanks, church, for teaching me about the blessed hope, and for giving me such a wonderful future to look forward to!
Some years ago I met one of my academy Bible teachers. On the verge of retirement, he stopped by to see me where I was working. Partway through our visit, he announced that he owed me an apology. With retirement just ahead of him, he was trying to find as many of his former students as he could in order to apologize to all of us.
For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what my favorite academy Bible teacher would need to apologize for. I didn’t have to wait long. He wanted to apologize to me, he said, because Jesus hadn’t already returned. He explained that when he taught my class, he had been certain that Christ was about to return and that the Second Coming was almost upon us. Because that hadn’t happened yet, he wanted to ask my forgiveness.
I looked at him in amazement. “Elder ________,” I blurted out, “you don’t have anything to apologize for! That’s one of the most important things you taught me!” I meant it then, and I mean it today.
I’m glad that when I was growing up, I had Adventist teachers and pastors who believed strongly in the soon coming of Christ and were genuinely excited about it. They also were the people who helped me to fall in love with Jesus. I hope that today’s pastors and teachers are still enthusiastic about the Second Coming. After all, we are Seventh-day Adventists. Does our belief in the soon return of Christ still come alive in our classrooms? Do the young people in our churches still catch the sense of excitement that Jesus is about to return? I hope so. 
3. The Sanctity of the Sabbath
I’m glad that I grew up in a time when the Sabbath was carefully observed by Adventists, from sundown Friday evening to sundown Sabbath evening. By sunset on Friday our house had been cleaned, our baths had been taken, the Sabbath meal had been prepared, and we were ready to welcome the hours of the Sabbath.
A few years ago I was visiting a camp meeting as a guest speaker. During a meal in the workers’ dining room I couldn’t help overhearing a conversation among several local pastors sitting at the next table. They were glad, they said, that they had lived long enough to see the church get over its legalistic view of Sabbathkeeping. They were actually laughing about some of our past “rules” that they felt had inhibited them. Finally, having taken all I could, I turned and said, “But we still face the challenge of helping our members understand the concept of holiness in time.” Their conversation changed abruptly as they admitted that the concept of holiness in time is something our church is losing.
I recognize that what you decide is appropriate to do on Sabbath may sometimes differ from what I feel comfortable doing. Even with such differences of opinion, I’m glad I was raised by parents and teachers who taught me that the hours of the Sabbath are holy--different from the hours in other days. A growing number of Adventists see nothing wrong with going to the mall on Friday night or Sabbath afternoons, eating out in restaurants, running in marathons, or attending sporting events. If the trend continues, Sabbath for Adventists will become like Sunday is for most Protestants.
I’m glad I was raised in a time when the sanctity and holiness of the Sabbath were strongly emphasized. My life has been the richer as a result of recognizing the specialness of these 24 hours each week.
4. An Emphasis on Health and Temperance
When I was growing up Adventist, no one served caffeinated beverages at church functions. Nothing containing meat, black pepper, or mustard appeared at the church potlucks or other church-related functions I attended. Alcoholic drinks weren’t served at Adventist weddings. I was even taught not to eat between meals.
Some today consider all this to be legalistic, or at least out-of-date, but I want to thank my church for teaching me that my body is the temple of God, and that how I treat it is important. I’m glad I was taught that God is trying to prepare me for an eternity with Him. As a result, I was never tempted to smoke, drink alcohol, or do drugs. I was taught to practice moderation in whatever I ate, something that, admittedly, I don’t always do as well as I should. Yet, thanks to my church, at least I understand the concept.
Whenever some new diet plan or scheme comes along, I still check the latest fad against what God showed Ellen White. If there seems to be no agreement, I don’t give the new claim another thought. Of course, I realize that not everything Ellen White wrote about diet and health has yet been confirmed by medical science. But even during my lifetime, watching medical science flip-flop--including even about vegetarianism--I never cease to be amazed at how often the final conclusion agrees with what God showed a woman with a very limited formal education more than 140 years ago.
I’m grateful to my church not only for teaching me that my body is the temple of God, but that there is one demonstrably reliable source in the area of health and temperance against which I can gauge current health claims and fads.
5. Adventism’s Prophetic Identity and Message
Growing up Adventist, I was taught that Seventh-day Adventists have “the truth.” I realize that many today find this concept offensive. But frankly, I’m glad I grew up believing in the prophetic identity and message of the Seventh-day Adventist Church--including the fact that what our church teaches and preaches is “truth.” I was taught that the history of our movement was predicted centuries in advance in Revelation 10; that God’s end-time remnant is identified in Revelation 12; and that our prophetic assignment, including the message God wants preached just before Christ returns, is given to us in Revelation 14.
Granted, some may have seen in our claim a kind of exclusivity or something to boast about, but I don’t recall ever being taught that. On the contrary, I was taught that joining the Seventh-day Adventist Church was both a privilege and a solemn responsibility. The MV Society taught me a motto back then that both challenged and excited me: “The Advent message to all the world in this generation.” God was counting on me as part of His remnant to do my part to help warn the world of Christ’s soon return. That was an awesome concept for a young person to ponder!
6. The Advantages of an Adventist Lifestyle
Though it seems unbelievable to some, I’m thankful that when I grew up in the church I was taught not to go to the movie theater, dance, listen to popular music, read novels, wear jewelry, play cards, bowl, play pool, or even be fascinated by professional sports.
Were we too rigid back then? Probably so. Then why am I glad that my church tried to teach me about the potential dangers of these and other lifestyle issues? Simply because, for the rest of my life, I will always stop to think about whether those formerly taboo practices are good ways to use my time and money. By not reading, watching, and doing a lot of things that others in our society read, watch, and do, my mind is free from many of the things others must leave behind when they decide to follow Christ.
I hope that in our rush to undo our alleged legalistic past, our church doesn’t go so far the other way in terms of lifestyle issues that we leave no standards in place to teach our young people. I would have been robbed of many valuable insights had that been true when I was growing up Adventist.
I’m so grateful that my church taught me to be very careful about what I put into my mind. There are some places that Adventist Christians just shouldn’t go, and some things that we simply shouldn’t do. Thanks, church, for teaching me that! Although I’ve slipped at times in my life, thank you for holding the standard high by teaching me that there really are lines that an Adventist shouldn’t cross. My life has been the better, and my Christian experience the richer, because you taught me that.
7. The Worldwide Advent Movement
I’m also glad that I grew up in a church in which worldwide outreach and mission were stressed. Even as a child I saw that I was part of something much bigger than the little local church where my family worshipped each Sabbath. Whether it was the solicitation of funds through the annual Ingathering campaign, the Pathfinder fairs that I went to, the camp meetings that my family enjoyed nearly every summer, or even the occasional Youth Congress or General Conference session I attended, my church helped me remember that there’s more to the Advent movement than just my local church. And yes, when I was growing up, we still viewed ourselves as a movement, not just a church in the formal sense of the word.
My grandfather, a busy physician, often shared an activity with me on Sabbath afternoons. In that era most developing countries were struggling to get medications of any kind for their citizens. My grandfather decided that he could do his part in a small way to alleviate the situation. He would ask representatives of pharmaceutical companies to give him samples of various medicines, surgical gloves, and other items that were in short supply at our medical clinics and hospitals around the world. Then he and I carefully wrapped the packages in heavy paper on Sabbath afternoons, meticulously tying them up with string.
Most of those packages went to Adventist institutions where Grandpa knew the physician in charge. A few years ago I was traveling in Nigeria. When asked what I wanted to see while in that country, I replied, “Ile-Ife Hospital.” Nobody could understand why, but for me it was quite simple. It was another place for which we had wrapped and sent packages when I was a kid.

To this day, I see myself as part of a worldwide movement--one that is marching to ultimate victory--thanks to what my church taught me.

8. Hymns and Distinctly Adventist Choruses
I’m glad that when I was growing up, my church taught me to sing hymns and distinctly Adventist choruses. The songs I was taught in church, school, and Pathfinders reinforced the beliefs of my church. I’m not condemning the entire category of currently popular evangelical praise choruses, even though many of them strike me as superficial. I’m glad that as I was growing up, we sang hymns and choruses that had theological or doctrinal content, and that breathed the spirit of Adventism.
Hymns such as Del Delker’s theme song, “The Love of God,” spoke to my soul and stretched my mind, especially the last verse:

            “Could we with ink the ocean fill,
            And were the skies of parchment
            Were ev’ry stalk on earth a quill,
            And ev’ry man a scribe by trade;
            To write the love of God above
            Would drain the ocean dry;
            Nor could the scroll contain the
            Tho’ stretched from sky to sky.”


As a youngster, I could resonate to that kind of love, even if I still can’t fully comprehend it. Today I often find myself humming or softly singing the hymns I was taught back then. They are part and parcel of who I am as an Adventist.
I’m fearful that in this regard we as a church may be shortchanging our youth. Some time ago I was leading an academy denominational history tour in New England and New York. Usually when we get to William Miller’s grave, I ask tour groups to join me in singing a stanza or two of “Lift Up the Trumpet.” Guessing that these Adventist students might not know that hymn, I asked them. My hunch was confirmed: not one of them did. So I asked, “Do you know ‘We Have This Hope’”? Again, not one of the students did. I then asked if there was a praise chorus about the Second Coming that we could sing there by Miller’s grave. Neither students nor sponsors could think of one.
If we’re going to teach young people to sing praise choruses, then we owe it to them to write some that are distinctly Adventist, that emphasize our beliefs. What young people learn now is what they will continue to sing the rest of their lives. That’s what my church taught me as I was growing up!

The Best Way to Live

In addition to these things, I’m glad for other lessons my church taught me, including:

1. My obligation to return the tithe and to give offerings. My possessions are not my own, but have all been lent to me by God;
2. The truth of the great controversy theme. Though I can’t explain much that happens in this world, I know that there’s a larger cosmic struggle going on in the universe between Christ and His angels and Satan and his angels;
3. That Ellen White was a genuine prophet of the Lord and that His counsels through her on all sorts of topics thus are authoritative. I’m glad my church taught me to accept her prophetic messages as being valid. Her ministry has enriched my life immeasurably;
4. That Jesus not only forgives my sins but also empowers me to overcome them. I was taught that Jesus is preparing a people who are safe to save. I discovered that through accepting His freely offered robe of righteousness, Jesus is inviting me to be among those saved saints. 
For these and so many other reasons, I believe Adventism is the best thing going. No apologies are needed for that.
I know of no better way to live than how my church taught me as I was growing up. Because of my love for Christ, I’m called to emulate Him in all I do. I’m urged to be genuinely interested in helping my neighbors and those less fortunate. I’m reminded to love and respect my family. I’m invited to do only those things that keep my body healthy. I’m taught to be honest in all my business dealings.
At the end of each day I ask forgiveness for my failings, knowing that it is eagerly granted, and I awake the next morning asking for grace and wisdom to help me through another day. My church taught me how to live my life to the fullest without guilt, anxiety, or despair. For that I am most grateful.
If we listen to the voices out there that call the church to abandon many of its distinctive teachings, thus discarding many of the things it taught us, what will we give the next generation in exchange? What legacy will they receive in their place?
Can we improve here and there on how we package what we were taught? Very likely.
Did some people in the past take some of the church’s teachings to extremes? Yes, unfortunately.
But overall, should we change or abandon the best package for living that God has ever devised for His people? With all my heart I hope not!
I disagree with those who say that I was mistreated, misinformed, and outright misled by my church. I will forever be glad that I was raised at a time when my church clearly enunciated what it believed and stood for.
For challenging me to that kind of thinking and living, I will always be grateful to my church--to God’s last-day inspired messenger; to my pastors, teachers, Sabbath school and Pathfinder leaders; and to my family--who by both precept and example introduced me to the rich and rewarding Seventh-day Adventist lifestyle. For having done that, no apologies will ever be needed.
If they had not exposed me to all these advantages--if they had kept them from me--they would now most certainly owe me an apology.
Thank you, church, for being so distinctively Adventist!
1 William Miller letter to Joshua V. Himes, November 10, 1844; quoted in Sylvester Bliss, Memoirs of William Miller (1853), p. 278.
2 The expression is from a William Miller letter to Elon Galusha, April 5, 1844.
This article is a condensed version of a presentation first given to the North American Division's Office of Education's Curriculum Committee in Tucson, AZ on December 3, 2005. Click here to read the longer, unedited version presented by James Nix.
James R. Nix is the director of the Ellen G. White Estate at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in Silver Spring, Maryland.