Christians have long debated the tension between right belief and right action. Protestants, since the Reformation, have largely emphasized the former to a greater degree, rightly pushing back against a Catholicism that focused primarily on ritual and superstitious action. For Protestants, who have spilled much ink creating various confessions of faith (and then persecuted those who’ve disagreed), correct doctrine has arguably bordered on an obsession, prioritizing faith over works. 

Of course, we shouldn’t have to choose between right belief and right action. Both are critically important. But during the past decade or so, some Protestant voices—justifiably, in my opinion—have started raising the alarm about the seeming imbalance. They’ve pointed out that in the words of philosopher Charles Taylor, many Christians are guilty of promoting “excarnational” theology. 

Though Taylor has a broader meaning in mind when he uses the term, for my purposes here I’m focusing on the type of religious experience with which we emphasize a truth that’s not lived out—where we’re more concerned about preaching truth than embodying it, implicitly believing that as long as people have heard propositional ideas, then they’ve fully encountered “truth.” 

We as Seventh-day Adventists are particularly susceptible to this approach. Since we’re blessed to understand some very beautiful biblical ideas that most other Christians don’t know or emphasize, we’re prone to make much of the rightness of our beliefs. We then implicitly—and sometimes explicitly—think our mission is to simply proclaim our teachings, believing that’s the extent of our mission (or, as former General Conference president George Irwin declared in 1901, we’re called to pursue the “rapid dissemination of the third angel’s message”).1 But is the truth ever fully communicated apart from our embodiment of it? Have we fully communicated the truth of Sabbath rest to others, for example, if we’re not persons who have “Sabbathy” dispositions— people whose demeanor reflects restfulness, peace, and patience? Or have we fully communicated the truth about hell if we live hellish lives, holding never-ending resentments against people and refusing to forgive them (in other words, communicating by the way we live that wrath is actually never-ending and eternal)? 

Jesus, of course, is our example in this. As the Word, He had to become flesh in order for us to fully encounter the truth about God. This is what we call the “incarnation,” or, literally, the “enfleshment,” of God. It wasn’t enough for the Word to remain an abstract Word. He couldn’t simply announce truth via a handbill, a sermon, or a Bible study; He became flesh and, in the words of The Message, “moved into the neighborhood” (see John 1:14).2 Indeed, Christ didn’t—and couldn’t— save us merely by speaking; it was His actions at the cross that secured our salvation. 

So, too, I’m not sure we as Adventists will ever fulfill our divine mission until we fully embrace this high calling—until we not only proclaim truth but live it out, becoming people who embody integrity, kindness, graciousness, and love.

1 See General Conference Bulletin 1901, No. 1, Extra no. 1, p. 20. This phrase was first called to my attention by Tihomir Lazić, “Remnant in Koinonia: Towards an Adventist Version of Communion Ecclesiology” (Ph.D. diss., University of Oxford, 2016), p. 82. 

2 From The Message, copyright © 1993, 2002, 2018 by Eugene H. Peterson. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

Sometimes you hear a concept or see an image that completely turns your world upside down. Such was the case with a graphic I saw back in 2016 that compared two ways of “doing” church. 

Most of Christendom does it the first way, which some have called the “attractional” model. In this understanding , church is essentially a program or event we put on in a building, and then we try to attract people to that place for the program or event. Picture in your mind a church building with arrows pointing into the building, with all of church life revolving around the programming that takes place there—and most people serving as spectators while others deliver ministry to them. 

The second way, which some refer to as the “missional” model, views church not as a program or a building, but as a people. It’s God’s family, sent out into the world to live out the gospel in everyday life. In that sense, church happens whenever and wherever God’s people are—and their main objective is not to figure out ways to get others to come back to a specific building to attend a specific program, but to enter into life with those people, serving and blessing them as the hands and feet of Jesus. In this model, picture a group of people with arrows pointing out into the world. 

This distinction, of course, is a bit simplistic, and some have noted that this attractional/missional binary is sort of a false dichotomy. I certainly get that. But the first time I heard about this binary and saw a specific graphic illustrating it, it was a lightbulb moment for me—one of the most significant crossroads of my life. It completely altered my trajectory— both personally and professionally.

My wife, children, and I started spending lots of time with people outside the four walls of our church building, sharing life with those who either didn’t know Jesus or didn’t know our particular understanding of Him. We began having our neighbors over for dinner and attending parties with new non-religious friends. In this we were simply following the method of Jesus, who was often accused of being a “glutton and a drunkard” (Matt. 11:19, NIV) because of the company He kept. 

We were, in short, taking seriously the claim of Ellen White, who declared that “Christ’s method alone” of mingling with others and winning their confidence would bring “true success” in reaching people.

The upshot is that the past six years have easily been the best six years of my life. Our church has also caught the vision; and although we haven’t grown by the thousands, there’s a palpable difference within our church family, both in numbers and in spirit. Either way, we feel constrained to enter into others’ lives to bless and serve them, whether or not they ever join our team. 

So my invitation to you is to capture the vision—to see the binary. God wants us—all of us—to be salt, sent out into the world to serve and bless it, bringing church to others regardless of whether they ever show up to our building on Sabbath morning. 

* Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1905), p. 143. 

Shawn Brace is a pastor and author in Bangor, Maine, whose most recent book, The Table I Long For (Signs Publishing), details his and his church’s recent journey into a mission-centered life. He is also a DPhil student at the University of Oxford, researching nineteenth-century American Christianity. 

About a decade ago I befriended a couple guys, one of them a pastor, who were members of another denomination. Our relationship focused mostly on debating theology, as we’d send long emails back and forth, discussing various topics such as the Sabbath and last-day events. It was all fairly cordial, but they seemed very dogmatic, very stark, speaking in categorical terms.

What stands out to me the most was when the pastor in an email declared to me in no uncertain terms that the Adventist Church was (and I quote) “preaching a false gospel and therefore not part of the Reformation.”

I’ll be honest: that hurt. Being the recipient of such an attack didn’t feel good.

As I’ve reflected on that experience, though, it’s led me to wonder: If being on the receiving end of dogmatism doesn’t feel good, why does it seem like we, as Adventists, so often dish it out ourselves—whether to those within our own ranks or those outside?

One scriptural passage that’s been exceptionally thought-provoking for me lately is Paul’s reflection on knowledge, in the context of love, in 1 Corinthians 13. Twice he makes a point of saying that we “know in part” (verses 9, 12). Sandwiched between verses 10 and 12 is a comment about how he spoke, understood, and thought as a child, but now having become a man, has put away childish things.

How do children speak, understand, and think? As if they know everything (examples from my own children are legion). But as Paul got older, he realized his knowledge was partial, and he didn’t see the whole picture. Indeed, he saw “in a mirror, dimly” (verse 12).

I’ve been convicted lately that inflexibly dogmatic thinking is one of the greatest threats to the gospel in my life. I don’t have to have it all figured out for faith to be operative, and I certainly don’t have to attack others for their beliefs—which usually doesn’t change their views anyway, but simply causes them to defend them even more determinedly.

Indeed, my confidence is based not on being infallibly right but on being infinitely loved. There’s a world of difference between the two. One is based on trust, but not immune to questions or doubts; the other depends on some sort of Enlightenment-defined, absolute certainty that yields, as I’ve known it, in arrogance and condescension. Humility is a better and more attractive posture than dogmatism anyway. And counterintuitively, I’ve discovered that the more dogmatic I am in my demeanor, the more insecure I actually am about the belief in my heart.

But my security is in Jesus, not in being right—which has been a huge and liberating realization for my Adventist heart. “The kind of certainty proper to a human being,” Lesslie Newbigin has thus written, “will be one which rests on the fidelity of God, not upon the competence of the human knower.”*

Simply put, our security is based on God’s faithfulness, not on our omniscience.

This doesn’t mean we can’t have strong convictions. It simply means we try to hold them with an open hand, humbled by the glory, grandeur, and omniscience of God.

* Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 28.

Shawn Brace is a pastor and author in Bangor, Maine, whose most recent book, The Table I Long For (Signs Publishing), details his and his congregation’s recent journey into a mission-centered life. He is also a DPhil student at the University of Oxford, researching nineteenth-century American Christianity.

It’s confession time. Back when I was an undergraduate at Andrews University, I came to despise a certain yearly celebration that arrived every February: Black History Month. Somehow, someway, I found myself sliding into the cynicism of wondering why our chapels and church services had to be saturated with the constant—or so it seemed to me— recounting of not only the positive contributions of persons of color but also the indiscretions of my own race that hampered their advancement.

Of course, I confess this to my shame. God has been merciful to me—as have former classmates who have, since then, very graciously reminded me of some of the embarrassing and shameful things I said in person and wrote in student publications.

This is not the confession of some super woke liberal, influenced unwittingly by Marxist propagandists. This is the confession of someone who has sat down and listened to the heart-wrenching stories of loved ones and friends who’ve dared to share a bit of their painful experiences with someone who has never walked—nor ever will—in their shoes. It’s the confession of someone who’s repeatedly read the Bible and can’t get around the impression that if one were to expunge Scripture of all its talk of racial reconciliation, they would have to tear out about half of Paul’s letters (for starters). The fact is, racial reconciliation has always been and always will be a fundamental gospel work.

A few years ago, on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, I decided to read, for the first time, King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” It was convicting and converting. The most compelling part was his line about the “white moderate,” which seemed to point

to me: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom,” he thus wrote, “is not . . . the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” And then came the real clincher: “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Those words pierce my conscience and call me to action. Our Black sisters and brothers are still hurting. So during the past few years I’ve decided to use my modest platform to call attention to the ongoing pain and invalidation they’ve experienced both within and without the church. Sometimes I’ve received pushback and been encouraged just to stick to the gospel, since that’s sup- posedly less divisive. But, again, calling attention to ongoing racial disparities and the ways in which our Black sisters and brothers continue to feel excluded is a fundamental gospel work. And I’ve decided that if I’m to err, I’d rather offend my White brothers and sisters by my words than my Black brothers and sisters by my silence.

So how is one to do this? First: listen— with genuine desire to understand (not to invalidate). Then act. That’s what I now try to do during Black History Month—as well as every other month of the year.

Shawn Brace is a pastor and author in Bangor, Maine, whose book, There’s More to Jesus (Signs Publishing), further expounds upon a Jesus-centered understanding of Adventism. He is also a DPhil student at the University of Oxford, researching nineteenth-century American Christianity.

I’ve recently started appreciating one of Scripture’s most important stories in a new light. It is a well-known story, but perhaps there is more depth to it than generally understood.

Does Jesus Care—About Jesus?

After celebrating the Passover meal with His disciples, Jesus finds Himself in the Garden of Gethsemane, where He has often spent long hours in prayer. This time, however, things are different. He is deeply troubled and noticeably distressed, even mentioning to His disciples that His “soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death” (Matt. 26:38).

Then as He agonizingly stumbles off to His special place of prayer, He utters this astounding request to His three closest disciples, Peter, James, and John: “Stay here,” He says to them, “and watch with Me” (verse 38). Unfortunately, as we well know, Jesus returns a little later, and two subsequent times, to discover that the three aren’t equal to the task. Instead of finding them alert and fully available to “watch” with Him, He finds them sleeping.

What Jesus basically craves at this moment, when the weight of the whole universe is bearing down upon Him with all its crushing fury, is emotional support. He is looking for an impromptu support group. He is looking for emotional availability.

Ellen White says as much in her seminal exposition of His Gethsemane experience in The Desire of Ages. “The human heart longs for sympathy in suffering,” she writes. “This longing Christ felt to the very depths of His being. In the supreme agony of His soul He came to His disciples with a yearning desire to hear some words of comfort from those whom He had so often blessed and comforted, and shielded in sorrow and distress. The One who had always had words of sympathy for them was now suffering superhuman agony, and He longed to know that they were praying for Him and for themselves.”1

This, to me, is one of the most staggering and mind-blowing subjects the human mind could ever contemplate, a truth whose depth seems impossible to fathom. Of greatest relevance for present discussion is the fact that we find in the experience of Christ with His disciples the idea that emotional availability—sympathy and empathy—are the highest height to which human beings can attain, the means of supporting Jesus at this most critical stage of His redemption effort.

Just at this point Jesus cares profoundly about feelings. His own emotions were transparently displayed. So much does sympathy matter to Him that at the peak of His anguished struggle for my soul, what He longs for “to the very depths of His being” is someone to lean on; someone who can offer Him “some words of comfort,” some caring action that will tide Him across the abyss of hell He must negotiate. Peter’s prayer, as opposed to his panic, was the help his Master needed most in His time of “superhuman agony.” The disciples’ spiritual lack here is the same as their failure of sympathy: more or less sympathy meant equivalently more or less support for their Lord. Based on this story and the rest of Scripture’s testimony, I dare to propose that sanctification is the process by which we become more and more emotionally safe and available for others.

How Adventist Is That?

Admittedly, this may not land well in the traditional Adventist ear. Adventists are used to defining sanctification in strictly pietistic terms, often devoid of relational and social context. Many tend to focus on outward behaviors that are easily quantified and controlled. Sanctification, in this understanding, is primarily about personal piety—about improving one’s diet, dressing modestly, and consuming less entertainment. All this is very rarely if ever connected to any higher relational end.

There are others, of course, who focus more on social realities when it comes to sanctification and Christian growth. For them, being a good and sanctified Christian means pursuing works of justice—feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, fighting for the oppressed.

There is no doubt that growing in Christlikeness largely includes these very important personal and social elements. But what seems so often overlooked or forgotten is the critically important reality that, at the end of the day, what people both want and need most is to love and be loved; to be understood, accepted, and valued.

This is, after all, how Scripture—and specifically Jesus—distills the meaning of the law into its most basic form. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind,” He declared to the lawyer who asked Him what the greatest commandment was. “And . . . ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matt. 22:37-39). Loving God with our whole person—heart, soul, and mind—means developing not only our physical and intellectual faculties, but growing in emotional and relational health as well. That emotional growth enables us to love God and others better and better all the time.

Sanctification is learning to love others well.

Similarly, Paul, after echoing Jesus’ words, sums up the whole law by saying that “love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom. 13:10). No wonder then, that as Paul elsewhere reflects on the “fruit of the Spirit”—on what it looks like to have the Spirit indwelling and shining through us—he focuses chiefly on relational dynamics. “The fruit of the Spirit,” he writes to the believers in Galatia, “is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22, 23). He is speaking of nothing other than Christlikeness and sanctification.

Where This Takes Us

What all this seems to establish is that growth in sanctification is primarily a relational exercise. At the heart of what it means to be human and what it means to be shaped into Christlikeness is the ability to relate to and sympathize with the thoughts and feelings of others. Obedience to God’s law is not the pursuit of arbitrary expressions of piety. It is, if nothing else, the pursuit of greater degrees of empathy—of making ourselves emotionally safe and available for others.

In short, sanctification is learning to love others well.

Many people do acknowledge that love is the chief focus of Christian obedience and growth. But how much does “loving others well” have to do with emotional safety and availability? There is, after all, a lot of talk these days about “safe spaces,” about vulnerability and authenticity; but where has it gotten us? Again, we can understand love as action, as providing for others’ physical needs. But love as making ourselves emotionally available for others?

By way of answer, a growing body of evidence now suggests that our emotional health is as important as any other aspect of our existence as humans. We are, it seems, in the midst of an emotional revolution with multiple new discoveries about the significance of our emotional life and its overall impact on our health and human experience.

A longitudinal study at Harvard University begun in 1938 and following the lives of 268 sophomores has reported staggering discoveries 80 years later. Researchers found that much as any other factor, satisfying relationships were critical to health and longevity: “When we gathered together everything we knew about them about at age 50, it wasn’t their middle-age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old,” said Robert Waldinger, who directed the study. “It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”2

Psychiatrist George Vaillant, another researcher on the team, concluded: “When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment.” That was then. We know now that
“the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.”

For reasons like this, and more, researcher Brené Brown has concluded that “we are psychologically, emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually hardwired for connection, love, and belonging. Connection, along with love and belonging . . . is why we are here, and it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.”3 Furthermore, the key to relationships, as psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk articulates, is safe connections. “Being able to feel safe with other people,” he writes, “is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives,” adding that “social support is a biological necessity.”4

This will grab every genuine Christian’s attention, especially Adventists, who have historically insisted that the “health message” is part of what it means to grow in sanctification. For what more important part of the health message is there than to experience mental, emotional, and relational health—the very core of what it means to be humans created in the image of God?

Honesty, the Prophets, and Heaven

I was delighted to encounter this very idea in a book written long before the “emotional revolution” began. In Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing, Ellen White lays out this same vision for Christian growth and sanctification, framing the pursuit in empathic terms: “In your association with others, put yourself in their place. Enter into their feelings, their difficulties, their disappointments, their joys, and their sorrows. Identify yourself with them, and then do to them as, were you to exchange places with them, you would wish them to deal with you.”5 She labels this “the true rule of honesty”; “another expression of the law”; “the substance of the teaching of the prophets.” She states in sum, “It is a principle of heaven, and will be developed in all who are fitted for its holy companionship.”6

She later adds this categorical statement: “No man who has the true ideal of what constitutes a perfect character will fail to manifest the sympathy and tenderness of Christ. The influence of grace is to soften the heart, to refine and purify the feelings, giving a heaven-born delicacy and sense of propriety.”7

This is dynamite! Showing sympathy, being emotionally safe and available for others, is the very “substance of the teaching of the prophets.” Those who are becoming more obedient to Christ and experiencing greater degrees of sanctification, being fitted for heaven, will display these critically important fruits.

What this all means—being an emotionally safe and available person—is that as the gospel penetrates our hearts and we recognize that our security comes in Jesus, it becomes safe for us to process our own stories of shame and pain, and we thus become safer people for others to share their stories with. When they come to us with their brokenness, temptations, pain, guilt, and shame, we respond not with condemnation, ridicule, sarcasm, or condescension, but with love, acceptance, and empathy. They know that we will not run away from them but that they may run to us. They know they belong—which is the context for the best in spiritual growth.

We will thus find ourselves doing what the apostle Paul encourages us to do—living out a true life of emotional safety and availability, rejoicing with those who rejoice, and weeping with those who weep (Rom. 12:15).

Such a sanctified life is a powerful and attractive witness to the gospel.

  1. Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898, 1940), pp. 687, 688.
  2. Thanks to Heather Thompson Day for directing me to this study.
  3. Brené Brown, Daring Greatly (New York: Avery, 2012), p. 68.
  4. Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score (New York: Penguin Books, 2014), pp. 81, 169.
  5. Ellen G. White, Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1956), p. 134.
  6. Ibid., pp. 134, 135.
  7. Ibid., p. 135.

Shawn Brace, pastor and author who serves in Bangor, Maine.

I recently sat around a restaurant table with four others discussing pressing developments in the political world. My friend Mike had, a few weeks before, recruited all of us to start a philosophy club. A couple of the guys are professors at the local public university, while the rest of us either dabble in philosophy—like me—or are pursuing graduate degrees in the subject. We all come from various Christian persuasions and certainly fall on various points of the political spectrum.

As we sat there reflecting on the current political climate in the United States—and the rest of the world—something surprising came out of my mouth. We were all miffed about the incredible polarization that has unfolded around the world, where moderates don’t seem to exist anymore, lamenting that there doesn’t seem to be any hope of returning to some sort of balance. We wondered about whether any solution even existed.

“Guys,” I suddenly offered, “it feels like Jesus is coming soon.”

Then, almost without thinking, it came out of my mouth: “Guys,” I suddenly offered, “it feels like Jesus is coming soon.”

Almost as soon as the words came out of my mouth, I sort of checked myself—both because, not knowing a few of the guys very well yet, I wasn’t sure what their views were on Jesus’ second coming and, to be honest, lately I’ve been wondering about my own views.

Because here’s the reality: as a lifelong Seventh-day Adventist, I may or may not suffer from “signs of the times” fatigue. Over the nearly four decades of my life I have heard hundreds of sermons, and preached scores of them myself, about how Jesus is not only coming—He’s coming soon. You have too.

In fact, if we were to be honest, we would have to admit that we as Adventists have rarely if ever failed to take advantage of a world crisis to sound the Second Coming alarm. Think back to all the world’s major events over the past century—to World Wars I and II, to the moon landing, to September 11, to the Great Recession of 2008, to Pope Francis addressing the U.S. Congress, just to name a few—and reflect on how often Adventist preachers and writers leveraged these events to proclaim that we are, alluding to Daniel 2, “in the toes of world history,” and how Jesus must be coming soon. Some, perhaps on the fringes, have even gone so far as to set dates.

Yet here we are. Still.

Living With the Tension

This trend long predates our lifetimes, of course. Our denomination was founded nearly 160 years ago for the express purpose of proclaiming this “present truth” message of Christ’s soon return. Even older than the denominational organization were Adventist publishing efforts—starting what would quickly become known as the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald as a means to disseminate this urgent news.

All this has led some critics to conclude that our church has exerted a lot of energy “crying wolf.”

Yet honesty also demands a recognition that we live in a constant tension. There is no doubt in my mind that an honest reading of Scripture—of Daniel and Revelation, of Matthew and the Old Testament prophets—reveals that we are living in a unique time in human history, a time of unprecedented upheaval, on the doorstep of Christ’s return.

In fact, it’s not simply Seventh-day Adventists who believe this. Even as the United States, for one, becomes increasingly post-Christian, a sizable percentage of Americans believe that “by the year 2050 . . . Jesus Christ definitely or probably will have returned to earth.” When the Pew Research Center asked this question, 41 percent of respondents answered in the affirmative, including one out of every five persons who are religiously unaffiliated.1

All this is, of course, not simply a theological tension or debate. The question of whether and when Christ returns is not a mental exercise. It’s more analogous to a wife aching for her husband to return home from a long business trip than a mathematician solving an elaborate equation.

After all, if we truly believe, as I do, that the heart of the Christian message centers on communion with a Person—relating to a God who has thoughts and feelings and emotions and longings toward us, and has designed us to reciprocate—then it seems we wouldhave an infinite longing for reunion with Him, in the flesh. “This is eternal life,” Jesus said, “that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3). This is not a trivial theological exercise.

So what are we to do—living in this tension? Not only do we genuinely, and rightfully, believe that Jesus is returning soon, but we really want Him to as well. Yet we can get our hopes up only so many times. We don’t have the emotional or mental capacity to sit on the edge of our seats every time the Pope has tea with another world leader.

Learning From the Apostles

If anyone knows what it’s like to live in the midst of this tension, it was the early church. Before ascending to heaven, Jesus repeatedly told His disciples that He would “come again” and “receive” them to Himself (see John 14:3). As the disciples, with mouths wide open, watched Jesus vanish into the clouds, two angels stood beside them, announcing that He would “come in like manner” (Acts 1:11).

This would have been overwhelmingly joyous news to the disciples. Think about it: they had just spent more than three years with God—the most loving, compassionate, charismatic being in the universe, to say the least. To watch Him disappear from their presence would have been extremely troubling—no doubt depressingly so.

The best analogy I can come up with is the utter despondency I felt recently as I got into my car to drive to the airport on my way to Australia for two weeks, leaving my wife and three young children behind. As I looked at them in the rearview mirror, I felt as if my heart was being ripped out.

The primary task of Christ’s disciples, both then and now, is to get on with the work of witnessing to the resurrected Lord.

To say that I couldn’t wait to return home would be an understatement. Yet what I experienced is such an inadequate comparison to what Jesus experienced as He ascended to heaven. It probably approaches the emotions of the disciples as they watched Him disappear.

It’s not surprising, then, that the disciples were eager to know when they would be reunited with Jesus—and how they could know when this moment was approaching. We are familiar with Jesus’ answer in Matthew 24, of course, having heard scores of sermons on the chapter. But His words for the disciples in Acts are equally as important and informative—and better address what our role is during the extended delay.

“It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority,” Jesus told them. “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:7, 8).

In other words: don’t get overly focused on all the “signs of the times.” Yes, we are to understand Matthew 24 and Revelation 13 and all the pertinent passages—most of which were not yet “present truth” to the apostles living in the first century. But the primary task of Christ’s disciples, both then and now, is to get on with the work of witnessing to the resurrected Lord, both in word and deed.

Interestingly, it is fascinating that as a part of His “signs of the times” sermon in Matthew, Jesus finished His whole exposition by announcing that those who would experience eternity would be those who treated the “least of these”—the hungry, the imprisoned, the foreigner—with grace and love (see Matt. 25:31-46). In Matthew’s telling, this was the very last teaching Jesus shared before going to the cross—the climactic end of His public teaching ministry.

Don’t miss the important connection: we can’t stop at Matthew 24. Chapters 24 and 25 are one long sermon in response to how we can know Christ will be coming soon. We will know Christ is coming soon not only when we see upheaval in the world but when we see works of justice and compassion in the church.

So being Second Coming people means living with hopeful expectancy of Christ’s return while also pursuing His healing mission in the world. It means proclaiming His truth and, just as important, living it out.

This is how we live in the tension.

Learning From Contemporary Jews

Just a couple days after my declaration to my friends in the philosophy club, I found myself sitting at a different restaurant table with another friend. He’s an older Jewish gentleman, with a philosophy degree from Yale and an architecture degree from MIT. We meet every few weeks to discuss a whole gamut of topics, ranging from religion to politics to philosophy to life. And yes, Jesus often comes up in our conversations, though my friend is nowhere near a believer in Christ’s Messiahship, as far as I can discern.

I was even more shocked by what he said in reflecting on our current political climate than what I had said a few days before. He offered that there was about a 20 percent chance that the next presidential elections in the U.S. wouldn’t happen. He went on to say that in his opinion there’s a 50 percent chance that the U.S. military will have to step in, either siding with Congress or the president to make sure the elections take place.

After I recovered from my utter surprise, I realized that I was now at liberty to share my own shocking perspective. “I was just saying the other day,” I remarked, “that it seems like the end of the world is near and that Jesus is coming back soon.” I then went on to explain how we Adventists believe this has all been predicted in the book of Revelation—admitting, however, that we don’t want to get too extreme with our prognosticating.

He found it interesting, politely acknowledging the perspective. Then he shared something fascinating. “Jews believe,” he said, “that before the end of the world and the messianic age, God has given us the task of perfecting the world. God created us to join Him in works of justice and compassion.”

Then it dawned on me: this is what it means to be expectant Second Coming people. We passionately proclaim Christ’s soon return, and we recognize and humbly announce the signs of the time. But in the meantime we participate in God’s mission of healing the world, doing works of justice, compassion, and love. This is essentially what Ellen White said was our end-time task, pointing to Isaiah 58 as the “special work now before us.”2

After all, Jesus may not come tomorrow, but we know there will always be fellow humans who need our help tomorrow. Only the Second Coming can and will ultimately set everything aright.

Until then, however, borne of our deep appreciation for His grace and forgiveness, we relentlessly pursue His mission in the world, proclaiming and demonstrating His love.

  1., accessed July 19, 2019.
  2. See Ellen G. White, Welfare Ministry (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1952), pp. 29-34.

Shawn Brace, a pastor in Bangor, Maine, United States, is married and has three children. The family’s ministry has increasingly focused on mission, discipleship, and incarnating the gospel in their neighborhood and city—a journey that can be tracked via their podcast, Mission Lab.

In her book In Tune With God, Lilianne Doukhan cites a story about a controversy that roiled Boston’s Battle Street Church in the nineteenth century. It revolved around worship. Eager to move beyond the traditions of the day, church members decided to order an organ from England—an instrument used primarily in theaters for entertainment in those days.

The thought was too much for some members to bear, however, with one individual urging “with tears that the house of God be not desecrated,” and offering to refund the entire cost of the organ if “the evil thing might be thrown to the bottom of Boston Harbor.”1

We likely look back at such a controversy with humor. But at our core we can’t deny this truism: styles of worship that were viewed as heretical 200 years ago—even 50 years ago—seem rather tame now.

Changing Times, Tastes, and Traditions

We’ve seen this play out within Adventism over the last five decades. At one time it was the Wedgewood Trio or the Heritage Singers that some deemed troubling. Now it is worship that borrows from Hillsong or Kirk Franklin.

I remember traveling to a country in the global south nearly two decades ago and learning that the drum set was acceptable in worship but not the djembe or bongos, which were associated with demon worship. I reflected on how it was just the opposite in the United States: you could get away with a djembe or bongos in many congregations, but not a drum set.

If we were to set foot in a worship service during the times of Jesus, we might find it utterly foreign.

Many continue to be troubled by the way worship and music have been relativized. Seminars on the dangers of certain styles and instruments have turned into a cottage industry, available for download at your local independent ministry website.

Yet an increasing number of Adventists have recognized that while Scripture hints at principles, it does not spell out specific rules when it comes to the styles a congregation employs to worship God—recognizing that, as with food tastes, one’s cultural context plays a large role in how people raise their worship to God.

Indeed, if we were to set foot in a worship service during the days of David or the times of Jesus, we might find them to be utterly foreign to us—like stepping into a worship service in a distant country. Even early Adventist worship—where James White so often thumped the rhythm on his Bible, or others engaged in more charismatic expressions, some even speaking in tongues—could seem strange to us, and perhaps troubling to many.2

A Practical Response

Over the last two decades the Seventh-day Adventist Church has wisely developed a philosophy of music, officially voted at the Annual Council in 2004, that can serve as a “guideline” for members and churches. Proposing a principle-based approach to music and worship, it certainly stops short of prescribing or prohibiting any particular style or cultural expression. Instead, it points to the importance of all our music and worship glorifying God, and for the need to have it engage the whole person—intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally.

Perhaps most relevant to the present discussion, the guidelines tackle the issue of cultural variation and sensitivity, recognizing the diversity that comprises the worldwide movement.

“We should recognize and acknowledge the contribution of different cultures in worshiping God,” it states. “Musical forms and instruments vary greatly in the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist family, and music drawn from one culture may sound strange to someone from a different culture.”3

These guidelines beautifully illustrate the ongoing maturation of the Adventist Church over the last 50 years as it relates to a movement that has increasingly become more culturally and ethnically diverse. The less homogenous an organization becomes, the more important it becomes for it to embrace diversity on issues that the Bible does not explicitly spell out. Fortunately, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has officially recognized and acknowledged this—somewhat getting back to its early roots of allowing the Spirit to set the agenda, including the agenda for our times of worship.

Some individuals still turn the subject into a black-and-white moral issue, governed by opaque and esoteric biblical allusions; but there are many more still, following the lead of the official denominational guidelines, who embrace the fact that around the throne of heaven people from “every nation, tribe, tongue, and people” (Rev. 14:6) will worship the Lamb in ways that are personally meaningful.

Until then, each local Seventh-day Adventist congregation has the opportunity to give the world a foretaste of that glorious day.

  1. Cited in Lilianne Doukhan, In Tune With God (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2010), p. 291.
  2. See Norma J. Collins, Heartwarming Stories of Adventist Pioneers, vol. 1 (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2005), p. 59; and Ron Graybill, “Enthusiasm in Early Adventist Worship,” Ministry, October 1991.
  3. Taken from “A Seventh-day Adventist Philosophy of Music,” at Accessed January 28, 2019.

Shawn Brace is pastor of the Bangor and Dexter, Maine, Seventh-day Adventist churches. He edits New England Pastor.

1382John Wycliffe, known as the “Morning Star” of the English Reformation, oversees the translation of the Bible into the language of the people. A group of Bibles, known as “Wycliffe’s Bible,” are translated into Middle English, setting the stage for the Protestant Reformation.

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1415Priest and philosopher Jan Hus, heavily influenced by John Wycliffe, is burned at the stake in modern-day Czech Republic for attacking the teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church.

1517German theologian and priest Martin Luther posts a list of disputations, now known as the 95 theses, on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany, criticizing the practice of indulgences in the Roman Catholic Church. It effectively starts the Protestant Reformation throughout Europe, emphasizing salvation by grace alone and a return to the Bible as the sole source of authority.

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1521Luther is called before the Diet of Worms to recant his views about salvation by grace alone. He refuses to move from his positions, declaring, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason, I am bound by the scriptures I have quoted. . . . I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.” As a result, he is declared a heretic.

1526English scholar William Tyndale produces the first English New Testament taken from the Greek language. A decade later he is condemned as a heretic and burned at the stake.

1553Over the span of five years, beginning in 1553, Queen Mary I of England, known as “Bloody Mary,” goes on a campaign to rid England of Protestants, executing nearly 250 heretics, including Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer together. Latimer famously says at their execution, “Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”

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1620Fleeing persecution in Europe, the Pilgrims emigrate to the New World, setting up a colony in present-day Massachusetts.

1635Roger Williams is banished from Massachusetts for promoting full religious liberty. He flees to present-day Providence and founds Rhode Island, becoming the first territory to guarantee complete separation of church and state.

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1738Englishman John Wesley, while attending a meeting in Aldersgate, hears Martin Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to Romans read and converts to Christ, feeling his heart “strangely warmed.” With his brother and hymn writer, Charles, he launches the Methodist movement, leading to great revival across England and America.

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1816New York farmer William Miller converts from deism to Christ, entering upon a deep personal study of the Bible, anchored in the Reformation principles of the primacy of the Bible, and that the Bible explains itself. He eventually concludes that Christ’s second coming is imminent and proclaims the message in the northeastern United States.

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1844The “Millerites” experience great disappointment when Christ doesn't return on October 22, after concluding He would do so based on a reading of Daniel 8:14. A few despondent believers come to realize that Christ started His work of the investigative judgment on the date instead.

1845Beginning in 1845, a group of “Adventists” that formed out of the Millerite movement, in continued commitment to faith in the Bible’s unparalleled authority, begin studying the question of the seventh-day Sabbath, ultimately concluding that it is still an institution for Christians to keep and enjoy.

1863The Seventh-day Adventist Church is officially organized in Michigan as a means of spreading “present truth” to “every nation, tribe, tongue, and people” (Rev. 14:6, NKJV)* around the world.

1888Adventist prophet Ellen White declares that the “loud cry” of Revelation 18:1-4, which, as the ultimate continuation of the Protestant Reformation, would spread the message of God’s love to the entire world, had begun in the message of justification by faith being proclaimed by two young preachers, Ellet J. Waggoner and Alonzo T. Jones.

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SOONThe Reformation reaches climactic fulfillment when, consistent with His word in the Bible, Jesus comes to earth in splendor, and brings His people to His home of glory, along with the absolute end of evil, of sin and sorrow, death and pain.

* Bible texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. all rights reserved.

Shawn Brace is a pastor in the Northern New England Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, headquartered in the state of Maine.