January 30, 2023

A Forward-Looking People

A part of remembering is to recall “His teaching in our past history.”

Victor Marley

We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history.”1 Ellen White wrote this statement as she looked back on her life and thought about the future of the fledgling movement to which she had given so much. It was not a backward-looking statement, however; rather it was an encouragement to the Adventist Church to keep moving forward into the unknown. 

The world is changing rapidly, and recent events have only contributed to the sense of foreboding many people feel. In meeting the needs of people living in a world of comprehensive change, the church also faces huge challenges. Ellen White’s stirring message is more relevant now than ever before. It points us to hope, the future, and to what we must do as God’s people. 

Historical Precedent

In reminding readers to remember, she is doing what a long line of God’s messengers have done. In fact, God Himself ordered the building of the very first historical monument as the children of Israel stepped, for the first time, onto the shores of the Promised Land. “When your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. . . . These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever” (Joshua 4:6, 7, NIV). 

As God’s people faced the giants and the walls of the Promised Land, it would be important for them to remember the way the Lord had led them. For 40 years they had been trapped in the desert of fear and regret. They had been freed as slaves, and yet they had been unable to possess the life God had in store for them. 

The problem with fear is that it hinders us from experiencing the life or achieving the potential God has in store for us. Many of us are fearful. Some are fearful of present world events and end-time scenarios. Others are fearful of change, creativity, or having to move out of their comfort zone. Some are fearful of losing power. I have met Adventists who are fearful of openness and honesty. Some fear emotions. Others fear even the Holy Spirit. Many are fearful of sharing their faith or taking a friend to church. I wonder if too many of us are trapped in the spiritual desert of fear, freed from “Egypt” (or should we say Babylon?), but unable to take possession of the Jesus-filled life to which we are called. 

Seeing the Bigger Picture

Ellen White says we have nothing to fear. In her own day she observed church leaders who, when faced with opportunities or challenges for which they felt unprepared, failed “to move out and venture something in the cause and work of God.” “Someone must advance,” she wrote. “Someone must venture in the fear of God, trusting the result with Him.”2 Her call was for what modern leadership theorists would call “adaptive leadership,”3 the ability to adapt and thrive in challenging situations. 

This kind of leadership involves the ability to see the bigger picture, stretching always toward the finish line with disciplined action. It requires the ability to listen to those around us to discern how to share the gospel today, in new and innovative ways. Adaptive leadership sees what needs to be changed and the pace at which change can happen. It also encourages visionary young people to step up.4 As society and culture change rapidly, we need adaptive leadership in our churches as never before. Otherwise, we will end up speaking only with ourselves about issues only we understand. 

How do we communicate the message of God’s love and of Jesus’ return to our post-Christian, secular, atheist friends, and even our own young people who grow up with this culture all around them? Many of us, at a loss as to what to do, believe that the responsibility lies with the pastors, who try variations of what has succeeded in the past, but feel discouraged by the lack of results and lack of enthusiasm from church members. 

Our administrators, under pressure themselves, urge employees to keep trying, perhaps to try harder—to do the same things better. At the same time, decline in membership and pastoral staff means that more and more is expected of fewer and fewer. Sociologists of religion would suggest that this is the norm and that every religious movement dies out in the end. Other researchers claim that this end is not inevitable, but that there comes a point where, in order to survive, a church needs to rediscover its mission and what that mission looks like in the present culture.

Changing Our Thinking

We are encouraged to remember, therefore, not to copy what was done in the past, but to be inspired to inquire of God, who led us so well in the past. God is calling us today to think big, think new, think together with Him, about what it means to be an Adventist—a bringer of hope and announcer of good news—in today’s world. 

In understanding how God wants us to conduct His mission today, our young people are among our greatest assets. They understand the culture in which we are operating. We wonder why our young people leave the church. I know that some leave because they have never had the opportunity to use their abilities and insights for God, and have never experienced serving alongside Jesus Christ. 

God used young people in the past, so we can assume He will use young people now and into the future. Are our fears, policies, routines, and traditions holding back the “army of youth”6 that Ellen White believed in so much? We who are older need to engage our young people in creative, innovative thinking, and we need to listen to them, advise them, and support them in doing great things for God. 

This doesn’t mean we change who we are as Adventists. A part of the remembering, Ellen White urges us, is to recall “His teaching in our past history.” We are heirs of the Reformation, believing in the Bible as God’s Word, and in salvation through faith in Jesus Christ alone. We are also heirs of the First Great Awakening, with its emphasis on the importance of a personal relationship with God. We grew directly out of the Second Great Awakening, with its renewed interest in Jesus’ second coming, and when that little group of Adventist believers were disappointed, they searched the Scriptures again. 

They came to understand the theme of the great controversy over God’s character, the truth of Jesus’ high-priestly ministry, the gift of the Sabbath, and the state of the dead. Our message is of a loving God who never gives up on His creation and who is coming back very soon. It is a message of hope in a world without hope. 

Arthur White, writing in Ministry, reminds pastors and leaders of the church of his grandmother’s encouraging words: “We have nothing to fear for the future . . .” 

“Adventists are a forward-looking people, but there are times when it is appropriate to look back—not fearfully to see if we should have taken some other path, or to make sure that the foundations are securely laid. No! No! But to gain strength and renewed confidence, through the clear assurance of the testimony of past experience, that truly this is God’s work. He has led us, and He will lead us safely through the difficult days before us.”7 

We too can find great encouragement from remembering. From obscurity and weakness came publishing houses sending out hundreds of thousands of publications every month. One of the largest health systems in the world was developed. Lifestyle medicine research saved countless lives. A huge educational system was developed. Missionaries were sent throughout the world. 

The church was organized in an entirely new and innovative way, and membership has grown to many millions. The first Seventh-day Adventists had no pattern to follow, no policy book to fall back on, but in faith they moved creatively forward, showing real adaptation to the new situation they were in and to the world around them. 

The role of looking back is not to do what we have always done, or to do what is easier. No, the role of looking back is in order to look forward. Remembering is not to stop going forward, but to give us the courage to go on, to make difficult decisions, to meet new challenges, to step out in faith and find new ways to take the Adventist message to the world. 

1 Ellen G. White, Life Sketches (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1915), p. 196. 

2 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 3, p. 14. 

3 http://cambridge-leadership.com/adaptive-leadership/ 

4 R. A. Heifetz and D. L. Laurie, “The Work of Leadership,” Harvard Business Review 75, no. 1 (1997): 124-134. 

5 A. J. Roxburgh and F. Romanuk, The Missional Leader: Equipping Your Church to Reach a Changing World (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006). 

6 Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1903), p. 271. 

7 Arthur L. White, “Except as We Shall Forget,” Ministry, January 1941, pp. 16-18.