When I’m not disguised as a mild-mannered assistant editor of Adventist Review, I disguise myself as chair of the administrative board of Sligo Seventh-day Adventist Church in Maryland (actually, it’s the same costume).
I usually call our monthly meetings to order with some kind of group activity designed to get board members primed to engage in the rest of the evening’s agenda.
Not long ago I wrote on the whiteboard: “Sligo church is not a welcoming church.” Then I said, “True or false: This is a true statement.”
Those present replied nearly in unison, “False!”
“What would make it a true?” I asked.
“Remove the word ‘not’” was the unanimous response.
“So Sligo church is a welcoming church,” I pressed. “Who is welcome at Sligo church?” I provided markers and asked people to come to the board and list one group or segment of the community that would be welcome at Sligo church.
One person, with John 3:16 on his mind, wrote: “Everybody!”
“Not so fast,” I interrupted. “Be specific. For whom does Sligo church have ministries or activities that would make them feel welcome?”
Soon individuals migrated to the whiteboard and began writing: “seniors,” “youth,” “immigrants,” “children,” “single parents,” “widows,” “unemployed,” “university students,” etc.
The church is Christ’s body on earth. As Christ embodied the fruit of the Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit when He lived on earth, today’s church—thanks to the Holy Spirit—reflects Christ’s character to its members and its community. On that we can all agree.
But what, exactly, is the character of the church?
In the two millennia since Christ ascended to heaven, His followers have used different images to describe the church’s essential characteristics. The apostle Peter set the bar pretty high when he said of the church: “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession. . . . Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God” (1 Peter 2:9, 10).
Let’s see: “a chosen people,” “a royal priesthood,” “a holy nation,” “God’s special possession,” “people of God.” At the same time, it’s popular to refer to the church as “a hospital for sinners, not a hotel for saints.” So which is it? Are we a hotel or a hospital? Are we saints or sinners?
Jesus welcomed sinners (Luke 19:7), yet He demanded a righteousness that surpassed that of the Pharisees (Matt. 5:20). How do we, as Christ’s body on earth, demonstrate both acceptance and high standards?
The home page of the Toledo (Ohio) First Seventh-day Adventist Church has this description under “Who We Are”: “Our multiethnic congregation reminds people that God loves them like crazy by proclaiming Jesus’ everlasting gospel to ‘every nation, tribe, language, and people’ (Rev. 14:6). . . . We have become known for living and consistently emphasizing grace more unapologetically and creatively than any Adventist church in southeast Michigan or northwest Ohio.”
Adventist congregations are increasingly appreciating that they have to elevate the perception that most people have of Christianity.
So Toledo First’s introduction to its community begins by linking gospel and grace. And that, theoretically, is how it should be.
But the reality is often different; and depending where, quite different. Daniel Xisto, pastor of church operations and community engagement for the Takoma Park (Maryland) Seventh-day Adventist Church, admits: “There are many people for whom our church is not a safe place.” He cites examples such as teens who show up to services wearing “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts; single parents who attend with unruly and disruptive children; homeless people with shabby clothes and offensive body odor.
Church members are sometimes tempted to justify exclusion with a faulty logic. “The logic usually goes something like this,” says Xisto. “If we welcome [them] . . . they might assume that we accept their behavior. And if they assume we accept their behavior, they may assume that God accepts them just the way they are. And we just cannot let that happen.”
Ron Hessel, lead pastor of Summit Northwest Ministries in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, observes: “Some of the saints see it as a badge of honor to ‘uphold the standards.’”
He tells about a deacon in one of his former parishes who told a young woman visitor that she needed to “wipe the blood off her face,” referring to her lipstick. “We never saw her again,” says Hessel. Yet the deacon often repeated the story, as if it were something of which to be proud.
Horror stories such as this are common. Begin a conversation about Adventists behaving badly, and everyone will have at least one tale to tell.
Adventist congregations throughout North America are increasingly appreciating that if they truly want to represent Christ to their communities, they have to elevate the perception that most people have of Christianity.
A survey by the Pew Research Center* shows that since 2007 the percentage of Christians in the United States has dropped from 78 percent to 65 percent in 2018/2019, while those who profess no religious affiliation (the nones) have increased from 16 percent to 26 percent. As a group, Christians seem to be declining in their influence on society.
The book UnChristian, by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, begins with the words: “Christianity has an image problem.” Then it catalogs six characteristics that people use to dismiss Christianity: hypocrisy, a narrow view of salvation, intolerance of homosexuality, too sheltered, too political, too judgmental. And while we may be comfortable with those characterizations as evidence that Jesus has changed our lives and values, we still have to ask: Would people see Him as they see us?
This sometimes presents a challenge to those of us who identify as Adventists. Some suppose that emphasizing Christ’s character of grace and inclusiveness will somehow lessen their commitment to the church’s doctrines. They have to address these priorities intentionally as they attempt to engage their communities.
“We started by taking action where we had broad agreement,” says Nicholas Zork, a church leader in New York City. That action affirmed: “Everyone should be given the opportunity to participate fully in the life of our community.”
Zork continues: “While we didn’t all hold identical views, we could agree on what mattered most: our mission to love, affirm, and include all people.”
The trend in society to categorize people—liberal, conservative, believers, nonbelievers, etc.—is nothing new. Tribalism has been part of the human experience almost as long as there have been humans. Indeed, the New Testament church comprised both genders, all economic classes, ages, and ethnic backgrounds. Those differences were real, and they had to be addressed (Acts 6:1-4). The Roman Empire, in which the early Christian church gestated, was remarkably diverse. The climate in which today’s Adventist Church exists is not unique.
“Welcoming is just the beginning of a discipleship process,” says Zork, “in which we all—despite our differences—are people who share most things in common, have similar needs and challenges, and can learn from one another about . . . spirituality and life.”
Under the heading “Who We Are,” Summit Northwest Ministries describes the dream that led to its formation 16 years ago: “This dream was of a church where hurting, confused, depressed, and disenfranchised people could find hope, encouragement, love, acceptance, and salvation.
“This desire to ‘share our loving God with hurting people so that they can experience His transforming power in their lives’ has become . . . the driving force behind what we do.”
Ron Hessel, senior pastor, said that one of his members got a phone call from someone who asked if the church’s intention to be more welcoming and inclusive meant that they were “lowering their standards.”
Hessel observes: “The church was planted with the goal of being more welcoming. It is part of the congregation’s DNA.” He acknowledges that for congregations that rigidly enforce a code of what is acceptable or unacceptable, resistance to being more welcoming and inclusive may be more pronounced. “People are afraid that welcoming means accepting.”
Mike Fortune, pastor of Toledo First, puts it succinctly: “Acceptance does not equal agreement.”
Nicholas Zork uses Matthew 25 to justify welcoming marginalized populations. “By welcoming and including those we’ve wrongly pushed away, we are welcoming Jesus.” He adds, “In that process we experience more grace than we offer; we learn more than we teach; we receive more than we give.”
For more than 30 years the Glendale city church in southern California has developed an intentional ministry to marginalized individuals. At first its reputation suffered among those who saw it as heretical at worst, unorthodox at best. But those who felt unwelcome in their own congregations began gravitating to this place where they felt accepted. One of the individuals thus embraced bequeathed his modest estate to the church when he died. His donation became seed money for an endowment that now amounts to more than $2 million.
In his ministry, Daniel Xisto makes a point of developing relationships with people in his community. “Half the battle,” he says, “is that we don’t know people outside our own circle.” He says it’s harder to dismiss people when we know them as individuals, not just as members of a stereotypical group: “those people.”
As we know, society has reached a point in which people of different religious or political convictions can sometimes hardly be in the same room with each other, let alone carry on a civil conversation. In such a climate the church has to be a refuge, where love, grace, and inclusion punctuate every conversation and all behaviors.
We sometimes have to confess that some Adventist churches have been exclusive cliques, and have repelled people rather than embraced them. We have closed our doors to people who didn’t behave like us, think like us, or look like us. We have cared more about being right than about being kind. We have confused acceptance with agreement. We have turned away thirsty seekers of the free water of life. Yet Jesus’ invitation remains: “Come to me” (Matt. 11:28).
So the question: how do we create in our congregations places where people can find true sanctuary? Places where they are both forgiven sinners and aspiring saints? Where they can worship and fellowship without being judged on the basis of race, sex, ethnicity, appearance, etc.?
And isn’t living like Jesus the highest standard to which we can aspire?
Daniel Xisto wonders, “Wouldn’t it be something if not only the well-to-do but the marginalized, disenfranchised, and excluded groups could find refuge in any Seventh-day Adventist Church? That’s what I’m fighting for.”
* Pew Research Center Religious Landscape Studies (2007 and 2014). Aggregated Pew Research Center surveys conducted 2009-July 2019 on the telephone.
Stephen Chavez is an assistant editor of Adventist Review.