August 5, 2019

The Church I Want to Belong to is . . . Terrible!

In the good sense of the word.

Jared Thurmon

The following was also presented on August 2 at the Friday Night Plenary Session of ASI. If you would like to listen to the sermon - click here.

These aren’t easy words to write—or read. Like every author wrestling with an assignment to deliver a difficult message, I looked for a comfortable backdoor that would preclude the need of disappointing some and infuriating others. The fact that you are reading these words is in that sense my failure to escape an assignment—not only from the editor, but from the Spirit’s calling.

I was privileged to be raised in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I attended 16 years of Adventist schooling; I was active in Pathfinders and eventually graduated from Southern Adventist University, where I found my wife, Annette. I love Jesus. I love the Spirit of Prophecy. I love the truths of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

For more than four years I’ve had the honor of serving the world church at the General Conference, sitting on numerous committees, working on many projects, and giving my all to Adventist Review Ministries. Last but not least, I’m a volunteer lay pastor of a wonderful church in Adairsville, Georgia.

As I look at those with whom I grew up in this movement, too many of them are missing. These are my friends, your children, your grandchildren, nieces, nephews, friends, family. Large numbers don’t attend church anymore, or at least a Seventh-day Adventist church. I’m sad to say that I think most of them don’t want anything to do with it. And I’ve come to a prayerful conclusion:

The church I want to belong to is . . . terrible!

Now that you’ve sensed the difference between this article and most others you read in this magazine, do something brave: keep reading.

Today I’m going to practice something you’ll hear me preach about often: candor. Max Dupree wrote: “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.”

Each of us is, in at least one sense, a leader. We lead a home, perhaps a ministry, an institution, a classroom, even a child. Many of us are leaders on multiple levels of life.

So as a leader, I’d like to describe what I see as our reality.

A Call to Stand

The world by most accounts—both secular and religious—is a ticking time bomb. Whether it’s the destruction of the family, alarms about climate change; growing intolerance to free speech; ever-increasing tribalism and racism, or countless attacks on the moral code once given to all of us on Sinai—we need no more evidence that we are in the end of days. Ellen White’s words are truer than ever: “Thinking men and women of all classes, have their attention fixed upon the events taking place about us. . . . They observe . . . that the world is on the verge of a stupendous crisis.”1

But the Bible says that final events are being held back until something dramatic, climactic, and terribly disruptive happens with the remnant church of Bible prophecy. The Bible reminds us: “Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servantsof our God” (Rev. 7:3).

We need leaders who fear nothing, who crave duty, and who take up responsibility for such a time as this.

But that settling into the truth has been stalling of late. The temptation for leaders on every level for whom numbers determine position, personnel, and pay is to use whatever number sounds good as long as it achieves the end goal of creating a picture that helps and doesn’t hurt me, my team, my ministry, my company, my church, my conference, my union conference, my division, my delegates, my reelection.

It’s tempting to share graphs of the millions of visitors to our websites; the millions of followers on our social media accounts; the millions of dollars in our bank accounts, offerings, and reserve funds. Or national news stories about how Seventh-day Adventists live longer; how we are the most diverse, fastest-growing denomination in the United States; or even the success of our health-care and educational institutions. We then could end the slide show with a few pictures of soccer stadiums full of believers in line for baptism.

But I have a duty, as you have a duty as a leader, to describe what I see. Here are a few examples from the recent Global Church Member Survey by the General Conference.2

  • The growing disparity between numbers of members on the books and those who attend services each week
  • Numbers of Adventists dissatisfied with the state of their local church
  • Number of people joining and leaving, or worse, joining and staying, who don’t even understand our message
  • Growing doubt among Adventists about a literal Creation week, a heavenly judgment, and the state of the dead
  • Recent data on Adventists’ perspective on the Second Coming as decades in the future
  • Diminishing numbers of Adventists engaged in intentional witness and faith sharing
  • Orientation of focus—less on distinctives, more on what we have in common.

Friends—my church family—we have a problem. We have a crisis of leadership. The crisis is not who is in leadership—it’s the lack of courage in leadership. We have a crisis of courage. Where are the men and women willing to stand for the truth though the heavens fall? Where are those who are as true to duty as the needle is to the pole? Those unafraid to call sin by its right name, unafraid to lay their careers on the line to do what’s right?

A Lesson From History

Israel also had a crisis of courage. The tribes finally got what they wanted: a king—a leader like that of the nations around them. They wanted to blend in. And Saul, the king they wanted, though he was a head taller than anyone else, blended in: he wasn’t a courageous leader.

The Lord sends the prophet Samuel to Bethlehem, to Jesse’s house, to look for someone with courage and conviction on whom anointing oil would be poured.

Samuel, the original kingmaker, arrives. Who will be the next king, the next leader of Israel? One by one, Jesse’s sons come before the prophet.

This must be the one, Samuel thinks. All the degrees; all the letters after his name; the rich olive skin tone; the experience. He looks the part.

But the Lord says, “No, I have refused him, I don’t see as you do. Humans look at the outward appearance, but I look at the heart” (see 1 Sam. 16:7).

Lesson 1

Appearances can be deceiving. Humans often look for all the wrong things as qualities in a leader. A title doesn’t make a leader. A pedigree doesn’t make a leader. The color of one’s skin shouldn’t be the differentiating factor. Many today follow those with titles because they believe they have to, not because they want to. We need leaders who fear nothing, who crave duty, and who take up responsibility for such a time as this.

Finally Samuel runs out of strapping young men to anoint as king. Anyone else, Jesse? Yeah, one out in the pasture.David is anointed by God’s prophet that day, and told that one day he will become king. He goes back to what Ellen White says is one of two important things for character development: caring for animals. David spends his days caring for sheep, composing and playing music, and slinging rocks.18 1 7 7

Saul, meanwhile, is miserable. His counselors advise him: you need some calming music. They knew the power of music on mood, and conjuring or conquering demonic spirits. David is invited to play before the king. It works: Saul is at peace. This future leader of Israel learns the toxic culture of leadership firsthand at the highest levels of the movement.

What happens when young, aspiring followers of Jesus are exposed to self-absorbed, self-serving leaders? They inevitably get discouraged.

We are told in Scripture that we will know a tree by its fruit. Saul was an unkind, impatient coward who made excuses. Is it possible that when people come around us as leaders of this Advent movement, they see trees producing abundant flowers but yielding instead bitter fruit?

Ellen White wrote: “[Men and women] may profess faith in the truth; but if it does not make them sincere, kind, patient, forbearing, heavenly-minded, it is a curse to its possessors, and through their influence it is a curse to the world.”3

Insincere and timid leadership was a curse to ancient Israel. Insincere and timid leadership is a curse to God’s people today, on every level, and ultimately to the world.

Lesson 2

Sometimes God takes us down a track that we wouldn’t choose for ourselves. As with David in the court of Saul, there are times we are exposed to leaders and organizations from whom we learn—take a deep breath—what not to do when our time comes around to lead.

We are told that after his days at court, David loved to go back home to the pastures, under the azure firmament, to see the stars staring down at him.

But a day of decision was coming. Israel was on the brink of a time of trouble such as never was with God’s enemies. For 40 days Goliath had been taunting Israel. All—all in Israel—were filled with fear. Just then the shepherd and the singer, the fighter and the slinger of stones, shows up in the camp of Israel. He hears the taunts of the Philistines. He asks why—why men who were supposed to be warriors, watchmen in Israel, were allowing Goliath to say such blasphemous things? Why didn’t they do something about it?

There are vibrant spirits among us today, those who see a different reality than the one often painted by leaders. And they have every right to ask, “Why are you standing there, in that position, doing nothing? Why don’t you do something?”

“This is the way we’ve always done it,” won’t work any longer. “This is what it says in the policy book, section 12, paragraph 3” won’t lead anyone into battle.

“If God abhors one sin above another, of which His people are guilty,” wrote Ellen White, “it is doing nothing in case of an emergency. Indifference or neutrality in a religious crisis is regarded of God as a grievous crime and equal to the very worst type of hostility against God.”4

David has come to the kingdom for this moment. He knows this is the time to speak a word for the Lord, to overcome the temptation in his own heart to keep silent. This is no time for indifference and the status quo. It is time for disruption.

Israel was in a crisis of leadership. Saul didn’t have the courage to do what was needed in that moment. But God had a leader “waiting in the wings.” And those wings were the wings of angels.

Ellen White admonished: “To stand in defense of truth and righteousness when the majority forsake us, to fight the battles of the Lord when champions are few—this will be our test. At this time we must gather warmth from the coldness of others, courage from their cowardice, and loyalty from their treason.”5

When David gains an audience with King Saul, he explains his concerns about the status quo. He shares with the king his awesome résumé: “I kill bears and lions. This giant will be as one of them” (see 1 Sam. 17:36).

True to form, Saul surrenders. David is given some armor—some methods for doing things as they’ve always been done. He’s tempted to fight in another’s armor, but finally turns back toward the tent. He hears the whispers when he turns back. “Has fear gotten the best of him?” No, it is lightness and speed he needs, not shields and armor. He comes from the tent with just a stick and a sling.

There was a reason Israel was afraid. In order to compete with the world, to be players on the world stage, they had to go to the world to get their weapons (see 1 Sam. 13:19-21). They didn’t even know how to fight. Their armor was foreign to them. But the leaders who had been schooled in the West Point of fear and the Annapolis of timidity told them that this was how the world did it.

Lesson 3

Real leaders have the courage to stand against the crowd—even their own crowd. They don’t need approval; they just need a calling. They don’t do what’s easy. They describe reality. They do what’s necessary.

David walks into that valley fully confident in his God and in the methods God has taught him. But I think something else was going through David’s mind as he walked alone toward the impending crisis.

Do you think David was proud of what Israel—God’s chosen people—had become?

Or is it possible that the demons of doubt and discouragement tried to whisper in his ears: What’s the point? Why risk your life, your career, your reputation?

Real leaders have the courage to stand against the crowd—even their own crowd. They don’t need approval; they do what’s necessary.

In that moment of destiny David realized that God had been preparing him his entire life for this moment. He didn’t like what Israel had become—a commune of cowards. But what Israel could become—the holy Israel of God that shone in his sanctified imagination, the Israel he wanted to belong to—drove him to keep moving forward. Faith in what was to be, kept him moving beyond what was.

Ellen White warned: “Unless the church, which is now being leavened with her own backsliding, shall repent and be converted, she will eat of the fruit of her own doing, until she shall abhor herself.”6

Are we eating the fruit of our own doing? Are we concerned enough about what we have become?

Character Revealed

Allow me to describe some more reality. Today we see a movement in which so many of our young adults go through Adventist schools only to be inoculated against our message and mission. And yes, my friends, this is a tragedy that deserves our immediate attention. If we did some soul searching with the fruit, with the results, with the reality of our educational system, would we be proud of what we see? Data from church surveys consistently show that nearly 70 percent of our best and brightest, our future, leave us as soon as they are no longer under our immediate care.

Before the crisis broke, Saul and Israel thought they were fine. All was well. After all, they were God’s chosen people, weren’t they? But character is revealed in a crisis.

The message Ellen White shared more than a century ago applies to us: “The message to the Laodiceans is applicable to Seventh-day Adventists who have had great light and have not walked in the light. It is those who have made great profession, but have not kept in step with their Leader, that will be spewed out of His mouth unless they repent.”7

What does receiving the Laodicean message look like? Ellen White wrote: “This testimony, if received, will arouse to action and lead to self-abasement and confession of sins.”8

It will lead to us to begin to think differently; to do differently. True repentance and confession are more than words, votes, documents, and coalitions.

The great sin in Christ’s day was the belief that a “mere assent to the truth constituted righteousness.”9 Because we think right, we assume we are right. Such self-absorption will lead many to reject the Messiah at His coming.

We can’t keep silent any longer. We can’t keep touting that we are rich, increased in membership, and in need of nothing. We know too well that something isn’t right.

If the winds of prophecy are truly being held back because Jesus loves His remnant too much to see them lost, what are we to do?

When we recognize what we have become; when we admit the impossibility of putting a good face on everything we do, then by God’s grace we will confess to the world and to the Lord that we really are miserable, wretched, poor, blind, and naked; we really have gloried in ourselves rather than in His glory; we really have heaped up the blessings of heaven for ourselves.

I admit in my own life that I came to a point that I nearly gave up on the Advent movement.

I felt overwhelmed by discouragement. I found myself reading the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy, and realizing that what I read and what I saw were two entirely different realities. Should I give up believing that this movement has the testimony of Jesus, or should I give up on the movement itself? I asked what Jesus’ disciples asked: “Where else would I go?”

I have friends; you have sons and daughters, classmates, nieces and nephews, grandchildren, who have left this movement. Their absence keeps me up at night. I toss and turn in my bed when I think of the dozens of my classmates who no longer walk with the Lord or with His remnant church. Why did they leave? Why am I still here?

From that tossing in the middle of the night, this thought emerged: I don’t think those friends, and sons, and daughters, classmates, nieces and nephews, and grandchildren all left the remnant church. For some, it left them. It left them thinking that the current state of the church—the church of Laodicea—was the remnant foretold in prophecy. What they learned to call Adventism, Jesus weeps over as Laodicea.

So why do I stay in this movement declared by its prophetic messenger herself to be enfeebled and defective? Because I know its past. I’ve read the future in those red books on my library shelf. I’ve seen glimmers of hope, not from what I see around me, but from what I read, from conversations I have, from moments like this.

I proudly call myself a Seventh-day Adventist, not because of what is, but because of what we can be. I fear sometimes that we have done nearly everything God warned us not to, but He hasn’t given up on this movement. His bride—His church; this remnant people—is the only object on earth upon which He bestows His supreme regard, and it is still the theater of His grace.10

Look at God’s goodness, and the blessings He still grants us in mercy. We sit on a gold mine of truth, a treasure trove of answers about how to live with abundance, and thrive to the fullest. We’re called and equipped to share that experience with everyone we know.

I’ve read about the church I want to belong to—a living, breathing movement—that keeps moving closer and closer to the role for which Jesus has called her.

As that rock left David’s sling, all heaven rejoiced at the courage of one man. In a moment the fate of Israel, the culture of Israel, and the trajectory of God’s movement changed.

Never forget how one man, one woman, one young adult, and yes—every leader—can make a difference.

I still believe that this movement can pivot, and that it’s big, decisive pivot will forever change the course of history. I still believe that a divine disruption is coming. But it’s going to require us to confess our selfishness and, by the grace of Jesus, begin to act differently.

David had the faith of Jesus. He saw what can be, not just what was. He saw possibilities, not just impossibilities.

God’s Glorious Future

With that in mind I share two things on my heart.

First, with Jesus, I weep over what we have become. I confess my sin and selfishness in every way that has brought us to this point. I hope and pray that more leaders—leaders like you—will do the same.

Second, countless individuals in this movement are desperately looking for hope. I’d like to start a conversation about what can be.

If what we have been told is true, one day we will recognize how God qualifies men and women by His Spirit, not just by our votes. One day we will see a mighty movement such as we haven’t yet witnessed. One day we will stop building programs and buildings for our reputations and we will go into cities and relieve the suffering of the world around us. We will do this, not for our own glory, but for the glory of Him who sits upon the throne, and of the Lamb.

One day we will remember our first calling to prevention and education in health care. One day we will get back to true education, teaching young men and women how to think and not be mere reflectors of other’s thoughts.

One day more of us will be unashamed to preach about the giant of our day: the culture of Babylon and her system of selfishness. One day those who identify with the remnant of Bible prophecy will be known as the kindest, most patient, unselfish people on the earth.

One day Jesus will stand up and say, “My people are ready; they have held nothing back. They have finally invested their treasure in heaven; a world has been warned; and many have been won to the remnant—the bride of Christ.”

That day may not be today, but it will be—one day. I’m going to wait and pray for the patience of the saints until the day when Jesus does for us what we clearly cannot do for ourselves.

My prayer is this:

“Lord, we have gloried in our growth, yet so many we love are not with us anymore. We have gloried in our rightness rather than in Your righteousness. Help us glory in this, that we know You.

“Lord, please forgive us. Please bring Your glory back to this movement.

“Lord, prepare us for the day in which we joyfully inhabit, not just the church I want to belong to, but the one our friends, family, sons and daughters want to belong to as well.

“Lord, we want to be that church of which Solomon writes:

Who is she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners?’”(S. of Sol. 6:10, KJV).

Ah yes, my friends, the church I want to belong to is . . . terrible!

  1. Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1903, 1952), p. 179.
  2. “Reaching the World: How Did We Do?” ASTR Global Church Member Survey 2018.
  3. Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898, 1940), p. 310.
  4. Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 3, p.281.
  5. Ibid., vol. 5, p. 136.
  6. Ibid., vol. 8, p. 250.
  7. Ellen G. White, Selected Messages (Washington. D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958). book 2, p. 66.
  8. E. G. White, Testimonies, vol. 3, p. 259.
  9. E. G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 309.
  10. See Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), p. 12.

Jared Thurmon is liaison for strategic partnerships at Adventist Review Ministries.