According to the most recent survey conducted by the General Conference (GC) Office of Archives, Statistics and Research, only 37 percent of Seventh-day Adventist church members across the globe engage in morning and evening devotions with their families. Further, only 52 percent of Adventists engage in daily personal devotions of any kind.1
Moved by these humbling statistics, Dwain Esmond, associate director of the Ellen G. White Estate, shared a special presentation at this year’s Spring Meeting on April 13, 2022, where he challenged church leaders and members to go “back to the altar” and develop their inner spiritual lives so they can be better equipped for mission.
“I just don’t believe that a church worshiping at that level will be effective in the times that we are facing, and in sharing the message we must promote,” he said.
Entitled “Back to the Altar: An Inside-out Revolution,” Esmond attributed this overall lack of personal spirituality to the increasing pervasiveness of technology and social media, and the effect that social media platforms have on shaping Christian minds — particularly those of young people.
“But it’s not only young people! All of us have been affected,” he urged. “How does this mind worship God? It’s difficult, it’s hard.”
Referencing multiple studies on the effects of social media and screen time on mental and physical wellbeing, Esmond shared how using these apps damages our ability to concentrate, increases feelings of loneliness and stress, and can lead to depression, anxiety, body image disorders, unhealthy sleep patterns, memory deficits, and, ultimately, general addiction.
“Our brains were not made to be bathed constantly in dopamine. It changes the circuitry of our minds,” he warned.
According to research he presented, the average person spends 2 hours and 27 minutes on social media apps every day, which constitutes on average 50.1 percent of an individual’s overall phone usage. And while social media has opened opportunities for sharing the gospel across the world, Esmond believes this isn’t enough to justify its current usage.
“I know what it is to lead ministry on social media. I’ve seen it done; I’ve done it. But I’m not sure ‘doing ministry’ and blessing people through the medium is enough. I think we owe them more than just connection and content,” he said. “We owe them the correct use of technology. We don’t just owe them a call to come to Jesus, we owe them guidance on how to stay with Jesus and how to be with Him alone.”
While social media apps can damage our minds and consume our time and attention, Esmond highlighted how spending time with God can reverse this. “In worship, I see an altar antidote. While social media may damage our ability to concentrate and focus, worship calms the mind and trains it to focus. While we may feel lonely although we have 1,000 to 2,000 friends online, worship decreases loneliness through communion with God and others. Thank God for neuroplasticity — we can be rechanged into the image of God. That general addiction pattern can be stemmed in part by our connection with God.”
Taking Action: Starting a Revolution
Rather than simply presenting a warning to church leaders and members, Esmond — with strong support from the GC’s ministry departments — is taking action, with an audacious goal to see 70 percent of Adventists engaging in daily worship within the next five years.
“I believe God will empower us to start the revolution inside, so we can do the work outside,” he said. “We ought to start a rush of fire in the church that pushes them to the altars and sends them out to do the work, empowered.”
In his presentation, Esmond discussed the possibility of establishing a family worship curriculum for church members, a social media curriculum to be taught in schools, as well as media and video resources and organized worship nights. “I think we also need some recasting of [the books ] Adventist Home and Child Guidance [by Adventist Church co-founder Ellen G. White] to leverage those wonderful principles and recast them again for the 21st-century parent,” he added.
Esmond couched his ideas within key performance indicators (KPIs) outlined in the Adventist Church “I Will Go” strategic plan for 2020-2025. Specifically, he mentioned Spiritual Growth KPI 5.1, “Significant increase in the number of church members regularly praying, studying the Bible, using the Sabbath School Bible Study guides, reading the writings of Ellen G. White, and engaging in other personal devotions.”
He also referred to Spiritual Growth KPI 7.3, namely, “Increased ethical and responsible use of media platforms by students.”
While no concrete plans are in place yet, a small committee is preparing a strategy that will be developed in time for Annual Council 2022, to take place October 6-12, 2022, outlining how this message of prioritizing personal and family devotion time over social media will be taken to the global church body. For Esmond, the core priority for the initiative is twofold: to prioritize personal and family worship and to teach media literacy.
“We need to ‘teach’ worship again — how to spend meaningful, enriching time with God and the benefits of that time.… In addition, we must teach media literacy and good ‘digital hygiene.’ Members must be sensitized to the effects of technology and media when consumed in unhealthy ways and given best practices for safeguarding their mental and spiritual wellbeing,” he said.
The “Back to the Altar” initiative is being strongly supported and promoted by the GC and its various departments. “I really want to express my appreciation to [Adventist Church president] Ted Wilson for his support,” Esmond acknowledged. “I should also mention [Adventist Church Family Ministries directors] Willie and Elaine Oliver, who know the passion in my heart. And to others who have reached out to me with tremendous insight and guidance. In the multitude of counselors, there is wisdom.”
In wrapping up his presentation, Esmond shared a snapshot of Jesus’ life from Mark 1:35-39, where Jesus had just come back from worshiping his Father. His disciples said to Him, “Everyone is looking for you!” but instead of caving to their request, He said, “Let us go somewhere else.”
Reflecting on this, Edmond shared this insight: “Jesus made that decision in worship. It’s the only way to know where you should move! Our strategic plan for the world church is ‘I Will Go.’ We must go, beloved. But I don’t think we can go until after we have gone to God.”
1. Karl G. D. Dailey et al., “2017-2018 Global Church Member Survey Concerning the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists Reach the World 2015-2020 Strategic Plan,” Meta-Analysis Research Team at Andrews University, October 2, 2018, https://documents.adventistarchives.org/Resources/Global%20Church%20Membership%20Survey%20Meta-Analysis%20Report/GCMSMetaAnalysis%20Report_2019-08-19.pdf