By Debbonnaire Kovacs, June 2, 2016
“In 2012 we started teaching about the non-violence of Jesus. We lost 25% of our support overnight.”
I was doing a phone interview with Herb Montgomery, of Renewed Heart Ministries (RHM), and was so startled that I interrupted him. “From Adventists?!”
“Yes, within Adventism. I always thought we were a peace church.”
(So did I. I remember when Adventists refused to bear arms, and some wouldn’t even be medics, preferring jail to military service, if necessary.)
“We started preaching on helping the poor, and lost another 25% over that.”
“Helping the poor?” I parroted, astonished. “But…”
That was only the beginning of Montgomery’s tribulations. In 2014 he was the keynote speaker at an SDA Kinship International Kampmeeting. “I just presented what I thought about who Jesus is. A few weeks later, an online site said, ‘Herb aligns with Kinship’.” [You can read the article he is referring to here.
Funding for RHM is now on the edge.
Herb Montgomery grew up in a particularly conservative wing of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. He told me that at 14 years old he found an old Revelation Seminar series in his grandmother’s attic. Privately, he began to study them. “I sneaked a lesson every night before bed, and by the end of a month had gone through them all. I was scared to death. I thought we’d better start to go to church on Sabbath or we’d get the plagues.”
Previously, Montgomery’s parents had been deeply involved in Jim and Tammy Baker’s Praise the Lord ministry. His father ran the TV cameras and his mother was a cosmetologist (though he added she never did Tammy Baker’s makeup.) That had ceased when Montgomery was 12, and they had moved back to West Virginia where they had family.
Montgomery began giving Bible studies to his mother, who also reacted with fear. Within three weeks, he said, they’d found a church, and within three months, were baptized. Over the next six to ten years, most of his relatives “came in en masse. I got into the system, got sent away to boarding academy, and went to Atlantic Union College. I had a very mixed experience there. I was really searching, very impressionable and idealistic,” said Montgomery.
He spoke frequently of an “Appalachian, self-supporting version of Adventism” which he called “very conservative and traditional.”
“AUC,” he said, “didn’t work for me,” but he didn’t go into details. He tried Weimar Institute, but only for two quarters. “That didn’t work either. I was asking too many questions.”
The following year he married his wife Crystal, and worked for Southern Union from 1996-2000. He ran an evangelistic school in Florida, teaching pastoral students from Southern University how to do personal evangelism. He described his methods as a hybrid between institutionalism and his inherited Appalachian self-supporting style. But things were changing for Montgomery, and it started to show.
In 1998 a parent of a student asked him to share in their church what he was teaching in classroom. Someone who was there invited him to another church, and Montgomery says it “snowballed from there.” He was being invited to speak all over Southern Union.
I asked him what he taught that made the people ask him to come.
“Well, it was very gospel oriented, heavily influenced by Jones and Waggoner. In the circles I ran in, there was a lot of discussion around the whole 1888, righteousness by faith thing. This led me out of the hybrid of institutionalism and self-supporting individualism. Jones and Waggoner didn’t line up with this environment for me. It was more positive, more good news.”
In 2000 Montgomery spoke at a camp meeting for Light Bearers, a ministry based in Oregon. He was invited to work for them, and did so until 2007
“They broadened it [Montgomery’s understanding of Adventist doctrine]. Before, it was more like the technical analysis of Paul. Theirs was more about love, gospel, like the writings of John. Before, it was more like what God did for you, now it was what kind of person was this God, what did that mean that he did that for you?”
In 2005, the Montgomerys left Washington and moved back to West Virginia to care for his mother, whose health was failing. In 2007, Light Bearers had some financial challenges and had to lay many people off, including Montgomery. He added that they were “very gracious” and are still good friends. “The relationships are positive, but the logistics were taxing.”
That same year, Montgomery started Renewed Heart Ministries, which he describes as a continuation of what he was doing at Light Bearers, but with a different focus. “Our focus used to be trying to help Adventists experience their Adventism with a more loving God. But when people would go to a church that experienced that more love-centered Adventism, they’d want to share evangelistically, but more progressive than traditional evangelism. Now we got in contact with secular and non-churched people, agnostics, etc. They have different mindset, different questions, different priorities. We started listening, and began to wonder, how can we do it in a way that will at least get a hearing in these ever-growing sections of our society? I think secularism and humanism are here to stay, and the quicker we grieve whatever losses we will experience and start to have relationships with those people who are there, the better. We are trying to create relationships with people that are outside and inside; just because you’ve been hurt by religion, you don’t have to throw out Jesus and his teachings. We’re trying to create an audience, a hearing, for Jesus and his sayings, and ask them if it’s relevant.”
And that’s where Montgomery started to get into trouble. When he and his colleagues truly began digging into the radical teachings of Jesus and promulgating them, they started losing supporters. Apparently, not all Christians believe that Jesus should be taken literally when he espouses non-violence, care for the poor and marginalized, and especially not when he embraces those defined by their society as outsiders, sinners, or stricken by God.
“We are open and affirming of Seventh-day Adventist LGBT people,” Montgomery told me. “We want to provide a safe space for those who are wrestling with their sexuality and how to harmonize it with their faith. We want to provide a safe space for people to navigate that. We have people who don’t believe it’s a diversion from the ideal. We also have those who believe it is, but it’s what they have. We have people tracking with us across entire spectrum of this topic. At this stage of our ministry, we just feel very fortunate to have that opportunity, and we’re taking it one day at a time.”
He has just come from doing a weekend version of 2016’s theme, “The Sayings of Jesus,” at Spokane Valley Seventh-day Adventist Church. He says it was well-attended and a positive experience.
For those who would like to know more about Adventism and sexuality issues, Montgomery recommended a film called Enough Room at the Table. It consists of twelve people who have opinions from extreme right to extreme left on the topic, sitting around a table and sharing. Facilitated by Chris Blake, Montgomery says it is a respectful and enlightening discussion.
I could hear the earnestness in Montgomery’s voice as he concluded, “I long for the day when our Adventist community can embrace diversity of thought. We’re going to have to move in that direction or we’ll be more and more irrelevant…and we’ll cease to exist.”
Debbonnaire Kovacs is a speaker and the author of 25 books and over 600 stories and articles for adults and children. To learn more about her work or ask her to speak at your organization, visit www.debbonnaire.com.