If I Could Design the Church, Starting from Scratch…
by Melody Tan
I would make it a worldwide church just as it is now
There is a certain sense of kinship amongst Seventh-day Adventists around the world, best displayed when you walk into an Adventist Church in a foreign country without knowing a soul or even speaking the same language.
It isn’t only because you know what to expect—the time church begins, the same Sabbath School lesson, a similar worship service—but you are immediately accepted, because you are a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, somewhere in the world. And more often than not, you’ll meet someone who knows someone you know.
In a worldwide church, lifelong and international friendships are easily and often made.
There would be less bureaucracy and more strategic action
The Conference, the Union, the Mission, the Division, the General Conference—all the administrative layers of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is enough to make one’s head spin. Add to that specific focus areas such as children’s ministries, women’s ministries, Sabbath School and stewardship . . . all of which exist in every administrative layer and each with its own unique strategic direction it wishes the local church to undertake.
The local church, on the other hand, is sinking under a mountain of posters, resources and information packs from each of these official church sources, and torn in different directions thanks to the divergent instructions from the various administrative layers.
But ask any ordinary church member to tell the difference between a Union and a Mission, or a Division and a Conference, and chances are, all you’ll get is a blank stare in return.
A reduced amount of bureaucracy will free the Church and the local church to concentrate on a particular strategic action, adding strength to unity.
There would still be a strong emphasis on health
I would not be in the Church if not for the health message. Twenty years ago, my parents were baptized into the Seventh-day Adventist Church after Bible studies which had eventuated from health-related workshops. My father had been diagnosed with cancer, and we were looking for a healthier lifestyle to help him battle the disease. The Adventist health message appealed to my parents, as did the love and forgiveness of God.
Dan Buettner, a National Geographic Fellow and multiple New York Times bestselling author obviously thought there was something special about the Adventist health message and overall holistic lifestyle too, when he listed a group of Adventists living in Loma Linda, California as a “Blue Zone”—an area where people live longer than average. The vegetarian diet encouraged by the Adventist Church has also been repeatedly proven as beneficial in numerous scientific studies, including in Dr. T. Colin Campbell’s The China Study and in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.
My father never received a miracle cure for his cancer, but our family are confident that we will see him again in heaven. And today, I am healthier and happier—and filled with hope—thanks to the health emphasis of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
The church would be more involved in social justice matters
It is true Jesus did say, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17) but that doesn’t mean we ought to stay silent on issues of refugees and asylum seekers, economic justice, the environment, and war and peace.
Where other Christian denominations have had their voices heard—with some even becoming leaders of advocacy—on social justice issues, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has been absent because of its reluctance to be involved in “political matters”.
However, while the Bible has advocated that church and state should not mix, it also said, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
The Church needs to be a leader on issues of justice and not hide in the shadows, for fear of political involvement.
I would continue to encourage the prominence of in-depth biblical study and knowledge
Seventh-day Adventists know their Bible—and Seventh-day Adventists are eager to learn and study more from the Bible. It is because of this enthusiasm for biblical knowledge that I believe we have some of the best understanding and interpretation of the Bible and its prophecies among the various Christian denominations. As God’s love letter to us, it is wonderful not only to be able to better grasp what He is trying to tell us, but to discover what the future holds.
I would acknowledge Ellen White as a prophet of God and a founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church but curb the hero worship some place on her.
When I first started regularly attending church, I used to think Ellen White was a church member whom I somehow never met. Such was the extent that she was quoted by those giving the sermon and with such familiarity and assumed knowledge of who she was (“Sister White said . . .”), I was left perplexed and confused as to why she was so extensively referred to since at the time, I did not possess the required “insider knowledge”.
While I recognise Ellen White as a prophet and respect her inspired words of wisdom, it is never OK to neglect the Bible in favour of God’s messenger—especially when her teachings are taken out of context and used to judge and reproach a new Christian (“Sister White says as a female, you shouldn’t wear trousers . . .”).
And when non-Adventists believe we place more importance on Ellen White than Jesus (and perhaps even worship her), you know we have a problem on our hands.
It would remain as the safe place where young families are catered for
If there is one section of the community the Seventh-day Adventist Church serves well, it would be young families. With activities such as Children’s Sabbath School, Adventurers and Pathfinders and Vacation Bible School, parents raising young children are able to do so in a healthy, safe and God-loving environment.
The Church itself pays much attention to young families, often organizing events, producing resources and setting strategic direction to attract and provide for this particular demographic. As a new parent myself, I am confident my and my child’s related needs will be well met.
I would pay more attention to the other demographics of society
As a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church for close to 20 years—half of which was as a young single and the other half in a serious relationship that eventually led to marriage—it was only in the last year that I felt I finally met the full membership criteria because I had fallen pregnant. Before that, it often seemed like if you do not have a small child, you’re irrelevant and unimportant.
From the local church level to the top of the bureaucracy, much energy and effort is spent on meeting the needs of families with young children. Some even go so far as to declare young families their “target audience”. In marketing speak, it is true if you target no one, you reach no one, but in church speak, are we at risk of forgetting that “he died for all” (2 Corinthians 5:15, italics added)?
Friendships would be just as genuine, caring and sincere
While equally invaluable friendships can be made with those who aren’t members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, a special connection is inevitably made when you worship the same God. These are friends who understand your spiritual struggles, who will pray for you and with you, and who encourage you into a deeper and more meaningful relationship with your Creator.
I would make it a place where love and acceptance comes before doctrine
As Seventh-day Adventists, we pride ourselves on having the “truth”. The Sabbath, the state of the dead and hell, the Second Coming, the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation . . . we believe we’ve got it sorted. But while these doctrines do matter, for some, they have become the only things that matter.
We are often eager to remind people of the “correct” teachings and even more keen for them to believe what we do and adhere to our habits; we steer clear of interdenominational activities because the other Christian churches have got it “wrong”; and we turn up our noses at those who walk into our churches but who do not fit a certain mould or follow a certain lifestyle.
We are proud of being unique, but to others, we come across instead as being arrogant, aloof and even judgmental.
“Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” one of the teachers of the law asked Jesus (Mark 12:28).
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these” (verses 29-31).
“Love your neighbor as yourself”, not “Wait for your neighbor to share your beliefs and then love him”.
Melody Tan is on leave from her job as an assistant editor at Signs of the Times magazine in Australia. Melody and her husband are the new parents of baby Elliott Bell as of 22 July 2016.