Are non-Adventist churches our rivals or our friends when it comes to evangelism? When we plant a church in a community, Baptists and Lutherans are already there. Should we be confrontive or collaborative with them?
Historically, our approach has been confrontation. A century ago and more, Adventist evangelists were often master debaters. They arrived in town, pitched a big beige tent, and challenged local preachers to doctrinal debates. Quick on the draw with silver bullet proof texts, the Adventist won the spiritual showdown. He carried much of the crowd into subsequent evangelistic meetings. Before leaving town, he planted a church. That’s how many Adventist congregations got started in the old days.
This approach, while effective in its time, left a bitter aftertaste. Churches founded on confrontation with fellow Christians were unwelcome in the community. Moreover, these congregations tended to be internally contentious, with Sabbath keepers fighting each other over nuances of doctrine, diet and assorted lifestyle issues. Many century-old churches still haven’t attained the unity for which Christ died. Contention is in their DNA, transferred from generation to generation. I know a little church that nearly split amid a nasty discussion about mushroom dishes at “fellowship” dinners.
We Adventists feel called to hold society accountable for threats and attacks against religious liberty, hoping to delay a national Sunday law. Freedom is precious to God and should be equally dear to us. But perhaps we need to do a better job of holding ourselves accountable to religious liberty in our own churches, where conflict and persecution happen with alarming regularity.
Some professed liberals are intolerant of those who do not subscribe to their subversive agenda. So-called conservatives sometimes care more about what people are eating than whether they have enough food to eat. Criticism from both sides often rises to the level of persecution.
Perhaps church boards should appoint an elder to monitor religious liberty within the congregation, for the sake of preserving the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17).
Most of us have come to realize that Jesus wants us to be nice, both among ourselves and with our neighbors. We are less likely to condemn Christians who worship on Sunday, and we are increasingly courageous in befriending them. We serve the homeless side by side with Catholics, without catching the mark of the beast. But the question remains: can Adventists committed to evangelism collaborate with other churches in town without compromising our unique message and mission?
We might learn from Ellen White. Her teaching and example admonished nineteenth-century Adventists who contended among themselves and their Sunday-keeping neighbors. In 1888, delegates convened in Minneapolis for a General Conference Session. Not surprisingly, a big debate ensued. Ellen White famously rebuked the contentious spirit—but what is not well known is that while in Minneapolis she collaborated with non-Adventist Christians. She spoke at a rally of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union—fellow Christians who at that time were agitating for a national Sunday law. Obviously Ellen White didn’t agree with them about that. But she did unite with them on common ground in seeking moral reforms in American society. She became quite popular at these non-Adventist rallies—to the consternation of Sabbatarians more interested in being “peculiar people” than loving and collaborative neighbors.
Ellen White even entrusted her signature book, Steps to Christ, to non-Adventists for publication. She awarded initial printing rights to Dwight Moody’s brother in law, Fleming Revell. In writing other books, she often borrowed the language of non-Adventist authors, effectively collaborating with their teaching.
Here’s the point we should take home to our hearts: Ellen White collaborated with fellow Christians and we can do the same. We can cooperate with them regarding areas of common faith in Christ without compromising our unique doctrines.
I finally learned this in my own pastoral ministry. Joining the non-Adventist ministerial association provided opportunities to preach at a community Easter celebration. People who viewed me on local Christian TV greeted me at the mall as a brother in Christ. Pastors invited me to visit their churches and pray during services. One had me mediate a dispute among his elders. I joined a community Christian music group (no great contribution there, I assure you, but I did have fun and made friends for my church). The pastor of the city’s biggest church, who previously disliked Adventists, sponsored me as a law enforcement chaplain—connecting me with people in crisis whom otherwise I could never invite to church. One time a “March for Jesus” was moved from Sabbath morning to afternoon on my behalf. Fellow chaplains teased me about being a vegetarian—then wanted meatless recipes. Nobody accused Adventism of being a cult.
Meanwhile our Sabbath attendance doubled. The key was collaboration with the Christian community while preserving a distinctly Adventist message and mission.
Pastors throughout North America are doing all that and more in their communities. Let’s support them and join in collaborating with fellow Christians as we proclaim our message and plant our churches.