If I Were the DevilJuly 2, 2000
Toronto, Canada .... [George R Knight]
Seventh-day Adventism at the edge of the 21st century is somewhere it never expected to be-on earth. Beyond that, it has expanded beyond the wildest dreams of its founders and appears to be continuing to expand. When I joined the church in 1961 there were somewhat over 1 million Adventists worldwide. That figure had expanded to over 2 million in 1970, 3.5 million in 1980, nearly 7 million in 1990, and roughly 11 million in 2000. At the present rate of growth we might expect to find 20 million Adventists in 2013 and 40 million sometime between 2025 and 2030, if time should last.
What a change from 1848 when there were about 100 believers. To them Ellen White’s publishing vision that Adventism should someday be like streams of light extending clear round the earth must have seemed like wild nonsense. If one of them would have predicted 11 million Adventists, the others, like Sarah of old, probably would have laughed out loud. There is a sense in which the impossible has happened.
Those early believers were few, poor, and weak. On the other hand, the church today is many, with the most widespread worldwide presence of any Protestant church in history, and with billions of dollars of assets and means.
Yet growth has brought about its own complications and challenges. Things were simple in the early days of the church. They all spoke the same language, they all belonged to the same race, they all lived in a relatively restricted part of the northeastern United States, and they had all been reared in a culture that provided them with a shared value system and set of expectations.
In the year 2000 Adventism is far from simple. We hail from over 200 nations, utilize over 700 languages, and vary greatly in our cultural backgrounds and expectations.
Adventism today has unparalleled finances and reservoirs of skilled workers, and it faces unprecedented challenges in moving forward in its mission. If it has already accomplished the impossible in its past history, it still faces the challenge of again accomplishing the impossible in its future history. Fortunately, our God is an expert in doing the impossible. For better or worse, however, He has chosen to use quite fallible human instruments to finish His work.
Now if I were the devil I would pit all of my energies against the human element in God’s plan as His church seeks to move from the present into the future. In fact, if I were the devil I would plan my strategy very carefully. I would have a well-thought-out plan for frustrating the church in its mission.
The first thing on my agenda would be the upcoming generation of Adventists. If I were the Devil I would put my best energies into getting the church to reject the ideas and plans of the coming generation. That shouldn’t be too difficult since in most areas they don’t dress like their elders, sing like them, or even think like them. When I get older people to frown on guitars, I will at the same time help them forget that early Adventists didn’t allow organs in their churches. While I take a shot at their so-called drama, I will help their elders forget that Jesus used fictional stories such as the rich man and Lazarus and that Ellen White used the term drama to refer to what we think of as soap operas. And I certainly would encourage the older members to think o fhteir drama as some great evil rather than an enacted parable. I would also help the Adventist church to forget that their very movement was largely begun by young people whose ideas were innnovative and creative.
Our Devil is not a dumb one. He knows that if he can discourage the best of the young from taking over the church that it will in the end be dead or dying. To reach the new generation we must learn to communicate in the language of their day, just as Jesus used the language and idioms of His, and James White did in his. If the church insists on using the idioms of the 1`9th century to reach young people in the 21st it will eventually end up in the same place as the Amish, who have maintained their forms and traditions but lost their mission to the world. The church needs to recognize that the upcoming generations don’t even think like those of us born in the 1940s and earlier. Brand loyalty is gone. The post-Watergate, post-Vietnam, post-modern world also tends to be post-denominational. The church can no longer expect mindless or guilt-ridden loyalty just because people were born Adventist or because they think Adventism has the truth. To the contrary, the church will need to demonstrate that it truly is what it claims to be and that it is using its funds and resources faithfully. Today’s youth have fewer questions about using their funds and talents outside of organized Adventism than their elders.
This is no small problem. The youth of the church are its greatest asset and the youth outside the church are its present and future mission field. The youth are Adventism’s greatest opportunity and most serious challenge. The church must formulate plans to reach their minds and enlist their support. They will be the church of the future.
If I were the Devil I would get the church to think small. This tactic is closely related to that of frustrating the young people, because the young have not yet discovered that everything is impossible. I know Adventists who can give 110 reasons why almost anything that is suggested can’t be done. And they usually buttress their argument with Bible verses and Ellen White quotations, taken out of their historical context.
Such apostles of negativism have apparently never read 6T 476: “New methods and new plans will spring from new circumstances. New thoughts will come with new workers who give themselves to the work...They will receive plans devised by the Lord Himself.” (New workers, of course, are often young workers.)
The apostles of negativism need to learn the lesson of the bumblebee. It is aerodynamically impossible for bumblebees to fly, but they don’t know it, so they do it anyway.
Thinking small in Adventism means church “X” baptizing 50 in 2001 rather than 25; it means topping the 20 million mark by 2004 instead of 2013. With small thinking, the church will be on the planet for a long time.
I think of my friend in Hawaii, Arnold Trujillo. He now has 29 churches and companies with 5500 members but has publicly stated that his goal is to have 10,000 home church units of 12 members each by 2005 and is currently laying the groundwork for that expansion. Is that a vision or a delusion? They may be close together. But never forget the impossible task of our forebearers. What, we need to ask, is the magnitude of latter-rain faith? How can we think big and best utilize our funds and working force to make our dreams come true?
If I were the Devil I would get people to believe that there in only one way to do something and that everybody has to do it that one way. Take worship, for example. A few years ago the North American Division had some tension over what was called celebration worship. I don’t know that much about celebration worship, but I do know that in the average Adventist service I can fall asleep during the invocation, wake up at the benediction, and be able to tell you everything that happened in between.
The Church needs to realize, as Ellen White puts it, that “not all minds are to be reached by the same methods.” Worship styles, for example, are related to people’s socio-economic class. What may reach an upper-middle class community may not appeal to Pentecostals or high church Anglicans or Orthodox. I did not say that we should become Pentecostals ro Orthodox, but that we should utilize styles that speak to their needs. Adventism doesn’t need 1 or 2 ways of worshiping. It needs 50 or more if it is to reach all the people. Another way of saying it is that if everybody in the church looks like me, we aren’t reaching out very far.
I have spoken about worship, but the same can be said for evangelism. Our God has created variety everywhere. We must move beyond sing-crop harvesting in any given community and reach out for all God’s children. We need to consciously develop methods and procedures that are quite unlike our traditional ones if we are going to reach those most unlike us.
If I were the Devil I would downplay the importance of new technologies in finishing the church’s work. New technology has tremendous power for both good and evil. Too often we have left the field to the Devil. H. M. S. Richards once told me that he had to fight the brethren at every step. Radio was too new, too radical, too innovative, too untried, a waste of the Lord’s money.
Today we stand on the frontier of technologies for spreading the three angels’ messages that Richards didn’t even dream of. Today as never before we need a generation with the H. M. S. Richards spirit but with 21st century imaginations.
Before leaving the topic of technology, I need to say that I thought that the idea of the NET programs was crazy. Who would go to church to watch a preacher on a screen? I am glad that I was wrong. The NET programming has put Adventists on the very frontier of some types of worldwide communication. What other ideas are out there for the discovery? How can we best utilize them?
If I were the Devil I would make pastors and administrators the center of the work of the church. It must have been the Devil that gave us the idea that the pastor should do all the preaching, give all the Bible studies, be a church’s primary soul winner, and make and carry out business decisions for the church.
We need to move beyond the place where we see churches as entertainment centers for the saints. We need to get more priests into the priesthood of the believers. If we wait for the clergy to finish the work, Adventism will be on planet Earth for a little longer than eternity.
The challenge is to create a generation of Adventist pastors and administrators who become equippers, who are skilled at helping people use their talents in the work of reaching the world. Pastors need to become enablers not mother hens hovering over their fledglings. Al McClure is reported as having said at a church planting convention that any church that doesn’t spin off or plant a new church in three years ought to lose its pastor. If Elder McClure didn’t say that, he should have. Adventism needs to take definite steps to recast the role of the pastor into that of enabler.
If I were the Devil, I would undermine the importance of the local congregation. One of the great needs of Adventism is the creation and maintenance of vibrant local congregations. A healthy congregation is not a group of individuals, but a body of believers reaching out to the community around them.
The task of the world church in its General Conference organization is to coordinate funds and personnel in order to send Christ’s message to the far corners of the earth. Thus Congregationalism as a form of organization is not sufficient in itself. But, on the other hand, the denomination in the long run will only be as healthy as its local congregations. What can be done to create healthier congregations at the local level?
If I were the Devil I would create more administrative levels and generate more administrators. In fact, if I were the Devil I would get as many successful church employees as far from the scene of action as possible. I would put them behind desks, cover them with papers, and inundate them with committees. If that wasn’t enough, I would remove them to so-called “higher” and “higher” levels until they had little direct and sustained contact with the people who make up the church.
Now don’t get me wrong. I believe in church organization. But I also believe in food, and I know that too much of a good thing has less than healthy results.
Many believe that Adventism needs to trim down the number of its administrative types and the amount of its administrative real estate so that more money and energy is put into fighting the battle on the front line.
Many Adventists are tired of paying the massive bill for a multi-layered system. At the 1999 Annual Council in Brazil I pointed out that there is no church in the world with as many administrative levels to support as Adventism. When the article was published by the Adventist Review the editor wanted to insert “except the Roman Catholic.” I responded by telling them to add “including the Roman Catholic.” The Roman Catholic system has 2 levels above the local church, while Adventism has 4.
The current system was developed in the horse-and-buggy era, when even the telephone hadn’t come into its own. The challenge for the church in the 21st century will be to reorganize along lines that take into account modern transportation and communication. I am just completing a book on the history of Adventist church organization that suggests a 3-tiered totally restructured model that is arranged in such a way as to capture the advantages of a worldwide church while at the same time providing for local initiative.
More and more Adventists are realizing that there are other ways to structure the church in the post-modern world that would free up both workers and money for finishing God’s work on earth. Too much money, claim many, is being used to run the machinery, as if the machinery were an end in itself. Many of the potential opportunities of the future are contingent upon successfully restructuring in a manner that will free up resources and encourage the investment of additional resources. This task may be one of the greatest challenges of our day.
If I were the Devil I would make Adventists afraid of the Holy Spirit. Too many of us fear Pentecostalism when we think of the topic of the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, we need to remember the Bible teaching about the necessity of the Spirit in Christian work, and Ellen White’s thought that the reception of the Holy Spirit brings all other blessings in its train.
Some years ago I noted in a General Conference presentation that Adventists didn’t really believe in the 27 fundamental beliefs-especially the one about the perpetuity of spiritual gifts until the end of time. We tend to believe in spiritual gift rather than spiritual gifts, and most of us restrict that gift to an individual safely in her grave for the last 85 years. If I got a true gift of tongues today I would probably be carried off this platform. If I got a true gift of prophecy there would be a massive committee to study the situation for the next ten years.
Now I have to admit that even talking about such things makes me nervous, because the Spirit is difficult (impossible) to control. But, on the other hand, we have the promise of Joel 2 and the spiritual outpouring in the last days–a spiritual outpouring that will most likely split the church right down the middle.
How much do we really think about the Holy Spirit and the outpouring of the latter rain? Are we so focused on goals, structures, and human endeavor that we have forgotten the essential power behind each of them? What steps can be taken to allow the Spirit its proper place in Adventism? Or do we hope to finish our work without His troublesome presence?
I am intruiged by such statements as 1 Samuel 1:18. We all know the part about the final work going like fire in the stubble, but have we read the rest of the paragraph? “God will employ agencies whose origin man will be unable to discern; angels will do a work which men might have had the blessing of accomplishing, had they not neglected to answer the claims of God.”
If I were the Devil I would encourage the denomination to keep playing the numbers game. The worst thing that ever happened to Adventism is when it learned to count. We count members, churches, institutions, money, and everything else. While numbers have their proper place, they may have very little to do with the reality of a finished work.
One result of the numbers game is that we tend to put our money where we can get the most souls for the least money, where we get the most results. That has meant that we have not put the kind of effort into those parts of the world that are the most difficult. Likewise, in the North American Division, the most difficult group to evangelize happens to be Caucasians. Some years ago I wrote the division president that if he didn’t start putting more effort toward creatively evangelizing that self-satisfied group that in 50 years the largest unreached people group in the world could be white North Americans. The numbers problem takes on different configurations in various parts of the world, but we need to consistently face it in our planning if we ever hope to reach all God’s children.
If I were the Devil I would get Seventh-day Adventists to forget or at least downplay their apocalyptic heritage. Adventism has never seen itself as just another denomination, but rather a people of prophecy with its roots in Revelation 10-14. It is that belief in Adventism that as a special called out people with an urgent message that has driven the church to the ends of the earth.
When that vision is gone, Adventism will become just another toothless denomination that just happens to be a little more peculiar in some of its beliefs than some of the others.
Our approach to apocalyptic in future planning will determine whether Adventism will continue to be a movement or will be transmuted into a monument of the movement and eventually into a museum about the movement.
While we are on the topic of apocalyptic, it is significant that we speak to the people in our day. It just doesn’t get people excited about the nearness of the advent to tell them that there was a great earthquake in Lisbon in 1755 and that the stars fell in 1833. I have no problem with those events in terms of their historicity and their power on people in the 19th century, but we need to help people see the ongoing apocalyptic events in the framework of our day.
If I were the Devil I would get Adventists to hold that all of their beliefs are of equal importance. To the contrary, the plain fact is that having a saving relationship with Jesus is at the very center of Christianity. That relationship is not at the same level as eating a pork chop. I have know Sabbath-keepers who are meaner than the Devil. I have even known vegetarians who are meaner than the Devil. The church needs to think of its beliefs in terms of what is primary and what is secondary, of what is central and what is at the edges. The Bible picture is clear that all genuine Christianity flows out of a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. It is all too easy to be an Adventist without being a Christian. In our evangelism and in Adventism’s entire outreach program the centrality of Christ needs to be made crystal clear. The challenge is to consciously structure our outreach so that people become Christians as they become Adventists, since Adventism is meaningless outside of its Christian framework.
If I were the Devil I would get Adventists fighting with each other. Any old topic would do–worship styles, theology, dress standards. Anything would do for my purposes, if I were the devil. After all, if the Adventists were busy shooting all their bullets at each other, they wouldn’t have many left over for me. The Devil has been quite successful with this strategy. What can be done to help us find and defeat the real enemy?
If I were the Devil I would get as many Adventists as possible to think tribally, nationally, and racially. I would make the church one big power struggle without regard to mission or efficiency.
Having made that statement, I hasten to add that there are injustices that need to be rectified and complex situations that can never be made completely straight. My plea is that even in the most difficult and unjust situations we need to behave as born again sisters and brothers who are able to discuss these things without losing sight of the mission of the church that makes the issues meaningful in the first place. Along this line, Adventism needs to develop mechanisms to enrich and enlighten its multiculturalism and its internationalism.
Lastly, if I were the Devil I would get Adventists to look miserable on Sabbath. When do Adventists rejoice–sundown Friday or sundown Saturday?
Too many of us act as if Sabbath was a penalty for being an Adventist instead of a sign of our salvation and the greatest blessing of the week.
This unfortunate attitude shows up in too many of our churches. Why, I have been to Adventist churches where no one even greeted me. So I didn’t disturb them with a greeting. Rather, I just took a seat. Then about 11:05 someone stops to ask if I am the speaker. In the middle of my sermon I ask them if they were a non-Adventist visitor, if they would ever return. I would tell them that I wouldn’t.
It takes more than correct doctrine to fill a church. We need not only doctrinal truth but the truth as it is in Jesus (Luke 13:35).
I’m tired of playing the role of the Devil. Where does God come into all of this? If I were God I would encourage the Seventh-day Adventist Church to start thinking, planning, and acting in a manner that will defeat the devil’s game plan. I would encourage Adventism to multiply the power of its blessings; treat its challenges in an open, honest, and Christian manner; and put all its energies into maximizing its missiological opportunities.
Success will not come about by accident, but will be the product of deliberate thought, planning, and action.
In closing I would like to thank the General Conference administration for the call to significant thinking and discussion in the 5 windows on the church that they have provided during this session. The assignment for each delegate this afternoon is to make a list of what he or she considers to be (1) the greatest opportunities of the church today and (2) the biggest challenges as the church faces a completed mission in the 21st century