People have often asked me this question, "How can anyone ever leave the Seventh-day Adventist Church?" I have asked the question myself in times past. "How could a person step away from this message having come to know all the church teaches?" My observations have been that if people left Adventism it was because they had lost their spiritual direction, or had fallen into some sinful lifestyle. This trend has changed in the past number of years, however. More and more people are leaving Adventism and actually becoming more devoted to Christ in the process. This just does not make sense to many in the church because they believe Adventism is "the truth". How can a person leave "the truth" and still follow Jesus? Even more foreign to this way of thinking is the notion that someone could actually be led out of Adventism as a part of their spiritual growth process. This is the question that I wish to address in the next few pages. I hope you will listen to my journey and prayerfully examine what I have to say. Check things out with the Scriptures to see whether these things are so.
I was born and raised Adventist. I went to SDA schools all the way from grade school through my masters degree. While I did take an excursion away during my teens and early twenties, my name was never removed from the SDA church books. I was baptized at age twelve even though I did not know Jesus. I was brought up in a legalistic home that strongly followed the teachings of E. G. White. I knew a lot about the law, but little about grace. I was one of those kids that wanted to do right but just did not seem to be able to. So, in time, my failure to live up to all the rules caused me to become discouraged. When I finished at the church- sponsored high school, or academy as they are called (got kicked out actually), I gave up on God and the church. I ran from anything that sounded like God. This choice nearly destroyed my life and ended with my addiction to drugs and alcohol. For nearly four years I suffered from this addictive lifestyle without hope and in failing health. My life was totally falling apart. I decided to try Jesus one night while I was on a drug experience, and I have never been the same since. The Lord reached down and touched this hard heart of mine in spite of my desperate condition, and He breathed into me new life. I became a born again child of God. I will ever praise the name of Jesus for His unfailing love for me!
As soon as I became a Christian, I checked into a Christian recovery center called the Bridge Fellowship in Kentucky. There I started reading God's Word and growing as a Christian as well as getting clean (sober). After seven months there, the way was opened through my parents to go to Southern Adventist University (then S.C.). I went there as a Christian wary of the denomination but anxious to learn about God. Interested in training so I could share the good news with others, I became involved with the student ministry opportunities there on campus and found many Christian friends. It was at Southern that I became an Adventist by conviction. I studied education because I had a passion to teach in a church high school and help other kids learn about Jesus rather than just legalistic church rules. But by the time I was a senior, the local conference leaders sought me out to ask me if I would consider becoming a pastor. By this time I was willing to consider serving as a pastor, something I had sensed God leading me to from my childhood, but I had resisted even through most of my college experience. I accepted the call, and served as an intern for one year at one of the local churches there.
During this time, a theology crisis hit the church. Desmond Ford was removed from his teaching position at PUC for his views regarding the Investigative Judgment. Walter Rea was removed from his pastorate because he brought to light the extensive copying that had been done by E.G. White in the writing of her many books. To call the impact on the Adventist community devastating would be an understatement. My senior pastor ended up leaving the SDA system discouraged. I went on to seminary wondering if I was an Adventist. One thing was clear, I knew from my own research in the manuscript documents that E.G. White did borrow extensively from other authors and often attached the "I was shown" phrase to it. I also knew that the doctrine of the Investigative Judgment had serious problems. So I went to Andrews Theological Seminary knowing that I was in a precarious position as far as the church was concerned. I took my new wife of 18 months and went to Berrien Springs.
Several things happened to me at AU that saved me for the SDA ministry. First, several professors just poured grace into me. Ivan Blazen was a Godsend. I flourished under his teaching. I also was blessed by Raoul Dederen and Hans LaRondelle. These men helped me see that the perfectionism of those in the church that opposed Ford was not the position of all the professors. Next, I was able to study the Investigative Judgment and was given a few plausible explanations which at the time quieted my concerns. I know now that these solutions were grossly inadequate, but they were helpful at the time. What is more, some experts from the White Estate came to the campus with a lawyer's report that exonerated E.G. White of legal culpability in the plagiarism charges. While I know today that this was only because of the legal loopholes in the law of her day, not because it was not illegal or wrong, it still quieted my thinking.
The final and most important factor was my first wife, after a little over two years of marriage decided that she was no longer interested in being married. When she left just before the midterms of the winter quarter, my main focus for the next year and a half was to survive. I moved away from the theological difficulties to focus on my own grieving process. I had to leave my issues with the church on hold in order to survive. I did not directly deal with the theological issues for many years. My confidence in E. G. White was never the same after that however. I knew that there were severe problems with her authority. I still read in Desire of Ages and Steps to Christ, but I knew that to use her as a biblical commentary on the level with Scripture was to ignore the problems with her credibility.
While at Andrews I made the acquaintance of a pretty young communications student named Paula Wesner. We talked a good bit, and were acquainted through campus ministry activities. While we never dated until after I graduated from the Seminary, we developed a great friendship. Upon leaving Andrews we started a long distance relationship that was to end with us getting married in March of 1985.
Paula and I threw ourselves into ministry. At first we pastored in a couple of district settings. We did the evangelistic meetings, etc. I became increasingly uncomfortable with the traditional evangelistic methods, which focused on last-day events and prophetic interpretation. I felt my calling was to reach people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to lead them to Him as their Savior, and help them learn to live in relationship with Him. What I encountered mostly in the traditional approach was targeted at people already in a church somewhere. The sessions only had one or two nights dedicated to the Gospel, and the rest to our distinctive doctrines. I felt much of the methodology of hiding our name and using a public hall was deceptive. Much of the content of the seminars and series was based on proof texts that I knew were suspect. They were not supported by context. I began to feel frustrated with the district pastorate, and when an opportunity came to be a full time youth pastor, I jumped at the chance. We went to Kettering, Ohio and served the youth of that church for six and a half years.
Paula is a natural at hospitality, and I love sharing basic Christianity. It was a perfect setup. We got far away from the theological issues and right into the important ministry of leading these kids to Jesus. Most of them had, like me, been raised in the church but did not know Jesus. Paula provided a warm hospitable environment where this could take place. We saw many kids come to Christ, and some go into full time ministry.
During this time, however, I needed to learn about balance. Youth ministry is extremely time demanding. Planning all week and leading events all weekend (often into the wee hours of the morning) took their toll. I almost burned out and quit ministry at that time. Thanks to God and to a few good friends I was nursed back to health and found another breakthrough in my spiritual life. I experienced a deepening of my walk with the Lord that was like a conversion on a much deeper level. Paula was growing too. Not just spiritually! She was pregnant with our first son, Jordan. Soon Matthew came along too. These two gifts from the Lord helped us understand God's love for us in a whole new and deeper way. God's grace is so amazing!
Along with children came the realization that we could not keep up the youth ministry and remain balanced. We had a family of our own now to minister to. We also had a deep sense that God was calling us to something special. One day the call came to go to Asheville, NC. There was a church that was trying to move to more contemporary methods of outreach. They were using youth ministry principles to reach adults for Jesus. They were trying methods used by the Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago. We prayed much about the decision, because we were well aware of the dangers of trying to transition a church to a more contemporary model. Many have tried and few succeeded. So we prayed intensely for God's guidance. After many clear indications of His providence, we moved to North Carolina. This began an intense yet rewarding season of ministry. A tremendous personal and spiritual growth took place in us. God blessed our church too. In spite of the fact that some 50 people left during the transition from a traditional to a contemporary model, we grew from an average attendance of 120 before the transition to where we now have a vibrant congregation of 500 members. We truly saw the hand of the Lord in the renewal at the Foster church. My evangelism gift was able to be used in such a way that did not force me to use the traditional methods. Paula was able to use her gifts in hospitality and creative communication, and our boys were able to enjoy many friends and a great community.
Reprinted with permission from SDA Outreach, http://www.sdaoutreach.org