n a postmodern culture, can anything reach people who are unaware, or jaded, about spiritual matters? Is there any way to reach those who consider themselves to have moved “beyond” God?
For more and more Seventh-day Adventist churches in the United States and beyond, the answer comes in a six-letter word: “health.” “Meeting their needs, including health, is a way to get acquainted with them,” says Stoy Proctor, an associate director of health ministries for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.
Holding classes, workshops, and seminars built around health principles taught by Adventists and often originating in the ministry of Ellen G. White, a pioneering cofounder of the movement, congregations are leading people to a greater spiritual awareness and, in many cases, yielding more than improved cholesterol levels. People are finding spiritually renewed hearts, as well.
“The ministry of Jesus is one of physical, mental, and spiritual wholeness,” notes Mark Finley, a vice president of the General Conference. “We see health as an essential part of the gospel.”
Finley, who says, “For the last 40 years in our evangelistic outreach, we have always included a major section on health,” noted the centrality of physical well-being to a person’s quest for spiritual change, even if they’re at first unaware of the latter.
“Health touches people at the level of their need; as they recognize their powerlessness to implement health principles into their life without God, they’re often open and receptive to things of the Holy Spirit,” Finley adds. “As people see that we are intelligent in regard to health and as they see that we care for them and are interested in them and love them, they are more open spiritually to a message of hope.”
At “street level” in Silver Spring, Maryland, not far from the General Conference, one congregation is learning the value of such seminars firsthand. Burnt Mills Seventh-day Adventist Church, which has 285 members, recently wrapped up its fifth Coronary Health Improvement Project, or CHIP, seminar, with one third of participants not being members of the Adventist Church, according to pastor Wallace Frost.
“We do things for the community and would like to help them grow spiritually,” Frost explains. “Taking [health programs] to the community is the right thing to do; we then look to the Lord and trust Him” to bring wholeness and healing.
He adds: “As we get near the end of time, many of them will think of what they heard and the fellowship of our members. They get to know the people and become friends of the people.”
Such friendships can be cemented through a variety of programs, observers say. Using initiatives such as smoking cessation, alleviating depression, or improving coronary health, people are brought to a knowledge of the Adventist lifestyle and the church’s concepts of whole-person wellness.
“We have 350 Adventist churches that have been trained to run [the CHIP] program for two reasons,” says Dr. Hans Diehl, an epidemiologist and a clinical professor of preventive medicine at Loma Linda University, whose Lifestyle Medicine Institute promotes CHIP. “One is to reach into churches and reverse the secularization of Adventist lifestyle. The other is for outreach and spiritual enrichment.”
Diehl notes, “When we have the program in our churches, usually half the people are not Adventist, and sometimes more.” He said the program, which stresses a plant-based diet, water consumption, exercise, and other methods to reverse coronary artery disease, is backed by scientific research demonstrating its effectiveness. Both he British Union Conference and the New Zealand Union Conference are using the CHIP program as their official method of health education, he said.
Diehl says one pastor told him the CHIP program could also revitalize a congregation: “The program will create a more spiritually robust church, and with that comes higher tithe and more church school enrollment,” he quotes the pastor as saying. “There is very little that could be as effective as health education presented winsomely, scientifically, with a deep commitment to helping people help themselves,” Diehl contends.
According to Wes Youngberg, who holds a doctorate in clinical preventive care from Loma Linda University and is director of the Rancho Wellness Center in Temecula, California, he has “many patients who are very postmodern in their thinking, but they’re very impressed when we start talking about ways they can improve their health in a postmodern sense. A wholistic approach is very much in vogue now.”
For Youngberg, that wholistic approach is typified by WIN! Wellness, a program he and his parents, John and Millie Youngberg, emeriti professors of Andrews University, developed. In 21 lectures, health, family, and spiritual transformation are covered.
Wes Youngberg says he recently saw the impact of the program during a series at the Fallbrook Seventh-day Adventist Church, in the northern part of San Diego County, California. A six-week program drew 200 people, mostly members of the community who, he says, “found a reason” to visit the church for this information.
“This program is designed and developed to be done in team setting. At Fallbrook, even though I was the main speaker, the idea was to involve many, many people in the church, and even others that are not in the church. I had a 90-minute presentation, then there were usually three or four different presenters . . . who were not necessarily medical people.”
Youngberg adds, “As we move into trying times, the work of the church is to minister to people, [and] the only work left is the work of medical missionary [health] work, and so it’s imperative that we have tools in front of us to accomplish that effectively.”
John Youngberg, who along with his wife and son created the WIN! Wellness program, says that a key element of the series is that its information is accessible and designed to engage participants.
“All the materials have group activities as well as personal intentionality. It’s made for small groups,” he said in a telephone interview. “The leading questions are there for people to discuss. The dynamic between the participants in the program is as important as the content being presented.”
To John Youngberg, participation is vital: “The questions are key to people sharing their story. We worked hard to make the approach positive, rather than negative.”
The experience of bringing people from the community to Adventist churches is something quite familiar to Paula Reiter, office manager for the Ardmore, Oklahoma, practice of Dr. Neil Nedley, a physician who has devised a program for helping people overcome depression using biblical health principles. Reiter, who says she suffered depression after an automobile accident, explained in a telephone interview that teaching these principles brings results.
“I can’t explain it, but you form a bond with people,” he says. Churches who have held the program say it has brought “the best turnout they’ve ever had,” she says, adding, “depression is a leading reason people miss work or school worldwide and people are seeking help.”
“At the end of the program the people who participate share the most beautiful testimonies,” Reiter says. “They share how they’ve been able to stop smoking, drinking, and even stop using caffeine.”
“We used to wonder why people made all these changes as a result of a depression recovery program,” Reiter said. Now she believes she knows the answer: while people need help with depression, they are also eager for the other health information the program contains. “People are just desperate for help,” Reiter says.
Recently she conducted an eight-week program in Gainesville, Texas. The program was attended by 72 people from a variety of faiths, including Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Church of Christ, and Buddhist. “These people were just hungry for nutrition and health information,” she reports. That program has led to another engagement: this fall, Reiter will be conducting a seminar at the Catholic church in Muenster, Texas.
“We have a wonderful tool,” Reiter says of seminars such as this one. “We need to be in the forefront in providing this valuable health information to others.”
Such interest is not limited to the United States or even to North America. Smoking, once a major problem here, is still a significant issue in other parts of the globe, including Malaysia, where the government is concerned with reducing the use of tobacco. This is where Dr. Edward Nathan, a Loma Linda University public health graduate and director of the Adventist Wellness Center at Penang Adventist Hospital in Pulau Pinang, Malaysia, comes in.
Smoking is “a big issue in Malaysia,” Nathan said in a telephone interview. “The government is trying its best to promote the idea of stopping smoking.”
To promote Breathe Free, the Adventist smoking cessation program, Nathan says, “we are advertising now in the hospital, [cardiac] patients who are smokers are given pamphlets, and we put up posters in the hospital. The government is advertising on TV and in newspapers” to also promote quit-smoking efforts.
Nathan says the four-week program is condensed into three weeks, and that spiritual matters are introduced toward the end, even if the bulk of attendees are usually Buddhists.
The hospital will also have “stop smoking” booths at area factories and encourages workers to attend a stop-smoking class, Nathan says. “We will have more people come in,” he expects.
To Diehl, such efforts as the CHIP seminars are a way to reclaim the principal values of the Adventist lifestyle.
“We have undervalued what the Lord has really given us,” he says. “The church has been entrusted with the health message, with [Ellen G. White’s] first [health] vision in 1863. But we have put most of our emphasis on medical ministry rather than medical missionary work,” he says, defining the latter as education.
For Finley, who had just preached at evangelistic series in Singapore and India before speaking with Adventist Review, the integration of a health message with a spiritual emphasis evokes core Adventist values. “Health ministry really meets the needs of people,” he asserts.
Mark A. Kellner is news editor of the Adventist Review.