| s a child, I remember taking mental pictures of people in cars sharing the expressway with my family as we traveled to camp meeting. I’d pick out the people who looked ‘Adventist’—not just by their attire but by their ‘wholesome,’ shining countenances—and later see if I could find them at camp. You’d be surprised (or maybe you wouldn’t) at how many actually were Adventists. Today, it seems as if we’ve utterly assimilated into the culture around us. Many Adventists I know eat, drink, wear, read, and listen to the same things everyone else does. We’ve copied the world’s actions—exactly.”
This experience, described in an editorial by Kimberly Luste Maran, an assistant editor of Adventist Review, exemplifies a strange phenomenon taking place in many Adventist churches in America. Most Adventists would probably agree that 10 to 15 years ago, a member would not be seen wearing hoop earrings to church or heard discussing plans for a Sabbath afternoon ballgame. Today, however, this doesn’t seem abnormal. What would a previous generation of Adventists say if they could see us today? Is this the same church they struggled and sacrificed for? Why has this happened? How has this happened?
In the search for answers I turned to Jerry Lutz, senior pastor of the 1,500-member Spencerville Seventh-day Adventist Church in Silver Spring, Maryland (my home church), and a 32-year veteran of pastoral ministry. From my perspective as an Adventist college student, I asked Lutz about the changing face of Adventism. What follows is part of that candid conversation.
What changes in members’ lifestyles have been most striking to you during your years of ministry?
Through the years people have become more relaxed in regard to the standards our church has adhered to since its inception. The determination in Adventism to be a peculiar people has been prevalent since the church’s start—and there were reasons for keeping to standards that would help the church be “different.”
Even now we want to reflect the principles of the kingdom of God. But there has been a deterioration of understanding about those reasons. We’ve become mere reflectors of our society rather than leaders, and we’ve trended away from reflecting the simplicity and modesty that Christ would have us to represent.
Jewelry, movies, music, and dancing seem to be the largest categories of disagreement. Research* says there’s a strong correlation between disagreement on these issues and leaving the church.
It’s not a matter of just blatantly saying all those things are categorically evil. What concerns me is the evil that may be present in those things that we don’t think about—or even recognize. Let’s take the issue of dancing. A married couple is obviously doing more private things in their marriage than dancing. So it might be quite appropriate for a husband and wife to be “on the dance floor” in their home, so to speak.
But when you take that behavior outside the home and begin mixing with other couples, we’re talking about a different experience. People choosing public dancing are handling, in intimate ways, other people’s spouses, perhaps, or at least the temptation to do so is there. On the dance floor, what is “cutting in”? It’s dancing with somebody else’s spouse. It’s engaging in an exercise that is a metaphor; and let’s face it, we know what that metaphor is. Do you think there’s no temptation there?
If I understand men and women I’d say, yes, there’s temptation there. Of course there is. So why would I subject myself to that in such a way that I would jeopardize my relationship with my spouse? I’m going to refrain from that behavior. I’ll reserve for my wife my right to be intimate with another human being.
Are these behavioral choices a reflection of something that has happened inside of the person?
Adventists generally have become more reflective of our surroundings. We run after fashion, we run after trends and fads. We’re bombarded by it in the media every day in ways that are obvious and very subtle. Our guard has been assaulted to the point that we are exposed—and we don’t want to be seen as being odd, peculiar, or different. We want to blend in without really asking ourselves the question: What does the choice I will make concerning how I dress and the way I behave say? What statement as a Christian am I making by my lifestyle decisions?
It’s more than just a “do or don’t” kind of thing. It’s asking the question: Why? Why are these standards something we believe Scripture is calling us to for the sake of our outreach and mission?
But why ask these questions?
It all goes back to mission and purpose—why we’re here—what we’re here on earth to do. If my dress is distracting or immodest in such a way that I don’t properly represent the principles of God’s kingdom, what have I become? I’ve become an instrument of distraction. I’ve become an instrument, actually, of evil, to put it in blunt terms. I don’t know that anyone, after they think about it, would want to be in that position.
Sometimes God’s people check their common sense at the door and get into an argument about what is right and wrong because the church seems to arbitrarily say “Don’t do this” and “Don’t do that.” If we ever get caught saying “It’s against my religion to do this, that, or the other,” we don’t know what our religion is. We need to step back and take an inventory of who we are and why we are what we are.
The church should never be seen as reflective of the world. Because then the world has won. And we know that the world apart from Christ is lost.
How do you respond to the question, “If it doesn’t affect my salvation, why does it matter?”
It’s an interesting argument—I can make that argument about a lot of things, because it’s called rationalizing, and we all do it to some extent. The apostle Paul would probably say that though your behavior may not be immoral, you are still responsible for the message it sends (1 Cor. 8). What influence does it have over somebody else who may be offended by it? When it comes right down to it, every individual has to decide, based upon principle—not upon what the pastor says, or what the teacher says, or what a university requires. Most of us would be humbled if we stood in the presence of Jesus Christ and asked the same questions. We would surely make decisions that err on the side of right rather than trying to press the edges of popular fashion.
Young adults are leaving the church in large numbers. Some say this is because they don’t agree with the standards of the church. Young adults are saying it’s because they’re misunderstood and unrepresented.
Young adults are growing up in a society that caters to them, and that has encouraged them to say, “Please entertain me; and if you don’t, I’m leaving.” That’s sick, but it’s something we’ve all bought into—to one extent or another. We get to the point where we want others to tailor-make our experience for us without asking the question: What can I offer? That’s the result of living in a society that is very selfish.
In some parts of the world the generations mix quite well. I’ve traveled to places where you walk into a church service and you’ve got people of every generation in attendance and nobody is complaining or griping about song choice or other personal preferences. These churches are demonstrative of a family that worships together.
I think we’re a product of our times, we’re a product of our generation. Everything in our technology seems to be motivating us to be more introspective, to be more introverted, to be more isolated from each other. We don’t have to go past our keyboard to get what we want. It’s just there. We’re not asking what can we do for others—it’s more a question of how can we continue to be entertained. Being part of a church family is making a commitment to a family and sticking with it. The generational divide we’re experiencing is a part of the subtle influences that—especially in American society or even western society—are permeating our attitudes. These attitudes that a lot of us have towards older generations would be wholly unrecognizable in other cultures where other generations are valued for who they are, when they are.
Wherever you have religion there’s going to be conviction, because religion is about convicting us to be better than we are naturally. The essence of religion is change. I understand about traditions, I understand about the differences between likes and dislikes, and the ethnic differences. There is a difference between principle and policy, and I don’t know that we’ve figured that all out yet. There are policies that work in local settings because organizations function by policy—but then there are principles that transcend all of that. Therefore, if policies are not reflective or in keeping with the principles, we need to reexamine the policy. That’s where we get into the debates about what is appropriate and what isn’t.
I think we need to learn something more about how to distinguish between policies and principles with the understanding that principles are the overarching guides to the policies that we make. If the policies are not in keeping with the principles, then why do we have them?
What do you say to teens and young adults regarding these issues? They want to fit in, but they’ve been raised to be “apart” from the world.
There’s something deep within the human psyche that doesn’t want to be so different that people are going to think you’re weird or out of step. I don’t think anyone would argue to be weird, but to be circumspect, to be modest, is never a wrong thing. The apostle Paul writes about that. He said it’s not against God’s law to be truthful, and honest, and just, and loving, and caring. There’s no law against that. So if we’re going to err, let’s err on the side of right and let’s be a little more modest than general society. If others are running around half-clad, where should Christians be? Three quarters to fully clad, at least.
Young adults might argue then that Christianity isn’t fun. Can’t you be a Christian in any environment?
What’s not fun is being condemned by our peers for not going along. That’s the heart of the issue. When everybody else is doing something different, it hurts to be judged and rejected by our peer group. That’s not fun. If the whole peer group was doing something that was totally in keeping with Christian standards, we wouldn’t be having this argument. Whenever someone stands up and says they don’t think they’re going to be a part of something, the peer group usually says, “Who do you think you are?” Then all of a sudden, the person who has made that stand isn’t having any fun anymore because, at that age and in that environment, they’re taking their cues for rejection and acceptance by what the group says or does. Their whole social life can go up in flames in one night. That certainly isn’t fun. . . . While it is completely possible to have fun without sinning, too many times we get fun confused with sin.
Here’s an example. You’ve seen billboard advertisements for alcohol. They’re very sexy, classy (some of them), and the people portrayed in the print ads and in the media are “with it:” they’re dressed perfectly, they’re right with the trends, they’re beautiful people, and then there’s the bottle of whatever they’re selling. The message is: if you drink this, you’re going to be looking like these people and running with the ones who are out there on the cutting edge—and that’s the group you want to be with. The real ads, if they were truthful, ought to show these people the next morning vomiting their guts out, with their boyfriend holding their hair. That’s the truth. And here’s the kicker: we call that fun. There’s something wrong with that picture.
What do you tell a young person when they’ve been raised in an environment where these things are acceptable, and now they have to choose for themselves?
This is what I would say to a young person in that circumstance: learn to live and think independently. Having said that, I’d urge them to be respectful of their parents: of parents’ values, of their points of view, of their perspectives. (That doesn’t mean that we have to honor dishonorable parents; there is a contract that exists between parents and children implied within Scripture that those who are honorable deserve to be treated with honor; we all know that there are parents who fall way short of being what a parent who is after the heart of God ought to be.)
I would also say learn to be an independent thinker—to investigate values and standards for yourself. Because when it comes right down to it, it’s just us and the Lord Jesus Christ as individuals. It’s just you standing in the presence of Christ saying, “Lord, what would you have me to do?” That requires some pretty serious reflection. In younger years that’s a difficult thing to pull off because there’s so much of life we’re learning, and we’re very impressionable when we’re young.
I would suggest you follow the life of Christ—look at the environment in which He grew up—and realize that as He comes through, He learns to think independently, except for as guided by His heavenly Father.
That’s the paradox of a Christian life: we’re independent, yet so dependent on our Father. Every time Jesus would be asked about what God was like or the values of heaven, He would say “look at me, watch my life.” From where did He learn those principles? From studying the Word of God. He was an Old Testament scholar at a very young age. We don’t often think of encouraging our young people to do that, and it seems like an unreasonable expectation to have our kids really learn the Word of God. But when a child does, he or she has a basis upon which to make decisions independently from what everyone else has said.
I had to learn very early in my life to think independently to the extent that I knew whatever decision I was making about lifestyle was going to affect the rest of my life and my existence on this planet. It was serious business to me. Watching one of my brothers die because of a lifestyle using drugs and alcohol, and seeing another suffer seriously, actually pushed me, drove me to find reasons for my existence and for the decisions that I made. Not everyone can relate to my experience but it all comes back to the same thing—we need to think independently.
If there were no other person on the planet, what would you do in the presence of God? What would you ask of Him? Ask: “What would you have me to do, Lord?” And then do it.
So how does the church embrace these values without “enforcing” them? Where I go to school at Southern Adventist University, I know I’m expected to dress and act in certain prescribed ways. If I don’t, I’m subject to the consequences.
Short of the church becoming the fashion police? There has always been tension between high tolerance and high standards. The truth is that the church ought to be the place where both are practiced; and there’s the tension. We want to be people who are highly tolerant of those who take divergent views, because the church exists for many reasons, not the least of which is evangelism. We want people to come and find salvation.
So if we post the standards police at the door, for example, and a visitor comes and asks, “Am I welcome here?” what should be the response? Would the church member at the door say, “Not until you change your clothes”? What kind of message is that sending to the world? High tolerance is absolutely essential—not to open the doors to people who come in “as they are” would be a travesty, and contrary to the mission of the church.
On the other hand, when that person joins the church, he or she ought to be aware that there are standards because changes are made when one becomes a Christian. Christianity is about transformation, and this total transformation brings with it some responsibility. It’s our mission to reach people where they are—taking them as they are—and lead them to that transformational experience.
But how does this happen?
This, of course, occurs only when they make the connection with Jesus. The Holy Spirit makes that transformation; it’s nothing we can do. Our job, one of the primary functions of the church, is to point people to Christ.
What does it mean to become a member of the church?
Whenever someone becomes a member of the church, whenever someone accepts the Lord as Savior, they also agree to follow in His footsteps and obey His counsel, His commands, as He says to His disciples in John 15:15. There will inevitably be some changes made when the person becomes part of God’s family.
So what is our responsibility as members?
When I’m on the “inside,” so to speak, I become an ambassador of Jesus Christ. I’m a member of Christ’s church and I’m going to live a circumspect life; and that’s going to be evidenced in what I say, what I do, how I act, and what I wear, because that’s what the world sees.
The understanding among members ought to be that we have an agreement not to be judgmental, but responsible, to our church communities. And there should be at least an unspoken understanding that we’re going to do whatever we can to uphold the standards of God’s kingdom, which includes modesty. We don’t betray our brothers and sisters in the church by straying from those things. But we should not make it difficult for anyone else not following those standards when they come through our doors. We must influence them and lead them to the Lord, where transformation occurs.
Tell me what you see for the future. Are lifestyle issues going to be harder or easier to address?
Living in the world and not being of the world is never an easy prospect. Emergencies, disasters, and calamities—the stuff of Bible prophecy—are always times of retrospection and rethinking life’s values.
Churches fill up in times of war. Why is that? People make sacrifices they thought they’d never make when times are hard. When we get in touch with our mortality, we think seriously and deeply. All of a sudden the things we used to argue about don’t seem to make much difference anymore.
It’s immature and futile to fight for something we know is inconsequential in the end. We ought to be living as though we are under emergency circumstances every day of our lives. Fact is—we are.
Willing, but Weak
Young or old, traditional or contemporary, newly baptized or life-time member, our core faith is the same: we believe Christ came, lived, and died, so we could be saved through His grace. As a response to the taking of that gift, we have a responsibility to each other and to the people we come in contact with—to walk, talk, and breathe a life that is in accordance with the example He lived. Accepting Jesus means we are willing and wanting to be like Him, and live with Him for eternity.
“The issue is Jesus,” says Roy Adams, an associate editor of the Adventist Review, “to be in love with Jesus. To paraphrase Augustine, ‘surrender yourself to Jesus and do as you please,’ meaning that if you love and surrender to Him, what you are pleased to do will be what pleases Him.”
What do we want the world to see? Diluted Christianity? A name without meaning? Or the open arms of a church that exemplifies Jesus’ love and the “peace of God, which transcends all understanding” (Phil. 4:7)?
* One example: Why Our Teenagers Leave the Church, Roger L. Dudley, chapters 4 and 12.
In his sermon series The Chosen, Dwight Nelson, senior pastor of Pioneer Memorial Church on the campus of Andrews University, also discusses issues of lifestyle and other topics relating to Adventists today.