(Another non plant based related post!) This post has been a long time coming. I’ve gone back and forth about whether or not to share my thoughts and experience, but every so often an old friend will find out I don’t attend an SDA church anymore and things get a little awkward so I figure it’s better to explain my perspective. I was raised in the Seventh-day Adventist church. My mom took us to church and my dad is an agnostic Jew by ethnicity, who occasionally took us to synagogue with my grandparents on a Friday evening for their sake. I attended Seventh-day Adventist schools from kindergarten to 8th grade which I’m grateful for. I’m sure it’s not easy to pay for private school tuition. I made many precious friendships through elementary and middle school that I still cherish today. I had great teachers who had a lot of grace for my “question authority” personality.
I attended SDA summer camp at Mt. Aetna every year from 7 to 15 years old. Mt. Aetna was my heaven on earth. What a special, blessed place it is. I will forever cherish the memories of singing under the stars at the “campfire bowl,” having all sorts of fun with friends, and getting baptized in the Mt. Aetna pond. I never felt closer to God than while at camp. My absolute favorite spot is the bridge over the stream. I am so grateful I had the opportunity to work there for one summer in college. My cabin was right next to the stream. I loved laying on the bridge listening to the water trickle below or the leaves swaying in the breeze. I loved to have personal devotions there. I’ll share a couple of photos: In addition to the influences of school and camp, I attended church weekly. During my most formative years (12-18 I believe), I had a really wonderful youth leader. He was one of those people who just genuinely cared and didn’t judge regardless of what crazy stage I might have been going through (punk/gothic for awhile, then more of a hippie). There were some mix ups with the youth leadership at that church at one point and a lot of the kids went to other churches for a more stable program. This person stepped up and committed to always being there, whether one kid came to church or 15. And he did it for years and years (I think he’s still teaching there actually). God bless you E. You know who you are if you read this! I pray God rewards you richly for your diligence and selflessness. You were like an angel in my life, a wonderful example of a kindhearted, godly male figure. Thank you.
So I had some really special experiences through the church youth program doing fun things like going camping, having game nights and lock-ins at the church, etc. I developed a personal walk with God early on in my childhood, and I know that foundation was given to me through the influences of the SDA church. I’m forever grateful for that. I went to public high school and really struggled there because I was used to such a tight knit experience of having the same 25 kids in your class year after year. I didn’t really know how to make friends with 7 different classes a day and different kids in each of those classes, only to have them change each semester or year. It was really hard for me.
I decided to go to an SDA university for college and chose Andrews, another precious place for me. There’s a special blessing on that campus. You can feel it. I loved my time there, other than the cold from being located in MI! Andrews University has a campus church called Pioneer Memorial. The pastor there is Dwight Nelson. He is the real deal. You can just feel that he has a personal walk with God and his love for people shines through him. The spiritual atmosphere at Andrews was wonderful when I was there. I had great professors, wonderful deans in the dorm, the University was very active in outreach in a local impoverished city, Benton Harbor, doing all sorts of programs for the people there. They are making a huge difference in Benton Harbor. There is no question that faith is being acted out there.
Then we come to the first point of conflict in my faith. I came home from Andrews, high off of the experience I had there in the worship programs, service opportunities, etc. I missed it all when I came back for the summer. I grew up just outside of DC in MD and thought to myself that there’s no reason the same things can’t be done to help impoverished residents in DC as were being done for those in Benton Harbor. I contacted an SDA church in DC to see if any similar programs were going on like those in place at Andrews. There weren’t so I felt inspired to try to start something.
I had a friend from Andrews who lived in the same area and we partnered up with the church in DC. We decided to start by just going door to door to the surrounding houses and offering to pray with people to build relationships with them (modeled off of the way Andrews University outreach was started in Benton Harbor.) We made announcements at that church about what we were doing, I made announcements at my childhood church about it. I was so excited to get something started. I wanted to invite other SDA churches in the area to get involved too. The SDA world headquarters is in Silver Spring, MD so there are a lot of SDA churches in that area. I made information packets for around 30 churches inviting them to join in. Guess who paid for the postage for my packets? That youth leader from my childhood church. Bless you. Thank you for being so supportive and encouraging.
So after all of the effort and preparation, guess how many of the 30 churches showed any interest in participating? None – except the host church who agreed to allow us to use their location as a central point. And how many people from the host church do you think decided to participate in the outreach their church was hosting in their own neighborhood? Only one elder and he didn’t stay involved long. Guess how many people came from my home church to support a young person in their church trying to do something to reach people? My youth leader and then my mom eventually started coming. I have some thoughts on this. One is that maybe people thought what we were doing was a bad idea. Maybe we weren’t going about it in the most effective way. Why though didn’t they at least acknowledge my efforts as a young person and maybe give suggestions on how to be more effective? No one even responded to the packets I sent out.
Maybe the churches I contacted weren’t inspired to go into DC specifically, but would rather have done something in their immediate, local community. I don’t know. I do know that when we went into the local neighborhood around the host church to offer to pray for people, many told us they’d lived next to that church for years and we were the first people to ever reach out to them. This is a problem!
I’ve heard there are 90 SDA churches within 30 miles of the world headquarters in Silver Spring, MD. Do you know how many coordinated ministry efforts there are between the churches? None that I knew/know of. Why not? There are so many suffering people in and around DC. The region has one of the worst crime rates in the nation. People need help. Maybe the real issue is most Seventh-day Adventists simply don’t care about or prioritize evangelism. Maybe they would rather attend church and let that be the end of it. Maybe they don’t have a desire to make a difference. Either way I can say from my experience that it was really disappointing as a collegiate young adult in the SDA church to not only not have any support, but people didn’t even take the time to acknowledge I reached out to them. It’s not hard to understand why such a high rate of young people are leaving the church when they are so unvalued and unsupported.
(DC row house)
So I went back to Andrews in the fall where things were great and let go of the DC effort. The next summer I decided to work at camp rather than live at home. When I left Andrews permanently I only lived back in MD for 2 months or so before moving to VA to live closer to my then boyfriend (now husband.) In the city we lived there was only one SDA church. I went there hoping to find something to get involved with like in college. Unfortunately there weren’t any outreach programs in place. There also wasn’t anything in place for young people. The church had an older population overall. It actually wasn’t uncommon for quite a few members of the congregation to sleep through the Divine service.
I began to feel like I was just going to church to “swipe my SDA card,” so to speak. I kind of trailed off of going to church at all for the first time in my life. I felt bad about not attending church regularly but felt worse and more frustrated when I would go. I’ll take a moment to explain to anyone reading this who is unfamiliar with the SDA church that the SDA community is very cultural. They are very proud of their doctrinal beliefs and usually lead with those. In fact, I did some Bible work (going door to door offering Bible studies) in high school using the Amazing Facts study guides which focus heavily on the SDA church’s interpretation of end time prophesy. I would arrange studies with people who were already Christian so I could argue with them about doctrine and try to convert them to Adventism. Looking back now I’m embarrassed I used my time that way and “surprisingly” I didn’t win over a single convert!
Why would SDAs focus so much on converting already saved people rather than reaching out to the person down the street who has never heard that God loves them before? I imagine one reason is because it’s commonly taught and believed within the SDA church that only SDA Christians (those who practice SDA doctrines) will receive salvation. This belief is one of several that make other denominations/people in general believe the SDA church is a cult. Most of the churches I’ve attended in my lifetime of being SDA are very conservative (not all, there are a couple of exceptions). Jewelry is discouraged, sometimes makeup, definitely tattoos. A lot of SDA pastors don’t even wear wedding rings. They believe it’s vain or materialistic. Few SDAs seem to have an issue with wearing nice clothes, driving a nice car, or living in a nice house though. I’m curious where the line of judgment begins and ends? Who sets these standards and what does it have to do with the Great Commission?
In most SDA churches I’ve attended women are encouraged to wear skirts or dresses rather than pants. Some SDA churches only allow the piano or organ to be played in church, while others think acoustic guitar is okay but nothing electric and definitely not drums. Others are more liberal and will have a full praise band, but they are not nearly the majority in my experience. One practice that SDA’s are known for is keeping the Jewish, or 7th day Sabbath (hence the name Seventh-day Adventist.) The way people choose to observe Sabbath varies from family to family. Some don’t believe in frequenting businesses on Sabbath because it requires other people to work, others don’t mind. A family I grew up with wouldn’t allow their children to play on the playground on Sabbath. I’m not sure why. I wasn’t allowed to swim in a swimming pool on Sabbath “because it’s man made,” but if we were at the beach then it was fine to swim in the ocean because it’s a natural body of water. So many rules that have nothing to do with spreading Christ’s love!
Even though I don’t attend SDA churches anymore, I do still personally observe the Sabbath as a spiritual day of rest. Jesus says that Sabbath was made for man’s benefit and I believe it! I look forward to it coming and treasure the break from work. My husband and I use it as designated family time. We’ll spend time outdoors, catch up on sleep, just do whatever we want to to make us feel refreshed and rested for the coming week. Studies have shown Sabbath-keepers are proven to live longer. Everyone needs a break sometime! I love Sabbath, but as with sex or anything else God intended to be good, I think strict religious practices can spoil the blessing in it. Also, Sabbath keeping is considered a salvational issue within the SDA church which is another disconnect I’ve developed between myself and the denomination.
So as you might be able to gather, there was a big difference between my experience at Andrews University and normal life at home. I think it’s pretty common across the board that young people aren’t really encouraged or valued in SDA environments outside of school settings. The older, more conservative members create environments so strict and religious I believe they’re driving the young people away. Well, they are in fact being driven away. I believe it’s some where around 70% of American SDA young people who leave the church. Something has to change if the denomination wants to continue to exist here.
To continue with my story, I really felt the void of not attending church regularly. My boyfriend and I had heard a buzz about a local non-denominational church so we decided to check it out. This was my first experience of ever seeking a church home outside of the Adventist church. I was really nervous about it. The non-denominational church met at a local high school. Dress was casual. Even the pastor preached in jeans. He explained it was because he didn’t want a person who had never been to church before to feel like they wouldn’t fit in if they didn’t have dress clothes. They were his best pair of jeans though he said! (Nodding toward the mentality many people have that we need to wear our “best” for God at church.) 🙂 There was a greeter at the church with tattoo sleeves up both of his arms. I’d never seen anything like it before. There was a full band for praise and worship and the first message we heard there was about the importance of giving.
The pastor preached a great sermon on honoring God with our finances and at the end of the service ushers passed out envelopes to every person in the audience. Each envelope had $10, $20, $50, $100, $500, or $1,000 cash in it! The pastor explained he didn’t want to just preach to us about the importance of giving. He wanted to show us what a blessing it is without having to use our own money. He challenged the audience to use the money they were given to go into the community and bless someone with it. Then we were supposed to report back to a blog they had set up to share our experience. I was floored. Everything about this was mind-blowing to me.
SDA churches are organized in conferences who report to divisions who I assume then are accountable to the world headquarters. Either way, the tithe money churches collect go back to a conference while the offering stays in the local church. The SDA world church does support lots of great ministries, has an extensive network of hospitals, schools, overseas missionaries, etc. so I guess it’s up to you to decide what you think of the system of money disbursement. I personally am drawn to the idea of an independent, non-denominational church that is able to keep its funds locally to use as they deem best (with a strong system of accountability in place of course.) Otherwise you commonly have SDA churches struggling to pay their utilities because they’re sending the vast majority of their money back to the conference. It’s very common for SDA churches to post their budget deficit in the weekly bulletin. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen one that operated in a budget surplus.
So the non-denominational church used their offering for the month to give back to the church to bless others with. However you feel about it, it was amazing to me. It made such an impact in the community the local newspaper wrote about it. We continued to attend this church semi-regularly, but it always felt a little strange to us. I had a lot of backlash from my mother about “leaving the SDA church,” even though I explained my reasoning about it. She felt like I was going to hell because I’d turned away from the church. I think she would have preferred I didn’t go to church at all rather than attend a non-SDA church. My boyfriend and I became engaged during this time period and my mom didn’t participate in any of the actual wedding planning because of fighting over this issue. We didn’t even speak for entire months during the engagement. It was a very difficult and painful time overall.
Not long after getting married my husband and I moved about 30 miles north to live closer to DC again. Our home buying process took longer than we anticipated and we ended up having to bounce around with family in MD while waiting for our house in Northern VA. While staying in MD we ran into some old SDA schoolmates of mine and they invited me to their church. We visited and actually loved it! The church was very friendly and caring, the atmosphere was very non-judgmental and open, they were organizing events to connect with the local community. It was just what we’d been praying for in an SDA church. We loved it so much that we drove an hour each way (without traffic) after moving into our house to still attend there. We did that for a year before the commute became too much for us. In the summer the traffic was so bad some weeks it took us 3 hours to get home. We had made wonderful friends there, were very involved in serving, and were really sad to have to start over with trying to find a church family. We didn’t have much of a choice though and decided to try the closest SDA church to us.
After our experience with the non-denominational church and now the only healthy, active SDA church I’d ever been to outside of Andrews, we grew to look for two qualities in a church community: an outward focus and an environment where an unchurched person could attend and feel comfortable. The church closest to where we lived did not have those qualities. There weren’t really outreach opportunities at all. We stayed for a potluck lunch there one week and a person actually told us that the sermons aren’t any good, but there are some nice people to make friends with so that’s why they kept going. I don’t want to judge anyone who is trying to serve God in their career as a pastor. I will say though that you can feel the difference between a Spirit filled message that inspires people to action and change in their lives and one that maybe filtered its way back into the sermon circuit again this year. I really don’t want to be disrespectful, but I am not kidding when I say that. At that SDA church near us, we heard a sermon once right after moving and coincidentally visited them a year later to give them another try and the same sermon was being preached as before. I am being 100% honest. It’s like going through the motions for the sake of the motions and not expecting any difference to be made or any lives to actually be changed.
(My face hearing the same sermon again before pulling a sneak out move.)
We tried one more SDA church that was about 40 minutes away from us in VA and found they had Spirit filled sermons and a friendly atmosphere. There still weren’t many outreach opportunities in place and not really anything going on for our age group, but we really liked the pastor and were so desperate for a church home, we figured we would try to make it work. We filled out connection cards several times requesting information on opportunities to serve at the church and were never contacted back so we approached the pastor for help after several weeks. He connected us to another young couple who was re-launching the churches monthly potluck lunch ministry that had fizzled out in previous years. We started serving with them but wanted to have more of a sense of community so we got the idea to launch a group for post collegiate young adults.
To make this long story a little bit shorter, I’ll say in just a few words that no one after my husband and I committed to help with the potluck ministry. We and the leading couple weren’t enough to organize, serve, and clean up lunch for the 70+ people who would stay. In fact, not only did people not commit to helping, but previous potluck team volunteers would come behind us and “fix” things like the way we arranged the tables, or the napkins, or the dishes on the tables, etc. They wouldn’t get on a volunteer rotation, but they would correct the “wrong” way that we were doing things. Unreal. It’s almost comical.
And as far as the young adult group went, no one expressed interest in it so I just cancelled the event I had organized. So discouraged in serving within the church, no outreach opportunities in place, and with no interest from others in developing a sense of community for our age group, one final thing solidified our decision to leave after 8 months of trying to make this church our home. Though we did, and still do, have a lot of respect for the pastor there and his family, the last sermon series we attended was on the “chiastic” structure of the book of Ruth. For those unfamiliar, a chiasm is a form of poetry. The book of Ruth is written in a poetic format and there was a four week sermon series during the main service analyzing that structure. I can understand doing this as a small group study for Biblical scholars, but it was for the main church service for four weeks.
My husband and I asked each other if there was any possible way we could bring a person who had never been to church before and have them feel comfortable, or get something out of a sermon like that, and our honest answer was no. If any church, no matter the denomination, is not making an effort to fulfill the Great Commission then what is the point?
We really did try to stick it out with the SDA church simply from a place of comfort and familiarity, not really ever even analyzing possible disconnects we might have had with doctrine. After being separated for some time now, there are definitely some red flags there as well that have affirmed our decision. Ultimately we are loyal to God, not to the Adventist church. The bottom line for us is that we need to be involved in a church that is doing something to reach lost people.
After deciding to leave that SDA church, we visited a non-denominational church 15 minutes from our house. It felt just like the first non-denominational church we had attended. This one even had a Saturday service so we could still attend church on Sabbath. We loved it. The pastors there were actually friends with the pastor from the first church, interestingly. We jumped on board with serving there, got very involved in the small group ministry, and overall felt like our void had been filled.
There were so many outreach opportunities at the new church you couldn’t possibly do them all – A back pack drive for local students, a food drive for the local food bank, a mobile meal packing event with an organization called Feed My Starving Children that sends meals to starving children all over the world, the church sponsors a village in Uganda and many members sponsor children in that village. The church also sends a mission team every year to serve there. They had another mission team go to Guatemala, we joined a team to help raise funds for a well in Uganda. The church had a Celebrate Recovery program for people struggling with all kinds of addiction. Only in these Bible churches had I ever heard of providing resources for people struggling with pornography addiction or substance abuse. You mean to tell me people in church have real problems and the church can have resources in place to help them? This was truly mind blowing to me. There was so much growth in that church they were struggling to keep up with it. That’s what we wanted to be a part of. We just want to make a difference.
(Photo of an FMSC mobile meal packing event)
We recently moved from VA to TX. We were so sad to leave our church family in VA. We really loved it. Just for old times’ sake we tried a local SDA church here and this time we felt like the outsiders. People were kind, but it was a traditional SDA church as described above. God bless them. I just know what’s right for me. We tried four or five different local non-denominational churches. I think we’d be happy to jump on board with any of them (except one pretty charismatic one that had barefoot people and lots of flag and ribbon waving which was a little overwhelming for us!) The only way we made a decision was that one of the churches was particularly organized in their process for getting new people involved in the church and different ministries. They have a system in place like clock work which we appreciated. They are expecting growth and are prepared for it so we started the process of joining. We’re taking membership classes now that end with you selecting an area of ministry to use your God given gifts to serve in. (Note the expectation to serve. I really believe saved people who are unwilling to serve in a church are dead weight, no offense.) They’ve grown from 80 to 2700 attendees in 8 years. It’s not all about the numbers, but isn’t the point of the church to grow? If it’s not to grow/reach lost people, then what is the point of any church?
In conclusion, I will probably always have a soft spot in my heart for the SDA church. It gave me my foundation in Christ, provided many wonderful memories, I even met my husband through it. It’s very much a part of who I am. I know we are where we’re supposed to be now though. Ultimately, everything goes back to my two must-haves: an outward focus and an environment in place to welcome unsaved people. In my experience, that’s very hard to find in an SDA church.
If Pioneer Memorial Church (the Andrews University campus church) was where I live, I’m sure I never would have thought of leaving the SDA denomination because of how much good is being done there. People usually have to have a very good reason to question and then uproot themselves from a system they were raised in. I really do appreciate Pastor Dwight’s ministry though. I actually visited a friend there in April and was so pleased to get to hear him preach a sermon about some current issues Andrews is going through regarding their homosexual student population feeling unwelcome and unsupported. I don’t want to go too much into it, but the basic message of the sermon was, you who are without sin can cast the first stone. We’re called to love and support people, regardless of their area of sin. Yours is no different than mine. We’ve all got a sin problem and all need to deal with it with grace and compassion for each other. Jesus Himself kept company with the outcasts in society. Is the church following His example? The Bible says the world will know us by our love, not by our doctrine or rules. It’s our love that matters. Thanks for your time in reading this. I’m happy to hear your thoughts if anyone would like to share.
*** First side note is there has been a pretty large response from people who have had experiences similar to mine who have either left the SDA denomination themselves or who are considering it. Many have expressed that they have felt judged and isolated in their journey so I created a closed FB page for anyone who would like a judgement free place to share their journey with others who are going through similar experiences. It can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/exsdasupport/ Anyone who joins for the wrong reason will be removed/blocked as soon as they make that evident.
*** Second, if you skim the comments thread you’ll begin to notice there are some frequently asked questions. I did respond to them through the thread, but because there are quite a few now (making it kind of difficult to read through) I wrote a couple of additional posts to address those topics if you’re interested in them. So far I’ve added, How I Feel About the Sabbath as an Ex SDA and Why I Didn’t Stick It Out In the SDA Church Regardless of the State It’s In.
*** Lastly, I’ve taken up blogging consistently again recently. If you’d like to read some of my recent content, please click here.