The Adventist Tipping Point

Once legalism blows through and is gone, then what?

Commentary | Andy Nash

Once legalism blows through and is gone, then what?

There’s a moment in the life of Jesus where he seems to not know what to say. “As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes’” (Luke 19:41). Jesus’ sentence starts one direction, then wanders off – as though there’s no point in continuing.

If, figuratively speaking, Jesus were to look across the Adventist Church, what would He say? Would he view us the way much of the outside world still seems to view us – a bastion of legalism? Heavy facial expressions as we trudge around thinking we can work our way to heaven? (“We don’t need a Savior; we’ll take care of it.”)

Perhaps in years past, there was some element of that. When I was in college, a speaker came to campus and said his passion was grace. To be honest, his messages felt like water on parched ground.    

But if the dry winds of legalism have now mostly blown through, what has replaced them? A healthy life of faith that combines true joy in Christ with careful choices about what we allow into our minds and homes? Or something else?

In my view our church’s biggest threat is no longer legalism (though it still exists). It’s secularism, materialism, the world. This is the thief that now comes to “steal and kill and destroy” the abundant life in Christ. 

In his book “The Tipping Point,” Malcolm Gladwell explores the moments when culture tips – and then spreads like wildfire. The tipping point, he explains, has everything to do with the leaders of a given culture – even if they don’t realize they’re leaders. For example, in the mid 1990s in New York, Hush Puppies shoes suddenly got wildly popular because a small group of cool kids in the East Village and Soho decided to start wearing them. “The 30-dollar shoes went from a handful of downtown Manhattan hipsters and designers to every mall in America in the space of two years.”

If you’re a natural leader (whether you want to be or not), the decisions you make will shape the culture of those watching you. So who are the Adventist Church’s cultural leaders right now?

In my view, our church culture today is shaped largely by natural leaders who are good solid people, who you’ll see once a week at church and several times a week at the Little League fields, who know all the latest films and shows, who believe we have “the truth” – which primarily means worshipping on Saturday – but who may be part of the 50 percent of Adventist church members who never study the Bible individually. Their children grow up to be natural leaders with God-given gifts, but they don’t even consider fulltime ministry. Instead, they choose prestigious or lucrative careers and become good solid citizens and church members – like their parents.

So, Adventists, how different are we from anyone else? Would it be fair to say that, even as we recognize that the most gifted leaders in our Bibles were exactly the ones God called to ministry leadership – Moses, David, Daniel, Peter – most of our best and brightest today don’t even consider ministry leadership because that’s not where our church culture is anymore?

We should be careful not to replace a culture that majored in minors with one that minors in majors: the transforming grace of Christ, our distinctive Adventist message, the abundant life. Our standards should be higher than those of any legalists because we understand that our behavior doesn’t determine our salvation anyway.

So why not aim high? Rather than living a mostly secular life with some sacred around the edges, we should be living live a mostly sacred life with the secular relegated to the edges. Our church culture can be tipped, but only if our most natural leaders decide to lead.  

“If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace . . .”   

—Andy Nash is a professor of journalism and religion at Southern Adventist University and the author of the forthcoming book “The Haystacks Church” (Review & Herald). This ANN Commentary is reprinted by permission from the Adventist Review magazine.