Five Things the World
Needs to Know About Us
By Jan Paulsen
Who Are You?
Over the past decade I’ve encountered the public media in many countries and in many different settings. And in each encounter I sense one basic, underlying question. It comes to me whether I’m speaking to a journalist in New York City or occupying the so-called “hot seat” on Malawi national television. It’s a question that is asked with an intensity that sometimes takes me by surprise: “Tell us, who are Seventh-day Adventists really?”
And when I tell them that we have a presence in almost every country, that we’re a rapidly growing Christian community of—children and adults—some 25 million people, it surprises them. They ask, with a puzzled look: “Why do we know so little about you? Where have you been hiding? So tell us, really, who are you?” They are intrigued by the rapid pace of our growth when so many other churches within historic Christianity are losing ground.
What answer do we give? How do we best introduce ourselves to the world through the public media? In posing these questions I’m not suggesting we stray from our core task—teaching and preaching biblical truths. Evangelism is our mission. This must never be compromised. It’s at the heart of our identity, our spiritual anchorage. But from this secure base, let’s also talk about how our spiritual foundations shape us as a people; let’s talk about the values that flow from these truths, and the practical difference they make not only in our own lives, but in the neighborhoods and cities where there is an Adventist presence.
And so, against this background, I’d like to suggest five points I believe we would do well to profile more prominently through the public media.
1. A “culture-less” faith
In a recent television interview the host asked: “How can modern life be instructed by a book written 2,000 years ago? They had such different values then!”
As a Seventh-day Adventist, I want the public to know that the values the Bible teaches are not imprisoned within any one culture or any particular period of history. They are timeless and “culture-less”; they speak to us no matter where we live or what our background. And so we must show how the values we advocate relate to life as we live it now. Compassion, selfless service, love of freedom, tolerance and respect for each other, willingness to give rather than take—these eternal biblical values have immense significance in today’s world.
2. A living faith
Not only are our values timeless, they are alive. Ours is not a faith of theory but of practice. The faith we hold is not confined in an archive or textbook; it’s not a faith that’s best explained by the academic or even the theologian. It’s a faith that finds its most compelling expression in the everyday actions of the man or woman whose life has been transformed by Christ.
So let’s demonstrate in the public sphere how the truths we hold impact our lives. Let’s talk about our advocacy for religious liberty; for we are freedom fighters in the truest sense, working not only for those who share our point of view, but for everyone regardless of their beliefs.
Let’s talk about our commitment to the cause of temperance, our historic struggle against those destructive elements of society—tobacco, alcohol, drug abuse and misuse—which cause such suffering to the family and community.
Let’s explain why we are so focused on health care, development aid, and combating some of the scourges of humanity such as HIV/AIDS. For just as Christ stepped into the world of His time and offered healing and hope, so we feel a deep responsibility to each of God’s children who experiences injustice or hurt.
I want the world to know we will do more than simply talk about the Scriptures; we will live its principles. And because of this we will inevitably be drawn into positive, constructive engagement with our communities.
3. Shaping people for eternity
Journalists are often amazed by the sheer size of our church’s education system. The interest is natural—we have a worldwide network of more than 7,000 schools and almost one and a half million students. But it seems to me that in presenting this picture we need to talk not just about statistics, but the reason for this tremendous investment in education. We need to say, without falling too far into religious jargon, that our commitment is grounded in our belief that eternity begins now. This is the time when we want to start shaping people for a never-ending potential. We live and plan for an infinite future, and our concern for the development of individuals—spiritually, mentally, physically—is driven by this perspective.
In Rwanda, during the horror of the 1994 genocide, the churches failed. The disastrous events of that time went largely unchecked by a community that had for many years considered itself thoroughly Christian.
Let us never forget that when it comes to fulfilling Christ’s command to be “peacemakers,” silence can be as much a failure as speaking the wrong words. Silence in the face of evil is complicity in what is wrong; it can be a killing weapon when hatred is having a field day.
I want Seventh-day Adventists to be known as people who lift high their commitment to hope and peace. Let us speak from the pulpit and show through our actions that we oppose anything that instills hatred or inflames violence.
As individual Christians we may have limited tools for intervening in some of the larger issues of our society. But we can speak out consistently for peace. We can demonstrate in our congregations and in our relationships within the community that Christ has the power to heal divisions of all kinds: personal, political, or ethnic.
This means taking risks at times, stepping outside what is comfortable. And it means acting carefully to avoid tainting the church with even the “aroma” of partisan politics. But difficulty does not excuse us from this fundamental Christian responsibility to teach and model peace.
5. A people of integrity
In an era when corruption of all kinds dominates the headlines, Seventh-day Adventists have something to say about morality, ethics, and integrity. We’re not happy to confine our spirituality to the church pew. We don’t subscribe to a theology that says actions don’t matter. But rather, we know that our conduct is either a constant confirmation or denial of our faith.
I want Seventh-day Adventists to be known as honest people who teach and practice morality; people with the highest ethical standards; people who speak out against greed and against the self-serving attitudes that corrupt society.
In some places we are already recognized for these values. The president of an African nation recently said to me: “Adventists can teach our country so much about integrity and ethical behavior.” And this is wonderful. These are areas where we have so much to offer—both corporately and as individuals—within the public sphere.
In these conversations with the public media I find an openness, even an eagerness, to hear more about us, to discover what we value highly, to understand those issues we are prepared to engage with. And every now and then I hear a quiet, “That’s amazing!” It’s as though they had not expected a dimension to our faith that steps so decisively into the everyday world.
“Who are you, really?” Let’s answer the question plainly and boldly. And in the picture we present, I pray the world will clearly see an image of the One we serve.
Editorial note: To view a recent television interview with Pastor Jan Paulsen broadcast internationally by Bloomberg television network, go to:www.adventist.org/mission_and_service/features/bloomberg.html.
Jan Paulsen is president of the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church.