Network of Nurture
Tracing the factors that shape Adventist identity
By Ted N. C. Wilson
Who or what has shaped your identity as a Seventh-day Adventist? Why have you chosen to be a part of this worldwide movement? And—directly to the point—how do we create a network of nurture that will encourage young people to develop a strong faith and identity as Seventh-day Adventists?
These are important questions every Adventist ought to think about.
Early Positive Influences
My own choice to be a Seventh-day Adventist was shaped by many things and many people, all brought together by God to help influence me to be a part of His remnant people. Some of the individuals whose faces rise up in my memory will certainly never know this side of heaven the impact that they had in steering my young life toward commitment to the church.
Harry Baerg, an artist for Guide magazine many years ago, was my Sabbath school teacher, and a most fascinating person. Harry was an amazingly talented illustrator: several generations of young Adventists and their parents treasured his illustrations in church periodicals and on the back page of Guide magazine. He brought many interesting things to class week by week that stirred my curiosity—puzzles, animal stories, surprises. We always looked forward to coming to Sabbath school each week because of a talented, prepared teacher.
Another person who shaped my life was a missionary physician, Dr. Roy Cornell, who worked at the Benghazi Adventist Hospital in Libya when I was a boy growing up in Egypt. While caring for patients during a polio epidemic, he contracted polio and became paralyzed. As a hobby, he had for years played the clarinet, but since he was no longer able to play, he gave his beautiful Buffet clarinet to me after we returned to the United States from mission service in Egypt. That gift helped change my life. With his high-quality instrument in hand, I started taking clarinet lessons and became active in the Columbia Union College orchestra while I was still in grade school. We also had a small orchestra at my home church in Takoma Park, Maryland. The group enjoyed getting together each week to play in the junior Sabbath school.
These seemingly chance associations were not, in fact, chance at all: God used these individuals to lead me to identify with His church. Fifty years later I still remember and treasure the associations, the encouragement, and the relationships that tied me to other believers.
In the Church
Lessons learned in Sabbath school and church are certainly important, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the impact of even shorter encounters. The kinds of interactions that are probably the most meaningful are not long, drawn-out tutorials, but brief words of encouragement and smiles from those whom youth respect and admire.
My own story underlines this principle: Pay attention to younger people. Smile at them and say their name. Shake their hand and say, “How are you today? We’re so glad you are a part of our church.” That’s all you have to say, and kids will remember it long afterward.
Admittedly, I grew up in a highly Adventist-oriented community. Not every child has that particular opportunity. Some may find growing up in that kind of community to be restrictive, but I found it to be extremely positive. I found that participating in church activities, Friday-night youth meetings, mission presentations, and evangelistic meetings all helped form my attachment to this Adventist movement. Even when they weren’t designed to “reach” me, those programs made a distinct impression on me. They helped me understand that I belonged to an organization that had dedicated, caring people, worldwide resources, worthy goals, and world-class objectives.
In the School
Not every Seventh-day Adventist will have the opportunity or the means to obtain a Christian education, but there’s no doubt from both Scripture and the Spirit of Prophecy that attending a church school is the ideal situation to help form that crucial identity of a young believer.
In an Adventist school setting students learn Christian values not only in the ways subjects are taught in the classroom, but also they learn those values on the playground—how to get along; how to respond in conflict; how to be a peacemaker. A Christian educational setting reveals the moral principles and the biblical foundations that ought to guide all social interactions.
Reflecting on my own experience, I realize just how much Christian teachers have influenced my life. All of them made an impact—even when I didn’t recognize it at the time. As an impressionable young person, I looked to them and their instruction to decide how to react in certain situations. I learned to appreciate their dedication and commitment: I wanted to be like them when I grew up.
A School for Every Church
There’s no doubt about it: I’m a strong believer in Christian education. I think that every Adventist church ought to have some connection with an Adventist school—either their own or in a cooperative venture with nearby Adventist churches, even if it is just a one-room school.
As a young pastor I was assigned a small church with fewer than 100 members. At one time a church school had operated there, but it had died out for lack of interest. However, we found a group of dedicated parents who valued Christian education, and so in just eight weeks we reorganized the school and got it equipped. Conference leadership worked with us to obtain a qualified teacher, and we opened the school year with 13 students. That school ran successfully for nearly 40 years, influencing hundreds of students for faith.
Adventist schools are so important because they add a strong fabric to the relationship between child and parent by creating opportunities for involvement with each other, with other families, with school programs, and with other positive activities. Adventist education is a catalyst for creating a network of nurture for young people, whether it’s a small school or a very large one. That total school program, combined with the church’s ministries and youth activities and parental support in the home—that triangle of church, school, and home—is an incredible booster of self-worth, personal development, and improvement. School, church, and home—working together—help youth understand the talents and gifts that the Lord has given them. When parents give their children the gifts of a committed home, active participation in a faithful congregation, and attendance at an Adventist school, they position their children to flourish as citizens in the community and as citizens of the kingdom of heaven.
Few things in this world will ever count more for the coming kingdom than operating a church school on behalf of a congregation’s children, and I heartily encourage every Adventist church throughout the world to do everything possible to operate or share in the operation of a Seventh-day Adventist school. The injunction of Scripture is clear: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6).
What About Preparation for the “Real World”?
Education, particularly Christian education, helps youth understand the complexities of a world in which difficult choices will confront them in almost every arena—in relationships, in career selection, in lifestyle, and particularly in living godly, service-oriented lives. Our academies, colleges, and universities give students the foundational understandings that they will need in order to choose wisely amid all the counterfeits. Questions—including challenges to faith—will inevitably arise, and while the school and the church do have a large part to play in securing faith, the most important element of all is the integrity of the Adventist family. If the home isn’t undergirded by a strongly biblical viewpoint and a belief in the Spirit of Prophecy, then the church and the school can work valiantly, but there is no guarantee that they can remedy what the home isn’t providing.
As I was growing up I never heard my parents say one negative thing about the Bible or the Spirit of Prophecy: they made only very positive comments. They never discouraged me in my growing relationship with the Lord, but instead always encouraged me and my connection to the church. Their example has blessed me many times over, and it would bless thousands of other families if they adopted it as well. If in our families we refrain from making critical remarks about leaders or sermons or decisions we don’t like, and instead emphasize positive, faith-building things, our children will breathe in an atmosphere of trust that will deepen their identity as committed Seventh-day Adventists. Children are just like sponges: they soak in what they hear and experience at home. When they are prayed with—and prayed for—by parents who understand the importance of forming that special Adventist identity, they will move toward a personal faith that will weather all kinds of difficult life storms.
When There’s Love—and Faith—at Home
We don’t need generations of cultural Adventists. What we want is a generation of young people who want to be Adventists because they love Jesus. An important, practical way to encourage that is to spend time in family worship—especially in the evening. We dare not let a favorite activity—a sporting event, a television show, time on the Internet, or conversations with friends—become the evening prayer of Adventist homes. It’s vitally important to stay in close contact with our kids—talking with them, asking how their day went, encouraging them, drawing out their expressions of faith. An evening family worship time is one of the best opportunities through which to impress upon them that they need to connect with Jesus—that He is their best friend.
From a very early age children can gain a real understanding of their relationship with the Lord. Several years ago my wife, Nancy, was enjoying an hour with our 2-year-old granddaughter, Lauren. When Nancy reached for her glasses, little Lauren spoke up and said, “Nani, you don’t need your glasses—you can see Jesus with your heart.”
We want all our young people to see Jesus with their hearts. That’s why we give them every advantage God has made available to us—in the family, in the church, in the school. That’s why we sacrifice, spend time, and rearrange our adult lives—because we know that it is the sum of all the “little things” that helps to form that Adventist identity in our kids. They won’t form that faithful identity just because we did, or by osmosis. The most important legacy we will leave to our children is a positive inclination to freely choose for themselves the faith we have chosen. Nothing we do this side of heaven is more important—and nothing brings greater joy or satisfaction.
Ted N. C. Wilson is president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A.