Perception is Not Always Reality: Our Church as a Moral Beacon

by Leon Brown

Under the direction of the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists, the church undertook a groundbreaking study to determine the extent of the denomination’s involvement in local communities.(1) The goal was to discover what effect conservatism, pastoral tenure, and a clear mix of evangelism combined with social action had on Adventism and its outreach.(2)

On a weekend in April 2001, more than 300,000 worshipers from 50 denominations and religions completed a four-page questionnaire. The respondents included 5,596 members at 94 randomly selected Seventh-day Adventist churches.

This was a pioneering endeavor to gather facts about the religious life and activity of the church in North America. It was also an opportunity to peer into the window of Adventist life in particular and harvest facts that may or may not have been readily available beforehand. The sole purpose of the study was to develop a strategy for future assessment, evaluation, planning, and decision-making.

Church leadership, on every level, needs to be reminded that God has given the universal church—and that certainly includes the Seventh-day Adventist Church—a vitally important message on how to make this world a better place in which to live.

Individual churches and survey respondents provided vital responses to the survey questionnaire and, in so doing, opened the door for a clearer understanding of the Adventist Church’s involvement in community service and social justice. 

The study revealed the following facts, presented here as raw data.

  1. Nine out of 10 local churches give modest amounts of cash assistance to families and individuals in crisis.
  2. About 1 in 10 Adventist churches, and twice that number of other faith groups, channel the cash assistance they give through a collaborative program with other congregations or faith-based community organizations.
  3. Three out of 4 local churches conduct or co-sponsor an emergency food pantry or soup kitchen. Congregations of other faiths are even more likely to do so.
  4. Adventist churches are more likely than congregations of other faiths to sponsor three kinds of community service. A clothing program—such as a Dorcas Society or thrift store—is the most common.
  5. The majority of Adventist churches sponsor a Community Service Center or Dorcas Society that provides donated clothing to needy individuals and families.
  6. One in 6 co-sponsors a Community Service Center with other nearby Adventist churches.
  7. Overall, 1 in 4 religious congregations sponsor a clothing program, sometimes called a Community Clothes Closet.
  8. The majority of Adventist churches also conduct or co-sponsor health programs for the community, including health education and health screening events as well as medical and dental clinics. 
  9. Nearly 2 in 5 local Adventist churches participate in prison or jail ministries, significantly more than other faith groups.
  10. Adventist churches are below the overall norm among religious congregations across America in all other types of community services.
  11. One in 5 local Adventist churches provide counseling services or a telephone “hotline” for families and individuals. 
  12. One in 6 local churches (17%) provide substance abuse programs for their own members and/or the community. 
  13. One in 6 local churches (16%) sponsor or help with a homeless shelter or other housing project, such as elderly or affordable housing.
  14. One in 6 local churches provide childcare services, including day care, preschool, and after-school programs.
  15. Overall, 1 in 4 religious congregations provide childcare, a very important service that government officials recognize as an essential contribution to the needs of the nation.
  16. One in 10 local churches conduct or sponsor a tutoring or literacy program for children and/or teens among its own member families or in the community. Other faiths are more than twice as likely to do so. 
  17. One in 10 local churches conduct voter registration and/or voter education for its own members or the community.
  18. Nine percent of local churches provide services to immigrant or migrant workers.
  19. Nine percent of local churches provide employment counseling, placement, and/or training programs that they sponsor or co-sponsor.
  20. Seven percent of Adventist churches conduct or participate in community organizing and social programs.
  21. Adventist churches are reaching fewer people than is the norm for all faiths. Two-thirds of local churches report that they touch the lives of 50 people each month.
  22. Adventists are less likely than the average American churchgoer to get involved in community service organizations not connected to the church.

The facts summarized in this survey reveal several areas in which the Adventist Church can take pride. Among these are the areas of health and wellness outreach and the existence of Community Service Centers or Dorcas Society programs. It is also surprising and heartwarming to see a strong Adventist emphasis and presence in prison ministry.

Community Service Center programs were formerly called “The Dorcas Society” in Adventist churches and were so named because the work they did found its biblical and historical roots in a New Testament personality called Tabitha (translated Dorcas), whose story can be found in Acts 9:36-43.

Dorcas was noted to have performed acts of good works for the infant Christian community. “This woman was full of good works and charitable deeds which she did” (Acts 9:36, NKJV).

The author of the survey report, Monte Sahlin, summarized the findings of this survey by highlighting the fact that the study reveals an area of concern for the local church as it battles to bring to bear every ounce of support the church can muster to reach the “least of these.” He writes: “Most members say that their participation in the activities of their local church is about the same as it was two years ago. Only 30% report that their involvement has increased.… Much more effort must be focused on involving teens and young adults in the mission and life of the church and increasing the impact of the church in the community.”

Sahlin also notes that the current issue facing the Adventist Church regarding its social justice involvement is much more complicated than it appears to be on the surface. The survey results, in some ways, are a wakeup call to Adventists as they begin to take a serious look at their reflection in the proverbial mirror.

Sahlin adds the following commentary in order to give a clear understanding of the full picture of Seventh-day Adventist social justice involvement: “There is an interesting set of contrasts in the self-image of most Adventist congregations today.… The majority of local churches see themselves as a moral beacon in the community, but only one in five is working for social justice.”

In my opinion, there’s absolutely no question on this point. There’s a very clear congruence between what one says and what one does. Actions do speak louder than words.  Nowhere is that truer than in the above indictment of the Adventist Church’s moral compass when it comes to social justice.

“Perception is not always reality” is a catchphrase bantered about within modern media. Yet, it is eerily clear here that just because people perceive themselves to be a “moral beacon” does not mean that that’s always the case. 

Some Seventh-day Adventists believe that they can claim to live on a moral high ground because of their theological views. Understanding that we are saved by Christ’s righteousness alone and believing in the second coming of Jesus Christ, the Sabbath, the state of the dead, the sanctuary, and health reform is very admirable. Returning a faithful tithe and offering is also noteworthy. Yet, the Bible, Ellen G. White, contemporary and historical Adventist theological scholars, as well as preachers and teachers, all remind us that the counsel of James 2:20 is still true: “Faith without works is dead.”

Where the Seventh-day Adventist Church has been historically on the issue of social justice gives us no clear indication of where it will be or where it’s headed as it navigates the path to the future. One thing is painfully clear. There are many more needs to be met in order to magnify the issues in the hearts and minds of Adventist Christians today. The struggles concerning these issues are immense and, one would contend, even vital or essential to the promise of receiving eternal salvation.

Church leadership, on every level, needs to be reminded that God has given the universal church—and that certainly includes the Seventh-day Adventist Church—a vitally important message on how to make this world a better place in which to live. As long as we’re here on earth, the Bible states that God’s Church, including Adventists, must become intentional about ministering to the poor. Why? Jesus said it best in Mark 14:7 as He responded to Mary’s discouragement after she anointed His feet with the oil from her alabaster box: “For you have the poor with you always, and whenever you wish you may do them good; but Me you do not have always” (NKJV).

Knowing, understanding, and practicing this “good” toward the poor “whenever we wish” is a reminder to us that God has made us caretakers of the earth and everything in it. That includes all land and sea creatures, plants and animals, and human beings that find themselves in the unfortunate condition of being vulnerable, endangered, or poor. Many people are in that condition through no fault of their own. They were simply born into such an environment. Sin has produced this ongoing tragedy.

God, who has blessed us with so much, expects His children to understand this and to make every effort to stem the tide of poverty, hopelessness, and despair. If nothing else, it’s our human duty.
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Leon B. Brown Sr. is executive vice president of the Pacific Union Conference.

(1) Monte Sahlin, Adventist Congregations Today: New Evidence for Equipping Healthy Churches (Lincoln, NE: Center for Creative Ministry and North American Division, 2003).

(2) This article is excerpted from a chapter in the upcoming book Ministry to the “Least of These,” to be released by Oak & Acorn Publishing.