Along the course of my travels I have visited many a place of worship: from every flavor of Baptist church to (accidentally) walking into a sanctuary of snake handlers. And everything in between from Catholic to Mormon, to a Jewish synagogue once upon a time. As a professional journalist I was even once sent to report on a gathering of pagan worshipers.
But it's been all too rare that I've taken the opportunity to meet in fellowship with other Christians and not as a detached observer but as one who comes also seeking after our Lord and Savior.
So it is that a few days ago, I was invited to attend a Sabbath worship service at a Seventh-day Adventist congregation.
Up 'til now, my knowledge of Seventh-day Adventism has been unusually cursory: I understood that Adventists worship on Saturday instead of Sunday. That was basically it, other than I've long known that Adventists discourage the use of alcohol and tobacco (how I came to know that is a whole 'nother story). But over the course of two days I came to learn and understand a great deal more about those of my fellow servants known as Seventh-day Adventists.
Obviously, the most notable characteristic of Seventh-day Adventism is coming together to worship on the Sabbath, which in accordance to Judaic tradition lasts from sunset on Friday night until sunset a day later on Saturday. And to fully appreciate Adventism this must be borne in mind: that this is not "Saturday worship". Merely intimating that Saturday is the "holy day" of Adventism is not accurate at all, and I confess also at first having that common conception in mind. Rather, it is observing the Sabbath: something much more contemplative and wonderful. This is in keeping with the fourth of the Ten Commandments. As one of the fundamental beliefs of Adventism describes it...
"The beneficent Creator, after the six days of Creation, rested on the seventh day and instituted the Sabbath for all people as a memorial of Creation. The fourth commandment of God's unchangeable law requires the observance of this seventh-day Sabbath as the day of rest, worship, and ministry in harmony with the teaching and practice of Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath. The Sabbath is a day of delightful communion with God and one another. It is a symbol of our redemption in Christ, a sign of our sanctification, a token of our allegiance, and a foretaste of our eternal future in God's kingdom."I would soon come to realize that this not only pertains to congregational worship, but also that for Adventists the Sabbath is a very personal time of individual rest from labor and reflection upon Christ. Indeed, I found that the Adventist perspective of the Sabbath to be exceptionally sincere and... perhaps "refreshing" is the most appropriate word? For the Seventh-day Adventist, to be a Christian can not possibly be a matter of mere "religion". It is a pursuit of Christ for every waking moment of life, seeking with great zeal to serve Him first of all and then a service of others as He also served us first.
I have to say that in that regard, my own heart came to feel considerable kinship with my Adventist brethren.
Seventh-day Adventists hold in high regard Ellen G. White: a Christian writer of the nineteenth century and early 1900s, described by Randall Balmer as "one of the more important and colorful figures in the history of American religion". Which I feel obliged to address something here, and this is coming strictly as one who isn't a Seventh-day Adventist and is trying to be as objective as I can possibly be: Adventists do not worship Ellen G. White! I've found a lot of material floating around on the Intertubes insisting that Adventists hold up White on par with Jesus Himself, that Adventists are baptized into Ellen G. White, etc. During my visit with one particular Seventh-day Adventist congregation, which included a lot of time studying Adventist writings and doctrines in their library, I couldn't find anything remotely suggesting such a notion. I did however study much of White's own writings. And maybe I'm missing something, but from what I've seen she was a remarkably humble woman who did nothing to exalt herself (I was looking for such a thing, trust me) and instead did everything to ponder and meditate upon the glory of God. According to Adventist history, White had only a third-grade education, and yet I found her articulation to be on par with that of Martin Luther and John Wesley... and I can't recall anyone accusing Lutherans or Methodists of worshiping those guys (okay, some people do come to mind, but they're talked about on this blog too much already).
The Seventh-day Adventists are among the most Berean-minded followers of Christ that I have had the pleasure of meeting. The central tenet of their faith is "The Bible, and the Bible alone", and to this they strive utterly to hold true. Baptism is by immersion, and for those who profess belief in Jesus Christ (i.e. not "baptismal regeneration"). Adventists also practice an open communion, and observe the ordinance of foot-washing. During my visit I was able to witness both of these.
I arrived at the church at around 9:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning, in time for Sabbath school. I will admit: that does take some getting used to saying, being one who has grown up all his life hearing about and going to "Sunday school". But it's not Sunday school, is it? And it's not "Saturday school" either. It's Sabbath school. First there was a time of prayer and singing, and then the congregation delved into the lesson...
The subject was the Second Epistle of John in the New Testament. And it wasn't merely a time of teaching but also lively discussion among just about everyone in attendance. How lively? At one point Pastor Edwards used the Borg from Star Trek as a metaphor for Gnosticism!
(I must confess: this was religious discussion that was seriously tuned into my personal wavelength :-)
Sabbath school lasted for a little less than an hour, and then at 11 a.m. it was time for the main worship service. Which, as one who had never been to a Sabbath service before, I found it to be very much just like a worship service that one might expect in most congregations of Christians. However, I must also note that I found the spirit among the congregants to be especially joyful and ringing of praise. It reminded me quite a lot of the independent Methodist church that I spent the early part of my life growing up in: that same kindred and shared devotion to God in both singing and prayer...
This particular Sabbath is what Edwards likes to call a "High Sabbath": when the church holds communion. Preceding that however came a time of foot-washing. Men and women went to different rooms (I was told that this was a holdover from a time when women wore stockings and would usually need another lady's assistance in removing them for the observance of the ordinance). Married couples and families however could go to another room and perform the act with each other...
During this time, I saw husbands and wives pray together and confess to each other their failings, their unworthiness, and ultimately their thankfulness to God for His grace. It was a very moving fifteen minutes, and I am grateful for the opportunity to have been able to witness this throughout the church.
Following the foot-washing (and subsequent hand-washing... just want to be thorough in my reporting here folks :-) the congregation returned to the sanctuary for communion. I also found this to be very much like the communion that I have taken in many of the churches that I have visited over the years. Pastor Edwards spoke a prayer of thanksgiving and blessing, and then the church's deacons distributed the elements to us.
Following our partaking of communion together, Pastor Edwards encouraged everyone to have a good and restful Sabbath. Some of the congregants then left for home. However many remained and enjoyed a potluck lunch in the church's fellowship hall (I am also told that potluck dinners are very much a tradition following worship services at Seventh-day Adventist churches).
According to recent figures, Seventh-day Adventism is one of the fastest-growing denominations of Christianity not only in the United States, but throughout the world. Based on what I have recently seen firsthand, I can understand why that would be. During my visit with the Adventists, I saw a very real and sincere hunger for Christ that... and I am disheartened to say this... is all too absent in our world. For the Adventist, it is about Christ and diligently searching the Word of God for guidance and wisdom. In a day when so much of modern Christianity seems to follow fleeting fads and fading fashion, what I discovered in the Seventh-day Adventist church was very much the same love of God and love toward one another that has endured twenty centuries of man's history and fallen nature. For the many who are growing tired of illusion, there is something very appealing to be found in the Seventh-day Adventist understanding.
I am extremely thankful to Pastor Jonathan Edwards and everyone in the family of the Wilson First Seventh-day Adventist Church of Wilson, North Carolina for the opportunity to observe, ask questions and photograph their worship service. It was a very enjoyable and uplifting visit, and I cannot but remark that I feel that God richly blessed my time with them enough that I went away all the better for it.