He threw the book Counsels on Health back in my face and sneered with disgust, “When I was growing up, Ellen White was always used as a hammer that was consistently slammed with great force upon my head. It hurt a lot! And to be honest with you—I’m over her!”
I sat there with my mouth gaping open. My jaw hung so low that two people walking past me almost tripped! I couldn’t believe what I was hearing from this twenty-something college student graduating with his nursing degree from a prestigious Seventh-day Adventist university.
I was taken aback that my gift to him, paired with my innocuous comment congratulating him on his pending graduation, would bring forth such obvious pent-up anger and frustration. Hoping to defend my friend Ellen’s apparently soiled reputation, I countered, “Whoa! Pump the brakes, dude! Why’d you snap on me like that and throw the book back at me?”
What followed was a sad—but often-heard—commentary on the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s ability to effectively share the power of this prolific author.
This brief interaction is just a microcosm of the deeper and troubling reality that Adventist youth and young adults frequently aren’t interested in reading Ellen White. That’s especially unfortunate because we are at a crossroads in the history of the world and in the life and health of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
And it’s ironic, because Ellen White herself cared deeply about the salvation of young people and understood the necessity of answering the needs of youth, whatever they may be. She wrote: “I advise and exhort that those who have charge of the youth shall learn how to adapt themselves to meet the youth where they are” (Manuscript Releases, vol. 6, p. 92).
A Passion for Youth
In his day, James White—Ellen’s husband, cofounder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, evangelist, and publisher—was also extremely concerned about meeting the spiritual needs of young people. He worried that many parents, lacking the proper relationship with Jesus and, in turn, failing to make saving their children from this sinful world a priority by appropriate “instruction to the youth,” would damn their children to an eternity without God.
As a result, shortly after starting the Review and Herald magazine in 1849, James White began publishing The Youth’s Instructor as a monthly publication for providing Sabbath school lessons to benefit Christian youth. He cited Paul’s instruction in 2 Timothy 3:1-5 as a scriptural mandate and bedrock principle upon which to build his vision of instructing the youth of his day.
He observed: “There are a portion of the children who have believing parents, or guardians, who are neglected, and do not have right instruction, consequently, they do not manifest much interest for their own salvation. We trust that such a paper as we design publishing would interest such children, and also be the means of waking up their parents, or guardians to a sense of their important duty. On them rests the awful responsibility of training souls for the kingdom of God. But it is a lamentable fact that many of their children are left without suitable instruction. . . . May God wake up his people to a sense of their duty to those young minds, entrusted to their care, to guide in the channel of virtue and holiness.”
On the first page of the first issue of The Youth’s Instructor, James White penned a description of the youth of the times that could easily be echoed today. “The young are receiving impressions, and forming characters for Eternal Life or for Death, in an unfortunate age of the world, when spiritual darkness, like the pall of death, is spread over the earth. Pride is fostered; self-will, anger and malice are not timely and faithfully rebuked. Many parents who profess religion have become so worldly and careless, that they do not instruct their children in the way to heaven. In fact, not living devoted and holy lives themselves, they do not set good examples before their children, therefore they are unprepared to instruct them.”
He pleaded with parents and guardians: “We must have your help. . . . You must take hold of this work in love and faith in your own families, and in your closets before God in prayer.”
Ellen White also felt that this was a crucial ministry. She contributed an article to the very first issue of Youth’s Instructor, and during her lifetime she wrote nearly 500 articles for the publication. The vast majority of them were written especially for the younger audience. They were designed to make a significant contribution in the preparation of God’s youth for Christ’s soon return.
What started out in 1852 as a monthly publication became, in 1879, a weekly publication. After 118 years, in 1970 the Seventh-day Adventist Church changed the magazine’s name, replacing it with Insight, the name it bears to this day. The goal of Insight is still to help youth and young adults to better know Jesus, love Jesus, and live Jesus.
Why Young People Don’t Read Ellen White
Though Ellen White wrote extensively for young people, many young Adventists today barely recognize her name! Why are so few Adventist young people interested in and engaged by Ellen White’s writings?
To answer that question, let me first ask a question: How many youth in our church are true Christians with a living, vibrant relationship with Jesus?
If past experience is any indication, we don’t have to wonder about the answer. Ellen White wrote this shocking statement: “I saw that unless there is an entire change in the young, a thorough conversion, they may despair of heaven. From what has been shown me, there are not more than half of the young who profess religion and the truth, who have been truly converted. If they had been converted, they would bear fruit to the glory of God. Many are leaning upon a supposed hope, without a true foundation. The fountain is not cleansed, therefore the streams proceeding from that fountain are not pure. Cleanse the fountain, and the streams will be pure” (Messages to Young People, p. 131).
I’ve been working with youth and young adults now for more than 25 years, and I’ve noticed a significant pattern: the folks who have the biggest issue with Ellen White are typically those who aren’t converted. The Apostle Paul calls them fleshly Christians who, although they call themselves Christians, in actuality live as “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Phil. 3:18, NIV).
I was raised in the Seventh-day Adventist Church and lived in an “Adventist ghetto.” I was baptized at the age of eight but didn’t really become a Christian until I was 27! I emotionally left the church at around the age of 15 and physically left the church after I graduated from academy. As a young person I hated Ellen White … she was always telling me that I couldn’t do all these “fun” sinful things, and she was always going on about Jesus!
But when, at age 27, I came back into the church and started seeking a real and vibrant relationship with Jesus, my relationship with the little old White lady took a drastic change. I read Steps to Christ and The Desire of Ages with a newfound hunger and excitement. I found myself weeping at her beautiful—and clearly Holy-Spirit-inspired—descriptions of the love, grace, and mercy of Jesus.
I wish I could tell you that my story was unique, but the longer I’m in this church and connect with youth and young adults, the more I find that my story mirrors the stories of an alarmingly large number of them.
How to Meet the Challenge
Ellen White herself admitted that ministering to youth and young adults would not be easy, but gave some valuable guidance and direction about how to design relevant resources for this demographic. In her final vision she saw that we need to publish books that will help young people understand how to better know, love, and live Jesus. However, she acknowledged that, for the most part, youth of themselves will not be able to rightly discern the importance both of the times in which they live and of appropriate spiritually enriching reading materials, including Ellen White’s writings.
She wrote: “We are now altogether too near the close of this earth’s history to keep before the attention of the people a class of books which do not contain the message which our people need. Draw their attention to books treating on practical faith and godliness” (Counsels to Writers and Editors, p. 147).
To complicate things further, in terms of sales of materials for this demographic, the vast majority of it isn’t purchased directly by youth. It’s purchased by people who know and love them: parents, teachers, youth workers, youth pastors, etc. Therefore, the youth must be encouraged to explore Ellen White’s counsels by people with whom they have a relationship, people who love them (and the youth must know that they love them!).
Ellen White advocates, as does the Bible, for godly and wise mentoring of our youth (see Titus 2). We need to guide our youth and young adults—whom King Solomon rightly calls “simple,” not because of lack of cognitive function, but simply because of lack of age and experience—into appropriate reading materials that will strengthen them in their relationship with God.
In the past there have been some great things done with E.G. White resources for youth, but more specific niche resources need to be designed and marketed more effectively.
An Ellen White Makeover
This brings us to the last crucial question that needs to be answered: What is needed as we go into the future to keep Ellen White’s writings fresh and relevant for young people?
Before we discuss this issue, it’s important to understand the mindset of not just the culture at large, but more importantly, of the smaller subset of youth/young adults. A generation ago, the paradigm for understanding truth was “modern” and consisted of these four meta-statements that comprise truth, life, and reality:
- There are moral absolutes.
- Truth can be known with certainty.
- Truth can be discovered.
- If it’s true, it works.
However, times have changed, and we—including the youth/young adults whom we are trying to reach for Jesus—live and function in a “postmodern” culture adhering to these competing four meta-statements that comprise truth, life, and reality:
- There are no moral absolutes.
- Truth cannot be known with any certainty.
- Truth is created rather than discovered.
- If it works, it’s true.
It is this latter postmodern paradigm—in mainstream Christianity and, yes, even within Adventism—that we must understand and work within. We need not only to understand this worldview but to actively combat it while seeking to develop and market resources that will effectively meet the deeper existential needs that youth/young adults are facing.
The sad fact is that the postmodern worldview will never be able to effectively answer the seven key existential questions that all humans, especially youth and young adults, wrestle with:
- Security: Whom can I trust?
- Identity: Who am I?
- Belonging: Who wants me?
- Significance: Do I matter?
- Purpose: Why am I here?
- Competence: What do I do well?
- Permanence: Where am I ultimately going?
Therefore, we as a church need to design resources based on Ellen White’s writings that will effectively meet these seven needs. Then we need to market them as resources that will help young people live the most effective, productive, happy, joyful, and pain-free life possible. In short, we must appeal to youth/young adults’ inherent self-centeredness.
I don’t mean to sound so mercenary about it, but unfortunately, in my professional opinion, that’s the way Ellen White needs to be “spun” to attract the attention of our youth/young adults. It’s not a pretty reality, and I feel somewhat dirty and deceptive even in writing it, but the facts are the facts.
So where does this leave us? Bottom line: we need to show how Ellen White’s writings meet present-day needs of young people in our culture. That means developing resources that address such challenging but real-life issues as:
- The origin of evil (i.e., if God is so good, why is there so much evil and pain in the world?)
- Sexuality (e.g., masturbation, fetishes, healthy sexuality)
- Addictions (e.g., food, drugs, porn, sex, relationships)
- Relationship issues (e.g., breakups, divorce, cheating/affairs)
- Abuse/neglect (e.g., sexual, physical, emotional)
- Alternate lifestyles (e.g., same-sex attraction, bisexuality)
- Environmentalism (e.g., radical environmentalism, appropriate stewardship of creation)
- Science (e.g., creationism/intelligent design vs. Darwinian evolution)
- Sanctity of life (e.g., abortion vs. right to life; end of life issues)
- Mental health and psychology
Spotlight on the Lesser Light
Ellen White warned that her writings were never to take the place of the Bible. She wrote: “The Lord desires you to study your Bibles. He has not given any additional light to take the place of His Word” (Letter 130, 1901). In fact, she described her own writing in this light (pun intended): “Little heed is given to the Bible, and the Lord has given a lesser light [her writings] to lead men and women to the greater light [the Bible]” (Review and Herald, Jan. 20, 1903).
Ellen White offers an incredible source of wisdom and insight for helping the Christian to live a more holy, God-focused, and Holy-Spirit-empowered life. However, if her writings aren’t perceived as
- written through the power of the Holy Spirit,
- relevant and useful to the lives of our present youth and young adult population,
they will slowly but surely lose their present waning prominence and will fail to be passed down from this young generation to their succeeding generations.
Unfortunately, there is a growing camp of individuals—even within the Adventist Church—who believe that Ellen G. White as a Holy Spirit-inspired writer must be vetted through empirical evidence (both hard and soft sciences) and other people’s experiences. Given the new postmodern reality, Ellen White must be perceived as “working” to be believed as “true.” Therefore, the most effective marketing and promotional plans would need to rely heavily upon first-person testimonials: people telling their stories—their own “truth”—about how E.G. White’s writings met their needs and/or solved a life problem or challenge.
The Silver Bullet
These tactics are good as far as they go. But God, through the Apostle Paul, reminds us that ultimately lack of interest in the Spirit’s gifts is a spiritual problem: “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:14, NIV). This means that the best, most relevant content, presented through the optimal medium (likely digital), and even the most effective and slick marketing strategies can be employed in order to make Ellen White’s writings relevant and palatable to a new generation, but if their hearts aren’t converted and tender toward God and His Spirit, it will all be for naught.
Jesus said of Himself: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32, NIV). The key to success, then—from the very lips of Jesus—is to focus the attention of our youth and young adults on finding, meeting, and falling in love, not with Ellen White (as wonderful as her writings are), but with Jesus (the very source and inspiration of her writings). Once this happens, a love for all of His truth—in whatever form it may come—will naturally follow.