God’s people are called to be salt and light wherever we go. This may be a common cliché we hear a lot in church but what does it mean in practice? How can we take the guidance of scripture and apply it practically in our communities? In this 6-part series, I will attempt to share some of my own answers from my faith journey through the world of the Campus and how God was able to help me be a blessing for Him.
The Purpose of the Series
I will begin this first article by establishing the foundation. Setting the stage for how my supportive faith community kept me grounded, yet allowed me enough appreciation for diversity to learn and understand the world outside the institutional church. I will also reference some of my own theological struggles and how the ability to wrestle honestly with God leads to a more solid faith experience.
I will then move quickly through my journey from the Seventh-day Adventist-institutional system to practicing my faith outside and how my willingness to live my beliefs openly allowed God to bless. I will share in the next section about the importance of personal spirituality and growth and how having a local church (community of believers) helped me through difficult times.
I will then transition to how ministry was a big part of living my faith and being active in service gave me an even more practical way to share my faith. One of the most practical ways, was simply being involved in campus ministry and I will share my own experience as well as the history and background of campus ministry in North America.
Finally, I will share my own suggestions and guidance for students who are active in campus ministry yet desire to connect with a local church. I will share some good and bad stories which will hopefully give practical guidance for those wanting to connect campus ministries with the role of the local church in spreading the Adventist message.
The Theory: Internalization
Before I could be a witness in a setting outside my own church I first had to internalize what I really believed. The process of internalization is so important and yet it is one of the ways in which Adventist young people experience unhealthy growth. The Apostle Paul wrote about this in the context of his assistant, Timothy. In 2 Timothy 3:15 he wrote,
and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. (NKJV).
While not everyone may have the advantage of childhood to train in spiritual growth, it’s certainly helpful the earlier you begin your relationship with God.
And yet, so many Adventist young people grow up memorizing scripture, participating in church life and yet leave when they finally get the chance. While establishing our young people in the scriptures is a solid foundation, there was also another factor, which, at least in my story, was helpful when I was away from the institutional church on my own.
In another place, the book of Acts records one of the messages given by the Apostle Paul at the Areopagus:
And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us. (Acts 17:26, 27 NKJV).
This understanding regarding different cultural backgrounds coming from the same creation source became very helpful to me early in life when I was faced with a lot of religious diversity. Because I had been able to internalize these sometimes seemingly contradictory notions, I was able to have a foundation that would prove useful later on in the campus ministry world.
Finally, to really make our faith real we have to wrestle with what we believe. When the culture of Heaven clashes with the culture of earth, internal struggles will inevitably follow.
Oftentimes, well-meaning church leaders will tell young, enquiring minds to not worry about finding all the answers to questions and just trust God. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this thinking, it often leaves young Adventists feeling confused and vulnerable, especially as we get bombarded with contradictory information.
In another place, the Apostle Paul ends a statement speaking on theological controversies with the line,
Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. (Romans 14:5b NKJV).
Paul’s point is that you can’t force a person to accept a way of thinking that contradicts his or her own narrative. Yes, you may be able to temporarily produce an appearance of acceptance, but enough time and opportunity often shows this method to be hollow. To truly make faith internal, it must be accepted internally: logically, emotionally and socially.
Many times, there might be a great struggle and some of the fruits of that struggle may not be so pleasing to church leaders or members. Yet, by being supportive and helping young Adventists ask and answer the tough questions of life, the church can serve as a tool for growth and spiritual internalization instead of just another temporary experience in the life of the non-believer.
The First Practice: Spiritual Grounding
For me, this process of internalization began with a bit of a heavy dosage of external activities. In my family, we had worship every morning, I was required to memorize my verses for Sabbath school, and I was an active participant in the daily activities of the church, as much as any 5-year old can be. While these were the basic activities of the family life, they weren’t the totality of my young faith experience.
I also found ways to exercise my faith outside of the direct control of my parents. In our church, we would go to the nursing home as do most traditional Adventist churches. Yet, we would also do door-to-door outreach. Even as a 6-year old I went door to door passing out books and tracts and inviting people to evangelistic series.
While for some more conservative-minded families this would only happen under the watchful supervision of mother or father, for me this happened outside the eyes of my parents as I was allowed to be with godly and trusted church friends. This was another step in my growth as it allowed my faith to extend both beyond the home and even beyond my parents.
I was also very much a part of the church’s institutions. I was in Adventurers, I went to the local Adventist church school (Junior Academy), and participated in all the church plays. When we had our evangelistic series and Bible studies I participated in them either helping greet at the door, collecting commitment cards, or making sure the church looked clean and in order.
This passion for the work of the institutional church was also important in the process of internalizing my faith so that it could withstand the tests that came later on in the pre-teen era.
The Second Practice: Appreciation for Diversity
While all of this church activity was very beneficial, I have seen personally that a lot of my friends who participated in these same tasks later no longer stayed as connected with the church. Why?
I would argue there is an ideal balance that must be achieved where an appreciation for diversity comes in. When I use the word diversity I mean simply a respect and understanding for others who may think and experience the world in ways different from one’s own, in this case particularly in the context of religious views and questions of a metaphysical nature.
I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit which happens to have the largest concentration of Arabs/Muslims outside the Middle East. There were also significant numbers of Orthodox in the area where I grew up, which allowed me to experience and appreciate the diversity around me, but without being overcome or overwhelmed by it.
Far too often, there have been some well-meaning individuals who called for families to leave behind the comforts of suburbia and rough-it in the mountains of the American West. While there is nothing inherently wrong about country living and self-sufficiency, many times it can close off young people from experiencing the cultural diversity of our post-Christian age and has them ill-prepared for facing something such as today’s world of the campus where diversity is not simply a part of the description, but is rather the identity and religion.
This appreciation for diversity also extended to our theological cousins in conservative Evangelical faiths. Some friends from my local Adventist church had left over a couple lifestyle choice debates and had joined the local Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.
When the children (who were the age of myself and my brother) asked if we could join them for their religious activities my parents agreed. As a result, this 7-year old became a member of KOK, the local church’s Children’s Choir.
By being part of a local church choir, not of my same denomination, but with many similar values and principles, I came to understand my own Adventist faith more, with our distinctiveness, while also appreciating and understanding how other faiths believed. I also had the chance to live out my faith in small but meaningful ways.
One example I remember is when all the pizza served at a party had pepperoni. As an 8-year old I could have easily been tempted to indulge in this new potentially delicious treat (after all my parents would never know), yet I chose not to. I felt very courageous as I silently sang “Dare to be a Daniel” and proudly shared with my parents later on my strong bravery rejecting the “meats” of the other faiths.
While my thoughts and feelings about this experience probably were a bit childish and naïve, the point still stands that at a young age, I was able to make a significant lifestyle choice in the Adventist direction without the presence of my parents or even anyone of the Adventist faith. These are the ways in with faith internalization takes place—helping serve as a bulwark against contrary forces which hit particularly during the teenage years for most Adventist young people.
RELATED LINK: Adventism 202: Part 1 Beyond List Theology
The Third Practice: Honest Wrestling
Yet practice, even in important lifestyle matters, is not enough if the heart and mind have not fully accepted and mostly importantly surrendered to Christ. All that is needed is some external instability, be it the death of a loved one, a loss of friends, or a separation in a family, and the childhood faith could easily be crushed.
While I never experienced something as drastic as the previously referenced experiences, I did go through my own faith struggle when external circumstances changed. At age nine my parents decided to move our family away from the church I had grown up in and the friends and supportive people who had helped me maintain a stable and growing faith relationship.
Now on my own—away from the supportive environment I had grown up in—it was time to test whether the foundations were solid enough to allow for greater spiritual growth. Away from the local church which gave me a solid foundation, away from the friends I grew up with who helped me socially and emotionally, I began to struggle.
Making new friends and connections was difficult enough when I had little to nothing of a base to start with. These external pressures began to create internal tension. I began to doubt. I began to question. I still went through all the motions and activities of the church. I was in Pathfinders, I still attended Sabbath School. I still memorized scripture.
Yet, the personal situations in my own life were starting to get me down. I began wondering about God’s existence, questions of theodicy, and what my purpose was. When I reached this juncture in life I had to make a choice, internally. Externally it was clear what I needed to do. I still needed to be in church, I still needed to attend Adventist schools, I still needed to be connected institutionally.
This is what happens to many Adventist young people. Because of their parents and connections, they become externally “cultural Adventists” but internally “true skeptics”. Give this skepticism enough time and it turns into agnosticism or atheism. And by the time the young person reaches their middle teens and is old enough to make his or her own decisions, church and faith in God fall by the wayside.
I decided I didn’t necessarily want to go down the same path many of my friends did. Today, almost all of the Adventist young people I grew up with as friends, are no longer Adventist. Many no longer even identify as Christian. What made the difference for me?
Because I had the strong spiritual foundation yet with the opportunity to practice and appreciate diversity, I was able to engage in a personal spiritual struggle which led me to reaffirm my faith. One of the benefits of facing this struggle earlier than the average Adventist young person was that I was still surrounded by answers rooted in faith and truth.
I was encouraged by some enlightened church members and family to study for myself. And so, I began. I read through the Bible. I read through the writings of Ellen White. I read through the philosophies of other Christian leaders. And I did all of this not because my parents told me, but because I wanted to test the answers of my faith. Even in the midst of great personal struggles in my school, my church, and my home I decided to trust God and engage in an honest bout of spiritual wrestling.
The journey didn’t provide me all the answers, but it did provide peace and stability. I found enough for myself that I could trust the Word of God and the teachings of my faith. Even though I faced crises like every Adventist young person will face, I decided not to abandon God or the church. Sometimes this is difficult, because often the source of young Adventist pain is well-meaning yet misguided church members or leaders. Yet by trusting God, He helped me get through the crisis.
My story is unique and does not apply to everyone. All of us Adventist young people are different. Our stories have their own caveats, twists, and turns which don’t apply across the board. However, I do believe that these three principles helped me have a solid foundation, so that I was able to live as an Adventist young person on the Campus and be a witness to those I would meet.
By having a solid background in the scriptures, the church, and its people, I was able to take the knowledge and experiences and apply them in diverse religious settings even at a young age. I had family and friends who allowed me the chance to engage in cultural and spiritual diversity, which helped me later on when I faced crises, to wrestle honestly with my beliefs and by God’s grace I make the faith of my parents become internalized as my own faith.
Be sure to follow along and read the next articles, where I will look at how this solid foundation allowed me to live my faith openly in the world of the campus.