In the digital age we now live in… how we communicate has never been more important…
“We communicate so as not to offend… we dont want to scare anyone off – just present our values …kindly… when they ask questions, then we can tell them we are Christians and eventually present our distinctive doctrines…”
Have you heard this before? There is probably an Adventist ministry near you operating with this strategy. In fact, I have personally setup a few initiatives exactly like this. I now call this the rhetoric of relevance.
Today I believe Adventist projects, ministries and institutions should avoid this rhetoric at all costs. Even if you still defend it, as you read I invite you to engage with me as we explore why this strategy could be so dangerous.
Christianity in North America, Europe and Australia has been dying for decades, some say irreversibly. The response has been an obsession with relevance. This rhetoric of relevance has impacted the Adventist church in profound ways across the world, causing many to prioritise mission in this order: Most of our new projects or initiatives go through three stages. First we decide on a name and create a logo to identify it. We then attract people to demonstrate our values as Christians. We don’t immediately emphasise our Adventist identity because people might reject it. Finally, when people ask, we gently lead them to Present Truth.
There are hundreds of projects like this across the world and in the last 20 years we have created an astronomical number of new logos.
We have succeeded, attracting millions. We then try desperately to bridge people to our Church; connect them with local churches, offer Bible studies and bring them to a committment to Christ.
We have NOT been successful at this. Whenever relevance is more important than truth we will always end up here – successful at attracting attention but failing at discipleship.
Present Truth First
I believe it is imperative that we revisit our priorities and place them in the correct order. Our Church is a prophetic movement; prophetic because our very existence has been foreseen in prophecy (Rv 10) and prophetic because our mission is to deliver a special message from Jesus (Rv 14). The historical term used to describe this message is ‘Present Truth’. The identity and reason for existence of the Adventist Church is to proclaim Present Truth to every human being on the planet. Further, our truth is in fact very relevant today. Take Sabbath for example, is it not God’s answer to capitalism?
When truth is the highest priority, relevance will be its servant. This will result in total transparency and a solid sense of identity. New projects and initiatives will be clearly presented as Seventh-day Adventist at all times, proclaiming our distinctive beliefs.
When people encounter a project or ministry for the first time, knowing it is Adventist, bridging will not be a problem – an invitation to an Adventist Church or to study the Bible with an Adventist will be a natural process.
The Salamanca (NY) Vision
Ellen White has a lot to say about communication, visual identity and branding. The time has come for us to struggle with these writings.
In the 1890s the only communications department of the Adventist Church was the Publishing Ministries. These communicators were excited about taking a new direction that would be more effective, in their eyes. They were about to put relevance first.
Whilst Ellen White was in Salamanca, God gave her a vision about this new approach. Following the vision, on five different occasions she attempted to share what she had seen and heard, but each time she could not recall beyond the first few words.
Essentially, she had seen several men discussing a publication, suggesting they drop the words ‘Seventh-day Adventist’ as well as reference to the Sabbath. They were enthusiastic about this approach, believing their publication would become more popular, reach more influential people and thus do a greater work.
Some months later, Ellen, who had been worshipping with the workers at a General Conference session each morning at 5.30, declined to attend the next morning, after a full day of preaching. That night, men met in the offices of Review and Herald, to discuss editorial policy for one of their publications. At 3 am, they dispersed, deadlocked over whether to drop the distinctive words or not. At that very same hour, Ellen was roused from her sleep by God’s messenger, telling her to go to the 5.30 worship after all, and present what she had seen in vision. In great detail she told what she had seen and heard. The President knew nothing of such a meeting, but when Ellen finished, a man stood, told of the night before, saying she had described his very actions and words. Others spoke up, confirming Ellen’s words and heeding her warning. God’s timing was perfect, preventing the “first step in a succession of wrong steps” being taken.
The Role of Inspiration
I believe God’s message delivered to the Adventist communicators of the 19th century is absolutely crucial to the Adventist communicators of the 21st century.
Here Ellen White addresses this issue: “The message we have to bear is not a message that men need to cringe to declare… we are under obligation to declare faithfully the whole counsel of God… God has given us light in regard to the things that are now taking place in the last remnant of time, and with pen and voice we are to proclaim the truth to the world, not in a tame, spiritless way, but in demonstration of the Spirit and power of God. The mightiest conflicts are involved in the furtherance of the message and the results of its promulgation are of moment to both heaven and earth.”
David Aakar, considered one of the fathers of modern branding, agrees with Ellen White on the basic principles of communicating who you are.
Transparency – communicate clearly who you are and why you exist. Based on the Salamanca Vision, Ellen White said: “They are not to seek to cover it, to conceal its origin and purpose.” Especially in our evangelistic efforts, we must always use the Seventh-day Adventist visual identity because the material will be shown to people who don’t know us yet.
Positioning – communicate what is different about yourself first. Based on the Salamanca Vision, Ellen White said: “We are not to make less prominent the special truths that have separated us from the world and made us what we are for they are fraught with eternal interests.”
Consistency – high quality at every touchpoint. Ellen White said: “The character and importance of our work are judged by the efforts made to bring it before the public. When these efforts are so limited, the impression is given that the message we present is not worthy of notice.”
Relevance and Truth
At this point I wonder what our communication outlets would look like if we put these principles into practice. I wonder what the impact would be if we had the courage to put Present Truth first and be honest with our prophetic calling. I imagine the new and creative ways we could proclaim Present Truth in a relevant way.
Relevant? Yes. Let’s be clear – the Adventist church would not be fulfilling its mission if it became irrelevant. This may sound like a contradiction. It isn’t.
The message God has given us to proclaim is relevant and should be proclaimed in the same way Jesus proclaimed it. This involves learning to speak peoples verbal and non-verbal language; starting from the known to the unknown; addressing peoples most profound dreams, aspirations and desires as well as fears and heartaches. The truth must inspire. When one of our beliefs seems not to inspire we must study it deeper, because Present truth is inspiring.
However, we must admit to ourselves that many of us are no longer inspired by the Adventist message. Somehow we’ve sterilized the beauty of Present Truth. A large number of those brought up as Adventists have left because we’ve failed to inspire them. Many who have stayed consider themselves as Christian and Seventh-day Adventist, as if these were distinct from each other. If a Christian continues to study the Bible and follow Christ they will become Seventh-day Adventist.
When listening to this new trend, often shared among pastors and leadership, it strikes me that we have somehow become embarrassed to be Seventh-day Adventist. Some of our Universities are so determined to deconstruct Adventism that graduates, including new pastors, are less happy to be Adventists then when they enrolled. It is crucial to deconstruct tradition and stale presentation of truth, but it is equally important to build something in its place.
On the other hand, some of us have become arrogant – we are right, everyone else is wrong. This is not the gospel of Jesus Christ and typically leads to obsession with conspiracy theories born from a destructive eschatology. This obsession with the end of the world is just as destructive as the relevance obsession we discussed earlier. The proclamation of Present Truth must inspire people to become disciples of Jesus.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church is not just another Christian denomination. It is a prophetic movement, called by a loving God to proclaim His final invitation before the renewal of all things. This has direct implications on how we communicate.
Building upon the great work done by the South Pacific Division, our global Communications team has been working on a new Visual Identity System. We can now show that our projects, ministries, departments, services and institutions are in fact, Adventist. This is done in a subtle way that avoids triumphant arrogance that has no place in God’s Kingdom but still proudly presents who we are.
GC Communications Dept