Why We Need to Change Our Message, Not Just Our Method

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I’m sure you have heard the following saying a thousand times: “Change the method, not the message.”

The phrase simply means that there are things as Christians that we can’t change - like the message of the Bible - and things we can change - like how we deliver that message. While the message itself is timeless and changeless, the way we deliver that message shifts and evolves over time.[1]

The problem church leaders often encounter is that, when attempting to change the method they get accused of trying to change the message. For some reason, some people see any deviation in method as a step toward apostasy. In a recent article, I suggested having churches that gather at a different hour on Sabbath besides 11 AM. As you can imagine, some folk accused me of trying to change our theology of Sabbath even though I never suggested such a thing. In my defence I appealed to the “change the method not the message” phrase as I have done countless times in the past.

And to be honest. I do still believe that this is the way to go. However, in recent months I have begun to rethink this idea and am now approaching it with more nuance. While I believe the message of the Bible is timeless and changeless there is a sense in which I think we need to change our message.

At this point, some of you may be horribly confused and possibly even alarmed. If that’s the case, relax. I don’t have any tantalising heresies to bring to the table today. Just keep reading.

During the past month I have noticed something during my social media binge sessions. Many of the Adventist pages that I follow have been consistently publishing this message:

“The seventh day is the Sabbath, not Sunday.”

 

 

Now of course, I agree. It was true yesterday, it is true today and it will be true tomorrow. But here is what troubles me - this message, true as it may be, is utterly meaningless in today’s post-Christian culture.

When Adventists first proclaimed the Sabbath message the majority of our listeners where mostly Protestants with a very high regard for scripture and the Ten Commandments. As a result, many already kept the first day (Sunday) as Sabbath. The message that the Biblical Sabbath was not on the first day but on the seventh and rooted in a continued protest of Papal oppression had value. Our listeners, most of who (once again) were already Sabbath keepers, found relevance in it because it spoke to an active part of their already active faith life.

We live in an increasingly post-Christian society.

However, we no longer live in a wold where the vast majority of people are Christian. Instead, we live in an increasingly post-Christian society which means no one gives two hoots about whether the Sabbath is on Sunday or Saturday. The entire conversation, to them, is a non-issue at best and a colossal waste of time at worst. While the “Sabbath is on Saturday” message may have had meaning to a culture that already kept some form of Sabbath, it is meaningless to a culture that never even heard of Sabbath. The vast majority of our post-Christian society has never even set foot inside a church or opened a Bible. In fact, many of them don’t even know what a pastor is.

So when I see present day Adventists constantly pushing this message of “Sabbath is Saturday not Sunday” my immediate question is - who are you talking to?[2] Is it our increasingly secular society? Because if it is, they have no idea what you are talking about. Is it to the emerging post-truth, post-church meta-modern generations? Because if it is, they hardly know who Jesus is (apart from a swear word) let alone what day the Sabbath is.

See here’s the real problem. There are too many Adventists that have zero contact with anyone outside of Adventism. We talk to ourselves about ourselves until we are full of ourselves and the whole time we have no idea what people out there are really, truly in need of. We need to change our message because what we are saying isn’t connecting at all.

Now of course, I am not suggesting we pull an emergent church relativist spin on the Bible and completely alter the narrative of scripture to placate post-modern sensibilities. What I am saying is that the message we proclaim must come from the Bible but must also be meaningful to the people who hear it. Sadly, most of the topics I have heard Adventists get all riled up over (change of Sabbath, secret rapture, speaking in tongues, human nature of Christ) are things few outside our faith community have any interest in. So while the message of the Bible is changeless, the parts of that message that we emphasise need to be relevant to our listeners or else… they ain’t listening.

Don’t believe me? Let’s just look to Jesus for a moment. Christians love preaching the gospel using the phrase “you must be born again”. It leads all our gospel presentations. But do you realise Jesus only ever used that phrase once and never again? He spoke it to a Jew who believed his natural birth as a descendant of Abraham qualified him for heaven. Jesus message to him was, “you must be born again.” (John 3) But when Jesus spoke to the woman at the well, he didn’t use the born again language. Instead he told her that he was the living water and whoever drank of him would never thirst again. (John 4) Then, in the very next chapter he tells the healed paralytic to “stop sinning or something worse may happen to you” and to the pharisees “you refuse to come to me to have life”. (John 5) In other words, he preached the same message, but it was also a different message. The foundation was the same, but the emphasis was different. To one he emphasised rebirth to another he emphasised satisfaction, to another he gave a warning and to another he presented himself as the true source of life. We see this same pattern of preaching the same foundational message in diverse ways throughout the Bible. Salvation is presented as adoption in one place, as reconciliation in another, as forgiveness (using the picture of debt and debtor), Jesus as the unknown God, and yet again, Jesus as a recapitulation from first Adam to second Adam.

So here is my point. The narrative of scripture is changeless. But the message we extrapolate from it and present to the culture has to change over time the same as our method. Today, the world still needs to hear about the Sabbath but it needs to be presented from a different Biblical angle to what our pioneers found meaningful. I have found that presenting the Sabbath in terms of anti-consumerism, social justice and equality (as some examples) connects much more effectively. I have yet to share the Sabbath with a secular person who then turns around and asks what day its on. They see it in the Bible. They like it. They move on. The argument over the day is utterly meaningless to them.

Now to be clear, this article is not about how we should present the Sabbath. Please don’t get hung up on that. I only used the Sabbath to illustrate the larger point that its not just our method that needs to adapt to diverse times and cultures but our message as well. While the foundation of what we believe and teach will never and must never change, as our understanding grows, as God reveals more, as language evolves, and as time and cultural trends shift we must be prepared to adapt our message as well in order to speak present truth into the hearts and minds of our listeners in a way that will capture the attention and lead them to Jesus.

To wrap things up, here are some basic examples of how I preach the same foundational message while preaching a different message at the same time.

Sabbath: When speaking to post-Christians, I present it in the frame work of the Old Testament minor prophets emphasis on social justice and on the overall theme of God’s desire to be with us. The increasing popularity of holistic lifestyles also makes for a simple inroad to discuss the Sabbath. Basically, if you approach the Sabbath religiously you have lost them. If you approach it relationally, you have an audience.

The Pre-Advent Judgement: The book of Daniel has an overarching theme that is very anti-empire, a sentiment many millennials gel with. The Investigative Judgement culminates as the beginning of the end of human empires (including the institution of the church), oppression, coercion and injustice.

The Gospel: The idea that in Jesus all our sins can be forgiven and we get a free ticket to heaven doesn’t connect with post-Christians whose high regard for justice goes unsatisfied. In addition, this generation has witnessed a church culture that sings cheesy songs about how forgiven it is while simultaneously mishandling (at best) and perpetuating (at worst) abuse, rape, male dominance and mistreatment of the LGBT community. Therefore, this culture is less interested in how forgiven they can get to squeeze into heaven. They want to know that God’s justice is just. As a result, I present the gospel as a dynamic, progressive restoration to creations original love design rather than a “I’m so bad but Jesus is so good he gives me a free ride to heaven” narrative that they find repulsive. This does not mean I deny the beauty and truth of justification by faith which is the foundation of Christian faith, but I am careful to present it in a more holistic way.

End Time Events: For Adventists, end time events tend to revolve around the Pope and that’s basically it. I still believe this. But for the culture today, the Pope is a foreign figure. While Luther lived in a society that was perpetually conscious of the church and its influence over conscience, politics, law and existential inquires today the culture is by and large unconscious of the Roman Church. As a result, I begin with the 1260 days and describe the oppression of empire, including the church as a violation of human rights. From there, I progress into Revelation under the same theme of injustice and present the Roman Church as playing a role, among all other oppressive empire systems, in what will be the greatest humanitarian crisis the world has ever seen - a universal regime of oppression at war with God’s kingdom. I also present the remnant church theme as a rebellious, underground movement of anti-conformists who protest in favour of God’s kingdom of love, equity and justice.[3]

State of the Dead: This is one doctrine that hasn’t required an awful lot of rethinking. That is because millennials and post-millennials tend to have a high interest in supernatural, metaphysical themes (see the book Meet Generation Z). The popularity of New Age, mystical and eastern ideologies means that questions over the human soul are still very relevant. However, because this study touches on the original holistic design for human consciousness I also find it opens the door to conversation on how God relates to gay marriage, transgender rights and gender fluidity.

While there are more examples, I think I have made my point pretty clear. It’s not just our method that needs to change. It’s our message as well. Not its foundation but certainly its contemporary proclamation. And all of us can do this. All it takes is stepping out of our SDA bubble and becoming students of, and friends with, the culture. As we engage in conversation and pour into understanding their value structures we will be more capable of presenting a message that meets their interest instead of parroting stuff people stopped caring about a long time ago.


[1] Biblical examples of method shift are clear. Paul, for example, spends a whole chapter in Acts laying the theological foundation for why circumcision is no longer necessary and then in the very next chapter, he has Timothy circumcised before going to see the Jews. Likewise, when speaking to Jews Paul makes ample use of Old Testament history while, when speaking to the Greeks he utilises a combination of a simple gospel message and their own poetry and religious practices. The tension over adapting method, while quite apparent in scripture has been contentious in post-reformation Christian history. For example, John Wesley was criticised immensely for preaching outdoors instead of in a church despite the numerous examples of Jesus doing so.

[2] Adventists who say their target audience is other Christians when they promote the message “Saturday is Sabbath, not Sunday” are also out of touch with the broader Christian world. While this message may still be met with interest in some circumstances, the vast majority of times it is discounted as a legalistic obsession. In addition, while most protestants in the days of early Adventism were sabbatarians (they believed the Sabbath command still applied, albeit on Sunday) today, most Christians are not sabbatarians at all and do not believe in any solid theology of Sabbath whatsoever. Therefore, discussing the change of the Sabbath with them is about as meaningless as discussing it with a post-Christian. Instead, the Sabbath must be approached as a celebration of the salvation story in order to be met with a positive reception that opens the door to further dialogue. The most basic reaction to the message “Sabbath is Saturday not Sunday” in both Christian and secular circles is essentially, “so what?”

[3] Some may be thinking that all I have done here is taken outmoded theological frameworks and bathed them in contemporary buzzwords. But this would be a caricature of what I am suggesting. While we do need to use new words to communicate truth, my contention is that we need to paint a whole new picture of that truth. Growing up, for example, the picture of the remnant church at the end of time was an isolationist picture bathed in religious ideas but absent of any real social impact. As I have rethought this doctrine, as well as all the others, it is not simply the language that I use to communicate it that has changed but also the big picture I see the Bible presenting and how that relates to contemporary issues. The isolationism and sectarianism of remnant theology I was taught has been replaced with an inclusivism that brings the concept to life, for example.