During my junior year at Thunderbird Adventist Academy in Arizona, I was driving my parents’ car home when suddenly a tire blew out, causing the vehicle to roll several times.
Two of my passengers were taken to the hospital in helicopters, and my dad was rushed to emergency surgery and spent six days in the intensive care unit. Sitting in the hospital waiting room with my mother, I was overwhelmed with guilt and pain at the thought of having almost killed my dad, my niece and two of my friends.
In my trauma, I agonized over why God allowed this accident to happen. There is no way an all-powerful, all-loving God can exist in a world like this one, I concluded. Consequently, I went from being the “perfect” Seventh-day Adventist boy who never doubted my parents’ religion to being an agnostic. Then, after going on a mission trip where I witnessed enough miracles that I could no longer doubt the existence of God, I became a deist. I knew there was a God, but did He really care?
Over a span of two years I studied my way back to the Adventist doorstep; however, I knew I would not be welcomed back because of my current lifestyle. So I kept telling myself I had to make myself “good enough” for church.
Fortunately, on my spiritual journey God has placed influential mentors in my path, particularly Erik Vandenburgh, youth and summer camp director for the Hawaii Conference, and Steve Hamilton, who pastors the Paradise Adventist Church in California. These two pastors helped me learn the following principles for ministering to former Adventists.
Live it—don’t yell it.
All through my experience I asked people I admired questions, yet these people didn’t often give unsolicited advice. Others tried to comment, but I dismissed their words because they had no relationship with me.
“You have to build relationships with former Adventists … that are not conditional on whether they come back to church,” states Hamilton. “You have to truly care about them.” Telling me how unhealthy my habits were did not change my mind; arguing did not change my mind; people who made sure I knew that I was loved changed my mind.
Give the person who smells like smoke a hug.
When I finally wanted to come back to church, I felt like I couldn’t. I knew enough to stay away from Christians when I smelled like sin, based on the judgment I had seen happen to so many people in my years growing up in the church. “Making choices that don’t align with the church doesn’t mean the person has a bad heart,” says Vandenburgh. We are often too quick to judge based on actions, without trying to look at the heart.
Don’t be afraid to say I’m sorry.
While I did not leave the church over hurt feelings or a relational issue, I am the exception. That is the number one reason people leave. “Be willing to say I’m sorry and it breaks my heart that that happened to you in the church,” Hamilton urges.
Invite people who are on the outside to get involved.
Being invited on a mission trip moved me along in my journey, as did Vandenburgh hiring me at an Adventist summer camp when I was not living a life that made me qualified to lead. When I asked Vandenburgh how many of the “risky hires” he has made got baptized, he said, “Probably zero. But 100 percent of those risks turned out positive, because on some level every one of them encountered God. If they encountered God, then it was a success.”
Jack Daniel is an English literature major minoring in youth ministry at Union College.