Failing to Adapt

Dear Adventists, I think we’re failing to adapt …

“A Mighty Fortress is Our God” is one of my favorite hymns. It is one of the most beloved traditional hymns of Protestantism. However, some years ago I realized that, while this hymn may be traditional within Protestantism, it is much better classified as contemporary within the broader context of Christianity. Martin Luther composed this song 1,500 years after the birthdate of Christianity, 3,000 miles away from its birthplace, and at an incalculable distance from its birth culture. The character of its melody would be as foreign to the Apostle Paul as its original language. But, while foreign to Paul, this song was perfectly suited to meet the hearts and minds of the 16th century Germans Luther sought to encourage. Its suitability for its target audience was more important than its similarity to the music of the apostles. This is a powerful example of the value of cultural adaptation.

In Adventism today, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” is sung by every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. As it is one of my favorite songs, its popularity does not concern me. But what does concern me, is that in many places, songs like this one have not only attained popularity, but also superiority. Such songs are implicitly, and in some cases explicitly, deemed more acceptable to God than ‘other songs’ of worship. These ‘other songs’ are often derived from contemporary or local cultures. Even where these are accepted, they are often excluded from the divine worship service. Though unintended, the undeniable implication is that the cultures from which these songs are derived are less acceptable to God than the culture from which “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” is derived.

“A Mighty Fortress is Our God” provides a helpful analogy for the present state of cultural adaptation within Adventism. The song itself was a cultural adaptation, and yet, it has now become a norm from which cultural adaptations are reluctantly, if at all, accepted. This narrative is also true of our popular form of corporate worship, our theological emphases, and our issues of social engagement. They were established as suitable cultural adaptations, and yet, they have now become norms from which cultural adaptations are reluctantly, if at all, accepted.

Corporate Worship

Today, the most prominent characteristic of a local Christian congregation is its weekly worship service. For most of Adventism (and Christianity in general), these weekly services consist of a templated succession of rehearsed presentations, which build towards a meticulously planned monologue. Contrast this with Paul’s summary of the Corinthian worship services:

How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. 1 Cor. 14:26

This spontaneous, stageless, open forum bears little resemblance to what we call church today. And yet, I believe our cultural adaptation is just as acceptable to God. Nevertheless, it is, a cultural adaptation. Consequently, it should not be the norm by which other forms of corporate worship are to be judged. Within Biblical bounds, all worship variations should be judged, not by their similarity to historic forms, but by their suitability for their target audience.

For many with a Christian background (though not all), today’s popular form of corporate worship may be the most suitable environment to experience and worship God with others. Where these are the target audience, further adaptation is unnecessary. However, for so many others, our popular form of corporate worship is of little to no positive value. We often attribute their lack of interest in our services to a lack of spirituality on their part. However, this may have nothing to do with their spiritual orientation. Rather, it may be rooted in their ‘cultural’ orientation (using cultural in the broadest sense). Perhaps the Corinthian format would better suit these individuals. Perhaps an entirely new format would better suit these individuals. In either case, it is not they, but we, who are in need of change. It is we who must remember that our form of corporate worship is a cultural adaptation, and we must be willing to explore and embrace other cultural adaptations that do not violate Biblical principles.

Theological Emphases

I believe we are also failing to adapt our theological emphases. Many of us strive to comprehensively answer questions no one is asking, while being content with relative ignorance regarding the prevailing questions of our societies. Some may argue that the most popular questions are not always the most important. But even when this is the case, our inability to engage with the most popular depletes our credibility to discern the most important.

I realized this about myself some years ago. I could convincingly present many of the popular Adventist topics but had little to contribute to the then-popular debate over LGBTQ rights vs religious liberty. How could I claim a genuine concern for the welfare of my society, while being uninterested in one of its most pressing concerns? And without a genuine concern for the welfare of my society, my Adventist knowledge could only serve to puff me up (1 Cor. 8:1).

Jesus’ primary theological emphasis was the gospel of the kingdom of God. However, this did not prevent Him from substantial engagement with the popular questions of His society (Mt. 17:10-13; 19:1-9; 22:23-33; 22:36-40; Jn. 4:19-24; 8:1-7; 9:2-3). When questioned regarding paying taxes to Caesar, Jesus did not tiptoe around this political issue (Mt. 22:15-22). Though the scriptures offered no explicit guidance on this issue, He applied His intimate knowledge of God’s principles to provide a reasoned answer to this prevailing societal question.

Similarly, Paul “reasoned about righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come” with Felix (Acts 24:25). This reasoning was not explicitly from the scriptures. Rather, he applied his intimate knowledge of God’s principles to provide reasoned answers that could meet the mind of this corrupt Greek ruler.

Early Adventists also demonstrated deep engagement with the most popular questions of their society. We think of dress reform, education reform, and health reform as uniquely Adventist emphases. However, Adventists adopted these emphases during the Victorian Dress Reform Movement, the popularization of mandatory universal education, and a medical revolution caused by the widespread acceptance of germ theory. These emphases do not dominate any significant portion of scripture, yet the Adventists applied their knowledge of God’s principles to provide reasoned answers to these prevailing societal questions. These were cultural adaptations.

As with our opening hymn, in this area we are also hesitant to continue the long tradition of cultural adaptation. But like Jesus, Paul, and our pioneers, we must care for people enough to be concerned with their concerns. We must be close enough to the people to know what their most pressing questions are and apply our knowledge of God’s principles to provide reasoned answers to these questions. We must adapt.

Social Engagement

Historically, Adventists have been actively socially engaged. Many of the earliest Adventists were active abolitionists. Ellen White actively demonstrated her belief that Adventists were to be the “head and not the tail” in the prohibition movement[1]. Religious liberty has been and is presently an area of active Adventist social engagement. The church employs lawyers, lobbyists, and journalists to advance this social justice cause.

Adventists have considered it an expression of their faith to mobilize for specific political action on all three of these issues. I believe this active social engagement is in perfect harmony with the principles of the God of the prophets. Unfortunately, I think we’re failing to adapt. These three areas of social engagement were not rooted in the explicit teachings of the Bible. Rather, they were cultural adaptations of those teachings, perfectly suited for 19th century white America. But over 150 years later, in over 200 countries, our significant social activism extends only to the lone remaining issue of these three – religious liberty[2].

I believe in the value of religious liberty. But surely the needs of the world are crying out to us for more. We must adapt. Like our pioneers, we must determine the greatest social ills in our various local societies, and determine how we, individually and organizationally, can mobilize to make real change in these areas.


The gospel message was first entrusted to members of a fringe culture in the far corner of the Roman Empire. Those first trustees assumed that acceptance of the gospel required assimilation to this culture. God’s efforts to correct this stubbornly held fallacy are a recurring theme of the New Testament narrative and theology (Acts 10, 11, 15, 21; Gal 1-6). Though initially resisted, adaptation was eventually embraced. As a result, today Christianity looks nothing like the ancient culture of the Jews.

The unique truths of Adventism were first entrusted to members of a culture that was anything but fringe. Those first trustees appropriately adapted those truths to meet the needs of their society. Unfortunately, we have resisted further adaptation. As a result, today, across vastly diverse societies, Adventism looks much like it did in 19th century New England.

What if God had entrusted the unique truths of Adventism to an obscure Native American tribe? What if that tribe had refused to adapt those truths in the same way we have? Would you have accepted their message? Today, for millions of people, Adventism is as foreign as the customs of an obscure tribal people. These millions are not in distant lands. They are our neighbors and coworkers, our family and friends. In fact, Adventism is even culturally foreign to many Adventists, causing us to live strangely contradictory lives. This cannot be the desire of the God of the incarnation, who adapted every nonessential aspect of His being to relate to the culture He lived in.

We must adapt. In our corporate worship, in our theological emphases, in our issues of social engagement, and in other areas, we must adapt as far as Biblically possible. And when we have adapted, we must remember that these adaptations are as acceptable as “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”.

[1] DF 274, “The Des Moines, Iowa, Temperance Experience”

[2] End It Now was a positive step towards another area, but at the time this was written the website only listed 1 recent event since 2018.

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