Worldly Adventism

Sabbath is a defining belief and practice of what it means to be Seventh-day Adventist. But what Sabbath looks like—how we "keep the Sabbath"—is not so straightforward.

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Here’s an idea for a research project: travel around the world, both interviewing and observing how Seventh-day Adventists in different countries and cultures “keep” Sabbath. Of course, there will be commonalities, but there are likely to be significant differences.

For example, a friend who became an Adventist in eastern Europe told me about the strict restrictions he was taught about not cooking or even re-heating food on Sabbath—all food would be prepared on Friday and eaten cold on Sabbath—but that their church youth group would then go to a local park to play soccer on Sabbath afternoon. When he moved to the United States, he was surprised to see people cooking Sabbath lunch, while he would be frowned upon if he was seen kicking a soccer ball that afternoon.

In Pacific island nations, I have participated in Sabbath programs, of which the traditional Sabbath school and church timeslots have been the focus, but only as part of a day-long schedule of music, worship, prayer, testimonies and preaching that begins before dawn and goes past sunset—of course, with a pause for some kind of “closing Sabbath” worship—into a sacred music concert extending late into Saturday night. But, like many Sabbath-keepers, I have also enjoyed Sabbaths on beaches and mountaintops a long way from any formal worship services or church meetings.

In some parts of the world, I have been taken to restaurants for Sabbath lunch, something that would never have occurred to us growing up in the Adventist Church in Australia. It seems generally accepted that in some professions, primarily medical, Sabbath work is permissible, but what about other professions that are focused on doing good for others, however broadly we might define that “good”? And on hot summer Sabbath afternoons, questions about the appropriateness of swimming—as compared with “nature walks” or even just splashing our bare feet at the water’s edge—seemed to have some urgency when I was a boy.

As our name proclaims and insists, Sabbath is a defining belief and practice of what it means to be Seventh-day Adventist. Within Adventism, it is usually among our least-controversial doctrines. But what Sabbath looks like has always been a subject of some discussion. One of the early questions in Sabbatarian Adventism was a debate that ran over some years about when the observance of Sabbath should begin and end. Once the sunset-to-sunset format was generally agreed, a slew of traditions grew up around what the rest of the day should look like. These included worship meeting formats and times and the other “rules” about what should and shouldn’t be done—some derived from the Bible, others from the churches and cultures that Adventist converts had come from.

And our formulation of the Sabbath belief allows for this—a good example of how our Statement of Fundamental Beliefs was intended to be descriptive rather than prescriptive; a consensus statement of what is generally held among Seventh-day Adventist believers rather than a creed that believers are to be measured against. Key wording in the statement of belief includes that Sabbath is a day for “rest, worship and ministry”, “a day of delightful communion with God and one another” that should be both “joyful” and “holy”. The Seventh-day Adventist doctrinal statement and its variant applications and practices around the world seems a worthwhile example of unity within diversity.

"The best Sabbath-keeping and the best Adventism is that which is good for others, good for our communities and good for the world."

How then do we determine our own practice of Sabbath—or whatever our other questions of Adventist faith practice might be—in our lives, in our place and culture? While we might celebrate the latitude we have to enact such a belief in our own lives, as soon as we step back into a faith community, there will be differences of perspective and practice, some of which will require negotiation. And the risk that comes with increasing exposure to a wide variety of “Adventisms” and Sabbath-keeping is that of settling for the lowest common denominator. When we put all these things together, we cook food and play soccer, we meet for worship depending on the weather, we go out for lunch, we work because what we do is “good”, we hike and we swim—which all might be good things in their own way, but suddenly Sabbath is no different from any other day.

While we can have our theological differences and debates, it seems that the most important questions for Adventism are less often about theology and more about attitudes and outcomes. As in the example of our shared beliefs about Sabbath, common theological understandings can lead to diverse practices. Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 10:23, there can be variation, “but not everything is beneficial”.

As such, “Which Seventh-dayism?” or “Which Adventism?” are less questions of variant doctrinal formulations or theological understandings as they are questions of what is beneficial. As Paul continued, “Don’t be concerned for your own good but for the good of others” (1 Corinthians 10:24). The best Sabbath-keeping and the best Adventism is that which is good for others, good for our communities and good for the world. More often, we need to ask ourselves and each other within our church communities this question: Who benefits from what we believe and how we practise it?

This question resists the tendency of faith—and particularly unique formulations of faith—to make us more insular, more fearful and even more self-centred. If our faith and its practices benefit only ourselves, making us feel merely more right, we are using our faith wrong. Instead, our best practice of faith calls us to be more engaged with others and with the world around us in ways that are kind and creative, courageous and generous.

A few years ago, a large Melbourne-based university where I was a graduate student adopted a new slogan and marketing campaign to encapsulate, position and promote itself in a single, bold word: “Worldly”. As someone who grew up in a church environment, I don’t think I had ever heard this word used positively, so I was immediately intrigued by the idea of a strategic marketing meeting at which this concept was pitched and accepted by the university’s leaders. For them—it seemed—this word best summed up what the university aspired to be and why someone should choose to be a student there.

The continuing roll out of marketing materials added to the picture of “Worldly” as a promise to expand a student’s experiences and understandings of our world in a wholistic way, becoming engaged with, interested in and passionate about—as well as relevant and useful to—the wider world. Which, as counterintuitive as it might initially sound, is exactly what our faith and we, as people of faith, are called to do and be. “God loved the world so much . . .” (John 3:16)—and so should we.

So which Seventh-dayism? Which Adventism? When we follow the example of Jesus and the teaching of Paul, this is not merely a doctrinal formulation or theological understanding, but a “worldly” faith and practice that brings benefit to all people. That will look different in different lives and communities, in different times, places and cultures. It does not promise to be the easiest way to believe or live, but “worldly” Seventh-day Adventism has the potential to be the most faithful.

And I’m still interested in that Sabbath-keeping research project, particularly as to how different and diverse communities are better places because Sabbath people live in them.