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Seventh-day Adventist leader calls on family experiences to tackle challenges facing the church

Published: Friday, July 25 2014 5:20 a.m. MDT

Updated: Thursday, July 31 2014 1:31 p.m. MDT

Seventh-day Adventist Church North American Division President Dan Jackson offers prayer at the beginning of an annual church business session on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012.

Ansel Oliver, Adventist News Network

SILVER SPRING, Md. — Nothing — not surviving a car wreck en route to his wedding, nor being a Seventh-day Adventist missionary, nor years in the pulpit — had prepared Dan Jackson for the challenge his daughter threw at him on a Saturday afternoon.

The eldest of his three teenage children at the time didn't appreciate the weekly ritual of attending Sabbath services where dad was the preacher.

“ ‘You make us go to church because you don't want to look bad,’ ” Jackson recalled her saying. "It hit me like a brick, right between the eyes. … I was stunned."

After pondering her words for a couple of hours with his wife, Donna, Jackson called the children together to announce that when they turned 17 years old, attending Rutland Seventh-day Adventist Church in Kelowna, British Columbia, where Jackson served, would be their choice.

"There were a lot of people who thought I was stark raving mad," he said of his parishioners. "Seventh-day Adventists have strong beliefs and a strong culture, and we can force people into the mold, but we really don't help them in the long run."

An upbeat man with a puckish sense of humor, the 65-year-old Jackson draws on that experience when puzzling out the challenges he faces as the Adventist Church's North American Division president. While the 151-year-old denomination was born in the U.S., less than 10 percent of the membership resides in North America. Leaders such as Jackson recognize decades-old methods of outreach that worked among their aging membership aren't as effective as they once were — particularly with young adults.

"We cannot rely on methods that were developed and implemented in the ’60s. We're not living in the 20th century anymore," he said. "So I (believe) that thinking Seventh-day Adventists … are realizing that we've come to a point in time where the mission of the church is expressed in a way that is relevant to our own culture."

Relevant expression of faith

That expression may take forms other than traditional broadcasting outreach, weeks-long evangelistic meetings in or near local churches and even the longstanding practice of "literature evangelism," often carried out by door-to-door salesmen hawking "The Bible Story" and other family-oriented books.

"Adventism has got to move beyond its own walls. We've got to quit believing that the only relationships that we have are the safe relationships that we find on Sabbath morning," he said. "We need to become the incarnation of the things we believe."

It's this "incarnational" style of religion, he believes, that not only impresses today's post-modern youths but also had an impact in his own family.

He recalled his youngest daughter being a "very self-motivated, initiative-taking kind of person," leaving home in her mid-teens and returning "with a surprise who became our grandson."

Dealing with the unplanned pregnancy of an unmarried teen daughter, Jackson informed his congregation's leaders and offered to let them call for another pastor if they desired. He also told them it would be up to the congregation, and not their pastor, to exercise any church discipline.

"Pastors are people," Jackson said, explaining both his candor and the reason he gave leaders that option. "Yes, congregations have expectations (of members), but pastors also have to be able to negotiate an understanding (that) my kids are people, they will make mistakes, but I'm going to love those kids more than I'll love you."

One day, the women of the congregation showed up at Jackson's home, asking to see his daughter. The young expectant mother was a bit anxious, he said, until one of the church members greeted her, "We've raised $400 and we're here to take you shopping!"

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