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 their 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 1 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 which 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!"
What happened after that? "She had a child," Jackson said, "but the experience itself was so potent for her that it became the instrument of leading her back to God again. Today, she is the principal of a 12-grade Seventh-day Adventist academy. … God is using her in an amazing way."
His eldest daughter — the one who balked at weekly church attendance — continued to have problems with the family's faith.
She "wound up in the New Age, and her beliefs, which she maintained for a lot of years, have now dissipated," he said. "She does not totally orient to Christianity, but she has come a million miles. She has become very much closer to Christianity." (Their third child, a son, remained faithful and is an active church member today, Jackson said.)
Jackson believes it was the example he and his wife modeled of faith lived, not merely spoken, that helped close the gap.
A life preserved
Jackson, dressed in a charcoal suit, light blue dress shirt and patterned tie, reflected on his life, his family and the challenges the Adventist Church faces one July afternoon in his office. The papers on his desk attest that this is a working office, but Jackson's attitude is thoughtful and reflective, albeit with a seemingly permanent twinkle in his eye.
Against a backdrop of bookshelves displaying Adventist literature and Bible commentaries, as well as mementos such as a stuffed polar bear doll wearing a Canadian maple leaf sweater, Jackson said he felt a call to the ministry as a child. But the urge was sublimated after he developed a desire for a political career, planning on college degrees in economics, first, and then political science.
In one unplanned moment, that political career vanished.
A 20-year-old Jackson, driving to his wedding in Chase, British Columbia, fell asleep at the wheel. Instead of pitching over the side of a mountain into a lake a thousand feet below, the car veered left, crossed a lane of traffic and ended up in an eight-foot ditch. Jackson walked away.
"When the police came, they stood at the side of the ditch looking down at the car, and people had gathered around, and they were asking how many people had died," he recalled. "And I stood there, and it really started to hit me: my life has been preserved, and for what? I began to pray, and sensed the leading of God, and wound up in training for pastoral ministry."
That career change placed Jackson in a pulpit for over two decades, along with a five-year missionary stint at an Adventist college in Pune, India, from 1981 to 1985. The experience, he said, was "a real, deep privilege. India is a great nation, and the diversity there is kind of exhilarating. We were very free and felt free to go into Buddhist temples and Hindu temples."
He said the Muslim fruit-and-vegetable sellers in the community became friends, though he still regrets, 30 years later, not having gone with one of them to their mosque for prayers.
Jackson then served as a college chaplain and later a church administrator in Canada before his 2010 election to president of the North American Division, one of 13 global Adventist Church regions. Jackson's five-year term ends next July, when he could be re-elected.
Church confronts demographics
Whether or not he returns, the church Jackson helps lead continues to confront change. Along with the pull of secularism is an aging congregation. According to the North American Division's executive secretary, roughly 65 percent of current church members are either baby boomers or were born before that generation; fewer than 15 percent can be classified as millennials.
That "graying" of Adventism may be addressed by Jackson's hoped-for "incarnational" form of outreach, but also by redefining how the message is conveyed. One Adventist scholar maintains it's no longer a matter of selling a given Christian brand.
"The church’s ministry efforts were developed in a context very different from today," Loma Linda University religion professor Zane Yi said. "Back then you could assume people were Christian and denominations just had to convince people, through arguments, that theirs was the right or best version. Things are very different today and Adventism, like many communities, has struggled to figure out to communicate and minister effectively in a post-Christian society."
Facing economic realities, Jackson's division has seen changes old-timers might have dubbed radical: In the past 12 months, the centralized media center north of Hollywood, California, where the 85-year-old "Voice of Prophecy" radio program and the decades-old "It Is Written" telecast were produced, was disbanded, allowing those ministries to relocate to less-expensive areas.
In June, global Adventist leadership voted to transfer the Pacific Press in Boise, Idaho, to Jackson's division while closing and selling off the assets of the Review & Herald Publishing Association in Hagerstown, Maryland.
Print publishing was once an Adventist strength, but the availability of church writings on mobile devices for free has contributed to the declining demand for printed books. From 1985 to 2013, the Hagerstown operation's revenues fell by more than half, the Adventist News Network reported.
Such moves — and continuing tensions over the question of ordaining women to Adventist pastoral ministry — are causing ripples within the Adventist community.
Andy Nash, a Seventh-day Adventist who teaches journalism at Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tennessee, says that a malaise affecting young Adventists has many causes, including the recent shutdown of "The Record Keeper," a $1 million Web-based film project that portrayed Adventist themes through a steam-punk motif.
"I've never seen Adventist young people so excited about an official church initiative as (I saw in) my students about 'The Record Keeper' Web series," Nash said. "It grabbed their attention and got them thinking about deep things. It was very disheartening (for them) to get excited and have it taken away."
Church leaders say the project was shown to have some theological issues, but that they are willing to consider similar outreach in the future. And while the decision was made one level above Jackson's leadership role, its impact may be most keenly felt within his church region, where young adult retention is a hot topic.
Other avenues of growth for Adventists in North America exist, one scholar said. Ronald Numbers, a former Adventist and University of Wisconsin professor who authored a critical biography of church co-founder Ellen White, said Adventism's American future lies in the waves of immigrants coming to the nation's shores.
"It probably hasn't done any worse in the U.S. than many other Christian communities," Numbers said, via email. "But it's grown worldwide faster than most. Recent growth in America has come largely from the Latino community, leading some observers to talk about 'the browning' of the American church."
Perhaps no feature distinguishes Seventh-day Adventism from other Christian faiths as much as its adherence to what followers call the "Bible Sabbath," observed on Saturday, after the pattern of ancient Israel and as noted in Exodus 20:8-11.
In 1888, church leaders had to defend their right to worship on Saturday and work the rest of the week during U.S. Senate hearings on a "National Sunday Law" that would have criminalized working on the first day of the week. The bill never passed, but the prospect galvanized the 25-year-old movement into a course of religious freedom advocacy that continues today.
Adventists have often made the Sabbath a cornerstone of outreach efforts, with preachers and evangelists offering up to $100,000 to anyone who can find a Bible verse showing the day of worship had been changed to Sunday.
Today, the need for a regular day off from work may be greater than ever in a 24/7 society, but the notion of evangelizing about a given day of the week might not best convey the message. Instead, Jackson harkens back to how he responded to his children's challenges about sabbath worship to stress the need for Adventists to focus on the life-enhancing role the Sabbath plays.
In practice, he contends, that means demonstrating through their lives that the day is "an opportunity to rest, to take a break, to commune with nature, to build relationships, so that the Sabbath is no longer some obscure teaching, but rather, it's who I am, it's something I express on the seventh day, but also on the other days of the week."
Editor's note: Mark A. Kellner is a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and for 11 years worked at the movement’s world headquarters as news editor for Adventist Review and Adventist World magazines and as director of the Adventist News Network news service.