But do Adventists bring to family ministry anything unique or distinctive?
The great controversy motif places Christian beliefs in a cosmic perspective. Adventist family ministry is distinctive be cause it sees family life issues as playing a role in the cosmic struggle between good and evil. 1 For Adventists, family ministry has eschatological significance and urgency, and it offers fresh and effective strategies for the Global Mission of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Adventist family ministry and the great controversy
The great controversy perspective brings God's concern for good relationships into sharp focus. Yahweh is a God of good relationships whose character is expressed in heaven's way of interrelating. When Lucifer rebelled, he fractured relationships in heaven, and the greatest divorce of all time took place.
At Creation, the Sabbath and marriage provided a dual framework for human relationships. The Sabbath gave priority, structure, and protection to the way humans related to God. Marriage gave the primary human-to-human relationship that kept other relationships in correct alignment.
When Adam and Eve sinned, all their relationships were damaged. They hid from God because they felt alienated from Him. They felt alienated from each other and fought round one of the war between the sexes.
Sin undercut both relationships—Sabbath and marriage. God's plan of redemption, explained to Adam and Eve after the Fall, was designed to restore harmonious relationships—with both God and each other. At Sinai God gave the written law as a guide to good relationships. The first four commandments govern the relationship with God, and the last six direct human relationships. Jesus summarized the two parts: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart... soul and... mind," and "love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt. 22:36-39, NIV).
The gospel restores and empowers good relationships. Christ spent Himself and much of His time teaching His followers how to have good relationships. The apostolic letters carry the same emphasis (see Gal. 5:22ff as an example).
The three angels' messages (Rev. 14:6- 12) seek to restore relationships fractured by sin. God's final community will experience and proclaim the restoration of both of Creation's institutions—Sabbath and marriage—because they are equally enshrined in His law. Through the Sabbath God seeks to ensure closer ties between Himself and His people. Their loving human relationships are to be celebrated by Eden-style marriages. The best characteristic of the new earth will not be streets or crowns of gold but Godlike relationships enjoyed by all.
This thumbnail sketch of the great controversy shows the priority God places on the most intimate of human relation ships as He works out His plan of redemption. First, He intends to restore the relationship between humans and Himself. Restoring Eden's Sabbath facilitates a true faith relationship with Jesus Christ. Second, He intends to restore loving relationships between humans. Marriage, the primary human relationship, heads the list of relationships to be restored by the gospel.
Adventist family ministry aims to facilitate loving family relationships as the vital starting point to loving relationships with all of humankind. As Ellen White said: "The strongest argument in favor of the gospel is a loving and lovable Christian."2 Having good relationships is vital both for personal salvation and for evangelism. Thus Adventists find in the great controversy theme a most powerful theological, eschatological mandate for comprehensive family ministry.
Adventist family ministry and dual end-time trends
The great controversy theme gives Adventist family ministry a distinctive optimism. Scripture predicts dual trends affecting families in the days preceding Jesus' return. The first is a powerful downward family trend (see 2 Tim. 3:1-5). In this trend love and faithfulness disappear, to be replaced by selfishness and immorality. There can be little doubt that we are in the midst of this predicted downward trend.
On the opposite end of the prophetic spectrum, Malachi predicts a powerful upward family trend in which the hearts of family members will turn to each other in fresh love and faithfulness during the last days (Mal. 4:5, 6). Like all divinely empowered trends, the upward family life trend is more powerful than its demonic counterpart. This means that although the general picture of family life at the end of time is a sordid one, the Christian family will demonstrate a true intimacy and beauty of unprecedented quality.
Beyond Malachi's promise, what evidence is there to support such optimism? First, modern advances in the behavioral sciences, especially when adopted with discrimination, offer an understanding of behavior and relationships unavailable to previous generations. Second, dramatic advances in Christian family ministry have created a wealth of material offering insight and information not available even 20 years ago. Third, in past generations the social stigma of divorce and the financial dependence of women often created stable marriages out of necessity. The relationships of good Christian couples were not necessarily healthy even though divorce was out of the question. Today's changed social environment, in which divorce is considered an acceptable option and in which women can support themselves, makes good, stable marriage relationships a more authentic choice.
When I look at Christian couples whose relationships are stable and commit ted by choice, who are actually using available family life resources and who are indeed working on their relationships, I see some of the best marriages.
Adventist family ministry and growth in Christ
Adventist family ministry is distinctive because it plays a vital role in preparing Christians for the kingdom of God. When people become Christians, they embark on a lifelong journey of growth into the fullness of Jesus Christ. This growth process, sanctification, includes overcoming bad habits, developing good habits, developing Christian virtues and graces, sharing Christ with others, and developing an ever-deeper understanding of God's truth.
What about developing good family relationships? Does becoming a better spouse, parent, or family member have any thing to do with sanctification? Have you ever noticed Adventists who are deeply concerned about behavioral perfectionism, lifestyle matters, doctrinal issues, or the faults of "the brethren," while having miserable relationships at home? Have you known people who burn themselves out in God's service, while paying scant attention to their most valuable relationships?
Any definition of sanctification that leaves out growing, improving family relationships has to be seriously deficient. This is not to suggest that people who experience family conflict are inferior Christians. Judging another person's Christian experience by the way they relate to their spouse would be fruitless and wrong. Family relationships need to grow from the point at which they presently stand. Improving one's family relationships must not become a mere legalistic act.
Yet God is clearly concerned with the quality of our relationships, especially our marriage relationships, because marriage is the foundational human-to-human relationship. Marriage forms, constructs, and integrates our other relationships. Christ can do His best transformation from within marriage relationships. He wants Christian virtues and graces to reach their pinnacle in our marriages. A good marriage is a pivotal element of Christian experience and development.
Because sanctification includes growth in family relationships, family ministry stands at the center of the Adventist mes sage. To be complete, the church's work of nurturing spiritual growth among its members must include comprehensive family ministry.
Adventist family ministry and evangelism
Adventist family ministry is distinctive because it is evangelistic. The concept of "felt-need evangelism" has received strong emphasis among Adventists. The idea is to minister to the needs people feel, thus gaining their confidence and making them more open to the gospel invitation and the distinctive elements of Adventism. Ellen White identifies this kind of approach as "Christ's method."3
Probably the felt need most often addressed by Adventists has been the need for better physical health. What about the felt need for better family life? Look anywhere— east or west, north or south—and there is family stress and distress. Books of statistics could be compiled to demonstrate the scope of family fragmentation around the globe. Good marriages seem elusive these days. Yet the human heart cries out for the comfort and security that only good marriage can provide.
Consider the blows sustained by the family in recent decades. During the 1960s Western countries went through the "sexual revolution," and Christian family life principles were denounced as "old-fashioned." At about the same time many developing countries emerging into political independence denounced Christian family life principles as "colonialist." Then the gay community came out of the closet to pro mote its "alternative lifestyle." Political change in the former Communist countries has been accompanied by family upheaval. The AIDS crisis has had its own devastating effect on the family. It is not difficult to make strong arguments for the fact that vast proportions of the popular media have developed militant anti-family dynamics. The cumulative family fragmentation caused by these and other philosophical and social trends has been catastrophic to the home.
In the 1990s even secular people recognize that something has to change. Christians can see more clearly than ever that biblical family life principles offer the only safe path for people of all cultures. There is a new openness to evaluate family life traditions and to replace secular elements with solidly Christian patterns.
The intensity and scope of the felt need for good family life is every bit as great as the felt need for better physical health. Better family life is a global necessity around which the global church can unite for evangelism. Evangelists in Malawi, where I work, have conducted campaigns built around the motif of the family. The results have exceeded their expectations. People will walk miles to receive good family-life instruction. Similarly successful family-life evangelism has been done in other places. Family ministry offers a fresh, powerful approach to evangelism that addresses the deepest needs and most healthy desires of humanity.
Adventist family ministry deserves to take the same important place in Global Mission that it occupies in Adventist theology. Family ministry offers fresh, practical, and effective approaches to spiritual nurture within the church and in evangelism among the masses who await the gospel. God's family in heaven is eagerly awaiting the restoration of His family on earth.
1 John and Millie Youngberg, Rebuilding
the Family Altar (Miami: Inter-American
Division Publishing Association, 1994), 7.
2 Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing
(Nampa, Id.: Pacific Press® Pub. Assn., 1905), 470.
3 Ibid., 143.