ChurchSurfer @ Hamilton Community Church: My First Adventist Experience

Church visit # 26 – Saturday, June 25, 2011

Hamilton Community Church (Seventh-Day Adventist) – Chattanooga, TN

Denominationalized

One of the things that has been amazing about the ChurchSurfer journey so far has been the overwhelming response from the people I have talked to who have told me that after reading one ChurchSurfer article (usually about their own church) they continued to keep up with the blog week after week.  The majority of these people have told me that the reason they like to keep up with it is because it gives them insight into what is going on in other churches in the community.  It gives them a sense of “having been there” without actually being there.  You could argue that it is good for Christians to venture out of their home church on occasion to visit another congregation, but many people simply do not have the desire to do that.  They are understandably connected to their own church and do not want to miss out on their “family” time.  This is especially true of church leaders…elders, deacons, teachers, preachers, pastors, etc.  The church leaders are potentially the ones who would get the most out of experiencing other congregations, but are obviously the ones who would have the hardest time sacrificing a Sunday (or Saturday for the Adventists) at their own church.  The result of never venturing outside of your own church is that people tend to become “denominationalized” (OK, I just made that word up), meaning that they become intensely loyal to their own church denomination, adopting it as their identity in some instances, which can lead to forming negative stereotypes and attitudes toward other churches and denominations.  This is where it becomes a problem.  If we harbor these ill feelings toward other churches, how in the world are we supposed to work together to advance the Kingdom of God?  Of course I know that there actually are substantial differences in doctrine and practice from denomination to denomination, and I agree with C.S. Lewis who writes in his book “Mere Christianity” (a HIGHLY recommended read) that Christians cannot even agree on what is acceptable to disagree about (what are salvation vs. non-salvation issues?).  But the more we disagree, the less we work together, and the less we work together, the less we will accomplish for God, plain and simple.  So it was my intent with ChurchSurfer…both for myself and for those who read the blog…to experience as many different denominations as possible and hopefully come away with a better understanding of who we all are and a more open and positive outlook on how we can work together.  It was this desire that led me this week to visit a denomination I had absolutely zero knowledge and experience with, aside from reading “The Great Controversy” by Ellen G. White about ten years ago (which was donated to me by a missionary).  The denomination I am referring to is Seventh-Day Adventist (or just Adventist).  So Laura and I got up on Saturday morning and here is what happened…

Cafe Time

Hamilton Community Church, Seventh-Day Adventist
Hamilton Community Church

I have to say, after a lifetime of attending Sunday worship it was a very odd feeling to get up on a Saturday morning and head for church.  But to visit a Seventh-Day Adventist (SDA) church, that is exactly what we had to do.  Saturday worship is easily the most obvious difference between SDA and most other Christian denominations, but after reading their fundamental beliefs I was curious to see if there were other major differences in doctrine or practice, or if SDA was “just another” denomination that happens to worship on a different day of the week.  I’m not sure why, but it seems to me like the SDA church is classified (by people of most denom’s) alongside the Mormon church and Jehovah’s Witness church as having departed from the mainstream Christian tradition and basically becoming a separate religion unto themselves.  I am not sure where that thought came from for me, but that is why I had to go see for myself…why would I just accept a stereotype of which I could not even identify the origin or basis?  These were the thoughts that floated around in my head as Laura and I approached Hamilton Community Church, which has a nice, modern looking building on Shallowford Road in East Brainerd.  I glanced across the parking lot to see what other people were wearing (something I always pay attention to at churches), and concluded that I was appropriately dressed in church-y casual (as opposed to slacker casual) and felt comfortable that at least I would not be immediately pegged as an outsider according to the way I was dressed.  On the way in the door, we were handed a bulletin by a fifty-something gentleman with a smile, and we headed on down the hallway to do a little exploring.  We showed up early to see what the “Cafe” time from 11:00 – 11:30 AM that was listed on the website was all about.  We saw a Cafe sign above a door and were delighted to find that inside was a table spread full of breads, fruit, bagels, cookies, and a beverage area with juice, coffee, and tea.  I appreciated the hospitality of this church to provide refreshments for everyone, but more than that I know that food creates a social atmosphere, and I hoped that hanging out in the cafe area would facilitate some conversations with people.  We filled up a plate and a cup-a-joe and headed out to a table in the hallway to eat and socialize.  The fruit and bread hit the spot, but unfortunately the socializing did not happen.  Everyone around seemed to be generally cheerful and we were smiled at a lot but never spoken to, which was quite a let-down considering this was one church where I really would have appreciated it if someone would have reached out to us.  I do want to note here that the environment was very “homey” and my wife and I both thought it was extremely cool that the main hallway was lined with all sorts of framed photos of church members, families, and functions.

A (Not-So-Brief) Description

Hamilton Community Church sanctuary
Hamilton Community Church sanctuary

After finishing our snacks, we entered the sanctuary and were instantly impressed with the beautiful atmospherics.  The room was dimly lit, with colored up-lighting that accentuated the ferns, palms, crosses, draperies, and candles that decorated the walls and stage.  There was a clear podium at the front of the stage with two large video screens directly overhead pointing out at opposite angles to the seating area.  We went up to the front and grabbed a couple of seats and after a few minutes a man named Kevin came up and introduced himself as a church elder and welcomed us.  After a quick (but satisfying due to the quiet morning so far) conversation with Kevin, the praise band, consisting of acoustic guitar, bass, drums, and two female singers, came up and started an instrumental intro as the congregation settled into place.  All the members of the worship team were very young (surprising since older church members sometimes dictate the music style), appearing to be fresh out of high school, or maybe still in it.  After announcements, the worship music kicked off and was mostly peppy, up-tempo, acoustic-driven contemporary worship.  The congregation was pretty deeply immersed into the worship experience, with lots of clapping and some raised hands.  Worship lasted a full thirty minutes, briefly interrupted by the “Lamb’s offering” that was taken up by the small children of the congregation, which of course provided plenty of cute moments and chuckles from the adults, and a fellowship time in which people walked all around the room shaking hands and greeting one another.  After worship ended, everyone was invited to come up to the front to kneel and join in personal prayer time, which was referred to as “prayer garden” or to kneel at their seat, which Laura and I did.  There was a group prayer followed by a silent time for personal prayer and then a closing group prayer.  I enjoyed kneeling during this segment, and I have often wondered (and have mentioned before in a previous blog) why kneeling during prayer has (sadly) been largely removed from many churches and denominations today.  The worship and prayer time did not strike me as any different from other denominations I have attended, and as the pastor came up to deliver the sermon I was curious what type of message it would include.  The pastor, Dave Ketelsen, introduced his sermon topic as two-part discussion on “how to know God’s will in your life”, and credited part of his research on the matter to George Mueller.  During his sermon, pastor Dave cited the first four of eight principles on knowing God’s will, but what really stuck out to me was a quote he mentioned, saying “never let those who say it can’t be done interrupt those who are doing it”.  Now if that is not a quote to take to heart, I don’t know what is.  Sometimes what we perceive as God’s will for us may seem improbable or even impossible, but if it is indeed His will then we have to know that He will provide a way for us to accomplish it.  All too often there are nay-sayers all around us pressing their negativity toward us…”you can’t do it”, “you shouldn’t try it”, “it’s not your responsibility”, “you must be crazy”…but we cannot let those who are not in touch with God be allowed to dissuade us from God’s lofty expectations for us.  Others are doing great works for the Kingdom and bearing the fruit of the Holy Spirit, and you can too!  Do not let those who say it can’t be done interrupt those who are doing it!  Amen!

A Brief Summary (After a Long Description)

Hamilton Community Church member photos
Hamilton Community Church member photos

To summarize my first Seventh-Day Adventist experience, I would have to say that nothing was terribly different from most other denominations I am used to…Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Non-denominational…there are always minor differences, but nothing Earth-shattering (or faith-shattering).  I am sure there are some fundamental differences (and I have been told since my visit that Hamilton Community is a fairly liberal SDA congregation), but it is my guess that it will take a visit to another (maybe more traditional) SDA church on down the road sometime, and hopefully some meaningful conversation with church members and leaders, to explore them.  I enjoyed the worship, the prayer, the message, and the food, but severely missed any real connection to the people inside the church, where I felt like I really would have fulfilled my goal of experiencing and understanding the Adventists.

Please share the ChurchSurfer blog with anyone who may be interested and make sure to “like” it on Facebook.  I truly hope you enjoy reading about the ChurchSurfer journey!

Josh Davis

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17 responses to “ChurchSurfer @ Hamilton Community Church: My First Adventist Experience

  • Julie Tillman

    How can I contact you (the author) directly? thanks!

  • Nathan Lewis

    I shared this blog on my Facebook page, and here are some raw responses I got from Adventist friends. Thought I would share them with you.

    Bonnie says:
    “Interesting, encouraging…and sobering. We so need to connect with people more who come into our churches. Being polite can be easy, but being actively friendly and stepping out of our comfort zones (especially difficult for introverts like me) to really connect with people is sadly lacking. Thankfully, this hasn’t totally put off the man who wrote this (thanks to a warm, welcoming, “homey” atmosphere that is often lacking in many churches, unfortunately), but to think of what it has done to others who come into our churches hungry for acceptance and love and leave just as empty, if not more empty, because no one sat down, got to know them, and cared…”

    Sandra says:
    “This has actually been a soapbox of mine for some time. David and I have looked for a home church that we both felt “invited” in since we were engaged, and at almost every Adventist church in this area, no one talked to us the entire time we were there. The opposite has been true at other denominations where we have attended concerts or whatever. The nondenominational school where I teach is my “church” family. I do believe the theology, which is why I’m an Adventist, but if only we would remember that WE are the church.”

  • Debra Ketelsen

    Thanks for visiting our church and for the objective critique. It is good for us to hear how we are doing. We hope to do better with connecting with our visitors. That is one of our main priorities and as you rightly suspected part of the reason the Cafe exists. And if Hamilton is “Liberal”, let it be said that we are liberal in our love for Christ, each other and our community. Doctrinally there is no difference between our church and other SDA churches. This is a great service you are providing for Pastors and we will be following your work. I know you have many more churches to visit but we’d love to have you back and see if we’ve improved ; ). I’d encourage you to come at 10 next time and be part of one of our many small group classes. We have everything from a class that examines current films and the relevant Christian themes that can be extracted from them to a class on the Fundamental Beliefs. Again thanks for visiting HCC.

    Debbie Ketelsen aka “the Pastor’s Wife” : ).

    • churchsurfer

      Thanks for the comments Debbie! I was assuming that the reason a few people referred to HCC as liberal was that the service was more contemporary, such as traditional vs. contemporary worship in the United Methodist Church (which is really my only basis for comparison)…but I may have misunderstood their intention. Kevin was telling me about the small group classes and I would have enjoyed that setting, but when visiting a new church each Sunday it can be hard to prepare to take part in small groups, Bible studies, Sunday school, etc., so we just stick with corporate worship services for the most part. I would recommend reading a couple of other ChurchSurfer articles to see some examples of where Laura and I were really welcomed in to a church…specifically New Covenant Fellowship and Bethel Temple. I would say that the overwhelming welcoming experience has been the exception rather than the norm in our 26 church visits so far…sad, but this is also bringing some things to light that I believe we as the Church can work on together (myself included). My prayers will be with HCC…may the blessings of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you!

  • wiredog

    churchsurfer, I think what you saw on your first visit to an SDA church is exactly what we/they want to impress upon unsuspecting visitors, “nothing was terribly different from most other denominations I am used to…”

    On the surface that is their biggest desire to look like an evangelical Christian church except that you go there on Saturday. In all honesty that is what perhaps 85% of their members will tell you–not because they are trying to lie to you but because most of them don’t know how the etymology of their doctrines hence they do not understand how they deviate from Orthodox Christianity.

    I was a 4th Generation SDA Adventist and left in 2009 at the age of 39–and now I am a Christian. Most SDA’s will immediately dismiss me and others like me as bitter or having left as a result of a personal grievance. I can tell you it was the furthest thing from my mind, but when the Holy Spirit leads you out, you cannot resist Him. (see Exit Letter http://wp.me/P1tilv-J)

    I have a blog here myself outofadventism.wordpress.com on it I have this post (http://wp.me/p1tilv-gK) that gives people who are not familiar with Seventh-Day Adventism an excellent primer. It is an interview with Todd Friel from Wretchedradio. He is interviewing one of my friends who has a Ministry called Former Adventist Fellowship (www.formeradventistfellowship.com). If you give it a listen I think you will find what it is you trying to discover by attending an SDA Church and you might even better understand why it is you WON’T find it on the surface.

    If you have questions or want to dialogue just let me know. God Bless!

    • churchsurfer

      Thanks for the comments wiredog. Unfortunately there are many denominations and movements under the veil of Christianity that are not founded in Scripture as you suggest in your blog and letter. Whether the SDA is one of these, I do not know and probably will never fully know to the extent that you do through your first-hand experience. My first reaction would be that if 85% (not sure where that statistic cam from) of their members do not fully understand their own doctrine then the teaching is severely lacking. As with any other denomination, if people are coming to know Christ as a result of their work, then praise God! If people are being led into false doctrine then they and those who are teaching it will be held accountable. I trust the Holy Spirit that He will be the guide to each Christian as to what is the truth, what are lies, what is “salvific” as you put it, and what is simply man-created advice or tradition. Thank you for sharing the resources that others who are in the SDA church or exploring it can use for another perspective. May the Spirit be the ultimate light and guide to each of us to perfect us in the image of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Peace and blessings to you!

  • Steven Karst

    Church Surfer Dude,

    Thanks for your visit and review! Like wiredog above, I too am a 4th generation SDA and I also was a member of HCC back in 1999. Back then I failed to experience the connection that you described did not happen at the cafe. Regretfully I must admit that being friendly is not a strength of the SDA church and is not unique to HCC. However, a more welcoming spirit of love is slowly developing. This is not to say that our church members don’t love other people but rather somewhere in our sub-culture we have dropped the ball with discipleship (SDA’s if you disagree, go ahead, but with what support?) which starts with a friendly greeting. I have to include myself in this category and am learning how to breach my comfort zone and meet new people. Officially, the SDA church has made an effort called “Friendship Evangelism.” I actually dislike the term and the philosophy of the effort because there are always strings attached. However, for an culturally unfriendly church like mine, this is a step in the right direction as I can’t expect those who don’t know how to be friendly to pick it up on their own.

    With that said, it is my option that my beloved SDA church has made idolatry out of the Sabbath, placed too much emphasis on the last days and not enough effort on meeting people on a personal level with no strings attached. It’s not our job to convict folks of the truth, that belongs to the Holy Spirit. If God’s love is truly showing through us, the truth is inevitable. I believe the SDA church needs to concentrate more on discipling people and should look to revamp their doctrines on what really is required to be saved! There is a grass roots movement within our church that realizes the fallacies of some doctrines and puts the focus on Christ, not the investigative judgment etc. We realize that the Sabbath can’t save us (not sure why ex-Adventists take such an issue with it if it isn’t a salvation issue), nor can “keeping” it. Anyway, I’m somewhat disappointed with my church and the traditional teachings I grew up with. This is why personal study is so important to find the truth for ourselves.

    This Friday at Coolidge Park, downtown Chattanooga, a home church I belong to is having a BBQ complete with chicken and turkey dogs. For those of us who prefer the taste of fake meat, we’ll have that too. Our focus is not to have “church” per se but to actually get out of our cocoon and invite strangers to have a hot dog or two. That’s it…meeting new people! If they BYOB, who cares, we want to meet them just the same. If they offer me a cold one I will oblige! Those who read this may be worrying about the evils of alcohol…well then, let me educate you about the evils of Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

    • churchsurfer

      I appreciate the comments and insight Steven. You bring up a lot of important issues that are true of all denominations. We should never take denominational doctrine and make them our core beliefs without first searching the Scriptures both on our own and with other believers, along with constant prayer for understanding from the Holy Spirit. Discipleship is also disappearing in most churches today, not just the SDA church, which is a major problem. I have become involved with a local non-profit called Men’s Ministry Network that exists to partner with local churches to encourage and teach discipleship to men who can then go back into their churches and make a difference. I would encourage you to come to the next dinner meeting to hear what it is all about…July 21 at the Brainerd Baptist BX building. Details available at http://mensministry.org/. Peace & blessings in Christ!

    • wiredog

      Steven, I do share some if not many of those same sentiments regarding the SDA church. The last church I came from was trying to be what is termed “seeker friendly” albeit that term in and of itself comes with baggage. In that church Crosswalk Fellowship in Frisco TX,there was an explicit directive for us (i.e, Deacons, greeters, teachers, etc) NOT to use the typical Adventist Lingo and to be more, evangelical.

      I also find it interesting that SDA Churches are starting to leave out the term SDA or relegate it to the small font on the signs. They have started to use the words Community Churches or Fellowships in their names.

      In talking with the pastor as I was being lead out of Adventism, I asked why is it Adventism teaches–

      -ALL other churches are Babylon and have the “Mark of the Beast” because they worship on Sunday

      -That keeping the Jewish Sabbath is of salvific import.
      (You are correct that this should not be an issue (per Romans 14-15) except were not that Adventist teachings damns Christians for not worshiping on the Jewish Sabbath, as well as teaching others they they will be likewise damned.)

      -Ellen White is divinely inspired Prophet equal in quality to the Biblical Prophets for teaching, guidance, correction and Spiritual matters. This is despite the Church’s own records from 1919 that show the leaders and Bible teachers KNEW she was not.

      -That Christ did not finish His work on the Cross but only started a Pre-Advent Judgement in 1844 in the “heavenly Sanctuary”

      Sorry I know you now these teachings since you are also an Adventist.

      My Pastor told me he did not necessarily believe all those things either and said that is why He did not preach them from the pulpit. He suggested that there is an anticipated change from withing the ranks of Adventism and urged me to be part of the change.

      The challenge with the idea that these teachings no longer the focus and can take second place to the NT Gospel is that to do so makes that Church, pastor or member NOT an Adventist. Those doctrines and the others like them are the DNA of Adventism they are the 4 walls and foundation that make the house of Adventism. I called the General Conference’s Ministerial Division who handles matters of doctrine and I was told outright because I questioned the value and position of Ellen G White (the Prophet) in the Church, “perhaps Brother YOU are not Adventist.”

      Mind you EGW is but one (1) of the 13 vows in the Unabridged Baptismal Vow. BTW the GC informed me that the official catechism of the SDA Church are her Baptismal Vows; either version. To stay in and not hold these beliefs you cause confusion for Adventists in the Church those outside of the Church looking in.

  • wiredog

    Josh, I’d invite you and the other posters here to take a look at yet another e-book I edited & converted from print to Kindle or iPad/iPhone format. If you go to my blog it’s free. This one is called Seventh-Day Adventism Renounced written in 1889; the same author of The Lord’s Day. In fact it is Canright’s 1st book.

    Its at this link (http://wp.me/p1tilv-kw)

    The Christian pastors around when it was first printed wrote very favorably about it. It is the 1st book, and probably the best one written about Adventism’s etymology, doctrines, its prophet and its doctrines. Because Canright was–

    *A Seventh-Day Adventist Pastor for 22 years

    *An Officer on the General Conference Executive Committee.
    This is the Institution’s highest governing body when the General Conference is not in session

    *Responsible for the institution the system of tithing in the SDA church.

    *A close personal friend of the Whites (SDA Prophet) and the other SDA pioneers

    *After leaving Adventism and becoming a Baptist, he wrote on all the then known errors in SDA Doctrine and how they were taught. (e.g., misapplication of Scriptures, Taking Scriptures of out context using the proof texting, etc.)

    *Because he witnessed 1st hand how the White’s truly operated, he is one of the most damaging witnesses against the SDA Church.

    Hey worst case you don’t read it you saved $1.99 by not d/l off of Amazon of Barnes & Noble. 😉

    • wiredog

      BTW Don’t let the date of 1889 fool you. The doctrines have not changed. You can find them in the SDA Church Manual. It’s only the for prostelyzing that have changed.

  • Steven Karst

    Wiredog, do you have a direct emal address I can contact you with?

  • wiredog

    Josh, I just wanted to share one last bit of information in the rear-view mirror for you as you continue on your Church Surfer Visitations.

    While you visited one of the Seventh-Day Adventist Churches I know you expressed the fact you did not see much of a difference.

    That is always the challenge when you can only go for one Sunday at a time to meet people. Perhaps this will help you and your other readers who are curious about the differences in beliefs, the meaning of certain terms and how they are used in Seventh-Day Adventism. Put better yet like the poster joe kirkpatrick on your new blog wrote Adventists need a gimmick perhaps this is the secret decoder ring for the gimmick.

    On my blog I am giving away free paper copies of Rose Publishing’s pamphlet on Seventh-Day Adventism (http://wp.me/p1tilv-pa). I have purchased a number of paper copies for free distribution from Rose. Rose is well respected by many ministries so I think you readers are safe.

    I did this as I have had many Adventist friends tell me they did realize that they as Seventh-Day Adventist were “required” to hold these beliefs to be Seventh-Day Adventist. That requirement is according to their General Conference which is their highest governing church body.

    Hopefully this will help you or your readers discern the differences or gimmicks.

    God Bless.

  • Brad Dahr

    I found this via a friend who shared in on Facebook and I am grateful for it. I am the pastor of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Yellowknife, NT Canada (please come for a visit!). A similar review was done of our church by a local reporter and so I took to heart your observations and comments.
    In Yellowknife, our desire is to be God’s body creating a safe place for the weak, weary and wounded, a place of transformation, and a place that matters in the community. This isn’t a gimmick or a way to catch people; rather it’s an ongoing journey that we believe is God-led. An important part of this journey is now taking place as we try to reduce “programs” and increase being in the centre of God’s will. It’s not easy to make this change – it’s much more comfortable to run our own stuff and just ask God to show up and bless it.
    Anyway, I did have one thought about your article that led me to write this. When I first read that their worship lasted 30 minutes I thought, ‘what a short worship.’ Then I read further that after worship the pastor spoke. That’s so funny to me. It’s all worship, isn’t it? Maybe that’s where we (all churches) need the most work: moving from worship + motivational talk to a full on, Spirit saturated worship from start to end?
    Again, thank you for what you are doing.

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