I first met Pastor Kevin Dunn on the phone, many months ago, but we didn’t connect for a month or so after because of him relocating to our area from Binghamton. I met him while sitting in the pew of the Amsterdam Seventh Day Adventist Church. He is an imposing man, but affable and willing to entertain any argument or logic when it comes to the gospel. I reminded him that I would like to do an interview, which led to this conversation over the phone two weeks ago.
Towne: You pastor the Amsterdam SDA church. What other churches do you pastor?
Pastor Dunn: The Gloversville SDA church, the Greater Albany SDA church, and the Schenectady SDA church.
Towne: How did you come to be a pastor in the Seventh Day Adventist Church?
Pastor Dunn: Well, I finished my college training at Andrews University in Michigan with a degree in Business, and as I was approaching the end, to finish my degree, I felt a compulsion to enter the theological seminary there at Andrews University and through a meeting with colleagues and fellow seminarians I received a call to enter seminary from the New York Conference of Seventh Day Adventists.
Towne: What do you think was the most important factor for you to give yourself to God in service?
Pastor Dunn: My love for theological and biblical study, my love for being in service, talking with people, sharing with people, teaching and preaching the word of God.
Towne: Tell me a little bit about the way the Adventist Church came to be.
Pastor Dunn: The Seventh Day Adventist Church came to be as a result of what we historically call “The Great Disappointment” that happened in 1844. Many people…it was called the Millerite Movement based on the message of a man named William Miller and others who taught a similar message, that Jesus was coming in the clouds of heaven, based on the prophecies in the book of Daniel. It was believed by many people that Jesus was returning on a date in 1844. After Jesus did not come there were several religious organizations that formed on the heels of that and they came to understand that Jesus was not coming then, but that he was to begin his final ministry in the heavenly temple, and the seventh Day Adventist Church came out of that “Great Disappointment” that followed the Millerite Movement. It was officially organized, I believe, in 1860. The church came to an understanding of the Bible, teaching the seventh day Sabbath, Christ’s work in the heavenly tabernacle, the nearness of Jesus’ return and the burden of sharing this with the world.
Towne: Can you explain the Adventist view of “salvation through faith?” and “faith versus works?”
Pastor Dunn: The Adventist Church has sometimes had a struggle with that due to the uniqueness of our beliefs, the Sabbath beliefs, some of the food we don’t eat because of some of the biblical teachings about that and some other unique beliefs. Sometimes, in our past, Seventh Day Adventist’s have been misunderstood on the subject of salvation by faith through Christ alone. The Seventh Day Adventist Church fully accepts and embraces the biblical teachings on salvation by grace through faith, and obedience is the fruit of having a saved relationship, out of a converted experience. Adventist’s have always said this clearly, again, because of our unique doctrines, but sometimes we have been misunderstood because of the perception that we are saved because of our works, because of our obedience, because of our good deeds. I think many Adventist’s have come to a more clear understanding of this and hunger for a clearer understanding of the gospel, that we are clearly saved on the basis of a faith relationship with Christ, and in no part because of our works. Adventist’s fully embrace salvation by grace through faith, but some have been misunderstood due to their particular works, and that as a result of a faith relationship with Christ. The idea of character perfection, sanctification, sometimes Seventh Day Adventist’s are misunderstood in this regard. Any informed Adventist will tell you we are saved purely through faith in Christ and his blood shed on the cross, not by any merit we have or thing we have done.
Towne: I’m sure you’ve heard the basis for my next question: Is the SDA Church a cult and if not, why not?
Pastor Dunn: Sometimes the Seventh day Adventist church has been mistakenly called a cult because of our belief that God has spoken to us, in a modern context, through the writings of Ellen G. White. Some people believe that the Bible is the only standard and I believe that the Bible is the standard by which we are to live, but when people come to realize that God can also speak through a modern-day messenger and give her inspiration, as I believe he did with Ellen G. White, they immediately have a knee jerk reaction to that. They associate the SDA church with other organizations who claim [divine] inspirations for some of their modern writings. They immediately associate the SDA Church with them, and label us a cult. According to some of the real experts on cults, such as Walter Martin, who wrote a classic book on cults, ”Kingdom of the Cults,” we are not a cult, but an organization that fully accepts and teaches Christianity. So I reject the idea that the Seventh day Adventist Church is a cult, even though we have particular and unique views, most of our teachings are not so different from main line Protestantism.
Towne: What is the most central of Adventist doctrines and explain why those doctrines would be appealing to people?
Pastor Dunn: Well, it’s an interesting question because, when I ask people what they know of Adventism, what are some of the key doctrines, they’ll say something like “The seventh day Sabbath.” But, I’m going to say our key doctrine is Jesus Christ. Our key doctrine is what does it mean to be in a relationship with Jesus? You know, we’re saved in relationship and again, as I stated a few moments ago, the pattern of belief that we have, the obedience that we practice, it is because of that relationship we have in Christ. That is the key doctrine: the fall of man, Jesus’ incarnation, his death, burial and resurrection, his ascension into heaven, and now his heavenly ministry. There is not one doctrine I would put over another except our understanding of Jesus. Our doctrine of the Sabbath or the state of the dead or our particular health practices all have their place, but they don’t define us like our doctrine of Jesus and his relationship with us.
Towne: In what way would you like to see the church improve the execution of its mission?
Pastor Dunn: I would like to see all Seventh Day Adventists become more extroverted with their faith, be more on fire for their faith, be more willing to share their faith with others. By and large we tend to be more conservative than many other Protestant churches, but it does depend on which church you find yourself in. There are some of our churches where they are livelier, where they’ll use more contemporary music, but most Adventist churches are more conservative, much like a traditional Baptist or Methodist church would be. So, to answer the question, I would just like to see individuals become more excited for their faith, and more contagious with their faith, willing to share with others into a relationship with Christ.
Towne: Can you explain why the Seventh Day Adventist Church is one of the fastest growing churches worldwide, but not in the United States?
Pastor Dunn: I’ll try my best. We are very strong on evangelism. In many parts of the world people tend to be more open, because [the message] appeals to many people in third world countries where an evangelist can go do mission work, do humanitarian work. Our medical work is very strong, especially in different parts of the world, our school systems are very strong. When people hear the message in various parts of the world they respond favorably. In America we are up against the problems of post modernism and secularism, materialism and consumerism. People don’t feel the need for God or for making any kind of serious lifestyle change. I will say that Adventists haven’t always dealt successfully with the kind of culture that America has become. We tend to hold onto the traditional forms of evangelism that are producing less and less of a positive result. There are things I think can be done but it would take us getting out of our conservative attitudes to do that.
Towne: Do you believe salvation is freely offered to all mankind?
Pastor Dunn: As I understand what the Bible says, Jesus said “All who come unto me will be saved.” There is no limit to the forgiveness that God offers us in Jesus Christ. If I come to God, repenting of my sins and willing to receive forgiveness, the life changing power of God is available.
Towne: How do you interpret the passage in Romans that says many of us were “elected beforehand” to become God’s chosen children?
Pastor Dunn: That’s a hard passage, one the theologians have been wrestling for some time. The belief system is called Arminianism, that all people are eligible to be saved, “Whosoever will…,” as opposed to Calvinism, that God has pre-determined an elect group that will be saved and there is nothing anyone can do to change that. Those two belief systems have to be held in tension with one another. There are many Bible verses that say “Whosoever will…” There are many verses that say he died for the sins of the whole world. My belief in a loving, creative God is that everyone can be saved. Now there are verses that talk about election and pre-destination, but I think they are to be understood in light of the bigger picture that God is trying to achieve. The method of salvation is often what we discuss, not who is going to be saved or lost. God called Abraham from Ur of the Chaldees to be elect, and said that “Through him all nations were to be blessed.” And the Israelites were God’s chosen people but that didn’t mean that salvation was exclusively to them. They were to be the light to the world…
Towne: And Christ said that he had other sheep that were not of that pen.
Pastor Dunn: Exactly. So, the question is do we see the God of heaven as one who is arbitrarily choosing who is to be saved or who is to be lost or do we see one who says “Whosoever wills come drink the water of life freely…?”
Towne: What are some of the challenges you face in pastoring four churches?
Pastor Dunn: Each church is its own individual, with its own personality. Being where I need to be if there is a pastoral need…sometimes I feel like I’m being pulled in four different directions. The challenge will be the travel time between the four churches, ministering in a way that is perceived to be equitable between the churches. I don’t want any church to feel left out.
Towne: Name a favorite verse and tell me what it has taught you.
Pastor Dunn: There are many. I could mention my most favorite of all, John 3:16, but that’s too easy. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but should have everlasting life.” That will always remain, I think, my favorite verse. There are many verses that are close to that. Jeremiah 20:9-11, “I know the thoughts I have for you, thoughts of peace and a future.” Ephesians 2:8, “It is by grace you have been saved – through faith- and this not from yourselves, it is a gift from God…” But, the clearest, most obvious one is John 3:16, and this because of God’s love for me and willingness to fellowship with me despite my brokenness.
(Photo by Tim Becker)