Adventist Today News Team, October 4, 2013
For five days over the past week more than 200 leaders from the Seventh-day Adventist Church around the world gathered at the denomination's General Conference (GC) offices in a suburb of Washington DC to discuss how to relate mission and strategy to the growing urban reality of the globe. The denomination has agrarian roots and despite the fact that the most influential of the founders–Ellen G. White–was pointing out the need to deal with urbanization as early as the turn of the 20th century, it has in many ways resisted embracing today's urban culture.
Pastor G. T. Ng, executive secretary of the GC, described White's vision for the cities in a keynote address on Friday night, September 27. Ng urged that the church needs to resolve its “love/hate” relationship with cities and with urban ministry. Many Adventists point to Ellen White statements about urban problems, but Ng reminded the leaders that White spent decades urging Adventists to move into urban areas to do ministry. He quoted White: “We are far behind in following the light God has given regarding the working of our large cities. … It is distressing to think that they have been neglected so long. For many, many years the cities of America … have been set before our people as places needing special attention.”
The group was also told that urban mission is about more than preaching campaigns. Noting that White advocated a diversity of methods to reach urban communities, Ng smiled at the room full of preachers and said, “I have a feeling we preach too much!” While most efforts to launch city ministries have focused on large public evangelistic events, Ng urged the leaders to plan numerous other activities. A document handed to participants when they arrived stated, "We have identified five relevant urban ministries models, which principles can be applied anywhere: small groups for discipleship, missional communities, new church plants, leadership development and centers of influence."
The same introductory document said, "Any initiative to reach the large cities of the world must be a long-term initiative that includes a variety of ministries and approaches." The GC is working to "revitalize Ellen White's concept of mission to the cities and to develop a comprehensive approach." The purpose of this Urban Mission Conference was, in part, to educate denominational leaders around the world. Each division of the GC has selected one or more cities where a model project is to be launched next year and then each of the union conferences is launch a project in at least one pilot city in 2015.
"It's time to move forward," stated Pastor Ted Wilson, GC president in a Sabbath morning sermon that was broadcast over the denomination's Hope Television network. "It's time to reach the millions living the great cities of this world."
When the Adventist movement in 1850 consisted of only a few hundred scattered individuals and occasional house churches, before the denomination was officially organized 150 years ago in 1863, the urban population of the world was less than five percent. By 2007 the majority of the world's people lived in cities, Dr. Michael Ryan, a GC vice president who chairs the planning committee, told the assembled leaders. By 2050 two-thirds of the world will be urbanized.
A briefing on demographic and religious trends prepared by veteran Adventist researcher Monte Sahlin was presented by his daughter Stephanie Sahlin Jackson, an administrator at Radians College in the District of Columbia. “The mission given to us by Jesus requires us to go where the people are,” Sahlin Jackson said, noting the massive shifts to the cities that are continuing worldwide, as well as the present-day concentration of 828 million people globally in slum areas of the big cities. In Africa and Asia large numbers of young adults are leaving the villages in rural areas and crowding into the cities in search of education and job opportunities. It will change the nature of traditional "mission fields" forever much as has happened in Brazil, Argentina and Mexico in recent decades.
Reactions to the research clearly demonstrated that the conference was stretching the minds of Adventist leaders. Dr. Delbert Baker, also a GC vice president, urged participants to develop “a theology of how we wrap our minds around the challenge” of reaching so many people and diverse people groups. Southern Africa-Indian Ocean division president Pastor Paul Ratsara said he viewed the reports with “mixed emotions,” saying his overwhelming feeling was “how are we going to do this?” Ratsara also quoted a French proverb that “a problem well stated is half-solved. We should not be discouraged.”
Clearly there were a range of opinions on the topic among denominational leaders because it had earlier been stated that a consensus document would be released at the end of the conference, but the statement was withheld so that the language can be worked on. The document’s final text is being revised and is expected to be presented at the denomination's Annual Council next week.
A draft noted the “reality of the cities” as well as the “urgency for a bold emphasis on urban mission.” A key goal in the draft is “that every city with a population of 1 million or more will have an influential Seventh-day Adventist presence actively engaged in a comprehensive mission, using Christ’s Method of ministry.”
The phrase “Christ’s Method” comes from a book by White, The Ministry of Healing, which lays out a broad vision of healing not limited to physical health nor to individuals, but encompassing the wholistic healing of entire communities. On page 143 she describes what she saw as the paradigm for Christian mission: “Christ's method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Saviour mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, ‘Follow Me.’”
According to Gary Krause, director of the Office of Adventist Mission, “Adventists have made terrific contributions to cities through such things as caring for the poor, and providing education and health services. But this summit has been a wake-up call that in many large cities we have no church members and are doing nothing, and that in every city we can do so much more by following Christ's example of wholistic mission.”
"This is a very significant step forward," Sahlin told Adventist Today from his home in Dayton, Ohio. "This is the first time since 1910 that the top leadership of the denomination has devoted a meeting at this level to the topic of urban strategy. Because of some personal tragedy that conference did not produce the results that Ellen White and others wanted, much to her regret. Here we are a century later, finally ready to take the innovative steps that she advocated." The focus here is larger than just expanding evangelism, Sahlin stated. "It is about how the Adventist movement relates its faith and life, its institutions and values, to one of the most important social context factors in the contemporary world. Urbanization is not just a quantitative difference, it is a qualitative difference from the world in which Adventist thinking began."
Much of the information in this story was provided by Adventist News Network (ANN), the official news services of the denomination, in bulletins written Mark Kellner, news editor of the Adventist Review.