by Alvin Masarira | 21 November 2023 |
On Sunday, May 21, 2023, the General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church turned 160 years old. For all intents and purposes, church members equate the General Conference organization with the Adventist Church itself. They don’t differentiate between the administrative entity and the church—but that should be a discussion for another day.
It was on Thursday, May 21, 1863, that 20 people met in Battle Creek (Michigan, USA), with 18 being delegates from five of the six then-existing state conferences: Michigan, New York, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa. (The Vermont Conference did not send any delegates, but the churches from Ohio, which was still to be organized as a conference, sent two delegates.)
Among the observers were Ellen White and local church members. The session elected Jotham Aldrich as chair and Uriah Smith as secretary. It is worth noting that Aldrich was only 35 years old and had only been converted three years before.
As the church organization grew, it sent its first official missionary outside the United States: on September 15, 1874, John Nevins Andrews left for Switzerland. He was a widower, and went with his two children, Charles and Mary.
Growth and loss
It is, however, important to note that already, three years earlier in 1871, an Adventist gold miner from the United States named William Hunt had arrived in Kimberley, South Africa, drawn by the diamonds found in Kimberley. He shared his faith with John van Druten and Pieter Wessels. To shorten the story: the General Conference sent a team of missionaries who arrived in Cape Town on July 28, 1887: Dores A. Robinson and Charles L. Boyd, along with their wives; two literature evangelists, George Burleigh and Richard S. Anthony; and a Bible instructor, Corrie Mace.
After three years, the first Seventh-day Adventist church, Beaconsfield Church in Kimberley, was opened on the African continent. In 1894 the Adventist missionaries moved north and entered what is now Zimbabwe and started the work at Solusi Mission. Solusi became the epicenter of Adventist work on the continent, as evangelists, pastors, and teachers were trained from many African countries.
The church has grown to over 20 million adult members. But the estimate is that four of every ten church members are lost due to the weakness in member retention programs and plans. Even though the evangelism in our churches is winning people, we lose many of those baptized. This hemorrhaging of members should be curbed—although it might actually be getting worse, especially in countries where soul winning is difficult. If it continues, entire conferences may be closed for lack of members.
Now that the church has turned 160, there are different views on how to describe the church of 2023. While some would argue that the church has matured, others could argue that it has fossilized and become stagnant, stale, uncreative, and so traditional that it has lost touch with a very changing world. There might be as many views as the 20-plus million members.
My observation is that the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 2023 is characterized by five features.
- First, there is an increased sense of what could be defined as paranoia, where church leadership (especially) is becoming more and more suspicious of anything that, and anyone who, doesn’t conform to what they believe to be aligned with their version of Bible truth. Anyone who differs with some leaders is quickly branded a heretic who is misleading the church. The whole crisis concerning the role of women in ministry, for example, is premised on the view that there is only a single view on issues, and any deviation is error and should be dealt with decisively.
- The second characteristic is closely linked to the first, and that is a lack of flexibility or tolerance. The Adventist pioneers had room for a wide variety of views on a number of issues, but it now appears that the organization has fossilized and lost its ability to have a broad and wide range of views on issues. Perhaps because the pioneers came from a variety of Christian denominations, the robust conversations among them did not make people feel that their sincerity and commitment to God and His mission were being questioned when they disagreed with one another.
- The third characteristic is that although the average member is young, the average church official is old. The church is young in membership but old in leadership. Somehow the church does not have enough confidence in the young to make them leaders. In the General Conference Executive Committee and the General Conference (GC) Session delegates. of the almost 2,600 delegates at the GC Session 2015
- 6% were under 30 years of age
- 10% between 30 and 39 years
- 26% between 40 and 49 years
- 35% between 50 and 59 years
- 19% between 60 and 69 years
- 3% over 70 years of age. The GC Session 2022 breakdown was not readily available, but it is very likely to have been similar.
- The fourth characteristic falls right behind the third: the church seems to undervalue those who are in the majority, namely, the young and females. Of the 2015 GC Session delegates, 83% were male, while only 17% were female. Those who have been following the discussions concerning the role of women in ministry are not surprised that females are not trusted with any responsibilities considered important in the church. This is always a surprise, given that the Seventh-day Adventist Church places great theological authority on the work, writings, and role of an Ellen G White.
- The fifth and final characteristic is that in 2023, the church has become more brown than white in terms of global membership. Africa makes up over 45% of world membership, and adding South America to that, it is clear the center of gravity has shifted from the global north to the global south. However, in terms of influence (both financial and administrative), the global north still holds most of the levers.
As the saying goes, it takes a long time to turn a ship this big—if it can be turned at all.
How to change?
Many ideas have been shared on how the Seventh-day Adventist Church can be reformed—though it is debatable whether any of these can ever be implemented. Since those who would be responsible for driving the reforms would lose the most in terms of authority, it would be tantamount to reforming oneself out of power. Because the major challenge of the church is that authority lies in the hands of a few.
The perception that power lies with the members is simply untrue. In the Adventist Church, power resides at the top. We regularly speak of “the higher organization” when we mean the administrative levels such as union conferences, divisions, or the General Conference. If one follows that line of thinking, it means the highest level of authority is the General Conference, and the lowest level the lay membership. At the General Conference level there are four very powerful committees:
- The General Conference Executive Committee (GC ExCom), made up of about 350 members. Calling it “the session between sessions” implies it effectively has authority to decide on almost anything pertaining to the organization. It can even elect a new General Conference president, such as in 1999 when it elected Jan Paulsen to replace Robert Folkenberg.
- Another powerful committee is the Presidents Council, made up of the General Conference and Division presidents. Although it doesn’t have executive authority, it serves as the gatekeeper to what ends up on the General Conference Executive Committee agenda. And which GC ExCom member would dare challenge what the presidents have decided and recommended—since it is these presidents who chair most of the nominating processes that appoint the majority of the General Conference Executive Committee members?
- The third powerful committee is PREXAD (President’s Executive Administrative Council), which serves as a sounding board for the GC president
- The fourth is the GCDO (General Conference and Division Officers).
My point is that by the time items appear on the GC ExCom or even GC Session agendas, they would have had to make it through these closely knit and relatively small committees to ensure there is no dissenting voice. Any major changes to the organizational structure or policies in the church require the approval of these committees. It would take a herculean effort to get any significant item through these committees that the president wouldn’t agree with, because of the way members are appointed.
Although it is very easy for people to throw their hands in the air and give up, it is incumbent upon church members to use whatever influence they have to reform the church’s organizational structure, if we want to unleash the huge potential that resides in it. Many members of today’s generation are no longer willing to accept things as they have always been done. The youth, especially, are asking difficult questions about the relevance of the organization and how it interfaces with their faith and lived experiences. The church needs to take these questions seriously, because these members might not have enough loyalty to the organization to keep them inside the church if it refuses to listen to them.
If the Lord has not returned in another 160 years, there might be no Seventh-day Adventist Church. It would not just have fossilized, but I fear the current organization would be dead. It is therefore incumbent on the current leadership especially to turn this ship around.
Alvin Masarira is originally from Zimbabwe. He is a structural engineering consultant based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He and his wife, Limakatso, a medical doctor, have three children.