October 12, 2015: An important function of the Adventist denomination’s governing body during its first meeting after each General Conference (GC) Session is to appoint many key personnel who serve five-year terms between sessions. That was part of the agenda yesterday and two of the leadership roles went to clergy from Brazil: Dr. Elias de Souza was voted director of the Biblical Research Institute (BRI) and Pastor Marcos Bomfim was elected director of the Stewardship Department.
An Old Testament scholar who has specialized in the interpretation of the Bible, the Hebrew language and the meaning of the temple rituals in ancient Israel, de Souza was dean of the seminary at Northeast Brazil College, a professor in the Latin American Adventist Theological Seminary and a pastor the Southern Brazil Union Conference before coming to the BRI staff. He has published academic papers in both Portuguese and English, including four currently available on the BRI Web site. He is one of the presenters later this week during the Gift of Prophecy Symposium at Andrews University where he earned his PhD in 1999 through 2006.
Bomfim will be moving from his current job as director of both the Stewardship and Family Ministries departments of the denomination’s South American Division (SAD). Previously he directed both departments in the Rio Grande do Sul Conference and the Santa Catarina Conference, both in Brazil, after serving as a pastor in the South Sao Paulo Conference. The Stewardship Department produces educational materials on family financial management and managing personal resources to support tithing, volunteering and donations for Adventist causes.
A third Brazilian minister who joined the GC recently is Pastor Magdiel E. Perez Schulz, who is the new assistant to the president for Pastor Ted Wilson, the denomination’s top officer. It should not be surprising that a number of new leaders are from Brazil which is now the nation with the largest number of Adventists in the world.
Pastor Dennis R. Carlson from the Washington Conference in the northwestern United States was appointed director of Planned Giving and Trust Services for the GC, a vacancy left unfilled during the GC Session in July. He had the same role in Washington state, as well as serving as executive secretary of the conference association (legal entity) and the conference liaison with Adventist-laymen’s Services and Industries (ASI).
Dr. David Trim was reappointed the director of Archives, Statistics and Research, as well as editor of the new Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. He is a historian from England who has been a faculty member at Newbold College in the United Kingdom and Pacific Union College in the United States.
The editors of major denominational periodicals published at the GC office were also reappointed yesterday, another routine task in the first meeting following a GC Session. This included Dr. Bill Knott and the other senior staff of the Adventist Review and Adventist World, both now monthly magazines. It also included the editors of the Sabbath School study guides for each age level which are produced at the GC office in Silver Spring, Maryland, and then translated and adapted in many nations outside of North America.
Associate directors and other staff were appointed in a number of departments, many of these reappointments for an additional five-year term. Some were new to the GC staff, including Dr. Frank Hasel, a Bible scholar from Southern Adventist University who will join the BRI.
Wilson announced that the request from a delegate at the GC Session in July for a study of methods of interpreting the Bible (a theological discipline called hermeneutics) has been assigned to the BRI Committee. He also reported on plans to for Adventists to respond to the needs of refugees in Europe. “We have appointed a coordinator and will create a small group to assist in an ongoing, difficult and confusing situation. The numbers of displaced persons will increase. ADRA is providing health care and distributing relief supplies. … Adventists are helping and cooperating with governments and official agencies.”
Wilson also announced a Summit on the Adventist Educational System just prior to the 2016 annual meeting. There are many challenges, he acknowledged, stating that the meeting was of “utmost importance.” He said that some are tempted to add non-members to their boards, but there is no point in having Adventist education if it is not Adventist at its core. This will be “a meeting like you’ve never attended before.”
The Office of Global Mission reported on the growing challenges for the Adventist mission around the world; increasing secularism, post modern thinking and distrust of organized religion while there remains growing spiritual hunger. Conversions occur because someone cares. We must share Christ in quite different contexts. For example there are 65 Adventist congregations among Jews around the world. These begin from friendships and become small groups. The Middle East and North Africa Union Mission is adding new ministries and new members. The Gospel can be incomprehensible to those who do not come from other Christian faiths, but events like the current refugee crisis open possibilities for conversations.
There are three Christians for every ten people on the globe, pointed out a video report. At least 4.2 billion people do not personally know even one Christian and Adventist penetration is much less. “We can’t reach them, but God can. What are we doing to cooperate with God’s plans?”
Focus on mission has declined in the Adventist denomination since the 1960s, reported Trim. “Mission drift” has occurred due to heavy internal focus on administrative responsibilities and significant changes in the wider missional environment. The denomination is sending fewer missionaries in proportion to church membership. Mission appeared to lose intentionality and focus. “We kept doing the same thing because it still produced dramatic results in some parts of the world, but ignored other areas where it did not work as well. It was a mission of least resistance.” From 2010 to 2015 changes have been implemented. There is a “mission family” of entities within the denomination that work collaboratively. This has resulted in improvements, although challenges remain.
The rate of growth has been slowing down for decades, Trim reported, although membership audits show that numbers have been exaggeration over the past 25 years. For the last ten years the denomination’s growth rate has been better than the rate of world population increase. Growth now comes primarily from church planting; starting new groups.
Total membership was 18,778,932 on December 31, 2015; up from 2014. There are a total of 149,850 congregations. (Adventist Today often mentions a figure of 30 million total adherents. It is important to understand the difference between this figure and the official membership figure reported above. “Membership” is made up of “adults” at least 10 or 12 years of age, although actually legally age in some cultures, while “adherents” include children down to birth in families with at least one baptized head of household and non-baptized youth and adults who attend at least once a month on a regular basis, many of whom may be preparing to become baptized members. The adherents figure comes from careful estimates by scholars of religion.)
Trim also reported on the research his office has sponsored on membership retention. It is a “serious” issue. It should be a priority for the denomination. There has been an analysis of 50 years of data which reveals cumulative world losses of 4 out of 10 people who became members. The “missing” outnumber the “dropped.” Why do members leave? Studies have asked those who have left the church and those who have returned later. Primarily it is stressful life events and congregational-member relationship issues. Some 58 percent of those who have left said they are open under the right circumstances to a new connection.
The evidence shows we must reduce conflict in churches and increase support for members, Trim reported from the research. He reminded committee members of the parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15:1-7. “We are missing many more than one in a hundred,” Trim stated. “We must staunch the loss and find ways to reconnect with those who need to be searched for as Jesus searches for us.”
A member of the committee went to the microphone and stated, “we know that retention is a real problem. … We’ve talked about it in these meetings for many years. There’s much good we do, but we need an integrated approach to this problem. It’s a crisis.”
Trim responded, “there are relatively easy steps that can be taken. We’ve identified risk factors such as stressful life events and how to take preventive action. Reconnecting is possible for many. The evidence is that they are open to it.”
A report from the Faith and Science Council: It works closely with the Geoscience Research Institute with the goal to provide a place for ideas to come together that support the doctrine of creation. The revisions in Fundamental Beliefs paragraph six were intended to bring light, not to divide.
Current research projects include one on fossil whale bones in Peru and another on the DNA of trees on an Arctic island. The Council funds research that supports the doctrine of creation and seeking evidence that disproves the claims of evolution. Graduate students are being sponsored to prepare them as science faculty who are capable of not just accepting what is taught by secular education.
The Council will work with other Divisions of the denomination which want to offer a local version of last year’s field conference in Utah. Southern Adventist University is collaborating with the Council on an educational project that will be available online through the Education Department’s Adventist Learning Community.
The Council funded a BRI book on the doctrine of creation and sent it to many universities. The Council sponsored the By Design elementary textbook and a version for the secondary level is close to release. It has also funded Seeking Understanding, a video that shows that Adventists can succeed in science while remaining faithful to the Bible. It is largely funded by donors and not from the denomination’s regular budget. It is primarily an advocate of the “intelligent design” approach to the issues of correlating the Bible and science.