by Alvin Masarira | 02 September 2022 |
As I write this, it has been over two months since the 61st General Conference (GC) Session of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Due to the global COVID-19 pandemic this session had to be postponed twice (from 2020).
Since this was the first GC Session in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic, many were interested to see if it had dawned on the world church and its leadership that the world has changed, although things might still look the same on the surface. Not only has the world changed, but even the church has changed because church members in general now think differently when they view and relate to the Church organization. We can’t just go back to “pre-COVID life.”
During the peak of the pandemic many church services and programs moved to online platforms, with people being able to attend church in their living rooms. Many things that used to be “the only way” were called into question. The authority of the organisation over many decisions church members make was also challenged. Many realised that they could have church services and programs without the physical organisation. Even the General Conference (head office) became very distant in people’s view.
What of the head office?
Who still discusses the decision on Compliance Committees taken by the General Conference Executive Committee on 14 October 2018, for example? It was a decision on the proposal “113-18G: Regard for and practice of General Conference Session and General Conference Executive Committee Actions” and a process that was designed to enforce compliance with organizational policies as well as actions voted at General Conference Sessions and executive committee meetings. The global pandemic forced many organisations (including businesses) to review the way they operate and to adapt to the “new normal.”
However, a general observation is that the Church has not made enough effort to review its systems and structure. The recent General Conference Session did not show any indication of a serious intention to review the way the organisation operates. It was indeed business as usual with the session agenda focussing on the usual issues, such as modification of policy and some 37 amendments to the Church Manual. The most significant changes to the Church Manual that were somehow related to the dramatic experience of COVID-19 (and all it came with) were the authorisation of church boards to hold online meetings and the “acceptance” of electronic payments as a proper method of returning tithes and offerings.
But these are nothing new, since many church boards were already having online meetings even before and during COVID (without any Church Manual amendments), and we have been using electronic payments for the last 30 or so years.
What of the future?
The General Conference Session did not have on its agenda any items concerning how the future of the church should look, even with the drastic changes the world has gone through. There was no discussion on how the church could be more relevant to the youth (many of whom are struggling to identify themselves with the church); or on how to reach the major urban centres that are becoming increasingly secular and no longer see the relevance of organised religion. I was hoping to see some evidence of an organisation working to become a “Redefined Church.” Such a church is one that operates like a small business (meaning it is decentralized), is innovative, has a flatter structure, is quick to adapt to changes, and has more women and young people in leadership.
The General Conference Session 2022 is now behind us, and we look forward to the next Session in 2025 (from July 3 to 12 in St Louis, Missouri). But I am still hoping that we work towards the following:
- We become a more efficient organisation, with few redundancies. We really don’t need to duplicate services offered, and don’t need all the levels of administration we currently have. We can do without Divisions, for example, in most parts of the world church.
- We become intentional about listening to the “young voices” and being relevant to them. Our pioneers and founders were very young people, and it is beyond comprehension that we have become a church primarily catering for and led by predominantly old people.
- We affirm females in leadership roles by fully ordaining them to gospel ministry. This issue is not going to go away (no matter how many wish it away) as long as there is clear gender discrimination in the church, and no amount of theological debates will make it disappear.
- We acknowledge that the core business of the church is conducted firstly at local church and secondly at the local conference levels, and therefore allocate more resources to these levels. There are lots of unnecessary “inefficiencies” at other levels of the church. My view is that there is need to review the concept of the “storehouse” and allow some portion of the trust funds (including tithe) to be retained by the local church where the actual mission of the church takes place.
- We accept the reality brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic—that we now have a “Church Without Walls.” Whoever still believes church is inside the walls has missed the bus. Church has long moved outside the walls, and we need to operate in that context. There are more people who are being served outside the walls of the church than the ones that attend on Sabbaths.
- We fully realize that the pandemic has taught us, i.e., only those who are “essential” to their communities will be relevant. Unfortunately, many Adventist churches have evolved into social gatherings where like-minded people enjoy gathering and make no effort beyond their doors. For the church to make a real impact we need to become a blazing fire that changes the world. We need to rediscover the passion of the early church—not just in preaching—but to minister to the needs of people. We don’t have to make them our members first before we help; we just need to help and alleviate suffering.
- A church that is bold enough to ask itself tough questions and relook at the role and authority of the General Conference in the world church. When the church reorganisation happened in 1901/02, the main objective was to devolve authority and empower the levels closest to the people (i.e., union conferences) to make the majority of the key decisions. But over the years the General Conference has usurped that authority and returned the church back to 19th-century structure where the General Conference in essence makes every decision that matters. This has frustrated the church across the world and created a system closer to the Catholic than to the Protestant Church.
- A church that fully understands the concept of “accountability.” It is amazing what people (especially leaders) can get away with in the church because we have very weak, and some even argue – non-existent – systems to hold people accountable. The systems might be there on paper, but there is generally no “political” will to implement them. A lot has been said about the reasons for this reluctance. Some argue the church leadership committees quickly evolve into “old boys clubs” or the structure itself does not lend itself to high levels of enforcing accountability. The redefined church needs to be able to hold people/leaders accountable with love and grace.
- A church that understands that people today, in general, no longer have long-term loyalty to organisations. It is already evident in that people change jobs, cars, houses, and sadly even marriage partners more frequently than many decades ago. The church needs to be aware that it is dealing with the short-term loyalty of members. Whatever that means for the church is for the church to figure out and work to ensure that short term loyalty is harnessed and maintained in those “short phases.” Sometimes the church wonders why young people walk away from or appear disinterested in the church in spite of the “amazing history” of the church. It’s a short-term loyalty culture.
- A church that shows (both in word and deed) that people are more important than the organisation. Often the church is obsessed with protecting its image, name, and reputation even at the expense of destroying people. If there is one thing the church needs to learn from Jesus it is that He placed humans above everything else. No wonder the “church” crucified Him.
Alvin Masarira is originally from Zimbabwe, and is a structural engineering consultant based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He and his wife, Limakatso, a medical doctor, have three children.