The Urbanization of the Adventist Mission: Interview with Skip Bell
By Jeff Boyd, 27 September 2018 | Dr. Skip Bell is professor of leadership in the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan. The recent Urban Mission and Ministry Congress drew more than 500 Adventist pastors, missionaries and denominational administrators. Jeff Boyd, a contributing editor for Adventist Today, covered the event for us and conducted a wide-ranging interview with Bell as the organizer.
Boyd: Who advocated for this conference? And what was your role in planning the event?
Bell: Two years ago, having taught urban ministry in our Doctor of Ministry program for many years, having done case studies where I served and worked with significant urban churches across a broad range of denominational traditions, and having students telling me, “We ought to have a congress” I decided the initiative needed to be taken. Pastors out in the field had told me, “We just don’t have anything focusing on the issues of the city.” So I went to the seminary dean, to a few key people in the North American Division (NAD) Evangelism Institute, Adventist Community Services and the Ministerial Association. My thought was, “Look, if I could gather a group of people who will be on a steering committee, and we start the ball rolling, and we write a proposal knowing that I’m going to come back to you because we’re going to have to seek funding, are you able to provide a sense of “Yes, this is needed. Let’s go”? From all those centers, those points where you look across the breadth of church organizations for some traction, there was, “We need this.” That’s all it took.
I gathered a group to be on the steering committee, included local church leaders, and that steering committee worked for a year and three-quarters. We eventually went to a number of sources.
The Adventist health institutions were the key contributors and visionaries. I sat down with Peter Bath, the Vice President for Mission at Kettering Hospital, who has pastored in the city at Sligo Church for some years, and then subsequently served the health systems. I spent an hour and a half with him, but we were to ‘yes’ in five minutes. The vision of the health systems to provide strong sponsorship has been exceptional, they’re covering probably three-quarters of the cost of this whole event. They’re the primary sponsors. The North American Division Adventist Community Services, Ministerial Association, Evangelism Institute, AdventSource, Andrews University is doing a little, the seminary is doing a little; those are the key supporters.
So the momentum started from a grassroots thing of students in my urban ministry cohorts, saying “We ought to be doing this,” and the professor, myself saying, “I know they’re right.” I have also worked with organizations like the Dream Center in Phoenix, Park Street Church in Boston (an amazing congregation), Joshua Station in Denver (transitional housing for the homeless), Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago (their urban garden) and several other ministries, acquainting myself and doing hands-on research about what effective urban ministry looks like.
I had a life-changing experience one day working in the urban garden in Chicago. I met this teenager, a young African-American teenager. Garden leaders go to public schools and advertise summer gardening experiences. Parents love to see their children engaged in something like that. It’s an alternate to the traditional Vacation Bible School. This young woman got on a public bus as an elementary student from a challenged neighborhood and went to the urban garden. Now she’s on the staff there, and I talked with her about her journey. She’s been working at the garden for six years or so. She now has a future as an adult going to a school to become a professional chef. She’s won awards for her recipes. And it all comes from learning whole food, plant-based eating out of the urban garden and loving working with vegetables. She was making some money to help her in school because they teach them to take their produce and do micro-businesses with what they grow. In contrast, she told me one of her siblings was into life threatening behaviors.
That’s the difference Christians can make when they engage. I talked to one Christian; a white, privileged young adult who helps run that garden. I think there are about fifteen staff from Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, which is a landmark church in America. This woman either had her masters or was in graduate school—bright, intelligent. I asked her one day; “Do you still go to Fourth Presbyterian?” because that’s where her family roots were. We were having a pleasant conversation, it was a break during work, and she looked at me, with a piercing stare; that look, which is appropriate, a judgmental look toward somebody my age who she knew was a seminary professor from up in Michigan, who might think that to be a Christian meant you went to church. And she said, delivering a sermon and theology of the church in one sentence; “This is church.” Oh man, you talk about speaking volumes about what it means to be Christian. To be Christian doesn’t mean gathering on the weekend with your congregation. To be Christian means to love, relate, serve, build community, listen in everyday life—on the sidewalk, in the street, in the garden, in the board room, in the school, in the place where people are. She defined church in that sentence!
I dream of the day that we Adventists are known as people who relate, who love, who serve, who build community, who care. I dream of the day when the heartbeat of my church—the Seventh-day Adventist Church—is relationality, loving, serving, caring out in the public square; public life. I can imagine us being that way. It can happen. We’ve got to model it. We’ve got to dream it. We’ve got to talk it. We’ve got to live it. We’ve got to teach it. We’ve got to do it. The actions and the words.
Boyd: What’s the purpose of the conference? What is the significance?
Bell: We use the words “re-set” and “re-frame.” The words re-set and re-frame suggest a change is necessary. A change is necessary. We—the Seventh-day Adventist Church—were born in the context of New England, the second wave of the Great Awakening in the mid-nineteenth century, where the issues in Christianity were identified within that historical framework, that particular point in time. The foundation of our church is not that history. The foundation of our church is Jesus and how He lives in this world today through His church. So, yes, I love our history. I benefit from it. I wouldn’t change Sabbath for anything. I am so thankful that in my DNA is a sense of the providence of God in the arc of history that will bring suffering and sin to an end; the second coming of Christ. I’m so thankful for clarity in Scripture on things. But the foundation is Jesus, and we need to reset and reframe what it means to be an Adventist today. It means to follow Jesus into the lives of people. We’re not a body of people arguing what the Bible teaches; we are a movement of people empowered by the Spirit, filled with a joyful relationship with Jesus, sharing Him not through argument but through life and deed. So re-set, re-frame.
Some will read the article and think about mission strategy, so let’s talk about mission strategy. There are millions of people living in our cities who couldn’t care less about what the Bible teaches. They don’t believe in the Bible. They’re not going to say, “Oh, tell me about God.” And if we rely on the traditional mission strategy, which is preach the Bible—when we say “preach the gospel,” we mean “preach the Bible”—they’re never going to come and listen to that. Or we say, use compassion ministry as an entry wedge. Not everybody is as stupid as we are. Not everybody says, “Oh they gave me something, so now I know they’re Christians.” No, they’ll know we are Christians when we have an on-going commitment to be alongside them. When we live, love, serve, and relate with the compassion of Jesus. Only when a relationship of love and trust is built will they say, “You have a different world view than me.” And we say, “Yes, I’ve noticed.” No judgment. And we listen and talk. In terms of strategy, we need that adjustment.
Boyd: What can you share about this tension between country living and city mission?
Bell: The last thing we need is this idea that you live out in suburbia or rural areas and drive into town. If prayerfully a person or family decides, “We ought to live in the country,” praise God. God can bless you in the country, and you can witness. If that’s where God calls you, no problem. Praise God. But the idea that we shouldn’t live in the city is absolutely foreign. It’s not even an accurate interpretation of the documents that form and shape where we typically look for answers. It’s poor theology because Jesus came and went to the cities and towns. That’s where we are to be and live. You cannot build relationships with a hit and run type of thing. You have to be incarnational. Incarnational ministry requires that you live and serve with and among people.
I have a brother whose name was read into the Congressional Record a few weeks ago in the United States Congress. You know why? He stayed in his community as a pastor for 23 plus years and retired there. This was a church that required him to be in the community, walking around, part of the community life. And he was. He served on city council and in other ways.
The strategy question is important, but more important is the theology question. We don’t represent the love of Christ when we do hit-and-run ministry. We really don’t. So theologically, we can’t do that. We just can’t do that. We have to live in the community. We have to be a part of that community.
Boyd: What do you hope pastors and lay people take away from the Urban Ministry and Mission Congress?
Bell: This conference is designed to knit together persons who have vision and who are followers of Jesus but are not employed by the Church with those who may be pastors, organizational leaders or religion faculty. So, it’s a both-and type of approach. In our marketing, we attempted to communicate it in that way. And it has turned out that way. We have a good number of persons whose vision and passion for people in the city are here and pastors or organizational leaders.
The take away: I want them to walk away saying, “I am called first of all to relate. And that means I have got to be in, among, carry out my vocation among, carry out my educational life among, get to know neighbors, serve the needs of my neighborhood, get involved in issues of my community and public life and government, etc. So I’ve got to relate.
Secondly, I’ve got to serve. I do not necessarily need to create new agencies of service, but where there are effective agencies I need to volunteer. I need to contribute leadership. I need to add my energies to it. Or it may mean creating new agencies.
I have to show compassion. That is, I have to actually demonstrate over time real care, compassion, love. It can’t be a thing; it’s got to be my way of life over time.
Fourth, I want to be a community builder. I want people to knit in their relationships, which means I have to invest in relationships that move around various points, not simply religiosity.
Those are the takeaways. If some criticize that those fall short of the gospel, I would make the opposite case. That first, strategically, that’s a long-term way to build the church. Secondly, young Adventists are sick and tired of an institution that rests on its history and proclaims its beliefs and shows very little engagement or concern for real people in real community. So, if you want to keep the church alive, get with being the church. But the third thing – there’s joy and peace in simply living the love of Jesus among people. The call of Jesus is: Follow me, live and love my life. So, I’m not twisting arms, and I’m not forcing things. It’s like yeast in the bread; it just does its work.
Boyd: I’ve seen recordings being made. Will these be available?
Bell: There are several things we’re doing for follow-up. The plenary session presenters have agreed to have their sessions on YouTube. Secondly, workshops and the plenaries are going to be edited and used within an online urban ministry curriculum with the Adventist Learning Community. I’m responsible for putting that together and it will take two to three months before it is ready. Third, Sung Kwon, the director of Adventist Community Services, is leading a process of engaging with every division worldwide and every union conference in the NAD to host congresses like this one, using this model. A fourth thing is publishing. The Missions Department and the Christian Ministry Department at the seminary are each going to use their leverage for journals such as the Journal of Adventist Mission Studies, BRIDGE and Ministry magazine to try to get these things out in the public; to publish these presentations and articles on these issues. It takes work to turn a presentation into a journal article. It could take two years before all of this material is published, but we shouldn’t overlook the power of the pen because you affect thinking gradually.