by Monte Sahlin
By far and away the most significant thing that happened at the recent Annual Council of the General Conference executive committee of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is the adoption of a strategy document entitled, “Mission to the Cities.” It forthrightly recognizes that the world is rapidly urbanizing and this represents the major challenge for the cause of Christ and the future of the Adventist movement.
Around the world, the Adventist faith has made the greatest penetration in relatively small island nations. Pitcairn, the smallest territory on the United Nations list of countries, has the highest percentage of Adventists in the population, and that population is less than 100. Antigua has the highest percentage of Adventists of any country in the Americas and it is one of the smallest. Adventist faith seems to do best at the margins and not do very well in the largest blocks of the population.
In fact, in the largest cities on the globe, in many cases the majority of the Adventist membership is made up of immigrants and there are virtually no converts among the indigenous residents. Often these are immigrants from island nations in the Caribbean and the South Pacific where the percentage of Adventists in the population is very high.
Why has the Adventist movement not done better at reaching the mainstream of the population? Whenever I hear this discussed in Sabbath School or conversations around the potluck table, I hear the same excuses.
- Adventist faith demands too high a ‘cost’ in lifestyle requirements, Sabbath-keeping, etc., to attract worldly urbanites.
- Ellen White said we should move out of the cities.
- The secular city is prejudiced against the Adventist message.
In fact, none of these has any hard evidence to support it. What is true is that urban mission is demanding and we usually look for the quick and dirty approach to doing the work of Jesus.
The strategy document voted at the 2011 Annual Council makes it clear the quick and dirty approach is no longer acceptable. Urban ministry is to be ‘comprehensive,’ including “caring compassion … meeting needs” as well as evangelism. It specifically asks for “a sustained and ongoing approach that does not culminate with a major public evangelistic meeting.” It includes public evangelism, but that is not to be the bulk of the enterprise that gets most of the budget and time.
The example of Jesus, Scripture and statements by Ellen White are all included in the document to underline the reality that the cities cannot be significantly impacted if the Adventist Church continues to focus on quickly cherry-picking a few converts instead of digging in for the long, hard path of truly wholistic and Christian ministry.
Near the top of the document there is an affirmation of those Adventists who “for decades…have been living in and effectively sharing their faith in many of the world’s great cities.” This document nonetheless represents a sea of change in the way we do outreach. It will be a real test of the denomination’s leadership to see if they have the vision and patience and fortitude to gently, insistently help local churches and pastors change their long-accustomed ways of doing things and learn new patterns.
The percentage that the average conference spends on evangelism and community service is in the low single digits. We spend almost all of our money and energy on maintaining existing institutions and taking care of the saints. Investment in research and development, creating new approaches is virtually nonexistent in most conferences.
The strategy document envisions a systematic process of innovation through pilot projects. First, the General Conference will work directly with the North American Division and the two union conferences and five local conferences in the New York City metro area to establish a model program there. Then, each of the 13 world divisions will be asked to select a major metropolitan area in their territory for a similar project. Then, ‘each of the nearly 130 unions’ will be asked to do the same, and eventually ‘each of the over 500 conferences’ and similar organizations.
That process is seen as taking until the next General Conference Session in 2015 to get fully rolled out. That fact will undoubtedly raise the cynicism of some observers, knowing the history of denominational leadership reveals a typically short attention span that will run out of steam before significant impacts are achieved. Yet, the facts are that eventually — sooner or later, around this initiative or some other events — this transformation is bound to happen. It is an inevitable part of the spiritual heritage and calling of the Adventist movement. It is also a part of the maturing of new religious movements as they get to the size and sophistication of ours.
I want to speak a word of appreciation for Pastor Ted Wilson, the GC president who is leading this charge. To those who know him, it does not come as a surprise. He started his ministry as a missionary to New York City. He wrote a Ph.D., dissertation at New York University on this topic. His heart is in urban mission. The greatest contribution of the first second-generation GC president will be the denomination’s embrace of urban ministry. His father believed in it and it has been part of his spiritual development from an early age.
Ultimately, the real potential for change in this landmark document is in the hands of pastor and lay leaders in local churches and conferences. Ask your church board to discuss this document and say what it means for your local church. (You can download a copy here). What impact is your church making on the community where it is located? Do you have ministries of compassion and service that meet needs every week? Do civic leaders view your church as making a significant contribution to the community? Do you have a flow of potential new members into group activities and social settings where your members can make friends with them? Are there small groups or seminars or house churches or community Bible classes that teach what it means to follow Jesus each week? How many hours per week of volunteer time is invested outside the internal activity of the congregation on Sabbath? What percentage of your budget or local giving is devoted to outreach?
There are many examples of Adventist churches across North America who have started model ministries and are impacting their community. A number of these are in urban communities. If you really want to, you could do the same.