GC Blog Day 2 (Friday, July 3): Adventism’s Global Shift

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GC Blog Day 2 (Friday, July 3): Adventism’s Global Shift

Once again, my best-laid plans were foiled this morning as I arrived late at the Alamodome. I settled into my seat just in time to hear a men’s quartet singing “In a Little While We’re Going Home,” with a guy by the name of Ted Wilson singing what sounded like the baritone part.

Shortly thereafter, my friend Sikhu began breaking down the Word. The one part that I have been reflecting upon all day is her discussion of the disconnect between what we believe and how we behave. She read James 2:19, which states that “the devils also believe, and tremble.” Even fallen angels act on their knowledge in the base act of trembling before God. The inference is that if I state my belief and live without action, I am worse than a devil.

Am I acting on what I believe? As the meeting closed, I whispered a prayer that I might add more doing to my believing.

From my perch above the North American Division (NAD) delegates, I observed that during most of Sikhu’s time at the microphone, there was probably less than 25% representation. I understand that the long days can begin to wear on a person, but we are early in the week, and the worship sets the tone for the rest of the day.

This morning’s business included the Secretary’s Report, which was quite enlightening. A number of benchmarks were set:

  • In 2013, the Adventist Church surpassed 18 million members.
  • The last quinquennium saw a gain of 1.5 million souls in the Adventist Church.
  • The year 2014 saw the most baptisms in a single year: 1.167 million, working out to 2.2 baptisms every minute.
  • It was also the best year for church planting, seeing 2,444 new congregations, or 6.7 new churches per day.

The majority of the growth in the Adventist Church came from a region termed the global south, what we have traditionally referred to as the developing or third world. Executive Secretary G.T. Ng referred to these four divisions as engines for growth in the Seventh-day Adventist Church:

  • East-Central Africa,
  • Southern Africa and Indian Ocean,
  • Inter-American,
  • South American.

The global south represents more than 90% of the recent growth in the Adventist Church. But this growth means that there is a reciprocal decline in the global north, or what we have formerly called the first or developed world. Since 1960 the global south has grown from 54% to 92% of the world church, while Adventism in the Western world has declined from 46% to a paltry 8%. Breaking this decline down by region, North America shrank from 37% to 7%, and Europe shrank from 16% to 2% of the global church.

Perhaps the most staggering statistic was that in five years we gained 6 million, but lost 3 million. Elder Ng termed the 48% loss rate as a “tremendous hemorrhage from the church.” To add insult to injury, David Trim from Adventist Archives shared that, upon the study of Adventist mortality, our statistics were significantly inflated. It was discovered that membership audits were lacking, and that there has been a loss over the past 50 years of 13 million people from the church: a net loss rate of 29%. New software is helping the church stay current on membership numbers.

As the report concluded, was discussed, and was accepted, the Nominating Committee brought their recommendation for the office of the president. Elder Wilson’s name was read. Raymond Hartwell, president of the Pennsylvania Conference, was the first to speak to the issue, and he referred the report back to the Nominating Committee. After some deliberation, and the conclusion that the issue had already been discussed in committee, the committee’s recommendation was resubmitted. This happened twice, both with delegates from the Columbia Union.

Throughout this discussion, there was occasional applause of approval of the candidate or shouting of disapproval at the session chairman, Pardon Mwansa. The sacred assembly began to take on a political atmosphere. Elizabeth Talbot moved to have a secret ballot, which failed. The question was called and Ted Wilson was voted in as General Conference President. The attempt to  effectively filibuster on the part of dissidents was unprecedented. A challenge to the recommendation for president has not occurred in recent Adventist history.

So what is the takeaway here? I view the events of today as symptomatic of a liberal, Western church in decline that is unable to cope with the conservative Adventist majority in the rest of the world. The power center in the church is clearly shifting away from North America, and it appears that the NAD—the birthplace of Adventism—is not taking it very well. The picture that I am seeing before my eyes is an imperial church; one that is not able to relinquish power to those whom they feel are inferior in their expression of faith, and one that reacts with political tactics in order to retain their power.

What’s more, the treasurer’s report that was shared today underscores the significant contribution of the NAD to the world budget. Perhaps we feel that the rest of the world should respect our authority on the basis of our finances, all the while NAD giving to the world mission continues its freefall.

And in the middle of this issue is the question of representation. We have heard the cry for more women and young people on the nominating committee, as well as among the delegates. I think that more diversity would be helpful. There is no question that we all struggle with bias in some way, and a diversity of delegates, in a state of submission to God, would help mitigate the concern. But do we really believe that God can not clearly articulate His will for His people through middle-aged men of African and Latin descent? This is not the Republican National Committee; this is the General Conference. While there are areas in which we can always grow, we already enjoy a tremendous amount of diversity! My generation is largely not represented, and I wish that it were not so. But I have submitted this conference to God’s will, and I respect the outcome, even when my friends are not serving as delegates.

Today’s program closed when Pastor Mark Finley, in classic style, worked with Christine Wollmann and Charles Haugabrooks to produce a lovely program. This brought back fond memories from the days when I served as a Bible worker with Mark’s team in Denver back in 2004. It reminded me of the early days of my experience, my growing faith and ministry, my optimism for God’s church. I pray that the ministry of the Word in its simplicity, the preaching of the cross, and the appeal for mission would bring us to gather in submission together before God.

Of course, it would be much easier to accomplish this if our people were actually in the worship service.

(Photo: A baptism during the Friday evening program)

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Jarod Thomas pastors two churches along the shores of Lake Michigan, where he lives with his wife and two children. He holds a degree in Near Eastern Studies and Arabic Language and is currently pursuing an MA from the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University. You can catch up with him on Twitter @beans4breakfast.