Pastor Abner de los Santos, 59, prefers to present himself as a pastor, even though he has accumulated experience as an administrator within the Seventh-day Adventist Church. "I want to be an administrator continuing as a pastor," he says, reinforcing his way of facing the reality of someone who has responsibility for the global direction of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Born in the Mexican state of Tabasco, de los Santos is completing 36 years of ministry in 2022. He began his journey in the Adventist organization as a district pastor at the headquarters of the South Mexican Union, then moved through school activities to administrative positions.
In administrative functions, de los Santos served as executive secretary and president of the conference and union, which are two types of Adventist Church organizational levels for specific regions. He also served as vice president of the Inter-American Division (responsible for administering the Adventist Church in Central America and some South American countries) until he was appointed, in 2015, as one of the Seventh-day Adventist Church's world vice presidents. In 2022, he was led to a new term in that role, shared by seven other leaders. As one of the vice presidents within the Adventist world leadership, the Mexican is responsible for acting as an overseer or advisor to three departments: Children and Adolescent Ministries, Youth Ministries, and Health Ministries.
The son of a pastor who served for 37 years, de los Santos knows the reality of ministry very well. And, in the same way, he understands the challenges and opportunities the Adventist Church will have in the coming years. Married to Leticia, they have two young children: Abner Obed, 33 and a dentist; and Itzel, 30 and a nurse.
Young people, Secularism, and the Questioning of Institutionalized Religion
When talking about the integration of young people with religion, there are many possible reflections. Clearly, at least two phenomena are underway. The first is the gradual loss of interest in religion or religious issues on the part of young people. A Pew Research Center survey released in late 2021 found that 29 percent of U.S. adults said they had no religious affiliation, up 6 percentage points from 2016.
The other phenomenon has to do with the departure of young people who are in a church today. In the South American Adventist reality, there are data that prove the need for concern. It was found that the group of people between 10 and 29 years old, for example, account for 46.7 percent of the total of those who began to be part of the church, in 2020, through baptism, rebaptism, or profession of faith. And, between 0 and 29 years of age, this figure reached 54.9 percent. Now, attrition between 10 and 29 years of age, in the same period, was 54.3 percent. And between 0 and 29 years of age, the average attrition reached 55.7 percent.
For de los Santos, religious institutions unintentionally cause many young people to distance themselves from religion. This happens especially because many of them perceive there is a gap between Christian doctrine and the practical experience observed on part of their leaders. "It is necessary to close the gap between what is said and what is done in the Church," said the vice-president in an interview with the South American Adventist News Agency (ASN).
The world leader understands the plans of local congregations must contemplate the reality of children and young people before being elaborated. For de los Santos, "a church that grows old will end up dead." The concern is not only with the retention of new generations in the church; he highlights the importance of thinking more seriously about actions to attract younger people to the Adventist Church.
Biblical Consistency and Digital Opportunities
Another crucial issue for Adventist leaders has to do with the tension between biblical and doctrinal consistency and the opportunities of using digital communication tools. Pastor de los Santos recognizes that the use of digital resources is important for evangelism. At the same time, he ponders that a balance between knowledge about the resources and biblical literacy is essential. "Young people, especially, need to understand that they must have their own life of communion and experience with God," he says.
For de los Santos, what gives value to a tool is its use. In addition, he comments that the new generations need to have space to use digital technology in the service of preaching the gospel. At the same time, he emphasizes that the attraction of young people to the digital world should not alienate them from trying the advantages of the so-called "real world." For the world leader, there are relevant lessons to be learned from young people's tangible contact with others.
Inspiration from South America
Pastor de los Santos sees Adventist work in South America being done by mature people. He highlights, for example, the Caleb Mission project. He praises the fact that it is an initiative focused on training, at the local level, young people for missionary action. In addition, it highlights the strong investment made by the South American Adventist institution in the sending and maintenance of full-time missionaries to countries with little Christian presence.
One of the concerns of the vice-president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, at the global level, is the focus of the mission. He recognizes that today, social, ethnic and gender issues end up occupying the agenda of many people, especially young people. "The mission focus needs to be more than an idea. It needs to be part of the practical faith of Adventists," de los Santos says.
In his assessment, the Adventist Church must remain intentional in sharing the gospel with all people. And that needs to happen fearlessly and boldly. In addition, de los Santos stresses that the most important need is prayer by each person for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. "I sincerely see the fulfillment of Matthew 24:13, of perseverance of God's faithful to the end. The church will triumph," he reaffirms.