Erton Carlos Köhler, Executive Secretary, General Conference (GC) speaks to Executive Committee members at 2021 Annual Council in Silver Spring, Maryland, United States of America. [Photo Credit: Brent Hardinge / Adventist Media Exchange (CC BY 4.0)]

General Conference

An Earnest Appeal to Engage with Our Spiritual Identity

General Conference secretary calls Adventist leaders to face challenges and recommit to mission.

Silver Spring, Maryland, United States | Erton C Köhler, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists

Since the end of the presentations and discussions on October 11 about ten significant concerns related to our identity, and since Elder Wilson’s message on Sabbath morning, where he shared similar concerns, I have kept thinking and praying about our challenges. 
A quote attributed to John Wesley is always on my mind, as it reminds me that, “What one generation tolerates, the next one will embrace.” I also remember a statement from Ellen White in Testimonies for the Church, volume 1, page 262, when she wrote that, “we must walk in the light which shines upon us, otherwise that light will become darkness.” 

I believe that we were called to be the voice of God and not our culture’s echo. But the voice of culture is becoming stronger among us, especially in social media, when influencers are often more relevant than spiritual leaders. They become more relevant not because they know about religion or spiritual life, but because they have communication skills and know how to deal with social media and people’s needs. 

Reflecting on Our Beliefs

We need to take time to think about what we believe and how to share what we believe. Both aspects are very important.

Sometimes we talk about the needs of young people or the new generations, making the point that we need to create ways to communicate with them and present the relevance of our message. But now, especially during the pandemic, the challenge to communicate the truth positively, clearly, and relevantly is not only something for new generations. It is a challenge for every generation. 

Here I share one of my concerns. We need to find ways to reconnect with many of our church members and help them understand the beauty of Bible truth and God’s Word's relevance for our time. And help them to be protected from what Eugene Peterson describes as the “new contemporary trinity” that replaces the Trinity of God, namely, “my holy feelings, my holy desires, and my holy needs.”

Working with the Church Front Lines

This is a movement, however, that doesn’t take place at the General Conference Annual Council. The most we can do here is raise some concerns and discuss some strategies to face the problem. But the most efficient initiatives need to happen in the front lines of the church.

The challenges that we discussed yesterday and Elder Wilson preached on Sabbath are not the exclusive realm of the GC. They are the turf of the Seventh-day Adventist Church as a whole.

All of us together, especially as Union and Division leaders, need to take these concerns into our hands. We need to spend time praying, thinking about it, evaluating, studying, discussing, and strategizing to change the current situation. If we limit ourselves to congratulate the GC for the discussions and entertaining presentations put together, or if we, on the other hand, just criticize and request more initiatives in a specific area, next to nothing will change.

We must leave this Annual Council discussing what we will do in our division year-end meetings. We must decide how to manage this situation at Union level and how to reach our pastors and local churches.

Budgets, Buildings, and Bodies

Often, as leaders, we are very concerned about the management of the church and very involved in the church’s business. We discuss plans and strategies to help the church move forward. We are glad about our finances, new facilities, institutions, new projects, and programs. Little by little, it all ends up being an end in itself.

Some experts identify this as the new “3 Bs” of modern church business. They are three priorities imported from the business world, which have started to seduce us. 

The three Bs are Budgets, Buildings, and Bodies. We start measuring our progress by our finances, our assets, and our membership growth. All of these things are important, and we need them to keep our organization going. But they are not the essence of our church. Our church is based on its message and mission; all the rest is dependent on them. 

We can’t let ourselves be consumed by these three Bs. If we don’t spend time discussing our beliefs, our theology, and our spiritual challenges — if we don’t find ways to modify some trends, we may end up thriving in our business but lacking in our identity. We may end up being a strong organization but a weak church.

Church or Corporation?

I recently read an article discussing the main reasons behind so many scandals involving pastors, religious leaders, and religious stars in the Christian world. The article shared the views of three leaders from some of the most outstanding evangelical theological seminaries in the U.S. According to their assessment, Christian denominations are facing a vast spiritual problem. Christian leaders have embraced the strategies of the business world and weakened their essence as a spiritual family.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church is facing similar challenges. Just like major corporations, our meetings dedicate a significant amount of time to technical purposes. Sometimes, by the end of our sessions, we have forgotten it was a meeting of God’s remnant church. We just got our business done and now feel satisfied with it.

It’s time to be more deliberate in praying about it and discussing these matters, as we take practical decisions involving time, our best human and financial resources, and other possibilities.

So please, take this matter into your hands. As church members, pray about it and discuss it with your pastor, church committee, and the local church. As representatives of church institutions, take it into your hands and assess how the institution can be more aligned to the message than the market.

We invest a substantial amount of money in marketing campaigns, training people, and consultancy projects. Those things help us to face the current complexities of the market. But, how much are we investing in our philosophy, the spiritual nurture of our workers, our mission, and our identity as Seventh-day Adventists?

We are not in a business. We are on a mission. The only business we carry is just a tool to help us fulfill our mission. So, let’s go back to the essence of our role as a remnant church.

When top leaders of an Adventist institution delegate the spiritual aspects of that institution to others, creating positions for others to take care of it, promote it, or defend this idea within the organization, those spiritual aspects have stopped being a priority for the institution.

Setting Priorities 

Priorities are essential and depend on the top leader. The person in that position can certainly be surrounded by other colleagues in a supporting role. But priorities are the responsibility of the leader. 

I appeal to Conference and Union leaders to please dedicate time to discuss this matter with your pastors, looking for ways to face these challenges positively and redemptively. Not to fight with people but to do our best to empower our message.

How can we renew our pulpits with more solid biblical messages? How can we use our communication resources to speak a language that can reach people’s hearts? Local pastors expect to see this kind of initiatives from their leaders. Leaders project a strong influence.

When pastors see that leaders do not just invite other people to talk about these issues but are very dynamic when discussing other projects, strategies, and investments, they soon identify the church's priority. And pastors thus begin, step by step, to move their ministry in that direction. When top leaders speak up, take time, and show interest in discussing the spiritual and theological challenges we are facing, something starts to happen.

A Way Forward

After Annual Council, the first step should start at the division level. Divisions are the arm of the GC in all regions around the world. Divisions must take on major issues, adapt them to their particular reality, and implement them accordingly.

It is the reason I am appealing to division leaders, so you can please take the spiritual challenges we are facing seriously. Enlist the church to pray and claim the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. At the same time, take this discussion into your hands and start working on real solutions for your region. You have good theologians who can help you. We have colleagues here at the GC, that can be very helpful in supporting you. Please, spend time discussing these matters in your committees.

Keep your focus on the growth of the church, but don't forget that our identity is the basis for the real fulfillment of our mission. Denominations that lost their identity stopped growing. Currently, many of the denominations that lost their identity are institutions with churches attached instead of being churches operating institutions. Let's learn from the experience of others. If we prioritize our identity, our business will be blessed, and our mission will be fulfilled.

We need to remain faithful to the Word of God and our essence, as a people called to live and share the biblical message at the very end of time. We must always keep in mind that we are called to fill not only our churches but also heaven. And as we read in Jude 3, to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.”