Church Chat: Where did London's majority white church population go?

Church's president in Britain on reaching all races; how to measure success

Silver Spring, Maryland, United States | Ansel Oliver/ANN

Ian Sweeney says that within the more than 11,000 Seventh-day Adventist Church members in the London area there are probably less than 200 white British.

Like several world regions of the denomination, church growth there is mainly among immigrant communities.

That's causing Sweeney, the president of the Adventist Church in Britain, to assess how Adventists are ministering to the 70 percent majority white population in London, as well as throughout the British Isles. His advice is for Adventists to find better ways of impacting communities surrounding its congregations.

He plans to identify people who excel at conducting ministry across cultural barriers in un-entered areas, which may require financial support for those regions without an Adventist presence.

Sweeney, 46, a black British national, was appointed president of the Adventist Church's British Union Conference in July.

He spoke with ANN by phone from his office in Watford the week before a quarterly meeting with his five local field presidents. He discussed issues involved in creating a plan to grow membership across the board, regardless of race or culture. He also discussed his influences and which biblical character might offer the most relevant example for his situation. Some interview excerpts have been edited for length:

Adventist News Network: What's the demographic makeup of the Adventist Church in the British Isles?

Ian Sweeney: We're about 45 percent West Indian, and then slightly less than that is African and some from Asia. About 10 percent at most is white English, and I think I'm being generous with that.

ANN: What's your plan to build membership across the board, regardless of race and culture?

Sweeney: To start, we need to have the discussion, and we have begun that. My Communication director has started a blog on our website about this. It's also gone into the union paper, which comes out on a fortnightly basis. Within the church there are people who can minister cross-culturally and cross racially. I look at Peter and Paul. Peter was a great guy, but God had to give him a whole vision of sheep and unclean things just to get him to do one Bible study. Paul, however, had an ability to minister to the gentiles. It's not without significance that Paul was the major contributor to the New Testament. So my call to the pastors is, let's identify the Pauls who can minister outside their own cultural context.

ANN: What role does leadership play in reaching all cultures?

Sweeney: What we have to do is really support the pastors and conference presidents who are prepared to make the bold steps and say, "We see that things need changing. This is how we're going to try to reach our host community." It may evolve into placing pastors into un-entered territories and saying to them, "What do you need, how can we support you?" Then again, we put a person into an un-entered territory and there's no tithe to pay his wage. But I think it's about the stronger supporting that which is not so strong. We're going to have to be pioneers and send people into those un-entered territories.

ANN: Why is outreach a big part of this plan?

Sweeney: I suspect -- and I can tell by some of the comments on the blog -- that sometimes the church is so internalized looking at our own issues that our board meetings, for example, haven't spent the time as our church manual says for our primary focus of evangelism.
In my previous church, instead of praying that people come in, we prayed about going out and we saw results. The figures weren't brilliant in context of big numbers, but the impact for me is not simply about how many accessions we bring, but about whether or not people know. Noah for example, was a useless evangelist if we look at him only by number of accessions. He reported zero baptisms for a century. But when the rain began to fall, everybody knew. Impact for me is about "Did somebody hear?"

ANN: How open are we to talking about race and racism in the church?

Sweeney: I think we're moving into a stage where we can speak more openly and honestly about issues that really face us. I'm not fully conversant on the history of the church here in Britain. I think there is [pain] and I'm sort of hesitant to speak of that era of the 50s and the 60s. I was raised here but that all predates me. I don't want to open too much of the old wounds. When we have those discussions, I want it in the context of, "I hear where you came from, but this is where I think we all need to going." I know for some folk who are black they may say, what about the [historical] struggle? I'm not decrying the struggle. I'm simply saying let's never lose sight of what God has called us to do. I really want us to place our focus on the bigger picture, which is the 65 million or so in Britain who don't know Christ.

ANN: Where might repentance fit into how Revival and Reformation is expressed in UK?

Sweeney: I'm really glad for the whole emphasis that Elder Wilson is putting on Revival and Reformation and the Great Controversy Project, because to me it's about remembering our Adventist roots. One of the great challenges Britain has is that it isn't as God-friendly as the United States. Sure the queen is the head of the church in England, but believe me, this is not a Christian-welcoming society. Christians are often in the media under attack. Having said that, there is also in Britain a search for some sense of spirituality. There are churches that among the host community outside of Adventism that are growing. A lot of times Adventists think it's about the worship service and that you have to bring a band in. It's not about that. You have to be relevant to people's lives where they're at. Most of these growing churches do things that impact their community, whether it be childcare, mentoring, youth clubs, they are there visibly in the community saying, "We're here, we see your needs, how can we help you?" I think that's what we are to do as a church.

ANN: Who are your mentors and models of success?

Sweeney: One of the church leaders who has been an inspiration to me is Fredrick Russell [president of Allegheny West Conference based in Ohio, United States]. He has a principle, "Hang around people who are successful." And anyone who I see is doing something [I admire] I'll call them so I can sit at their feet. I'm reading Ted Engstron, The Making of a Christian Leader, I'm sharing that with our staff. I'm also looking at a book by Nigel Rooms, Faith of the English, which talks about integrating Christ with Culture. And Ellen White of course. Right now my biblical inspiration is Jeremiah. It's a difficult example -- God tells him to go preach and says "No one's going to listen, but do it anyhow." That's [caused] me to re-evaluate success. Do we need people to listen, or is it a success that we do what God asks us to do? He asks us to preach to those people because He loves them, not because He's trying to waste our time. I really want folk to go and witness because they love Christ.

ANN: How are you going to integrate faith and prayer into an action plan?

Sweeney: Coming back to Jeremiah, he cried for the people, cried over Jerusalem. The one thing we as Adventists are not seen to do well, when last have we cried over the lost? And I ask that starting with myself. We cry for money, for jobs, for this, for that, but what [Jeremiah] was doing was crying for the people who have been lost. One of the things we're emphasizing for 2012 is that if you're not crying in prayer for the lost, you're certainly not going to be interested in seeing them saved and working for their salvation.