"Our burden for the regions beyond can never be laid down till the whole earth is lightened with the glory of the Lord" (Testimonies for the Church, vol.6, pg.29).
On October 9, 2022, Erton Köhler, executive secretary of the General Conference, began the Secretary's Report at the 2022 Annual Council with this important reminder of our purpose as Christians and as God's end-time people. He started with a brief history of the progress of the Great Commission and a solemn reminder that "Christianity was raised to reach the entire world."
As Seventh-day Adventists, we are to proclaim "the gospel of the kingdom to all the world" (Matthew 24:14). While the church's roots are in North America, we have become a global movement. Today, only 6% of our membership is based in North America, while the remaining 94% spreads across the rest of the world.
Our Present Reality
Mission Impact - Accessions, Financials, and Losses
David Trim, director of Archives, Statistics, and Research (ASTR), took the stage to share the latest membership figures and compare the last fifteen years of data. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, membership accessions regularly exceeded one million per year. However, in 2020, global accessions declined to 800,000, the lowest the Church has seen since 1997.
However, the Church bounced back incredibly as 2021 once again saw accessions top more than one million. Not only that, but both evangelism and church planting saw an astounding increase.
In 2020, 1,736 new churches were planted, which Trim called "miraculous in the midst of a pandemic.” However, it was still a 29% decrease from pre-Covid numbers. In 2021, this number rebounded to 2019 figures and included the founding of 413 new companies. Overall, the number of Seventh-day Adventist companies and churches experience steady growth.
Unfortunately, this same upward trend does not extend to all areas of stewardship. While tithes have rebounded and even exceeded pre-Covid figures, showing the remarkable faithfulness of our members in returning tithes, the same is not true for offerings. Offerings have declined dramatically, indicating the significant decline in the willingness of our church members to give to Church programming, including its mission programs.
Trim highlighted an extraordinary fact during his presentation; when comparing the balance between tithes and offerings over the last century, it can be seen that in 1922, church members gave, in offerings, almost exactly as much as they returned in tithe. Gradually, over the last hundred years, that has changed. Today, offerings are just over one-third of what is received in tithe. Undoubtedly, this downward trend in offerings indicates the importance for the Church to place a greater emphasis on discipleship, which includes stewardship.
Another area that has seen a continual negative trend is member losses. Since 1965, approximately 42%, or 4 out of 10, church members have left the church. They have generally left because of life crises, conflict in their local church, and/or not feeling missed or important to their pastors or fellow church members. Based on research conducted by ASTR, most of these past members have left without making a conscious decision to do so.
Facing the Challenges - Embracing Disciple-Making
What can we, as a church, do to retain our members? The answer, as expressed by Gerson Santos, associate secretary of the General Conference, lies in Jesus' call for His church to fulfill the Great Commission and "make disciples" (Matthew 28:19).
With this in mind, Santos expressed that "local churches should aim to create a warm and caring environment for spiritual growth in which youth, adults, and visitors alike feel loved and supported." The Secretariat department has been working in partnership with other departments to develop strategies and resources to help churches assimilate, equip, and disciple their church members.
One of these initiatives is the Nurture and Retention global summits, which focus on discipling, nurturing, and reclaiming members. (To view the presentations, click here: https://www.adventistarchives.org/search-results?search=summit). Santos encouraged church leaders to be intentional in redemptive membership reviews and move away from having mere numbers to having actual members. He summed it up by saying, "Our primary goal is not to boast about the percentage of members present, but to reach the unsaved in our community and to care for the inactive in our fellowship."
The Ultimate Question
The 2022 Annual Council's Secretariat Report shifted focus from those within the Church to those yet to be reached. Once again, delegates faced the staggering statistics that most of the world, those in the 10/40 window, remain unreached.
Gary Krause, associate secretary of the General Conference, highlighted statistics and megatrends the world is facing that challenge our mission. They are:
- A Growing Global Population. By 2050, most of the population growth will happen in just eight countries. Five of them are in the 10/40 window.
- Aging Population. By 2050, the population of people over 65 will be almost double that of children under 5 years of age.
- International Migration. In 2020, there were 281 million international migrants. Nearly 21 million of those were refugees.
- Urbanization. By 2050, it’s anticipated that two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in cities.
Dr. David Trim, director of Archives, Statistics & Research, took a moment to highlight the historical trend of missions. He explained that the "golden age" of the Adventist Church's foreign missionary program was in the quarter-century following World War II (from 1946–1970) when 7,385 missionaries were sent into the foreign mission field to reach the unreached. From 1969-1970, 970 new missionaries were sent into service - the most in any two-year period in the Church's history.
Trim encouraged Church leaders that this rise in Adventist mission during this period resulted from a concerted team effort by church administrators, educators, medical leaders, and church members in North America, Europe, Southern Africa, and Australasia. He highlighted the mission drift that has taken place over many years and emphasized our challenge to refocus how we use our mission resources by identifying mission-critical people groups and locations that have not been reached with the gospel.
The Strategy - Mission ReFocus
Given these unprecedented times and challenges, the Church faces a difficult and seemingly impossible mission. As posed to attendees by Köhler,
“How will 22 million Seventh-day Adventists reach almost 8 billion inhabitants in this world?”
“Every year, the world’s population grows by 72 million people, but we have just around 1 million accessions.”
“We have 7,111 languages around the world, but we only have oral work in 496…which, though it includes the main languages of the world, doesn’t include an additional 6,615 languages in which we are not able to communicate the biblical message of hope.”
Indeed, the mission is impossible on our own, but with the Holy Spirit and the outpouring of the latter rain, it will certainly be accomplished. With this hope, the World Church moves forward strategically to work effectively and cooperatively with God, to reach unreached territories and people groups.
Köhler took the time to share a proposal designed by Dr. Gorden Doss, Professor Emeritus in the Missiology Department at the Seventh-day Adventist Seminary at Andrews University, to help Church leaders and members "visualize, focus, and refocus our international mission in the 21st century."
This model considers the developments that have taken place in the last 30-40 years in the Global North and the Global South. It is a model that encourages divisions in the Global South, which have consistently made advances in the gospel mission, to work cooperatively with those in the Global North, which has experienced the opposite effect. Köhler encouraged leaders to focus on the highest missional priorities in the Church – the least evangelized people groups and territories – and moving resources and mission projects to parts of the World Church with less missional capacity, including members, congregations, financial resources, and physical structures.
Across various departments in the GC, resources have been created to help equip, train, and send missionaries, including young people, to foreign missions. Mission Institute exists to provide cross-cultural support as missionaries face new realities and challenges. Podcasts, as well as online and in-person training opportunities, help these new missionaries while also supporting other Seventh-day Adventist entities worldwide.
VividFaith and Adventist Volunteer Services continue to advertise and recruit for mission opportunities. It was noted that, at this time, there are more volunteers than opportunities for those interested in serving.
Worldwide Church leaders were encouraged to partner to make mission opportunities available. They were urged to commit to the global evangelistic mission and refocus on areas of need, not just in their divisions but throughout the world.
We Have Been Called
As expressed at the 1964 Annual Council by Walter Beach, who served as secretary of the General Conference from 1954 to 1970, "we are a world missionary church—not just a church with missions in all the world."
It is true that we are living in times of significant challenges, complex issues, and unique opportunities for mission. As time has passed, our commitment to our mission as God's end-time people has been impacted. However, now is the appointed time to work together and focus on our real priorities – our mission and our missionaries.
Köhler reminded attendees that, as we move forward, we need to keep in mind the "Seventh-day Adventist Church was not called to be a parking lot, but a launchpad for missionaries. We need to move forward in faith."
He ended the 2022 Annual Council Secretary’s Report with a moving video produced by Adventist Mission highlighting people we are called to reach and shared these inspiring words,
"Lord, open up our hearts to not ignore the cries of a world in need and open up our ears so we can hear Your call to share the hope you freely gave."
We are one church with one mission, consisting of many different areas working towards the same goal. May we all recommit to God's end-time mission as we work together to spread "the gospel of the kingdom to all the world" (Matthew 24:14).