“During the last 18 months, the Church has suffered but faced it head on, reinvented itself and, by the grace of God, overcame its challenges,” says newly elected Seventh-day Adventist Church Secretary, Erton Kohler.
Thus started Kohler’s first Secretariat report to the Executive Committee during the 2021 Annual Council held on October 10, in Silver Spring, Maryland, United States. Because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s Annual Council was a hybrid between virtual and in-person attendance.
During the Secretariat Report, Kohler gave many examples of the amazing work the Adventist Church has done globally during the 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Adventist Church, says Kohler, worked through communication channels--digital ministries, publishing ministries and Hope Channel, hospitals, clinics, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, schools and through missionaries to bring people into a personal relationship with Christ and provide life-giving aid.
“What a challenge we have! A challenge that will only become more and more complex in the future,” says Kohler. “But our eyes shouldn’t focus on the crises, but on the One that is bigger than the crises, always believing that our greatest challenges precede His greatest miracles.”
“It’s time to move forward, fully depending on prayer and on our biblical identity, accepting the commitment to be a positive influence in this world, and renewing our focus on virtual and in-person mission through Christ’s method,” concluded Kohler.
Impact of COVID-19 on Global Church Membership
David Trim, director of the Adventist Church’s Archives, Statistics and Research department, told attendees that there can only be one topic: “the impact on the church of the COVID-19 pandemic--what has happened; and what the statistics suggest might happen in the near future.”
Trim noted the most distinct impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Church could be found when looking at accessions, or the numbers of people coming into the Adventist Church. For the first time since 2004, accessions have dropped below 1 million. From 1.3 million in 2019 to just over 800,000 in 2020.
This decline in accessions would most certainly be due to the decrease in public evangelism meetings. But, what Trim suggests, is it could also be due to a decline in personal witnessing, or what he calls, “the crucial importance of interpersonal contact.”
In speaking about losses, or those who have left or drifted away from the church, Trim notes the decline does not stand out as much as accessions. The 564,000 losses from 2020 were a median figure for the past 15 years. While this number could be because the pace of audits fell during the pandemic, it could also be that, because of the pandemic, pastors paid more attention to their congregations' well-being.
While speaking of accessions and losses during a pandemic, the report also focused on deaths. Trim noted that while the figures for deaths in 2020 were relatively low, he cautioned we still might not have a full understanding of losses due to death for the past 2 years. Trim suggests with congregations unable to meet, and records not always kept up with during the pandemic, deaths may not have been recorded by the local church as they were happening, and so 2020 deaths are now being added to the deaths for 2021.
Where does the Adventist Church stand on membership attrition after 2020? Trim notes we now have 56 years of well detailed statistics on membership gains and losses, including 2020. Since 1965 42,225, 021 people have been members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In the same amount of time, at least 16.8 million have left or drifted away. That leaves our net loss rate at 4 out of every 10, or 41 percent. An aspect in which, Trim notes, the Church must do better.
Closing out his portion of the Secretariat Report, Trim notes the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the church in accessions, losses, deaths, church planting and giving to mission. Yet we have much to be thankful for and much we need to strive for. Trim concluded by saying, “as global conditions start, as we hope, to ease, that there is much we still need to do, and much we need to renew doing, much we need to take up with renewed effort, as we look towards our blessed hope of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.”
Missionaries Continue to Serve:
Even during the pandemic, the Adventist Church continued to train and send missionaries, including International Service Employees (ISEs) and Adventist Volunteers around the world. While methods have been updated because of the pandemic, Adventists everywhere are still answering the call “I Will Go”.
Since March of 2020, 40 new missionary families have reached their host locations. Currently there are 373 ISE families around the world, in all levels of administration, education, medical outreach, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency and more.
The ISEs have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic with 4 succumbing to COVID-19. During her presentation, associate secretary Karen Porter honored and thanked the ISEs who are serving and gave tribute to those we have lost.
VividFaith, an initiative that connects people with mission-focused service opportunities, launched in June 2020. Fylvia Fowler Kline, manager of VividFaith, reported that during the first fifteen months, 80 organizations had signed up to use it as a recruitment tool. But, because of pandemic-related challenges, such as travel restrictions and quarantine requirements, there are only an average of 60 assignments available at any given time. However, Kline notes there is no shortage of people wanting to serve. More than 850 new “VividFriends” have registered and are searching for mission opportunities. As Kline notes, “They are ready. They are saying ‘I Will Go’ --despite the circumstances.”
Addressing the disparity between available assignments and “VividFriends,” VividFaith has shifted from being more than a recruitment tool and is focusing on ways to serve beyond traditional methods.
Partnering with the Institute of World Mission and other organizations, VividFaith will offer training and resources for those waiting for mission assignments.
Adventist Volunteer Services (AVS) also continued to engage volunteers and service. AVS launched a new website and “Passport to Mission” online course that was updated in collaboration with the Institute of World Mission. There was also a growth in mission schools around the world, with more than 6,000 new students.
Investment in systematic volunteering, the concept of everyone volunteering where they are and how they are able, also led to an expansion of the One Year in Mission Project to include the the community where the volunteer is located. Now anyone can serve in their local church, with local community projects. This allows each person to be a mission volunteer, where they are.
Adventist Mission Reaches People through Global Mission:
“We are praying for a mission that is stronger than crises, and we've seen in the past year through the pandemic that Adventist Mission has continued going forward because of people willing to say ‘I will Go,’” said Gary Krause, director of the Office of Adventist Mission, during the final segment of the 2021 Secretariat Report.
Global Mission pioneers are frontline workers who plant churches in new areas and among unreached people groups. Last year, during the pandemic, a new church was established every 5 hours. That means in 2020 1,736 new Adventist Churches were organized around the world.
The Mission Priority System is now working to help prioritize mission projects based on mission challenge and unreached people. Krause announced a new mission dashboard, coming soon, for church leaders to see the global mission status for their region.
Along with the Total Employment Tent Making Program, Urban Centers of Influence are finding new and innovative ways to reach people using Christ's method of ministry. Through the pandemic, the six Global Mission Centers have continued to help divisions reach the large non-Christian people groups in their territories through innovative methods, materials, and models.
“As we look at the various aspects of Global Mission,” says Krause, “you can see they all have one thing in common, and that is to help us start new groups of believers.”
Krause wrapped up his report by talking about Mission Awareness and the communication channels Adventist Mission uses to share how mission offerings are “like a river flowing around the globe, bringing life and energy to mission.”