Go forward: The call from the 59th session of the General Conference

Growth, unity, and commitment marked the 59th world session of the General Conference of Seventhday Adventists that convened in Atlanta, Georgia, United States, from June 25 to July 3, 2010.

The General Conference session is a quinquennial world assembly of the Seventh-day Adventist Church to celebrate its global presence and mission. It meets every five years to elect world church leaders, to review the constitution and by-laws, to discuss and approve any changes to the fundamental beliefs of the church and the Church Manual, and to affirm the global unity and mission of the church. The first General Conference session met in 1863 in Battle Creek, Michigan, with 20 delegates, when the church was largely limited to a few states in the northeastern United States. Almost 100 years later, in 1954, the 47th session drew 1,100 delegates to San Francisco. The 52nd session, which met in Vienna in 1975, was the first to be held outside the United States. The current session welcomed 2,240 delegates, representing Adventists in 203 of the 232 countries recognized by the United Nations. Truly a global convocation!

But the convocation was not simply a global convergence of language, culture, colors, and peoples. It was a celebration of joyous growth, an affirmation of unity, and an unfailing journey of commitment toward one glorious event, inscribed in the very name of the church: the second coming of Jesus.

A growing church

Awaiting that glorious climax of human history, every General Conference session defines anew that the church is ever on a forward mode. The first General Conference session in 1863 recorded an adult membership of 3,500. Approximately a century later, in 1960, the membership crossed the million mark and stood at a glorious 1,245,000. Forty years later, the 21st century began with a membership of 11.68 million.

Over the past 10 years, the growth has been staggering. At the end of 2009, the church had an adult membership of 16,307,880, of whom 5.3 million were baptized since the General Conference Session last met in 2005 at St. Louis, Missouri. Add to this the army of Adventist children who are not yet baptized and we have a global family of 25 to 30 million. Likewise, tithe income around the world shows the increasing faithfulness of God’s people.

What was once largely a North American church has come of age and has truly become global. Today, only 7 percent of world membership is based in the North American Division, while Africa claims 36 percent, and Inter and South America have 32 percent of the membership. Yet the importance of the North American Division to the world mission and ministry must not be missed or minimized: for the years 2005-2009, the North American Division contributed 63 percent of the General Conference receipt of tithes and mission offerings, whereas the other 12 divisions contributed the balance of 37 percent. Thus, the North American Division is still responsible for a large share of the financial responsibility of the work of the world church.

“When I consider the history of the Seventh-day Adventist movement—the outgoing president, Jan Paulsen, told the delegates in his report—John Wesley’s words ‘What God hath wrought!’ come to mind.” Indeed so. In the last five years, the church baptized an average of 3,000 persons every 24 hours. While the first GC session had one church member for every 373,143 of the world’s population, the 59th session rejoiced that we have one member for every 400 people. If you stood anywhere in the Georgia Dome or walked the streets outside or meandered through the myriad booths in the exhibition halls, you would have seen the world. Delegates from Iceland to Papua New Guinea, from Japan to Chile, representing a kaleidoscope of colors and cultures, languages and sounds, walked together, gathering in small groups to pray, discuss earnestly the future of the church, share stories or greet long-last friends who once met in the common halls of Adventist education (was it Andrews, Loma Linda, Spicer, Solusi, Newbold, Friedensau, or…?). As they jarred that memory, scratched that skin, shook that hand, watched that smile—underneath it all, there was Adventism—global, growing, energizing Adventism.

A united church

If the 59th session marked the stunning growth of the church, in no less way it was a pointer to the remarkable unity that marks Adventism around the world. The reports from the 13 world divisions, presented with color, candor, and a lot of joyful music, left no doubt in the minds of the delegates and the vast throngs of visitors that crowded the stadium each evening that we are a church marching to one tune, celebrating one vision and purpose. Devotional speakers, for the first time in the history of the church, came from every part of the world, and were mostly young pastors. Each one gave a vision of what God’s grace has done to them and through them in their congregations. I like the way Tara VinCross, a pastor from Philadelphia, defined grace. To her, from the perspective of incarnation, grace is a challenge to “be incarnate in this world” and touch someone. To Paul Frederick, a young pastor from India, grace is a gift—divine, lasting, personal, and certain. To Dennis Meier, a pastor from Germany, “grace is not a concept to be defined, but a name to be confessed: Jesus.”

If proclaiming grace was the core of all the preaching and all the singing, grace also underscored the business sessions of the church. The heat of the debates, election of the officers, wide-ranging participation from conceptual formulations to the placing of a comma—each business session was touched by grace and sailed through smoothly by the presence of the Holy Spirit. The electoral process dropped a few, added a few, but there was no rancor or shouting like what one sees in other elections of other organizations. The debates were marked by Christian courtesy and gracious acceptance of whatever the body decided. One major constitutional item came up early in the session:

a proposal to postpone the election of associate departmental directors to the Annual Council in October. After a lively debate, the recommendation was turned down. Associate directors were elected at the session. Not a note of bitterness. Not a thumping of victory. When the church in session speaks, there is neither victory nor defeat. Only a recognition of God’s people at work. That is the secret for the community, buoyancy and unity that marks Adventism. We are, as someone remarked, not simply a denomination; we are a movement bound for a destiny whose builder and maker is God.

A committed church

The highlight of the 59th session no doubt was the moving presentation of God’s Word by the newly-elected president. More than 75,000 people in the Dome and hundreds of thousands around the world, on TV or radio, heard the sermon. It was not just a sermon. Not just an exposition of God’s Word. It was the Holy Spirit at work through Dr. Ted N. C. Wilson, the church’s 20th president. When the nominating committee presented his name to the delegates within three hours of its first meeting, joy and praise rose as a crescendo in the dome. In his acceptance remarks, Ted Wilson enunciated, affirmed, and reaffirmed three Adventist non-negotiables: the Word of God and the Spirit of Prophecy as the guide of our faith and guardian of our conduct; Creation account as in Genesis—literal, six-day, recent mighty miracle of God; salvation through grace and grace alone, leading to a life of sanctification and obedience. On the Sabbath, the theme was reaffirmed, almost as if the early apostle himself stood and challenged the Georgia dome: “We have not

followed cunningly devised fables”

(2 Peter 1:16, KJV).

The firmness and the challenge from the president was not at all surprising. After all, Wilson is a child of Adventism. His grandfather, N. C. Wilson, served as president of three world divisions: Southern Asia, North America, and South Pacific. His father was baptized with the fire of Adventism—14 years as president of the North American Division, and 12 years as president of the General Conference. Ted Wilson and his wife, Nancy, are rooted firmly in an Adventist home and have served different parts of the world as missionaries and church leaders. He also earned a doctorate in Religious Education. The new Church president is a Seventh-day Adventist, through and through, undiluted, and absolutely committed.

So it was not a surprise that he unambiguously called the world church to commit to those three imperatives even as they “go forward” walking toward the kingdom, with the unerring Word as the guide. Dr. Wilson also warned the church not to go backward and fall into some modern religious enticements that come in the guise of the new and the novel, of the large tent mentality under which all can find a resting place, the apocalyptic sensationalism and loose theology, and the bizarre and crowd-pulling emotional movements. Instead, invited the president, “Go forward, united by the Holy Spirit and our foundational biblical beliefs.”

With such a powerful call to safeguard and proclaim the faith delivered to the saints, the 59th session sent me home to ponder, to commit, to proclaim, and to talk the walk, and walk the talk—until the next session on the Sea of Glass, hopefully, or the 60th session in San Antonio, Texas.

John M. Fowler, Ed.D. (Andrews University), retired at the session after 52 years of service to the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the last 15 being at the General Conference.