Lessons from General Conference Summer 2015

So we just left the 60th General Conference Session in San Antonio, Texas.

This GC was instructive.

The world church voted to deny its 13 divisions the latitude to ordain without respect to gender.

That was a blow to the NAD, in general, and to the Pacific and Columbia Unions, in particular.

There are lessons to be learned for the North American Division. We have diminishing influence over the world church. Our financial contribution is decreasing. Other divisions are now contributing a larger percentage of their tithe to world church.

The more significant change that we have been observing GC session after GC session is that other divisions are beating our socks off when it comes to growth through baptisms.

Places like Brazil, the Domincan Republic, Mexico, Jamaica, and Zimbabwe are growing exponentially. We added 33 unions in Africa alone at this GC session.

It has always been the case in this denomination that those who baptize rule.

So when this issue of women’s ordination arose, it was defeated by no insignificant margin because the cultures where the church is growing fastest reject women as clergy.

Now this issue is important for us in the North America. It’s important in many countries like Denmark and China as well. When women work alongside their male counterparts preaching, teaching, evangelizing and organizing churches, they should be compensated and recognized as their brother pastors. It affects our witness to the cultures where we must lift up the banner of Prince Emmanuel. We are sending out a message that we hold to tradition that subjugates women without sound biblical justification. (Sure, a surface reading of certain passages can leave the Bible reader with the impression that women should not serve God as pastors, but deeper investigation will not allow the sane, honest Bible student to declare with confidence that the ancient near Eastern context of the Bible fits every global context of our present day.)

But it teaches a lesson to North America: we have to grow!

At one point we were forty percent of the worldwide denomination. Now we are only seven percent. At one point the denomination was dependent upon our tithe dollars. Today, while our tithe is significant, so is the tithe of several other divisions. That means that there are some other major players that sit around the proverbial table that demand to be taken seriously. The combination of tithe dollars with impressive baptismal statistics in a church where delegates are largely dependent upon membership leaves us at a distinct disadvantage when we need to win on a voted issue.

What to do? The answer is that we have to grow.

Now, that sounds simple. And many will run back to their North American churches feeling guilty and sounding a cry for greater evangelistic zeal.

That’s good. But that’s not enough.

Let’s take a hard look at some things that we are slow to acknowledge.

North America is not Jamaica, Africa or South America. So the idea that we can replicate their methods with similar success is unrealistic.

That’s one of the first things you are told when you attend a church growth conference. You can’t just take what’s happening at that particular church, go home and think that you’ll get the same results.

Certainly, there are lessons that can be learned. (Or they wouldn’t invite you to their conference.) But you have to go back home, prayerfully study your context and seek God’s face for a strategy to win people in your context. What works at Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan doesn’t necessarily work at Saddleback in California. And what works at Saddleback in California doesn’t necessarily work at the Potter’s House in Dallas, Texas.

The same is true about church growth in North America. Our context is different.

Here’s where we stubbornly ignore common sense to our own demise. SDAs in North America would rather continue to watch their numbers and influence diminish than acknowledge that there are church growth principles to be gleaned from outside our denomination.

Before I go into some of the things I have observed, I want to say that I think it is a shame that we have come to think there is nothing to be learned from other denominations.

We were not the first denomination to baptize by immersion. We were not the first denomination to have Sabbath School. (The Presbyterians who worshipped on Sunday called Sunday School “Sabbath School” before they called it “Sunday School.”) We were not the first denomination to send missionaries overseas. We were not the first denomination to establish schools.

And I promise you, as a budding denomination we learned from the best practices of the 19th and early 20th century.

But today we have aging congregations with empty pews and still refuse to learn from others.

Is there anything to learn from our brothers and sisters overseas? Absolutely.

But we just saw that they fought a vote that they felt would hamper their evangelistic efforts in their countries. So their evangelistic approaches are culturally relevant.

And I would submit that our evangelistic approaches must similarly be culturally relevant.

Can I pastor eight churches in Pennsylvania effectively? Is that the answer?

If you say yes, let’s take a look at our multi-church districts. If having more than one church is the answer, we should be able to look at baptismal and retention statistics that clearly show more significant growth for pastors in these contexts in North America.

Alas, you will find no such statistic. Because that evangelistic approach is not culturally relevant in most parts of the United States.

Are our pastors not spiritual enough? Certainly there is always a place for revival and reformation. But it seems unrealistic to assume that no pastors in North America are serious about their relationship with the living Christ. (And it is equally unrealistic to assume that every pastor in Africa is serious about his relationship and walks uprightly all day every day.)

Let’s say that the pastors within the NAD who supported women’s ordination are not spiritual and the ones who opposed it are spiritual. Then we would expect there to be some significant difference between the baptismal and retention statistics of the churches in the NAD that are pastored by the traditionalists. Again, there is not some noticeable difference.


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