February 8, 2006

St. Louis to Lae

1504 page29 caphe beginning of December last year found me in Lae, Papua New Guinea, reporting on the quinquennial session of the Papua New Guinea Union Mission. During the last six months of 2005 I had the unique opportunity to sit through six such sessions--General Conference session, South Pacific Division session, and four union sessions. Add an annual meeting of the South Pacific Division executive committee and it means 30-something days spent in meetings, plus days of travel and writing reports.

As someone not keen on merely sitting and listening for days at a time, I have on occasion found it something of a test of endurance. It has also been an opportunity for education and reflection and something of a privilege. There have been many highlights. But there are also a multitude of questions raised by these organizational gatherings and the way the business of the church transpires.

The journey began at the General Conference session held in St. Louis in early July. It took me some time to work out what to think of that event. But perhaps it made most sense to me a couple weeks after its conclusion.

1504 page29I was lying awake, listening to the grunting of the pigs and barking of dogs in a small village in rural Cambodia. It is a place rarely visited by Westerners; where I had little way of communicating with the local people, beyond smiles and uncertain translation. I realized it was almost useless to share an inkling of Christianity and the hope it brings with our hosts.

I thought back on other places I had visited during that trip. I had spent an afternoon walking Hollywood Boulevard--complete with the stars of the famous--with the pastor of the Hollywood Adventist Church, reflecting on what it means to be the church at such an address. I had sat and talked with friends who work at the General Conference building, listening to their reflections of the joys and frustrations of working in that part of the church. I shared an evening meal in a genuine English pub with a group of young adults, who are engaged in planting a new church in their town. Now I had met some of the church members working in Cambodia.

That night, as I thought on these experiences, it occurred to me that I was poorly equipped to be the church in any of these places, but that this is the purpose of such a broad church organization. Only by working together across the world--each in our respective communities, countries, and areas of expertise and experience--can we be most effective in connecting people across the world with the good news of the kingdom of God. This is Paul?s ?body of Christ? analogy (see 1 Cor. 12:12-27) on a worldwide scale.

And so it has continued as I have wandered around the South Pacific and met and talked with so many people from across this region. From church planting in the cities of Sydney and Melbourne to work amid indigenous people in outback Australia, from the vast ocean distances of Kiribati to new national leadership in the Pacific, from rapid church growth in the historically difficult French-speaking territory of New Caledonia to outreach in multicultural suburban Auckland, from the work to relaunch Adventist Aviation?s outreach to the remote areas of the Papua New Guinea highlands to a rescued and revitalized education system across the country, church members are being the church in their local context, working with their local needs and challenges.

That is what being the church is about. That is the purpose of church structure and organization at all its levels. To the extent that the church organization supports, facilitates, encourages, and allows these countless efforts, it is a good thing. Where it hinders, frustrates, distracts, or discourages, the organization is a serious problem and needs to be changed or ignored.

But more important, as members of the same body we are each part of this mission. As we hear these stories from around the worldwide church, they are us and we are them. It is the one mission--to be witnesses of and participants in the kingdom of God whoever and wherever we might be, to the ends of the earth (see Acts 1:8).

Nathan Brown is editor of the South Pacific Signs of the Times and the South Pacific Division Record.