February 18, 2009

The Changing Face of the Church

2009 1505 page23 capHE HISTORICAL FACE OF THE UNITED STATES HAS CHANGED—AND IS CHANGING. Across the country is a rich mixture of peoples who have one thing in common: they’re all Americans. Even in the small towns and hamlets of rural America, you see people of different backgrounds, nationalities, and races living and interacting together.
Understandably, every now and again tensions will arise in a country with increasing ethnic and racial diversity. But for the most part, Americans appear to be embracing the fact that a “rainbow” of faces now represents who they are collectively. The country is becoming a melting pot in the fullest sense. It’s the mark of a common maturity.
Advertisers, pushing and positioning their products via the multiple media outlets, sensitively reflect the appeal of their products to the multicolored faces that make up America.

This marvelous new diversity is taking place at an increasing pace. What emerges is a variety of views and opinions that impact how Americans relate to one another across the broad spectrum of society.
2009 1505 page23Without a doubt, this is a critical moment for the country. Adjusting to it will, at times, evoke occasional discomfort. But a growing number of Americans “get it”—that they are stronger when they listen to all voices as they work toward a shared future.
I attended my first year-end meetings of the North American Division a few months ago. Significant and vital business of the church is carried out in these gatherings. Denominational leaders from around the country are present. The meetings are exceptionally well run, as important issues impacting the church are debated and discussed with candor and forthrightness. It was great to observe. And yet, as I looked around the room, I took note of those present, especially as it related to the rich diversity increasingly reflected in the broader membership of our church.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church in the United States reflects the greater American culture: highly diverse relative to ethnicity, gender, and generation. On the East and West coasts of the United States, where the vast majority of our membership resides, Hispanics, African-Americans, and Asians are emerging majorities. It is well known that women compose the majority of our membership. Then there is the generational shift, in which our numbers are growing among those between the ages of 25 and 40 (probably due to the increase in Hispanic, African-American, and Asian members).
However, one particular thing stood out as I glanced around the room: the majority of those present (a few hundred) were of one race, one gender, and mostly over the age of 50.
The age, gender, and racial composition of “the room” didn’t completely reflect the rich diversity and composition of the church in the North American Division. And while the discussions and decisions were still solid, it struck me that we might be missing the value of perspectives that come when ethnic, gender, and generational representation is present.
Our church is a mirror image of the growing diversity of America. And in the seasons before us we will have to reflect the diversity of the membership in our pews in the composition of our leadership.
Celebrating and affirming the growing cultural, gender, and next generational growth that comprises the Adventist Church in North America has the potential of tapping into a leadership bonanza that sets our church up to have significant numbers of people from all backgrounds at the leadership table, bringing a needed perspective as to how to reach new populations for Christ.

The downside of not embracing what we are becoming as a church is that we limit how we see our world and what God may be doing in a broader way.
In particular, the United States is now modeling before the world the potential of all its peoples. This new day is not without its struggles, but it’s still happening. Given these new realities, the church mustn’t follow; it must lead. 
Fredrick A. Russell is president of the Allegheny West Conference, with headquarters in Columbus, Ohio.