June 25, 2010

Community of the Spirit

Jan Paulsen, General Conference PRESidentcapWhen I consider the history of the Seventh-day Adventist movement, it is with a deep sense of awe. John Wesley’s words “What God hath wrought!” come to mind. There is a mystery here, something that cannot be wholly explained by human logic.

Think of the early Adventists who met together in 1863 for the first General Conference session. There were just 20 delegates. They represented a small, less-than-cohesive band of believers in the Northeast of the United States—only 3,500 members strong. How would their contemporaries have described this handful of people who gathered in Battle Creek, Michigan? Insignificant, perhaps? Irrelevant? Embarking on an enterprise that was destined for obscurity?

And yet here we meet today. Representing a church that is global, that is unified, that is growing and energetic—a spiritual community of more than 25 million men, women, and children. In outward appearance, this General Conference session looks nothing like that small gathering in 1863. But in fundamentals, it is not so different. We share a common spiritual DNA with those first General Conference session delegates. We, too, have come together to better organize our church for mission. We, too, are here to seek God’s will and to follow it into the unknowns of tomorrow, toward the day of Christ’s return.

As I look back over the past five years, there is no doubt in my mind that our Lord still walks with us on the path of history. He has called us and equipped us to play a part in the grand narrative of His redemption of humanity. His Spirit leads us still, and will continue to lead us until our mission is complete. These are the truths we affirm by our presence here today.

Unchanging Mission, Changing World

2010 1519 page22 intextC2 2

Pastor Paulsen greets church members at a midweek meeting in the Wuxi, China, congregation. His May 2009 visit to the People’s Republic of China was the first official visit by a General Conference president to that country since 1937.

Statistics tell us that Adventism around the world is still growing at an amazing rate. Since we met together in St. Louis, Missouri, we’ve welcomed some 5 million people into church membership; on average almost 3,000 men and women every 24 hours. While in 1863 there was one church member for every 373,143 of the world’s population, today the ratio is closer to one Adventist for every 400 people.

But numbers can’t tell the whole story. Beneath the bare statistics are a myriad of forces that are challenging and shaping our church. Internal pressures: from the mere fact of growth itself, which often strains our ability to provide spiritual nurture. External pressures: political, economic, and cultural shifts that we can neither foresee nor control. If nothing else, the global economic crisis of the past few years has shown us that no one—not the banker on Wall Street nor the factory worker in India nor the church administrator in Silver Spring, Maryland—can live in isolation. For good or for ill, humanity has never been more closely interconnected, bound together by fragile, human-made structures.

Now we’re walking into the openness of a new decade, grappling with the demands of a diverse, dynamic global family and facing a mission that still stretches out before us, often daunting in its immensity. And I believe Christ says to us today as He said to our pioneers, “I’m here. Take My hand. Let Me walk with you.”

The Community of the Spirit

As Christ neared the end of His ministry on earth He prayed for the unity of His followers: “That all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. . . . I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me” (John 17:21-23).

With these few words, Christ gives us a profound insight into the heavenly community of the Godhead—the “three living persons of the heavenly trio” (Evangelism, p. 615). Three coeternal persons, in perpetual, loving communion with one another.

It seems incredible that Christ explicitly invites us to share in the community of the Trinity. Through our relationships with fellow believers, He calls us to reflect—however dimly, however hampered by human frailty—the “oneness” that He experiences with His Father and the Spirit. This is powerful theology! This is the “community of the Spirit” to which you and I belong.

What does the community of the Spirit look like? For Seventh-day Adventists in 2010, it’s a defining question. It’s a question of identity and values; of what will hold this extraordinary family together and guide us in our mission.

2010 1519 page22 intextC1 2

The 66-language giant Bible that traveled through 13 world divisions in the “Follow the Bible” initiative is held aloft during a visit to the Dominican Republic.

“For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body,” declares Paul, “. . . and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Cor. 12:13).

To me, unity in Christ is a core value of Adventist identity. We defer to one another, sacrifice for one another, take joint responsibility for safeguarding what has been entrusted to us. If we should fragment or begin to see ourselves as something less than a fully cohesive body, we will lose our way and cease to be what God has planned for us.

Over the past five years we’ve given priority to strengthening the bonds of unity within our community, and to nurturing members for mission.

  • The 2005 launch of Adventist World, a sister publication to the 160-year-old Adventist Review, represents a momentous step for our church. Every month, eight Adventist publishing houses together print more than 1.5 million copies of Adventist World. It’s translated into 13 languages and distributed in 120 countries. Twelve Adventist World Web sites send the magazine even further around the globe in electronic form, reaching into places where printed material cannot easily travel.

    While the logistics are impressive, the true value of this publication lies in its ability to connect us with one another; to provide spiritual nurture; to ground us in the essentials of our faith and identity; to remind us that our family extends far beyond the pews of our local church.

  • Through the “Connecting With Jesus” initiative we’re undertaking an immense effort to place the writings of Ellen White—a priceless gift for our church—into the hands of church members. Since 2005 some 1 million sets of 10 Spirit of Prophecy books, along with study guides, have been printed and distributed free or at subsidized rates. In a number of divisions, these books have also been made available for download from the Internet.
  • “Follow the Bible,” a two-year journey that concludes here in Atlanta, has seen a unique Bible, written in 66 languages, visit each of the 13 divisions of our church. It’s been a powerful reminder of the primacy of Scripture in the life and faith of our community.
  • Caring for the unity of the family also means providing space for everyone—young, old, male, and female—to actively participate in the life of the church. This year I completed my twenty-eighth televised Let’s Talk conversation with Adventist young people and young professionals. More than ever, I’m convinced we must give young adults meaningful responsibility within the church. To this end, we’ve carved out a number of spaces on the General Conference Executive Committee intended for younger people, whose only qualification is that they love their church and are equipped and ready to contribute. I’m so pleased that in many divisions, church administrators are also making a concerted effort to prepare young people for leadership.

On January 3, 1875, Ellen White was ill at home in Battle Creek when she received a vision of the world enshrouded in darkness. “Then . . . she saw little lights glimmering through the darkness. These lights increased in power. They burned brighter, and they were lifted higher and higher. Each one lighted other lights, which also burned brightly, until the whole world was lighted” (Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White: Volume 2: The Progressive Years 1862-1876, pp. 459, 460). The following day at the opening ceremony for the Battle Creek College, she described what she had seen and urged her listeners to think more broadly, more ambitiously, about their mission responsibility.

“Lights glimmering in the darkness”—this interplay between darkness and illumination featured in so many of Ellen White’s visions. It’s a powerful metaphor that has shaped our identity and fueled our development as a global mission movement. She saw clearly that when everything else is stripped away, the community of the Spirit exists for witness—to lead men and women from darkness into the light of Christ’s salvation.

  • During the past five years we’ve focused our mission planning under the banner of “Tell the World.” Its goals and challenges are not new to us—they’re woven into our identity and heritage; they are, quite simply, a restatement of all that we are, and all we have been called to be, as a church. “Tell the World” helps us more clearly articulate and organize our efforts in key areas including spiritual growth, community involvement, personal witness, city outreach, church planting, evangelistic programming, and media ministry.
  • I believe the tremendous development of our media ministries over the past five years is fulfilling Ellen White’s vision of “light in the darkness” in ways we couldn’t have imagined just a short time ago. Hope Channel is now truly a global network, distributed via satellite, cable, and the Internet, and broadcasting in nearly two dozen languages on eight full-time and two part-time channels. In April this year we opened the new Hope Channel studios, located at the General Conference headquarters, which will help us meet the constant demand for new programming.
  • Adventist World Radio (AWR) has expanded its distribution by developing radio stations in major cities—particularly in Africa—that can broadcast on FM and AM frequencies. During the past five years AWR has added 25 new languages to its broadcasts, bringing the total number worldwide to 83.
  • The vast, chaotic world of the Internet is a growing mission field we can’t ignore. In 2009 we launched the “About Life” YouTube channel, profiling the faith and values of Adventism in ways that are more accessible to younger people. And in the past quinquennium both AWR and Hope Channel have each dramatically expanded their Internet distribution.
  • This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the Global Mission initiative to start new congregations in unentered areas. During these two decades it has helped fuel unprecedented church growth; in the past quinquennium alone, Global Mission funded nearly 10,000 church planting projects. In 2005 we formed the Office of Adventist Mission, which is giving new energy and focus to Global Mission and promoting the importance of mission offerings.
  • How should Adventism relate to the major non-Christian religions of the world? With our work established in more than 200 countries of the world, this is no longer just a rhetorical question. In 2006 we appointed an assistant to the president for interfaith relations. In addition, the five Global Mission Study Centers, along with the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department, continue to help the church find ways to engage with different world religions and to better communicate our values and message.


2010 1519 page22 intextC1 1

A young Haitian girl looks to the future as temporary housing tries to care for the massive humanitarian tragedy brought about by the 2010 earthquake

A few months ago I stood in the midst of a group of Adventists in the Dutch city of Delft. Five years ago we had no functioning church in this thoroughly secular city. Today, there is a thriving congregation of some 150 members. Why? Because a small group of Adventists chose this place to establish the “Alivio Foundation”—an organization that helps unwed teenage mothers among the Antillean immigrant community.

For me, this phenomenal story represents a truth I’ve seen borne out many times: our response to the “stranger among us” is an unfailing litmus test for the health of our community. It doesn’t matter whether the “stranger” is a neighbor or someone who lives half a world away. The community of the Spirit is called to extend hospitality and compassion; to engage with the day-to-day realities and hurts of humanity. As followers of Christ, we can never look at another person in distress and say “This does not concern me” (The Desire of Ages, p. 504).

  • The wholistic implications of our faith are demonstrated day by day, hour by hour, in more than 7,500 schools, colleges, and universities and 600 Adventist institutions of healing around the world.
    I’m especially glad for the work of Adventist Health International, which over the past five years has continued its work to reinvigorate struggling Adventist hospitals in the developing world.


  • When the earthquake hit Haiti in January this year it unleashed suffering on a scale that is difficult to comprehend. The response of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) was extraordinary—both in its speed and scale. I thank God for this organization that every day, in more than 120 countries of the world, is truly the hands of Christ in relieving suffering.
  • Enditnow, a global initiative begun last year by ADRA and the Women’s Ministries Department of our church, is tackling the distressing reality of violence against women. This campaign represents a role that I believe rightly belongs to the church—to speak clearly and unequivocally in support of society’s most vulnerable members. Family, children’s, and women’s ministries are vital parts of the wholistic vision of our church.

A Broad Mission
From the vantage point of 2010 it seems incomprehensible that early Adventists once debated whether the call to “go into all the world” meant actually leaving the North American continent, or merely working among the immigrant communities already established here. And yet, I wonder whether today we’re confronting a similar paradigm shift when it comes to thinking about our mission.

2010 1519 page22 intextC2 1

Pastor and Mrs. Paulsen interact with young adult members during a televised Let’s Talk event in April 2006. The president hosted 28 Let’s Talk events with young adults, pastors, women, and laypersons around the world during the past five years.

Have we grasped the many implications of our rapid growth as a church? Do we understand the strength of our voice and presence in many parts of the world? That we should no longer be thinking in terms of our “smallness,” but our “bigness”? (And, conversely, have we dared to really acknowledge the vast scale of those unentered areas of the world where the name of Christ—let alone “Seventh-day Adventist Church”—has never been heard?)

The community of the Spirit to which we belong exists for one purpose only: to call men and women from death to life and to prepare them for an eternity that begins now—among the realities of this world. As we plan for tomorrow we must articulate a mission that is broad, that both embraces and builds on traditional models of witness, and that acknowledges the changing terrain on which we operate.

As I look through the minutes of that first General Conference session of 1863, I picture a small group of men and women just beginning to comprehend the enormity of the task before them; individuals struggling to define the community they should become. In the years that followed, these early Adventists demonstrated, time and again, their courage and their vision. They didn’t tailor their plans to their limitations, but to their mission—no matter how overwhelming that seemed.

Today, we meet here as a significantly larger group of believers, with resources and opportunities greater than our forebears could ever have imagined. I pray that our vision, our courage, and our commitment will not be less than theirs.

“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen” (Eph. 3:20, 21).