One day, Mr. Jonah, a small-town man from Gath-hepher, ran off to the seaport of Joppa on a mission to avoid an assignment in big city Nineveh. I imagine he scanned the sailing times for ships, searching for the best option. Perhaps there were tantalizing discounts for prophets, even minor prophets. Finally, a ship bound for Tarshish caught his eye. He thought he’d purchased a standard Mediterranean cruise, but soon discovered that it included free underwater adventure activities.
We don’t know much about Mr. Jonah. He came from an insignificant village—Gath-hepher—near Cana, in Galilee. Prophets often had to deliver bad news, but Mr. Jonah got to prophesy good things, such as the restoring of Israel’s boundaries (2 Kings 14:25). There, in his quiet rural parish, he quietly did the things minor prophets did. But then God turned his little world upside down: “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it” (Jonah 1:2).1
Israel was a whole world away geographically, culturally, and religiously from Nineveh. This pagan city, capital of the Assyrian Empire, was one of the largest in the ancient world. Another prophet, Nahum, described it colorfully: “Ah! City of bloodshed, utterly deceitful, full of booty—no end to the plunder! . . . Who has ever escaped your endless cruelty?” (Nahum 3:1-19). No doubt Jonah had heard stories of the brutality of the Assyrians and their finely nuanced methods of torture and killing. Certainly no place for a small-town prophet to run public evangelistic meetings. So he began his Mediterranean cruise. Mr. Jonah’s response was clear: “I will not go.”
Several centuries later, God issued a mission call in Joppa (Acts 9:36-43). This time it’s to a man Jesus nicknamed Simon, son of Jonah (Matt. 16:17). The man is Peter, and the location is only the first of many parallels between Gath-hepher’s Jonah and Simon, son of Jonah.2
Although the theme of God’s strategic plan to reach all peoples is woven throughout Scripture, somehow it had been overlooked. God had to shatter the comfort zones of Jonah and Peter, Simon bar-Jonah, and introduce them to the wideness of His mercy. With Jonah he uses a fish (Jonah 2:1). With Peter He uses a vision of unclean animals (Acts 10:9-16). In both cases the Gentiles—Nineveh (Jonah 3:5) and Cornelius’s household (Acts 10:43)—believe and are forgiven. But in both cases there’s also a hostile response. In the story of Jonah, he’s the one who responds with hostility; in Peter’s case, it’s the leaders in Jerusalem (Jonah 4:1; Acts 11:2).
But most significantly, God gives Jonah and Simon Bar-Jonah exactly the same command: “Get up, go” (Jonah 3:2; Acts 10:20). God’s command echoes down the centuries to us today. “Get up” tells us to move from our current position into an active stance. “Go” tells us what to do. It’s God’s briefest job description.
The Reach the World: I Will Go strategic plan is the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s response to God’s call to “arise and go.” It’s a five-year plan that builds on and updates the previous Reach the World strategic plan. It’s the result of many hours of prayerful work by a special Future Plans Working Group at the General Conference, which was guided by extensive qualitative and quantitative research of the world church. The draft plan was taken to the General Conference Executive Committee for consideration, and the final version was voted in October 2019. I Will Go represents our best attempt to set a direction for being a church that faithfully participates with God in the world today.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church’s official mission statement says: “Make disciples of Jesus Christ who live as His loving witnesses and proclaim to all people the everlasting gospel of the three angels’ messages in preparation for His soon return.” The I Will Go plan connects to that goal, and is framed as a positive affirmation to join Jesus in His continual mission of healing and redemption. It’s also a candid acknowledgment that in many areas the church needs to improve. It’s not some type of edict, trying to dictate how every part of the church must do its work. Instead, world divisions are encouraged to adapt the plan to their situations, aligning resources with key objectives.
I Will Go is a thoughtful tool to help us respond the best we can to God’s call and to what current data show us.
What do we do when surveys show us that globally 40 percent of members are leaving the church?3 What do we do when we discover that almost a third of church members believe that the soul lives on after death, and in one world division nearly 43 percent of church members believe the dead can communicate with and influence the living? What do we do when nearly 50 percent of those responding to surveys think that following the Adventist health message ensures their salvation? What do we do when we discover that we’ve been putting most of our resources into rural areas, and have virtually been ignoring the great urban centers of the world? What do we do when some church members question the transparency, accountability, and credibility of church organization and activities?
The I Will Go strategic plan is a response to issues, to enhance our effectiveness in answering God’s call.
In 1935 a memorial service was held for A. G. Daniells, former General Conference president. One of the speakers at the service, F. M. Wilcox, looked back on the life of Daniells and praised his “clear vision.” Wilcox said: “He proposed means and measures which might be adopted, he presented concrete and workable plans.”4 Note the phrase “concrete and workable plans.” They’re the kind of plans we still need. Not plans dreamed up in some committee and forever buried in the minutes. Not plans gathering dust on shelves. Plans that will work.
I Will Go is not an addition to the canon of inspired writings. It’s a workable instrument to help the church focus on priorities and be more effective.
“Well, I have different priorities,” you might say. And so you should. Each of us must take responsibility for our own lives, aligning who we are and what we do with biblical, Christ-centered principles. Different church entities also carry specific strategic priorities unique to their situations and spheres of influence. Many wonderful mission and discipleship endeavors will not be directly mentioned in this plan.
But surely every church institution, church, and church member can join in and support the direction of I Will Go. You don’t have to be a foreign missionary, for example, to accept the call of reviving “the concept of worldwide mission and sacrifice for mission as a way of life” (objective 1). Worldwide here includes unreached people groups of the world and our local neighborhood. Mission includes preaching and teaching, and also caring for people on the margins, such as orphans, widows, and the poor. Sacrifice includes our mission offerings, and it also includes our time. Way of life means the trajectory of our lives, not a series of events. It’s something we’re all called to do.
In Sidebar 1, after the 10 objectives, another category appears: “Holy Spirit Objectives: To be defined as the Holy Spirit leads.” This acknowledges that even though the I Will Go plan is thorough and detailed, life is fluid. We need to remain open to the Holy Spirit leading us in fresh directions. People change, circumstances change, and we must be agile and responsive to the Holy Spirit’s guidance.
King Frederick the Great of Prussia once tried to play a trick on the great composer and musician Johann Sebastian Bach. The king told his court musicians to create a tune that would be terribly difficult to turn into a fugue—a musical composition with several interweaving melodies. Bach didn’t hesitate. He sat down at the keyboard and improvised on the spot. He effortlessly composed a fugue with three different intertwining melodies. The king and his musicians were dumbfounded. Then a few weeks later, Bach sent the king a written-out fugue on the same tune—but now in six parts. Six separate and distinct melodies, uniting together, and all based on one exceedingly difficult tune. Howard Goodall says that this is still “considered by musicians and composers the greatest, most complex feat of counterpoint of all time.”5
For Bach, music was a religious exercise. “He believed what he was doing was the musical embodiment of God’s master plan for humankind,” writes Goodall, “a recognition of the intricate mathematical beauty of the natural order as ordained by the Almighty.” It was with good reason that Bach wrote the words Soli Deo Gloria, Glory to God Alone, at the end of each of his compositions.
TheI Will Go plan is like sheet music. Sheet music contains detailed information, but how it’s translated into actual music depends on how it’s interpreted. A skilled musician such as Bach can go further than mere interpretation—improvising on the melody, creating something totally new. I Will Go lays out key objectives in an organized plan. By the grace of God, one church, varied yet united and spread all over the world, will turn this gospel initiative into audible and compelling music with different harmonies, tempos, rhythms, and improvisations, all to the glory of God alone.6
Gary Krause directs the office of Adventist Mission at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.
When it comes to cities, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has a challenge. Think about these numbers: Most of the world’s people now live in cities, and urban migration continues like a flood. Today more than 500 cities have populations of more than 1 million people, and these cities are social and economic powerhouses, generating more than 80 percent of global gross domestic product.
Now consider the Adventist populations in these cities. On average, there’s one Seventh-day Adventist congregation for every 89,000 people. Forty-five of these cities have fewer than 10 Adventists; 43 have no Adventist congregations.
There’s little doubt that cities are our biggest and most challenging mission field. But it’s a mission field that defies easy answers or quick fixes. Occasional evangelistic Band-Aids won’t work. And many urbanites just don’t respond to traditional outreach approaches.
What can we do? To start, we need to reclaim our call to long-term, on-the-ground, wholistic ministry to the cities. And in doing so, we must follow the method and example of Jesus in bringing hope to city streets.
In the summer of 2009, 40-year-old attorney Kasim Reed was running for mayor of the city of Atlanta, Georgia. It had been his dream since he was 13. Unfortunately, he was losing badly. “You’re super-losing,” a friend told him.
Political consultants told him to get out on the streets and start knocking on doors—“the people need to see you.” The plan was to visit at least 150 houses a day, spending no longer than three minutes at each. It’s said that an Atlanta summer is so hot that the mosquitoes are sticking together. And it was a mosquitoes-sticking-together day in July when Reed worked his way through Mechanicsville, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods.
He knocked on one door and said, “Hello, I’m Kasim Reed. I’m a Georgia state senator, and I’d like to be your mayor. May I talk to you about the campaign?”
He remembers “a wonderful old woman with a warm face” looking at him through a steel-barred door and saying, “Come on in, baby.” Seeing him sweating, the kindly woman poured Kasim a tall drink and sat him down. “Tell me why you think you should be mayor,” she said.
Reed trotted out his stock answers: Atlanta is the cradle of the civil rights movement; it has a large concentration of Fortune 500 businesses; it operates the world’s busiest passenger airport; it boasts wonderful restaurants. “And I believe I can make the city stronger,” he concluded.
“She looked at me as if I were a Martian,” recalls Reed. “None of that was getting through. I felt terrible.”
The woman took Reed outside and said, “Let me show you the Atlanta I know.” She pointed to an empty swimming pool with some young boys shooting dice. To the left stood a gazebo that had been used for picnics. It was now covered in gang graffiti and filled with guys playing loud music.
“That’s the Atlanta I know, baby,” she said. “Let me tell you something else. I’m a pretty good cook myself, so I don’t go to the restaurants you’re talking about. And if I were going to go to restaurants, I’d need to take the bus, and I don’t really feel safe going out at night right now. And that airport that you all are always talking about, baby, I don’t fly. Now you have a nice day.”
Reed left that house having invested 15 valuable minutes instead of three, convinced that she didn’t like him and that he wouldn’t get her vote. But that 15 minutes proved to be worth every second and more for the future mayor of Atlanta. “I changed that day,” he says, “because what I understood from that visit with Miss Davis was that until you see a city how people who are most in need of help see it, you’re never going to reach them. And I was never the same.”1
Effective Seventh-day Adventist urban mission must see a city as people who are most in need of help see it. Details of urban mission can’t be produced or planned by remote control in distant church administrative committees or university classrooms. Eternal principles must guide, but particular methods and approaches emerge from local streets and neighborhoods. Ellen White talks about how many costly outreach efforts have failed because they do not “meet the wants of the time or the place.”2
Simplicity Outreach Center, an urban center of influence, touches hundreds of lives in the heart of Allentown, Pennsylvania. Wes Via, former director of Simplicity, says his team first spent a lot of time just walking the neighborhood getting to know people. He says that every urban situation is unique. “It’s tempting to think that if I just follow a particular model that’s worked elsewhere—follow step A, B, C, and D—then I’ll have success,” he says. “We want to extrapolate directly from one context to another. But that is not the nature of wholistic outreach—Christ’s ministry—which must always be responsive to the culture in which it’s located. Even within one city, such as New York, the needs of people in Harlem won’t be the same as those in Manhattan, or Brooklyn.”3
Effective urban mission follows Christ’s footsteps by walking city streets. It sees what people are doing and not doing. It observes what they’re “worshipping.” It witnesses what’s causing people joy and what’s causing pain. It feels the social, physical, emotional, and spiritual needs in a community.
When the apostle Paul visited Athens, he spent time walking around the city, looking carefully (Acts 17:23). When he later stood in front of the Aeropagus, he tailored his message to the specific, local context—based on his personal experience of the city. His first illustration came from a statue to the unknown god he had seen in their neighborhood—an apt bridge to talk about the true God. Ellen White says that on that day on Mars Hill Paul gained a victory for Christianity in the heart of paganism.4
Years later, in 1901, John Corliss was pastoring the Seventh-day Adventist church in San Francisco (a church Ellen White described as a “beehive” because it was so busy working in the community).5 He too discovered the importance of seeing a city from a local perspective. “A man working in a city goes there to study the situation from every detail he meets along the way,” he said at that year’s General Conference session in Battle Creek. “My candid convictions are that to be most successful in city work, we must have men who will keep their eyes open.”6
Ellen White summarizes Christ’s method of ministry: mingling with people, showing sympathy to them, ministering to their needs, winning their confidence, and bidding them to follow Him.7 This must be the blueprint for urban mission. It means connecting with people at the local and personal level. It’s about local neighborhoods, not airports.
Christ’s method can be implemented in myriad ways, but Ellen White championed an urban model that she called centers of influence: small platforms for launching Christ’s method of ministry and connecting to city communities.8 She talked about such things as health centers, treatment rooms, and vegetarian restaurants. Today urban centers of influence take various forms in dozens of countries: refugee assimilation centers, juice bars, secondhand stores, vegetarian restaurants, health clinics, music centers, recreational facilities, health food stores, massage centers—the list just goes on.9 They may look different, but all urban Centers of Influence should have the same goal to minister to people’s physical and spiritual needs, lead people to Jesus, and plant new groups of believers.
When Jesus saw the crowds “he had compassion on them because they were confused and helpless” (Matt. 9:36, NLT).10 His compassion must also be our stance, our perspective, our motivation, for city ministry.
In 1901 David Paulson wrote an article entitled “The True Motive of Christian Service.” A close friend of John Harvey Kellogg’s and Ellen White’s, Paulson was personally and intimately involved in inner-city and health ministry. He wrote not just from theory but from experience. Paulson described how Jesus focused on “needs” and not on “results.” Only “genuine love for humanity,” says Paulson, will win people to Christ. Those who are interested in ministering only to people they think can become church members actually build “distrust and suspicion” and “closes more and more doors.”11
Throughout the Gospels we see Jesus demonstrating unconditional love in towns and villages in which He ministered. He taught in synagogues, but He spent more time going to where the people were. He blessed blind men beside dusty roads, women gathered by wells, and tax collectors in trees.
Wholistic urban ministry involves words and action. It can’t be done from a religious enclave, by remote control, from a distance. It can’t be short-term, with only passing contact. It involves rubbing shoulders, touching hands, looking into eyes with Jesus’ compassion. It is not just about telling people about the truth of God’s Word, but demonstrating the truth of that Word.
Today’s digital age could tempt us to see technology as the answer to the challenge of urban mission. But technology can only convey information, which is only part of Christ’s method of ministry. We must use digital media, but it can only support, not replace, personal involvement. More than 100 years ago Ellen White told us, “It is through the social relations that Christianity comes in contact with the world.”12 She also said that this work can’t be done “by proxy” and that it requires “personal labor.” She adds: “Sermons will not do it.”13
When Kasim Reed became mayor of Atlanta, he never forgot his visit with Ms. Davis in Mechanicsville. He remembered how she had taught him that fancy ideas about restaurants and airports needed to land where she lived. When he took office, two thirds of the city’s recreation centers had been closed. He worked to open every one of them.
As we share the truth we hold dear, Reed’s experience teaches us that we must do more than print out a Google map and draw a target on a neighborhood. We must do more than conduct quick sorties in and out of cities. We must do more than just bring a preset cookie-cutter agenda of solutions. Our calling in the cities is to listen, learn, and love. Sharing hope in the streets with people who don’t fly.
Gary Krause is director of the Office of Adventist Mission at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. Find out more about the work of Adventist Mission at www.AdventistMission.org.