March 1, 2018

Where Change Is Leading

The Commission remains the same; but as demographics change, our methods must too.

Gorden & Cheryl Doss

On November 11, 1918, World War I ground to a halt. The 2018 centennial of the ceasefire that ended that global conflict provides a historical perspective for some thoughtful reflection. During the past 100 years, how has the world changed? How has the Adventist Church changed? And what are the implications for Adventist mission?

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World Religion by the Numbers

In 1918, about 1.8 billion people inhabited Planet Earth. By 2018 that number has exploded to an estimated 7.8 billion.1 In other words, the world population has more than quadrupled since World War I ended. This most basic metric of the challenge of world missions is hard to grasp fully.

During the twentieth century the number of people who self-identify as Christians has remained constant at one third of the population. Christianity, in its many forms, remains the largest of the world religions, followed by Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. The total number of Christians has grown from about 0.6 billion to 2.6 billion. On the other hand, the two thirds of the population that does not claim to be Christian, that stands in the greatest need of the good news, has grown from about 1.2 billion to 5.2 billion.36 2

The growth of the Christian faith has shifted its numeric center of gravity away from its longtime center in Europe and North America. In 1910 European and North American Christianity accounted for 81 percent of the total. By 2010 only 38 percent of Christians lived on those two continents.2Christianity has become a truly global religion. As World War I ended, the privilege and responsibility for Christian global mission rested primarily on the church of Europe and North America. Today the task of missions is distributed and decentralized to many new centers on all of the continents.

Shifts in Adventist Mission

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In 1918 the Adventist Church had only 171,914 members, 78 percent of whom lived in Europe and North America.3 By 2018 the membership has grown to more than 20 million, with only 8.1 percent located in Europe and North America. This amazing growth is cause for Adventists to praise the Lord. But even as we give thanks, the unfinished task of world mission looms large because the membership is unevenly distributed, and large people groups remain mostly unevangelized.

On the basis of membership concentration Adventist membership can be divided into two large clusters. The “big seven divisions” cluster includes the North American, Inter-American, and South American divisions; the West-Central Africa, East-Central Africa, and Southern Africa-Indian Ocean divisions; and the South Pacific Division. These seven divisions account for 77 percent of Adventist membership but only 26 percent of world population. Each of these divisions faces major, unique mission challenges, but their territories are comparatively well evangelized, and they are comparatively well equipped for the unfinished task within their own territories. Furthermore, they also have the missional capacity to reach beyond their own territories.

The “diverse six divisions plus” cluster includes the Trans-European, Inter-European, Euro-Asian, Southern Asia, Northern Asia-Pacific, and Southern Asia-Pacific divisions, plus the Middle East-North Africa Union (MENA) and the Israel Field. These territories account for only 23 percent of Adventist members, but a huge 74 percent of world population. They are so diverse that placing them in the same grouping may not seem logical. What they have in common is the missional challenge they each face.

The “diverse six divisions plus” group has a greater missional challenge compared with the “big seven divisions” for three main reasons: (1) while the “big seven divisions” have a member-to-population ratio of 1:344, the “diverse six divisions plus” ratio is 1:1,200 and the ratio in MENA, by itself, is 1:420,400; (2) the centers of global Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism and the 10/40 window are located there; (3) the nominally Christian populations of Europe have become quite secularized and not attracted to organized religion. In other words, the “diverse six divisions Plus” group has comparatively fewer members and fewer resources to witness to vast unreached people groups that have historically been least responsive to the Adventist message.

Four Implications for Twenty-first Century Mission

What do these and other major changes occurring since the ceasefire that ended World War I imply for Adventist mission in the twenty-first century?

First, the privilege and responsibility for world mission has shifted from resting primarily on the church in North America and Europe to the church in the whole world. More specifically, the “big seven divisions” cluster, with about three quarters of the Adventist membership need to embrace a calling to support mission alongside their “diverse six divisions plus” spiritual siblings. A century ago, the church of North America and Europe, with an Adventist membership that now seems microscopic, stretched itself out to the entire world field. Today the Adventist Church has amazing missional capacity in many countries that waits to be fully unleashed among the least evangelized people groups of the world.

Second, the church has the opportunity to enhance intercultural competence at every level. At the local church level, some monocultural congregations remain, but their number is declining. Most congregations include a significant number of members from multiple cultures who have differing, and sometimes conflicting, convictions about the “right way” to be a “good Adventist.” Many believe preaching, singing, Communion services, diet, dress, and behavior must be a certain way. They see change in any of these as akin to spiritual compromise. Interestingly, the cultural blending that sometimes occurs produces a diversity that can make it difficult to witness in communities with dominant traditional cultures.

The church is also multicultural at the administrative level. The basic paradigm for leadership, finances, and organizational style continues to have an American flavor; but the paradigm is reshaped in different ways in the church’s many administrative offices. Church offices that were once culturally homogenous are now very diverse. Cultural concepts of time keeping, money management, gender relationships, and conflict resolution differ between people who work together closely.

The multicultural character of the church at every level shows how urgent it is that everyone develop intercultural competence. One important step in this direction is to normalize or validate cultural conflict. All human relationships experience conflict, and differing cultural perspective is one factor that produces conflict.

The challenge is not to strive to deny it, bury it, or exacerbate it, but rather to negotiate conflict in a Christlike way. Conflict of all kinds, when well managed, can produce enhanced relationships. A well-functioning multicultural church, engaged in mission to a multicultural world, has great potential for missional effectiveness. In a world torn apart by cultural and religious conflict, the church as the body of Christ can be a living, breathing model of harmony.

Third, the church has the opportunity to enhance missiological understanding at the local level. In this complex era, being full of zeal to “just get out there and do something” is not enough. Almost every local church has, within the range of its missional responsibility, Christians of other denominations, adherents of the non-Christian religions, animisti
c practitioners, secularists, and atheists. Many different approaches are needed. The same principles that guide a cross-cultural missionary among, for example, Buddhists in Asia, need to be understood by local church pastors, leaders, and members who reach out to Buddhists who live in the West.

Fourth, the church has the opportunity to give special priority to mission among the non-Christian world religions—Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism being the three largest. Migration has carried these people groups out of their traditional centers to almost every nation. Customary Adventist methods that have worked well among fellow Christians and traditional tribal peoples do not work well among people established in another world religion. Muslims do not respond well to methods that attract Methodists. Priority must be given to developing appropriate methodologies and materials and allocating increasing numbers of missionaries and moneys to meet the immense challenge of reaching the two thirds of the world’s peoples who do not have a Christian background.

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A Compelling Fifth: Longterm Missionaries

A highly significant fifth implication for twenty first century mission relates to the question of long-term missionaries. Their role needs to be better understood and reaffirmed. The church must exploit its opportunity to fully engage the missional capacity of its growing, gifted, and committed membership in effective and strategic ways.

Starting in the 1980s, the General Conference missionary workforce has changed from being mostly North American to being multicultural. Only about 30 percent now come from North America, and that group is multiethnic. Altogether, currently serving missionaries come from about 70 nations and serve in some 97 nations.

However, the magnitude of the unfinished task of mission cries out for many more missionaries than we now have. Among many large people groups, the church lacks indigenous believers to evangelize them adequately. Cross-cultural missionaries are needed to evangelize many, many millions of unreached peoples, especially in the “diverse six plus” divisions.

A wide variety of volunteers and short-term missionaries, serving from a few weeks to a year or two, has added a positive dimension to Adventist mission. One limitation is that their service is usually given among the best-evangelized people groups, where the church is already strong.

However, volunteers can provide effective service among less-evangelized people groups when their work is well coordinated by long-term missionaries and local churches. Good synergy, strategy, and coordination between officially sent missionaries and those in Adventist supporting ministries can also enhance global mission.

The Twenty-first Century Mission Mandate

At the end of World War I the Adventist Church had come far in its mission thinking: from the “shut door” period (1844-1851), to sending the first official missionary in 1874, to a complete reorganization of the church for mission in the early part of the twentieth-century.By 1918 the church had embraced Jesus’ command to make disciples of all nations. During the past 100 years God has greatly blessed Adventist mission; but the number yet to be evangelized is greater than ever, especially among non-Christian world religions.

Jesus promised that “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matt 24:14). Humanly speaking, the task is impossible, but Christ’s words are a promise and a prophecy. The God who used 12 apostles to reach their world, who grew a tiny group of Adventists into a global church, will empower His last-day church as we commit ourselves to the task of taking the gospel to all peoples everywhere.

  1. Todd M. Johnson and Kenneth R. Ross, eds., Atlas of Global Christianity 1910-2010 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), p. 7.
  2. Ibid., p. 59.
  3. Adventist statistics from General Conference Annual Statistical Reports.
  4. Foreign Missionary Program of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. 2017. Unpublished paper. General Conference Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research, 2017, p. 9.

Cheryl Doss directs the Institute of World Mission at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. Her husband, Gorden, is professor of world mission as the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University.