“We are facing unusual situations,” General Conference president Ted N. C. Wilson said in his devotional message at the opening of the 2021 Annual Council of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. “How do we conduct our mission during a crisis?”
Wilson’s brief message opened the discussions and reflections of the one-week event, which this year is taking place in person in Silver Spring, Maryland, United States, and concurrently online for most delegates who are not able to travel.
Wilson acknowledged that during this pandemic, many have “lost heart” — they have become discouraged. “How can we go on?” he asked. According to Wilson, the only answer is to lean completely on Jesus. “He is the leader of the Adventist movement,” he emphasized.
Annual Council meetings include business sessions in which General Conference Executive Committee (GCEXCOM) members from around the world vote on projects, reports, and initiatives and discuss other financial and church matters. The opening meetings of October 7 and 8, however, include the annual Leadership Education and Development (LEAD) Conference. LEAD Conferences focus on one specific topic that seeks to inspire and support the professional and spiritual development of church leaders, lay members, and invitees who are members of GCEXCOM.
This year, the LEAD Conference was produced by the Office of Adventist Mission, and the theme chosen was “Through the Storms: Mission during Crises.” Organizers found it appropriate as the Adventist Church learns to navigate and adapt to the new realities posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I hope we can learn better ways to move mission forward,” Tiffany Brown, a pastor and teacher who hosted the opening session and coordinated a discussion panel, said.
Trusting God after a Major Crisis
The two-hour opening session included testimonies from missionaries who experienced major crises, along with case studies taken from the history of the Adventist Church and Christianity. Among the former, LEAD Conference participants watched a video testimony from Bryan and Penny Gallant, from Missouri, United States, where Bryan is currently the pastor of three churches and coordinates refugee ministries in the region.
The Gallants shared how they learned to trust and follow God after a major car accident many years ago, in which they lost their two young children. That tragedy triggered a spiritual and service journey, Bryan said. “In my own life, faith used to be the ability to explain God; now it’s simply trusting Him whatever He does.”
That life-altering event eventually took them into a life of service as missionaries in faraway places, including Cambodia, where they used the experience of their loss to comfort others who were suffering. “We were able to connect with people who had lost many relatives due to political violence,” Bryan said. They went on to serve in other countries and capacities and keep serving others in need also in the United States.
“The message we bring to the world is not information; it’s an experience,” he said.
In Soviet Times
Opening the case studies section of the program, Artur Stele, a general vice-president of the General Conference, reflected on the lessons the church learned during the decades of restrictions and persecutions in the former Soviet Union. “The government set out to liberate society from religion,” Stele shared. “Many faithful Christians were incarcerated.”
Stele reported that even though the Adventist Church had to go through challenges and difficulties, including the loss of pastors and church members, the church not only survived but also grew in that time. Among the lessons Stele said we can learn, he mentioned full confidence and total trust in God's Word amid difficulties. “Believers not only read but followed biblical truth,” he said. “Believers saw things from the perspective of eternity; heaven was real. There was an urgency to share the message.”
He also mentioned the flexibility and creativity of the church. The church adapted. “When worship was prohibited, they worshipped early in the morning or late at night, in small groups or even in pairs. As birthday parties were allowed, every Sabbath [Saturday], members organized a birthday party. Church boards sometimes took place during a funeral.”
Another lesson, Stele said, is that every member was, in one way or another, involved in the mission of the church. “Most of the pastors were in prison, so lay people had to do the work,” he said. “Musical groups practiced during the night and kept singing even when it was prohibited. As pastors were arrested, they knew their congregations would survive.”
It is a lesson for all of us, Stele said. He emphasized, “Let us work not to be ashamed. Let’s keep eternity in focus. Let’s make sure everyone is involved in the work of the Lord.”
Lessons from Adventist and Christian History
Other presentations focused on the Adventist Church during a crisis in 1919, which included ministering during the Spanish flu pandemic. “How was the church able to share the gospel of eternal life with people that had temporal needs?” Jenifer Daley, administration pastor at Pioneer Memorial Church in Berrien Springs, Michigan, asked. Daley mentioned responsible engagement, which is related to the pressing needs of the people while sharing an eternal message. “As a result, mission flourished,” Daley said. The key is “persevering through crises with a unified message that people need.”
North England Conference youth director Adam Ramdin reflected on the example of the Waldensians. For centuries, they kept the flame of God’s truth alive in the mountain valleys of the Alps. Among other sound decisions, the Waldensians took special care of educating their children, Ramdin reminded LEAD Conference participants. “They knew what they believed, why they believed it, and they were very clear that it was a message they couldn’t keep for themselves.”
Ramdin shared how the Waldensians would study God’s Word, get trained, and then go to major cities of Europe to share the message. “Their goal was the conversion of hearts,” he said.
The mission, Ramdin emphasized, was costly. Many lost their lives far from family and friends. However, “they knew they served a mission greater than themselves,” he said.
Daniel Jiao, secretary of the Chinese Union Mission, agreed that accepting innovation and enduring hardships are part of what believers should expect when facing crises. He shared the story of his father, a faithful church member who survived labor camps and harassment to lead a growing Adventist congregation in China. Crises must be met with great patience and careful instruction, Jiao said. “Be innovative. Think what the best way is to do God’s work” under the circumstances, he advised. And be ready to endure hardship. “You’ll have to go through difficulties, and you’ll have to rely on God to do His work,” Jiao said.
On the other side of the world, church members in Venezuela shared how they kept mission alive after all churches were closed and meetings were prohibited during the still ongoing pandemic. The church launched the “Every Home, a Church” initiative, which saw church pastors and members develop innovative ways to keep fellowship and outreach going. The results speak for themselves. In Venezuela, “the church keeps growing and, by God’s grace, does not stop,” they reported.
No matter when or where a crisis arises, the key, Wilson told GCEXCOM members, is to remember who is more powerful than our most pressing problems. “Leaders, never ever take your eyes off our leader, Jesus Christ,” Wilson said. “Through every storm, God will see the mission through because He is the master of the storm.”