“In the next few minutes, I want to share with you more than data and analyses,” Erton Köhler, secretary of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, said in his opening remarks of the Secretary’s Report to the members of the General Conference Executive Committee on October 10, 2021. “[I want to share] the vision of a church bigger than the crisis of the pandemic.” Köhler, who was elected to his new position in April 2021, is still awaiting visa clearance before taking up his full responsibilities at the General Conference headquarters and is carrying out his worldwide responsibilities from Brazil.
Köhler acknowledged that during the past 18 months, the Adventist Church has suffered, but that it has reinvented itself and, “by the grace of God, overcome its challenges.” He noted that the world after the onset of the pandemic is a new world. But “as a church, we are learning to deal with this reality, looking for the best opportunities to serve, minister, and fulfill the mission in this context.”
Köhler also observed that the consequences of the pandemic on the church and membership are vast and cannot be described thoroughly in a brief report. Reports from the world church divisions have led leaders to conclude that so far, the Adventist Church has lost more than 17,000 members to COVID-19; but, by all estimates, this is a conservative number. The figure includes at least 773 pastors, retirees, church workers, missionaries, and church leaders.
Challenges and Blessings
The pandemic also affected how Adventists do evangelism, Köhler said, and how they minister to members and those in need. At the same time, the pandemic triggered great resilience and helped Adventists to change the way they do things. “We adapted, but most importantly, we kept serving the world,” he said. “We kept evangelizing; we kept witnessing, and God blessed all our efforts.”
Part of those blessings are seen in the fact that despite extensive lockdowns and ever-present restrictions, in 2020 the Adventist Church planted 1,736 new churches and baptized 781,389 people.
In his report, Köhler shared the vital role of Adventist hospitals, which in many places were at the frontline of the fight against the pandemic. He also referred to the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), the humanitarian arm of the church, which in 2020 increased the funds invested and the number of projects and people positively impacted. With just an increase of four more million U.S. dollars in donations (from US$324 million in 2019 to $328 million in 2020), ADRA supported 325 more projects (from 1,184 to 1,506) and reached out to 6 million more people (from 14 to 20 million). This figure includes 422 projects directly related to the pandemic.
The pandemic also marked an impressive increase in communication reach, primarily through official online media outlets. According to Köhler, people reached through the Adventist Church website managed by the General Conference communication department went from under five million a month to almost 10.5 million, a 113-percent growth. Hope Channel’s “Unlocking the Prophecies” series reached five million views and resulted in many baptisms, “the largest evangelistic event the ministry has ever held,” he said.
The Adventist Church also launched various regional initiatives to support the mental health of churches and communities. One of them, the “Experience God” project, offers counseling by phone and receives more than 6,000 calls a month in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.
Publishing and Education
Köhler reported that the Adventist Church publishing department quickly adapted to the new reality to fulfill its mission. Adaptation included rapid development of digital platforms in various regions of the world to increase offers of Adventist literature. The sale of literature was supported by additional activities, such as healthy cooking webinars, which increased the traffic and the purchase of resources.
The Adventist educational system was severely affected by the pandemic in many places around the world. “The need to adapt was enormous,” Köhler said, “requiring schools at all levels to switch to virtual classes almost overnight.” Some schools had to battle tremendous odds. Among the most affected is Middle East University in Beirut, Lebanon, which faced a terrible nearby explosion in August 2020 and suffered the effects of a national economic crisis. The Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies (AIIAS) in the Philippines has also been severely affected. International students, who made up a sizable part of its student body, have not been authorized to enter the country. Enrollment is down 57 percent.
Primary and secondary schools have also been forced to adapt. In South America, an e-class school system has been offered free of charge to Adventist institutions. The system now has more than 672,000 active users.
The pandemic also affected those church workers who serve the church as missionaries in places far from their home countries, many of them in very challenging areas.
Challenges at Local Level
However, the most significant challenges were faced at the local church level. “Our ability to worship was the first and the main problem when the pandemic started,” Köhler said, “but our members immediately switched to technology.” He acknowledged that in many areas of the world, people quickly got tired of online services and expected a rapid reopening of churches. But since it took longer than expected, they found new ways of being together. After just a few weeks, some churches introduced the concept of drive-in churches, conducting services in church parking lots as they followed social distance protocols from their cars.
Local Adventist churches also stepped up to support those members and community residents who lost their jobs. In the South American Division, from March 2020 to March 2021, local churches distributed food and clothes to more than two million people. In Bangladesh, church workers donated 10 percent of their salaries to support lay members in need.
Local church pastors also did a great job, Köhler reported. They were “brave, bold” when having to face an unexpected crisis. He mentioned a pastor in Belarus who ministered to five other people who, together with him, had been hospitalized due to COVID-19. They did exercise, read the Bible, and prayed together. “All of them recovered and learned more about God and the Bible.” Another pastor, this time in Pakistan, installed a loudspeaker on the roof of his house and used it to preach the gospel.
The Right Question
In the last part of his report, Köhler emphasized that while the pandemic has been a time of suffering, it has also been an opportunity to learn how the world and the church have changed. He referenced Christian author, speaker, and consultant Tony Morgan, who suggested some questions the church should start asking now.* While some members and leaders are saying, “When will we be able to return to normal church life?” Morgan explained why that is the wrong question to ask. He suggested that instead we should be asking, “How is this situation changing us?”
Morgan suggests seven major shifts a church should make. Among them, he said churches should move from teaching to equipping, from gathering to connecting, and from attendance to engagement. Köhler said, “[these] are fantastic times to learn.”
Still, Köhler emphasized, despite all these shifts and the increasing role of social media in the life of local churches, face-to-face interactions are important and should not be replaced. “Technology came to stay in the church’s life but not to replace the life of the church,” he said.
Another word that needs to be at the top of our agenda is commitment, he said. “We need to find ways of bringing members together, understanding they are the main asset of the church. Jesus came for people, led for people, died for people, and will return to take people to heaven.”
* Tony Morgan, “7 Shifts Churches Need to Make Because of the Coronavirus,” Tony Morgan Live blog, April 15, 2020.