The elderly woman listened attentively in her Sabbath School in a southeast Asian country.
Her Sabbath School lesson book was filled in. She looked up every verse in her Bible. Many verses were underlined in the Bible. She placed money in the Sabbath School mission offering.
The woman, known to church members as “Grandmother,” looked like a model Seventh-day Adventist.
Visiting church leader Amy Whitsett met with Grandmother after church to ask why she had left her non-Christian religion to become an Adventist Christian.
Grandmother related a tragic story about losing her parents in a motorcycle accident at the age of 5 and suffering years of harassment by evil spirits. She sought help from doctors and spiritual mediums, but the medicine offered only temporary relief.
One day, an Adventist pastor moved in next door, and Grandmother watched curiously as people gathered at his home every Friday evening. She stood at his gate to find out what was happening and heard music. Peace filled her as she listened to the music week after week. The pastor could not convince her to come into the house, but he learned about her spirit problems and offered to pray. Grandmother agreed, and the evil spirits left permanently. Filled with gratitude, she accepted Jesus and joined the Adventist Church.
Whitsett, associate director of the Center for East Asian Religions, part of the Adventist world church’s Global Mission program, asked Grandmother in the interview to explain what Jesus meant to her.
“Jesus means everything to me,” the old woman said, speaking through a missionary interpreter. “He healed me and has given me peace. I cannot help but speak about Jesus to everyone whom I meet. I am an old woman, and I don’t have much longer to live. I love Jesus so much that I have decided to be Adventist in my next life too.”
The missionary interpreter translating for Whitsett was stunned. She had studied the Bible with Grandmother and thought that she had left her old life completely.
Grandmother’s situation is not uncommon among people who become Christian after following other world religions and traditional animistic practices, Whitsett said in a presentation to church leaders gathered at an annual Global Mission Issues Committee (GMIC) meeting at the world church headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.
“Once we get people into the church, it is easy to overlook worldview issues,” she said.
Worldview issues, such as the belief in reincarnation that Grandmother still held, can be deeply rooted in the minds of a non-Christian population, and church members and leaders need to be better trained to work with them, she and other mission leaders told the GMIC attendees.
After hearing about Grandmother and other case studies, the committee members recommended at the end of the two-day meeting on April 3, 2019, to address the challenge by expanding cross-cultural training to administrators and leaders at every level of the global church under a proposal to be developed by the General Conference’s Institute of World Mission.
The GMIC also recommended taking steps to revise wording in the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual to strengthen the expression of the need of reaching people from non-Christian religions, and to create processes through which trainers are sent to train all union leaders, conference leaders, every pastor, and all local church leaders in the use of Global Mission Center materials and methods. Finally, it recommended that the church’s Mission Board establish a small group to study ways of strengthening a sense of mission to non-Christian people and bringing the needs and methods of reaching these peoples to each level of the church, including the local church.
“The Global Mission Issues Committee guides our Global Mission Centers regarding challenging issues they’re facing on the front lines of mission,” said Gary Krause, director of the Office of Adventist Mission, which oversees the Global Mission Centers. “Mission in different cultures and contexts can get complicated and even bewildering, but I always leave this committee feeling that we’ve made significant steps forward.”
The six Global Mission Centers, which oversee Adventist efforts to share the gospel with non-Christian people groups around the world, are the Center for Secular and Postmodern Studies, the Center for East Asian Religions, the Center for South Asian Religions, the Global Center for Adventist-Muslim Relations, the World Jewish-Adventist Friendship Center, and the Global Mission Urban Center.
Tom Lemon, a general vice president at the General Conference, praised the idea of providing better training to leaders in local churches.
“It would keep the global perspective in front of the local church wherever that local church is, and it would provide opportunities for that local church to learn how to deal with the cultures around them that right now they aren’t even touching, let alone engaging with,” he said.
Oscar Osindo, associate director of the Institute of World Mission, whose work includes training missionaries to be more culturally aware, said it was time for the Adventist Church to include stronger language about the need to reach people from non-Christian religions in the Church Manual.
“Millions of Adventists approach their faith from the Bible, the Spirit of Prophecy, the Sabbath School quarterly, the Church Manual, and the hymnal,” he said. “I am just excited that we are talking about including this in the Church Manual.”
Respect and Modesty
The GMIC attendees heard case study after case study about misunderstandings about worldview issues within the Adventist Church. One church leader told about a non-Christian who, on his first visit to an Adventist church, saw the pastor place a Bible on the floor and place his foot against it. The guest walked out of the worship service, deeply offended by what he saw as the pastor treating the Christians’ holy book disrespectfully.
In another case study, a pastor rejoiced when a young woman, a non-Christian who had been studying the Bible with him, accepted Jesus. But he was dismayed when she announced that she didn’t want to become a Christian.
“I want to be modest in my headscarf and dress with long sleeves,” she said. “I don’t want to wear miniskirts and scanty clothing like Christian women.”
The pastor, relating the story at the committee meeting, emphasized that church members need to be sensitive to other worldviews, saying the Adventist Church claims to be different from other Christian denominations, but sometimes its members do not dress and act any differently.
Whitsett said the challenge can be that some church members don’t realize that other people have different worldviews.
“As Adventists, we study the Bible, worship on Saturday, and promote a vegetarian diet,” she said. “Grandmother’s religion was similar. We thought she was a good Adventist because she did all those things.”