May 17, 2017

The Power of Collaboration

Costin Jordache, Director of Communication & News Editor, Adventist Review

A Milestone Moment

Over 400 delegates from over 60 countries made their way to a historic city to participate in a historic event on May 10-14. Amidst ancient structures perched along Europe’s iconic Danube River, Seventh-day Adventist ministry leaders from around the globe gathered in Budapest, Hungary for the first-ever International Leadership Conference focused on issues impacting families, women and children.

The gathering was historic as three separate General Conference departments—Family, Women’s and Children’s Ministries—joined forces to address critical issues facing the three distinct, yet interconnected groups. The conference was themed,
Reach the World, in line with the General Conference strategic plan motto and in an effort to emphasize the unmet needs within communities around the world.

Delegates from around the world filled available seating. [Photo: Costin Jordache]

“This event is like a magnifying glass that focuses the energies of the church on where to bring the hope of Christ, his grace and soon return,” said Doug Venn, General Conference coordinator for Mission to the Cities and Director of the Global Mission Urban Center. Venn coordinates the initiative to reach the fifty-one percent of the world’s population currently living in large cities. Throughout the event, Venn’s team displayed increasing amounts of postcards brought by delegates on a wall, surrounding a sign that read “I Want This City.”

Organizers emphasized this community-centered approach in a number of ways, including making intentional time for dialogue and conversation, allowing attendees to better understand how to reach families, women and children within their communities. "We will learn and grow together,” said Trans-European Division (TED) president Raafat Kamal, whose regional world church territory hosted the milestone conference. “People are hungry for a spiritual diet of substance and hope.”

The unique moment was also marked with an introduction from the Hungarian Minister of State for Churches, Minorities and Civil Affairs, Miklós Soltész. Soltész emphasized the need for faith communities to address societal challenges by sharing Christian values. “It looks like we live in a better age,” said Soltész. “In many countries we have many opportunities. But there is a question. Do we recognize all the problems and fears that are all around us?”

Tamás Ócsai, president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Hungary, recognized the significance of the Minister’s address, stating that “this means for us that the government would like to help all churches, including the Seventh-day Adventist Church, maintain Christian values, and we appreciative very much that he was willing to come and support our church.”

Modern Family Profile

The first keynote of the of the multi-day conference was delivered by Dr. Ella Simmons, general vice president for the world Church. Simmons was clear and direct in her description of the modern family unit, an image characterized by significant dysfunction. She shared her deep interest in in how families live together after the divorce of her own parents at an early age.

Simmons focused most of her thoughts on the biblical story of Jacob and Esau, pointing out the significant dysfunction within that family unit. She concluded that most of the alienation within families occurs due to the lack of forgiveness present in broken relationships and she challenged Church leaders and members to take seriously the “ministry of reconciliation” entrusted to believers by Christ. “Sometimes you can’t just build the bridge,” explained Simmons, “you have to be the bridge to reconciliation.”

Driving home the very reason the conference was organized, Simmons reminded attendees that “if we want to reach the world we need to remember that the first victories must be won in the home life.”

Numbers Speak Volumes

Another notable aspect to the conference was the presence of Dr. George Barna, well-known author, researcher and statistician, whose researched has informed the Christian community around the world for decades. Barna, who delivered two plenary session lectures, informed the crowd that even though his ancestry is Hungarian it was his first time in the Eastern European country.

Barna spared no time unleashing a slew of new US-based statistics, gathered by his current firm, American Culture & Faith Institute. He encouraged those from other countries to understand the principles behind the numbers pointing to trends around the world. He spent most of his time unpacking the concept of worldview—a set of filters by which we perceive the world around us—and the impact that society is having on younger generations.

His 2017 survey revealed that while 58-70% of parents see value in their children being exposed to extended family gatherings, church services, art exhibits and the Bible, children on average spend only two hours per week on these activities. In contrast, 33-43% of parents do not see value in their children being exposed to professional sports, television news, online content and current movies, yet children on average spend seven hours per day on these and related activities.

Barna then announced that statistically a very small amount of younger people have what he called a “biblical worldview”—only 4% of 18-30 year-olds and 7% of 30-49 year-olds. “We are in a crisis,” Barna said. “If the Church does not wake up and solve it, biblical Christianity in the United States is in jeopardy.”

The researcher then turned his attention squarely to parents, offering a statistical call to parental responsibility. He pointed out that while children form their worldview by the age of 13, only 5% of parents with 5-13 year-old children in the US have a biblical worldview. “Our children usually make their spiritual choices by default, acquiescing to cultural norms,” he concluded.

“We want to inspire leaders to see how we can encourage and empower children, women and families to reach out to the world.”

Barna ended on a positive note, emphasizing that though not easy, worldviews can be changed through proper asking of questions and meaningful dialogue with children and teens, in an effort to “dislodge what culture has placed in their minds.”

Barna sees tremendous value in the Seventh-day Adventist Church organizing a global summit to address family-related issues. “The world is changing so rapidly and so radically, that traditional approaches and strategies are not enough,” Barna told
Adventist Review. “The Church needs to understand the latest research available, and the meaning behind the data if we are to effectively grow disciples.”

Organizers, emphasizing the conference’s
Reach the World motto, resonated with Barna’s conclusion. “Parents must be intentional about making sure sound biblical values are passed on to their children on a daily basis through family worship, and by modeling godly living,” said Willie Oliver, director of Family Ministries for the world church and one of several organizers.

“You can't get more missional than this. Because, when we have strong families, we will have a strong church, that can share the gospel with power and joy, and help hasten the coming of Jesus Christ.”

Attendees also reacted positively to Barna’s research. “Dr. Barna has done practical research on practical issues,” said Samson Nganga a member who traveled from South Africa for the conference. “So as a church, we can’t remain naïve about the things happening around us. Sometimes we preach from the mountaintop and we’re totally disengaged with the people in the flock. We need good research to give us insights into leadership.”

A Generation at Risk

Closely related to Barna’s research was content presented by Dr. Kiti Freier Randall—a pediatric neurodevelopmental psychologist from Loma Linda University Health. Randall, who works extensively with at-risk children—emphasized from the beginning the role of the home in childhood development. “Although other supportive institutions in society play a role, it is in the family that nurture is effective and meaningful.”

Randall contrasted the idyllic statement with the reality that children around the world are at risk from a great number of factors. Lack of access to education, especially for girls, is a significant risk, leading to other risk factors such as poverty, drug use and an increased rate of teen pregnancy and gang violence. Childhood obesity is another risk factor, leading to “serious lifelong consequences.”

At the same time, malnutrition and starvation continue to present a risk to children around the world, in addition to abuse of various kinds. Randall explained in detail the effects of trauma and abuse, including showing a brain scan that showed a visible difference in the brain of an abuse victim. “Trauma, abuse and neglect actually change the architecture of the brain,” said Randall, who also informed participants that if a child is born healthy and they die before one year-old, the number one reason they will die is “because their parents will kill them.”

Randall also spoke to a controversial subject, the risk factor involving technology addiction. “Too much, or misused technology can impact a child’s physical and mental health,” she explained, leading to negative impacts such as sleep disturbances, depression and anxiety. To spontaneous applause from attendees, the pediatric psychologist challenged parents not to expose children under two years of age to technology. “It is wrong when technology is raising our children,” she said.

In her second presentation, Randall offered a bright spot to the daunting realities she began with. Science is focusing increasingly on the idea of resilience, “the capacity to maintain or develop competent functioning in the face of major life stressors.” Factors such as social support, connectedness, meaningful activity and exercise all lead to increased resiliency.

When asked by the
Adventist Review how these insights impact the Adventist Church, Randall said that from her work of 30 years with the highest at-risk children in the world, she realized that “what they need, our church has to offer. Our church has all the elements that we need to change trajectory to a positive one. We have the ability to provide meaningfulness and hope in life. We have the ability to provide nurturance and relationship with healthy adults, and access to health activities. If you look at the scientific literature of what we need for resiliency in our children,” concluded Randall, “those can all be answered as a mission of our church and I believe we’re called to do that; to give of our ourselves in a positive healthy relationship to spend time with young people and make a difference in their life.”

Mental health professionals in the audience agreed. “I completely agree with what Dr. Randall said,” shared Dr. Gabor Mihalec, a practicing family therapist and the director of Family Ministries for the host Hungarian Union Conference. “There has to be somebody who breaks this chain right here and right now. And I think that we as a church; we as pastors, as members; as family life educators have a very special gift and a very special opportunity to have insights into the lives of families where the things are happening.”

Once again feedback was positive, even as delegates grappled with the realities presented. “Without knowing the risk that our children are going through, we don’t have the church of tomorrow,” said Zodwa Kunene, Children and Women’s Ministries director in the Southern Africa Union Conference. “I believe that it’s up to us as leaders, it’s up to us as parents to impact our churches; we can win back our communities.”

Continued Dialogue About LGBT

Each of the three departments hosted seminars throughout the afternoon focusing on elements specific to their area of ministry. Among other topics, Family Ministries directors Willie and Elaine Oliver facilitated a dialogue surrounding LGBT issues and questions. Dr. Ekkehardt Mueller, associate director of the Biblical Research Institute (BRI), gave an overview of the subject, highlighting research done by BRI in gathering biblical insights into the matter.

Mueller spent significant time in Romans 1, a biblical reference where homosexuality is specifically mentioned. He made it clear that the Seventh-day Adventist Church does not “condone the sin of homosexual activity.” However, he reminded attendees that “we distinguish between homosexual orientation and homosexual activity.”

“As Adventists we respect all people, whether heterosexuals or homosexuals,” Mueller presented. “We acknowledge that all human beings are creatures of the heavenly Father and are extremely valuable in God’s sight. Therefore we are opposed to hating, scorning, or abusing homosexuals.”

Mueller also reminded delegates of the broader reality of sin, even within Romans 1. “Sin is serious business whether sexual sin or other sin, whether heterosexual sin or homosexual sin,” he explained. “Romans 1 begins a longer discussion on the state of all human beings. A painful diagnosis is provided. We are all sold under sin and have to expect death. But this diagnosis is given in order for us to long for and appreciate the power of the gospel of salvation which is available to everyone who believes (Romans 1:16).”

A second presentation was delivered by Virna Santos, a representative of
By Beholding His Love, a ministry focused on equipping “individuals, families, churches, and schools with biblical-based training, while teaching the methods of Jesus to understand issues related to sexual identity struggles” and “facilitating healthy, genuine and intentional connection between Church and LGBTQix communities.”

Santos, who shared her own journey as a formerly practicing member of the LGBT community, offered insights into the struggle parents of LGBT children initially go through and the significant struggles that young LGBT individuals go through along their journey. “They’re tormented by fear and rejection from the people they love the most, their parents,” Santos said. Santos also offered insights into how parents can interact with children who are open about their struggle with sexual identity.

“With parenting in general, it’s amazing what you can learn if you just listen,” explained Elaine Oliver, associate director of Family Ministries for the world church. Sometimes we become impatient, forgetting that God is never impatient with us. The same principle applies to the way we should interact with children wrestling with sexual identity questions.”

“We need to be careful not to cherry-pick when it comes to sins,” concluded Willie Oliver at the close of the panel discussion. “We need to be like Jesus. We have to genuinely love others. You’re not going to reach anyone for Jesus, unless you genuinely love them.”

Woman to Woman

Meanwhile, the Women’s Ministries Department hosted seminars centered on women interacting meaningfully and purposefully with women of other faiths. Department director Heather-Dawn Small and associate director Raquel Queiroz de Costa Arrias, invited guest speakers to both teach and inspire women how to reach out into various communities of women.

“We’ve got to help our women look beyond themselves and the ones they know to the ones they don’t know,” said Small, “to the ones who don’t look like them; the ones who don’t speak their language and whose culture is different. That was the main focus of our training here.”

For some, this track was the most impacting. “I am from Mongolia and we, too, have women of other faiths among us,” said Oyuntuya Batsukh, Director of Women’s Ministries for the Mongolian Mission. “Unfortunately, many times, we are afraid and stand far off. It’s critical that we learn how to reach women in all communities, creating meaningful relationships with them.”

An Unexpected Need

Across the hall, the Children’s Ministries department, led by Linda Koh, director, and Saustin Mfune, associate director, was exploring a topic—among others—with an unexpected twist. Seminars focused on impacting and ministering to children from affluent homes.

Presenters shared several of the leading causes contributing to the possibility of emotional troubles within affluent environments, including excess pressure to excel exerted by parents attempting to stay ahead of the success curve. Another risk factor includes increased isolation typically experienced by children as parents become more affluent and, in general, busier and less connected as a result. Various principles and ideas were shared for effective ways to minister to children in these circumstances.

A New Level of Missional Synergy

While the topics covered and the dialogue facilitated were both practical and critical for mission, it was the unprecedented collaboration of three world church departments that stood out most.

“This has been a tremendous collaboration between these three departments,” shared Geoffrey Mbwana, general vice president of the General Conference, with
Adventist Review. “In as much as they are dealing with common issues, addressing people that make up families, this has been a very profitable experience where they have brought the experiences of the three departments to a common front. I think this has been a big savings of money, but also we’ve had an opportunity now to see how we can cross bridges of departments to be effective and impact the community and the church as a whole.”

The visible synergy created by the departmental triad inspired leaders from around the world. “This is, as far as I know, a first,” said Audrey Andersson, executive secretary of the Trans European Division, “and just the collaboration, to see how these areas intertwine with each other and how each feeds into and can support the other, that has been a real blessing.” Musa Mitekaro, Family Ministries director from the East-Central Africa Division agreed. “I was impressed by three departments coming together for mission.”

Measuring success is many times a moving target, yet organizers of the global conference expressed confidence in the event’s positive outcome. Willie Oliver summarized this by drawing, in part, from a panel discussion on the last day of the gathering featuring several departmental leaders from various countries. “Many shared new convictions established during the conference by listening to compelling truths that were not clear to them before,” said Oliver. “Especially the fact that areas they once believed had nothing to do with their respective ministries, were obviously also their concern.”

“I’m a convert,” shared Carla Baker, Women’s Ministries director for the North American Division, at the close of the conference. “I do believe that Women’s Ministries can do a lot to reach the mothers. I will be doing something about that.”

Oliver also pointed to requests for future events as an indicator of success. “This level of new synergy, as well as requests by many conference participants to repeat this kind of event in the near future, are indicators of a level of success we expected as an outcome of this shared effort by Children's, Women's, and Family Ministries.”

“We want to inspire leaders to see how we can encourage and empower children, women and families to reach out to the world,” concluded Koh. “This is what he hope to accomplish.”