Adventist Mission: After a Hundred Years

AFTER a hundred years of over seas mission the Adventist Church has grown from a small community of about 6,000 believers in 1874 to a worldwide movement of nearly 2.4 million believers to day; from an exclusively America-based group to a universal church, 80 percent of whose members now live outside North America. And, if the present differences in the annual growth rates continue, ten years from now approximately 85 percent of the Adventist world membership will be found in countries outside North America. . .

-professor of mission and comparative religion, Andrews University at the time this article was written

AFTER a hundred years of over seas mission the Adventist Church has grown from a small community of about 6,000 believers in 1874 to a worldwide movement of nearly 2.4 million believers to day; from an exclusively America-based group to a universal church, 80 percent of whose members now live outside North America. And, if the present differences in the annual growth rates continue, ten years from now approximately 85 percent of the Adventist world membership will be found in countries outside North America.

This shift from an all-American movement to a universal church is also evident from the tremendous increase of missionaries coming from areas outside the United States. Exact figures are not available yet. But from the data that has come in so far in the current research conducted by the secretariat of the General Conference and the Department of World Mission of Andrews University concerning the number of missionaries, their countries of origin, their places and types of work, and their educational back grounds, it seems that the number of missionaries whose countries of origin are outside North America has already reached approximately 60 percent of those coming from North America.

But what amazes even the casual observer is not just the immense and continuous growth of the Advent Movement around the globe, now at nearly 5.7 percent per year; its 345 hospitals and clinics; 462 colleges and academies; 3,847 elementary schools, 50 publishing houses, 49 orphanages and old peoples' homes, 27 food factories; its high per capita giving (US$161.31 per year); its more than 70,000 employees and multi-million-dollar investments; but it is rather that this rapidly growing, worldwide community has preserved such a remarkable unity in the face of all the forces that are breaking up global structures today. After a hundred years Seventh-day Adventist mission, universally, is still fervently proclaiming the same message that also moved its pioneers and founders—namely, that Christ, the Redeemer of all men and the Lord of this world, has now entered the last phase of His mission, the judgment, to bring about the restoration of the kingdom of God in full glory (Rev. 14:6-12). It is this unity of faith and of witness, of spirit and of service, of message and of fellowship, that to a large extent will determine whether the mission God has entrusted to His church will be accomplished in this generation or whether still another generation will be called to do the work that God has entrusted to us. It is as Christ Himself once said, "May they be perfectly one. Then the world will learn that thou didst send me, that thou didst love them as thou didst me" (John 17:23 N.E.B.).*

After a hundred years of mission work, though, a number of trends, concepts, and structures have developed that if not clearly recognized and checked may cause stagnation in the missionary outreach of the church.

Our recognition of our centennial of missions, therefore, should be a celebration of awareness. We should, of course, praise God and thank Him for the evidence of His presence in the church and its mission. But we also need to take advantage of this opportunity to see Him more clearly at work in the world; to recognize those trends and events in the world and in the church that some times by force, sometimes very subtly, are hindering the work of mission; to discover new opportunities for mission in a hostile world and to recognize the harvest that God Himself already has prepared; to reassess our com mission as a church and as individuals and to accept our responsibility with confidence, knowing that the Lord is corning soon and that all power has been given to Him, in heaven and on earth.

The Most Striking Change

Perhaps the most striking change in the nature of the Adventist overseas missionary movement after a hundred years has been the shift from pioneer evangelism and the planting of churches to the specialized minis tries of education, hospital work, technical assistance, and administration; from proclaiming the gospel to the world and winning unbelievers to Christ, to an institutional ministry of service in the church and to the believer.

Today less than 2 percent of all the missionaries sent out from North America and Europe are called directly to work as church planters or evangelists. The only boundaries a person has to cross today in order to be labeled a "missionary" are political. That is what we call "from home base to front line." But the front lines are no longer the boundaries be tween belief and unbelief, be tween the household of God and the world. The missionary movement of even a few decades ago has become a vast system of intrachurch aid. The sending church has become a lending organization.

Few people detect anything abnormal in this development. In fact, it is heralded as a great achievement, a sign of success and missionary growth. And, at first sight, and in some respects, it really is. After churches had been planted in even the most remote areas of the world, the actual propagation of the gospel was entrusted to them, while the missionary turned to the role of strengthening the church and equipping it for service.

In this respect our pioneer missionaries built well. Nearly everywhere in Latin America, Africa, and Asia the church is reaching out evangelistically and almost 200,000 people are being added to the church in a year. As a result, in a great number of countries of the Third World the ratio of Adventists to non-Adventists is far greater than in Europe or North America. It ranges from 1:33 in Jamaica, and 1:56 in Ruanda, to 1:250 in the Philippines, while the ratio for North America is 1:510. The role of the missionary sometimes is to educate and to administer, to equip and to lend assistance, until that part of his ministry also can be given over to the indigenous members and leaders of the church.

The concept has developed root, therefore, that mission is a success when it makes itself dispensable and the missionary can move out. This view, espoused by Eastern and Western church leaders alike, is certainly in perfect harmony with the present political and economic trends in the world. But applied to the work of mission I detect in it also a very dangerous trend that if not checked will cause considerable stagnation in mission. The trend may be in perfect harmony with the political and cultural forces at work, but the question is: Does it have its source in the dynamics of faith and the gospel? Is this what mission really is? Does our Biblical understanding of the church support these presuppositions?

This challenges us to rediscover again the true nature and mission of the church. And we stand in desperate need of a clear theology here that could guide us. For unless we will be guided by theological principles our mission work will continue to be influenced, or maybe captured even, by forces and motives that have their source in this world's economy or politics or social and cultural developments, but not in Scripture.

Theologically, the church is commissioned to send out to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth, with the aim to win unbelievers to Christ, to plant churches, and to warn men of the impending judgment, as an integral part of the soon coming of Christ. This means that no church, and certainly not the church in America, can ever say that its mission has been accomplished until all men have been confronted with the Person of Jesus Christ and His work of salvation, and our King shall have appeared in great glory. This mission is the heartbeat of the church. As soon as it stops, the church ceases to exist.

Two Trends Stand Condemned

In the light of this, two trends that have developed especially in the past twenty years stand clearly condemned: one is the all-too-exclusive emphasis of our overseas missionary movement as an intrachurch program, with its lack of evangelistic outreach to all the peoples on earth; the other is the concept that missionaries should return home as soon as there are indigenous workers and leaders prepared, able, or willing to take over their specialized ministries.

These trends are based on the concept that after a church has been planted in an area, that church becomes responsible for the evangelization of its territory. This is clearly a sound Biblical principle as the work of the apostle Paul has shown us. But no where in the Scriptures is this concept applied as an exclusive principle, meaning that the missionary movement should shift from pioneer-evangelism and church planting to institutionalized service and that after a while, when these institutional services also can be taken over by indigenous workers, the missionary should move out altogether.

Too often our approach has been to move in; then move up, and when there is no higher position to climb to, no greater specialization to reach, we move out. The example of Christ shows us, however, that real mission is not climbing up, but moving down; not going out, but going on. It is not making oneself dispensable, but making oneself nothing and becoming a servant; not narrow specialization, but "becoming all things to all men."

Not only does Biblical theology demand it, but the very missionary situation leaves us no choice. The facts simply are that even if a church has been planted in a country and it assumes its God-given responsibility to evangelize, the many social and cultural and ethnic barriers commonly prevent it from reaching out to all peoples and kindreds and tribes and tongues in that country. Because of these human factors, each church in each country tends to grow among particular groups of people, but is at the same time unable to reach other populations living in that same area.

The Adventist Church is solidly planted in the Philippines, with a rapidly growing membership of over 150,000 people, 300 ministers, three colleges and many other institutions. But the church grows mainly among the people of the lowlands. Inherited prejudices, cultural barriers and social mores are preventing the Adventist Church in the Philippines from reaching out to the 4 million Moros or to the many millions of other so-called minority groups, from the Ifugao to the Samal.

In India Adventist work is limited to a few castes only. Social and cultural barriers prevent church members from reaching out to the hundreds of other castes, shutting off millions of people from the gospel.

That is why in areas such as these, not only are pioneer missionaries badly needed but also new missionary structures have to be developed to win people to Christ and to plant new churches.

After a hundred years of mission the Adventist Church may have been planted in 85.4 percent of the countries of the world, but this is a far cry still from having brought the gospel of Jesus Christ to all the peoples, tribes, and tongues of the world. There may be, in fact, nearly 2 billion people who have never even heard of the name of Christ, and another billion, perhaps, may never have been clearly confronted with the three angels' messages. The Adventist missionary movement stands, or falls, with the concept that mission is always reaching out to those who do not know Christ, not by proxy, but by personal involvement among all the kindreds and peoples and tribes and tongues.

I don't mean to give the impression that these cultural and ethnic and social barriers, which have prevented the churches from reaching out to all classes and groups in their countries, existed only outside of the Western world. Nothing is further from the truth! There are whole segments of the population, classes and masses, in Western society we simply have never been able to reach.

In the United States, where the church at best is reaching out to 15 to 20 percent of the population, existing prejudices, ethnic, social, and cultural barriers prevent millions of people from hearing the Advent message. It was not until a new church structure was added to the existing organization that Adventist work among American blacks began to grow.

All this challenges us to take a hard look at our present missionary structures and to recapture the flexibility and evangelistic outreach to accomplish what we have been commissioned to do.

The challenge to increase immediately and rapidly the number of missionaries—from everywhere, to everywhere—is not only pinpointed by our Biblical understanding of the gospel commission, the dynamics of our faith and the present missionary challenge of the world, but it is also an urgent one because of the very nature of our church, especially our concept of a world church and its unity as a basis of mission.

The Unity of the Church

One of the most powerful factors in the success of Adventist mission these past hundred years has been the unity of the church. And it is a miracle that this oneness of faith and fellowship, of commitment and community, has been preserved until now, even though the church is made up of peoples of all cultures and languages and nations, with a tremendous diversity of interests, ideas, and aspirations.

At times, of course, the unity has been strained, and here and there some cords were broken. But the ties have commonly been restored and the universal unity has been maintained. Among the factors that have strongly promoted this unity are, in the first place, the writings of Ellen G. White, which have given the church not only a common authority but also a common principle of hermeneutics on almost every aspect of church life and theology.

Further, a very strict organization, based on the equality of all local churches everywhere in the world, the priesthood of the believers, yet united through and governed by one central administration, which facilitates rapid and easy communication between the churches and which stimulates world participation in the common goal for which the church has been called into existence: mission. There is one common polity, which does allow for local additions to accommodate particular situations; one theology; and one brotherhood, stimulated by frequent contacts between the central organization and its parts, through visitations, correspondence, world meetings, church magazines, and many others.

If some cords of this world unity would break, or if ties would be come extremely strained, the missionary advance of the Adventist Church would be seriously hampered, as some recent events have clearly shown. Continuous and increasing strains on a number of cords that tie the church into one body have now reached such proportions that these cords have come to a breaking point. It is in this context that a rapid and increased flow of missionaries from everywhere to everywhere becomes a matter of life or death to the one universal Adventist Church today.

Threats to Unity

The one great factor that more than any other today, and increasingly so in the immediate future, is putting the unity of the church to the test is nationalism. It affects the church today especially in two forms: cultural nationalism and inverse nationalism —the first coming from the churches of the Third World, the second from those in the United States.

It is not political or economic nationalism in the Third World that will break the unity of the church, no matter how hard their forces may hit. It is the much more subtle and pleasing cultural nationalism that is gradually subverting the church, its universal character, and its oneness.

The church faces a great dilemma here. On the one hand, it should recognize that Adventism needs to become more deeply rooted in indigenous soil. In far too many places the church is a foreign institution, making its converts strangers in their own society and culture. Recent and past history of mission is replete with tragic examples of what happens to churches and movements that are not rooted in the soil where the gospel was planted. When an evil wind came, the church was blown away. But the current movements toward a black theology, Asian forms of worship, or a Latin church also stand in danger of taking far too uncritical a stand toward their own culture, and minimize the role of the church as a prophetic judgment on society.

It is true that the churches in Europe and North America like wise have not taken that critical attitude toward their own "world" and its values either, and have been far too closely identified with the thinking and behavior of the segments of society of which they are a part. But that cannot be an excuse for the churches in Africa and Asia and Latin America to abandon their prophetic function and their duty to guide the believers to remain "pure and undefiled" from this world, its values and aspirations.

Inverse nationalism is also causing much stagnation today in the missionary advance of the church. This inverse nationalism, which is such a serious threat to worldwide missions as we enter into our second century of Adventist missions, is evidenced in the increase in the rate of giving for home and local projects in comparison with mission giving, in the increase of the percentage of workers employed in North America in comparison with over seas figures, and in the trend to ward institutionalization especially evident in North America.

Has the Missionary Era Ended?

There seems to be developing a myth—one of those many myths in mission—that the missionary era has ended and the doors are closed. But that is definitely not so. Certainly there are areas where missionaries from other countries cannot enter. These areas point up the challenge to the laity to become aware of and accept its missionary role. A much greater emphasis should be given, therefore, to the office of Adventists Abroad in the immediate future. Lay missionaries, because of their professions, can still enter where it is hard for the career missionary to obtain a visa.

If we add up all the countries where career missionaries at present cannot enter or where they find it difficult to obtain a visa, we shall discover that they are not even twenty in all. And some of these are closed only temporarily and will be opening up soon. True, we may expect some other doors to become closed again. But that should urge us all the more to make haste with the preparation and the sending of hundreds of missionaries, from everywhere to every where, to reap the harvest God has already prepared among the tribes and nations and kindreds and tongues of the world.

There really is no end to the potentials of mission today, is sues such as the rapid increase of population, urbanization, the revival of the old religions, and the rise of new ones are no problems to a church that is wholly committed to the task of world mission and that is prepared to adapt its structures, the spending of its money, and the deployment of its personnel and re sources for that supreme goal. But this means that after a hundred years the battle of Adventist mission has to continue right in our back yard.


* From The New English Bible. © The Delegates of the Oxford University Press and the Syndics of the Cambridge University Press 1970. Reprinted by permission.

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-professor of mission and comparative religion, Andrews University at the time this article was written

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