From the editor

From the editor

An Interview With the New Church President. The editor of Ministry talks with Neal Wilson about his new leadership role.

J.R. Spangler is editor of Ministry
Neal Wilson is the new president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

Spangler—Pastor Wilson, I think our readers would appreciate a bit of bio graphical background concerning your experience. Would you please give us a few details?

Wilson—Almost half my life I have spent overseas. I left the United States at about four and a half years of age, going first to Africa, where my father was a missionary and a church leader for about ten years. It was my privilege during that time to benefit from a multicultured, multilingual setting, which enriched my life. From Africa our family went to Southern Asia, making our home in Poona, India. During my stay in India I had opportunity to enhance my back ground further and draw on a number of historical and cultural benefits. I finished my junior-college work in that country and then returned to the United States, where I completed my college studies at Pacific Union College, in California. After general and language studies at the Seminary, I proceeded to the Middle East.

S.—How many years did you work in the Middle East?

W.—We were privileged to spend about fourteen and a half years there. Our home was in Cairo, Egypt, but I traveled extensively throughout the countries of the Middle East. During that time many of the political, religious, and civic leaders became my personal friends.

S.— After that I believe you were the religious-liberty secretary in the Central Union Conference. Later you came to the Columbia Union, of which eventually you were elected president, and then into the General Conference in 1966 as vice-president for the North American Division. As a young worker, or lad, did the thought ever enter your mind of becoming the General Conference president?

W.— It's interesting, the things that go through one's mind at an early age. The fact that my father was a church administrator naturally created an environment in which I had an unusual opportunity to be exposed to many of the challenges of the church. It was my belief at an early age that I would pursue one of two avenues—either I would become a professional athlete or I would become a church leader. I did not at that juncture envision becoming General Conference president. Through a variety of circumstances, the Lord showed me that I should abandon the possibility of being an athlete and commit my life and talents to Christ, believing that He would lead at every step of the way. And truly, as one looks back, it is a remarkable thing to see how, at certain points, God's providence was working, even though at the time this was veiled from me, and perhaps others. Nevertheless, He was working to give me opportunities to prepare for responsibilities of a most awe some and frightening nature.

S.— Your last sentence is interesting. As president of the North American Division, you also held the post of chairman of the board of Loma Linda University, our largest educational institution, which, with its professional schools and its thou sands of students and church employees, is a tremendous challenge and task. Now that you have the burden of the entire world field on your shoulders, with tremendous problems pressing in many areas, and in view of the fact that Seventh-day Adventists now number more than three million, most of whom are concentrated outside the United States, and hi view of the fact that we are now working in 190 countries, what do you consider to be your number one priority as you take over this new position?

W.— The answer to such a composite question is not easy. Basically, I must nail down one point: it is my confirmed belief that the church is God's appointed agency for the salvation of men and women, young and old, rich and poor; that it was organized for service; and that the mission of the church is to carry the gospel, or the good news of salvation, to the entire world. This being the case, I see, as my number one priority, evangelism in its broadest definition. Perhaps to amplify that answer, I should attach a couple of corollaries. I include in a broad definition of evangelism the protection of the distinctive doctrines, or the set of beliefs developed as a result of the intense study of the Bible by the founders of the church, and the task of keeping a world spiritual family together in love, peace, and unity, in spite of the many disruptive forces that operate from without and from within. Further, the church must avoid continually "wandering in the wilderness," so to speak, and not repeat the experience of God's chosen people of another age, when they repeatedly came up to Kadesh-Barnea on the borders of the Promised Land and then because of disbelief had to retreat. And finally, I suppose (this all seems to be a part of an answer to the question you have asked) my priority is to help prepare a people to meet Jesus Christ, a people who reflect the character of God, and whom God can trust, and who through His grace are safe to save.

S. —You mentioned the experience of Israel coming up to the borders of Canaan and then turning back and spending decades in the wilderness. In your heart of hearts, do you believe it would be possible for the Lord to return during your ad ministration as General Conference president? If so, do you have any suggestions as to what the church should do to hasten His coming? Do you think it is possible for us to advance the time of His coming?

W.— Naturally, one is cautious in answering a question of this kind, because our Lord has told us that no man knoweth the hour of His coming. It would be speculative to try to determine the year or the hour of our Saviour's return, but on the other hand, He has told us that there would be many indicators to alert us that His coming is near. I have no way of determining the length of my leadership in the General Conference. But world conditions and the hunger that there is for spiritual things within and outside the church, and the means that are available today for preaching the gospel simultaneously in many different languages, certainly give credence to the fact that our Lord's re turn could be "even at the door." It is our privilege not only to look for but to hasten His coming. Putting all of these factors together, it is not difficult for me to conceive that the Lord could return during the next few years.

S.—Your intimate knowledge of our far-flung global organization gives you opportunity to understand some of the problems we face. What do you consider to be the church's most pressing problem, or problems?

W.— A rather human and natural answer would be to enumerate the enormous roadblocks we face today, such as the uncertain financial picture that exists in the world, where the value of a dollar has fluctuated. The recent Annual Council voted a world budget of 125 million dollars, which is only a fraction of what the church actually spends if we take into account all of our tithe and offerings. Yet the devaluation of the dollar in many overseas countries continues to affect the budget seriously. Or we might focus on some of the unusual organizational patterns that must be constantly refined and modified to keep up with a growing, dynamic world body. Furthermore, I could suggest that these factors become even more ominous when placed in an international frame work in which we need to work with, and relate to, a multiplicity of political ideologies. But I must brush aside all of those factors and come to what I believe to be the most pressing of problems. First of all, I think we live in a world that is so materialistic that the human heart naturally believes that the promises of our Lord sound nice but are probably unachievable. We say in many ways that the Lord delays His coming and that we have plenty of time to enjoy what there is in this world and still think about eternal things. In addition, this attitude may precipitate an element of callousness and hypocrisy. A great many humanistic trends are in operation today that de-emphasize the supernatural. The natural heart puts self in God's place, and this makes us unwilling to give God a chance to do what He really wants to do. Therefore, one of the most pressing problems we face is to have a personal conviction that the Bible is God's infallible Word, and that He has thus revealed Himself to us through inspiration. It is not necessary to use the critical-historical approach to interpretation, or reinterpretation, of the Bible in order to make it real and to accept it as the only guide to the Christian's life and future.

S.—You will recall that we had a pro gram for North America, which was also taken over by the world field, of finishing the work. We have worked to some extent on plans for North America, and I am wondering, Do you have any ideas for implementing the concept of finishing the work on a worldwide basis?

W.—The problems of keeping a world organization intact and operating smoothly, seeking, day by day, to achieve stated objectives and goals, is a Herculean task. But the overriding responsibility of the church, as we have already stated, is to carry the gospel to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. It seems important that, in North America, we have a summit meeting on evangelism, church growth, and achieving the true mission of the church. In order to do this, it becomes increasingly necessary to maximize the importance of every person, and his or her gifts of the Spirit. The need of the church today, in terms of carrying out the great commission of our Lord and Saviour, and in helping Him to finish the work, must be achieved, and can only be achieved, through the power and ministry of the Holy Spirit. It is not by human power, devising, plans, or finance that the work will be finished, but by the power of the Spirit. And this promised blessing, when claimed by faith, will bring all other blessings.

Somehow we must rekindle the vision of the apostles and the pioneers. We must sharpen up what we would call a world view, and think in terms of writing history in advance, not because of what we believe we can do, but because God has promised that unbelievable results will transpire in our day, even greater than that which occurred during the experience of the early church and on the day of Pentecost. Every technique must be employed; all the inventions that God has permitted to be discovered and developed must be put into operation.

It is my belief that there are only several ways in which the gospel can be preached, or communicated. First of all, there is the testimony of the living witness. Often this is a silent witness—the life, the nonverbal witness. Then there is the spoken word. Many times this communication is delivered on a person-to-person basis, but it can also be made in terms of public evangelism or even the radio and television media. With the enormous strides that have been made, the spoken, verbal word can reach the entire world at a given instant through satellites. It seems to me that the Lord has provided for a quick work to be done in the world, in proclaiming His love and saving grace. Finally, in addition to the nonverbal, living witness, and the spoken word, we have the enormous reservoir of literature—the written word. This can either be given away, sold, or in many instances, mailed, to every man's door in a given area, or, even, in the entire earth. So it would seem to me that the church is well equipped today to fulfill its commission of helping to preach this message of the kingdom to every nation.

S.— Do you have any ideas, as world leader of the church, how we can reach the enormous multitudes in areas such as China, where the preaching of the gospel is limited, at best?

W.— Well, it would seem to me that where the living witness, or preacher, cannot go, we must depend upon literature, or upon the miraculous outreach of radio and television. With radio stations strategically located in various parts of the world at the present time, there is no area on earth's surface that is removed or cut off from the penetration of this media. Although we are already broad casting the gospel on hundreds of radio and television stations, it seems to me that we are living in a time when this particular avenue needs to be used in an even greater way.

S.— Seventh-day Adventists have one of the largest educational systems of Protestant churches around the world, with 4,409 schools. We have a quality medical school, School of Dentistry, and School of Allied Health Professions, and then we have 445 health-care centers and institutions. Do you feel that the church is be coming too institutionalized?

W.— In addition to education and health-care institutions, we must add the 49 publishing houses and printing establishments that we have, plus 28 food factories, and other institutions such as the Radio, Television, and Film Center and the Christian Record Braille Foundation, Inc., which develops materials for blind people and those with impaired sight. This is a question that every church body has had to face. One of the greatest problems confronting any spiritual movement is to know how to maintain, in a vivid and fresh way, the reason why that movement was originally started. Each successive generation seems to see less clearly the reasons why a message or a movement was started. Too often it gets to the place where the institutions of the church become the main objective and purpose, and absorb all of its time, energy, and money. The Seventh-day Adventist Church is no exception to this danger. I think it is imperative that to meet.human needs, to educate and train the future generation in the things of God and ways and beliefs of the church, we need a certain number of institutions. The great challenge is to maintain a balance, so that we do not emphasize one thing to the exclusion of something else. By this I mean it is often easier to operate institutions and to feel that there is growth and achievement because of public acceptance, when we may be failing in the original objective for which a spiritual movement was started. Our original purpose was, and is, to carry the message of salvation to the entire world. At any time that institutions begin to sap the spiritual strength, or to slow down the soul-winning and evangelizing dynamics of this church, then we will have become too institutionalized.

S.— What is your greatest burden in behalf of Seventh-day Adventist pastoral and evangelistic workers?

W.—One must be careful not to appear to be judgmental, or in any way to demonstrate a lack of appreciation or confidence in a group of individuals with which I am personally identified, inasmuch as I am first of all a minister of the gospel and, second, have been asked by my church to assume a leadership role. My greatest desire and burden in behalf of my fellow Seventh-day Adventist pastoral, evangelistic leaders, is that they should be converted, called-of-God Christians, and disciples of Jesus Christ. My desire is that they be individuals who are baptized with the Holy Spirit and walk with God as verily, as truly, as did Enoch of old; that they recognize the sacredness of pastoral responsibility; and that each day within their hearts is born afresh the conviction that they have been called to minister and to preach the Word, and to know that their strength is in example leadership, which, coupled with God's blessing, will certainly bear much fruit. Then my great hope is that with these dynamics operating, they will be able to lead and involve the church members in all the ways of evangelism and soul winning. If this could be achieved, what enormous and unbelievable progress we would see in terms of reaching out and touching the lives of others, in bringing reconciliation with Jesus Christ, and hastening His return.


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J.R. Spangler is editor of Ministry
Neal Wilson is the new president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

January 1979

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