Interview

Folkenberg three years later

Has the president changed his views since the publication of his article on church structure three years ago?

Robert S. Folkenberg is the former president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

J. David Newman is the former editor of Ministry

When you wrote "Church structure servant or master?" for Ministry (June 1989) you had no idea that within a year you would become president of the General Conference. Now you have been president for two years. Have your views changed now that you hold the top position in the church?

Regarding the issues in that article, if I were to write about them today I would do so from a different perspective. How ever, I don' t feel I would change anything significant. In some areas I would prob ably state them even more strongly than I did then. Structure must be subservient to the church and its mission. Since be coming president I am more a ware of the degree to which we allow our traditions and structures to drive and manage us.

However, I caution those who support my candor to be very careful, because it leads down a painful path. It is easy to point out the failings of structure. It is another matter to prescribe the remedies. Here at the General Conference as we have restructured and downsized we have begun the strategic planning and budgeting process. For the first time those who dream the dreams, who receive funds, also determine the budget. It calls upon leaders to balance their needs and/or wants against the needs of others, including the unreached. This revolutionary approach to budgeting helps make the structure subservient to the mission.

What is the stumbling block that prevents this happening throughout the church?

As you look at our resources and what we consume, it becomes apparent that we have a serious problem with what I call collective sacrifice versus collective selfishness.

For example, local churches frequently say to their conference president: We now have a church of so many members and our tithe is so much. We are entitled to a greater level of pastoral care. Now, pastoral care is a valuable component of church growth, but the concept of entitlement to serve me is the kind of collective selfishness I am talking about. This is the opposite of saying the tithe and the size of my church have nothing to do with the services I receive as a church (or conference). There needs to be objectivity on the part of Christian organizations and individuals that can adequately balance the needs of their local community with needs in places where there are no Seventh-day Adventists.

The government of one large Middle- Eastern country with no Seventh-day Adventists has invited us to help them. We have been invited to send missionaries of every type. We can put in English language schools and medical programs. The prime minister went on public television and invited us to come. We were on the front pages of the newspapers. This is a Muslim country inviting us to come. We need to balance world needs against our local needs. We should not have to depend only on the downsizing of the comparatively infinitesimal resources within this office to provide the funds for opportunities like this one. Every level, including the local church, should be weighing world needs against local needs.

Conferences are responding. Consider the British Columbia Conference, where their average Sabbath camp meeting offering for evangelism for the past several years hovered around $7,000. Last summer their conference president recommended that they first take up an offering to help build churches in Bulgaria.

The president thought they might raise $20,000 to build one church. Instead they raised $67,000. And the next Sabbath when they took up the evangelism offering they received $13,000 instead of $7,000. So the conference was blessed, and the people were unified around a common vision.

What are your greatest challenges as president?

I see four basic areas: assurance of salvation, Global Mission, our youth, and effective church organization. The first on my list and most important is to emphasize assurance in Christ. I see that as a unifying force in the church. It is obviously also an area of controversy. I understand the fear of those who are concerned that if we seem to discount the need for the evidence of salvation we will provide license for abuse. That is one extreme. The other extreme is emphasizing evidence to the exclusion of assurance. For the sinner the question is What must I do to be saved? Once you have accepted Christ, that is no longer the question. The question now becomes What must I do to be lost? The answer is By knowingly, persistently, and continually choosing to live in willful sin, we reject the Son's sacrifice and the salvation He offers.

I recognize that keeping both aspects of this message in balance will not be settled this side of the kingdom. The church has debated this down through the centuries. Therefore, I am not saying it is something I can correct, but I do want to emphasize the beautiful balance between assurance in Christ and victory over sin as the evidence of salvation.

Every time I speak or write on the assurance of salvation I immediately be come suspect to a certain group in the church. Immediately my legitimacy is questioned. I have to recognize that. Therefore I cannot allow my self the luxury of lapsing into hyperbole. Every time I present the assurance of salvation I must also present the fruit of salvation. This fruit is not a means but a lifestyle that provides credibility to the onlooker. God does not save me because I am victorious, but because of Jesus' victory. He accepts me as one of His children when I repent. Then He gives me His Spirit to gain victory in my life.

When you talk about evidence of salvation, what kind of evidence do you mean?

I am talking about what Paul presents in Galatians 5:22: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control." Evidence can be divided into correct behavior and right relationships. As a church we have tended to major in behavior but neglected a similar emphasis on relationships. Study how Jesus interacted with the Pharisees. They emphasized behavior. While Jesus did not discount correct behavior, He stressed that right relationships are always the basis for right behavior. A person can perform the right behavior (outwardly) and still be lost.

After assurance of salvation, what comes next?

Global Mission will not work unless you understand assurance in Christ. I believe the greatest hindrance to mission has been our confusion over the relation ship of works to salvation. We say, officially, that we are saved by grace alone, but many act as if works are part of the basis of our salvation. If I don't have peace of mind, I don't have good news to share. "No assurance" leads inevitably to "no witnessing." You can no more pro mote the church into witnessing, apart from the peace that comes from assurance in Christ, than you can push a wet noodle! There is no substitute for the inner peace of the Holy Spirit.

Now to the relationship of Global Mission to the local congregation. While its first mission is to its local community, the local church should never neglect its global responsibility. We are called to preach the gospel in Judea, in Samaria, and in the uttermost parts of the earth. If we selectively emphasize either to the exclusion of the other, we are not fulfilling part of our mission.

What I am thrilled about is the emphasis of the past couple of years encouraging direct involvement in various projects. Many said that because of that, our mission offerings would decline. In fact, the opposite has occurred. In 1991 the NAD gained 2.3 percent in mission offerings over 1990, reversing a declining trend in mission giving. This is fantastic news. People are opening their minds and seeing a broader field out there that they have a role in. It is a tragedy that there are some churches that, while trying to preach personal unselfishness, actually teach their members selfishness is OK by seldom, if ever, taking up a mission offering.

I believe that young people come next.

Probably most of the people reading this interview will not be young people. So let me tell them what I am telling the young people so they will not be surprised if their young people start acting differently.

I say to the youth, Don't wait to be invited to get involved. Get together yourselves. Develop your own vision. It will sound like a cheap excuse on the day of judgment:' 'The church board wouldn' t let me do something." What is your plan? Do you have a dream? This is your church too. It is not the elders' church or the conference officials' church. I give them three guidelines to guide their vision-setting process: 1. Deal gently with the truth. Setting your own vision and objectives doesn't give license to destroy the fundamentals of the church. 2. What ever your dream is, make it spiritual, more than just a weekly pizza party. Though your plans may include social activities and fun times, make sure that what you do is truly Christ-centered and spiritually driven. 3. Don't become so introspective that you become young navel-gazing counterparts to the old naval-gazers. If your vision does not include outreach, it will fail and will stagnate regardless of the age group. Offer others Christ.

Young people, when you run into an obstacle, maybe someone like me with gray hair, treat that person lovingly don't challenge, confront, fight, or argue. If the board says no to something (say like periodically having a youth church ser vice), fine, don't do it. Stick together and find another way to reach your objectives. Carry out your activity on Tuesday night. Find your way around, over, through obstacles. Don't take no for an answer—as long as you live within those guidelines!

Just a word to the "old timers." Don't judge young people harshly because they comb their hair different, dress different, or listen to music you don't like. Don't judge them or set up obstacles to what they feel led to do. Enable them, don't criticize them. Remember, the Lord may be judging you on the way you are judging them. Don't try to take His place. Be forgiving. The Lord has just started with them; He has been working with you a long time, and look where He's gotten. Help them make their vision a reality by encouraging them. And if it is something the Lord is blessing, it will succeed, if not, it won't. Don't panic. Help them succeed.

Yes, there may be things you define as principle that they do not define as principle. Don't try to always be the judge. Encourage them. Why not set an objective to have one third of your church board be young people? Not junior deacons or junior elders, but fully empowered elders? What were the ages of the pioneers in our church? Many of them weren't 20 years of age. They had a vision of what kinds of things to do.

You have a burden for a more efficient church organization. Please elaborate a little more.

Most people are aware of the restructuring of the General Conference. We reduced the number of standing committees from more than 100 to 27. This has freed the officers to do other things. The budget is becoming more mission-driven. More authority has been delegated to the departments. Additionally, the 1991 Annual Council in Perth appointed a commission on world church organization that will evaluate church structure around the world. Yes, I believe firmly in the thesis of my 1989 Ministry article.

Will the role of unions be studied?

Yes, but I should tell you up front that I am convinced of their necessity. Some feel that they aren't needed anymore. These demonstrate a lack of awareness of how our church operates administratively. Our church is built not on conferences, but on unions around the world. The union is our basic building block. They are necessary to help the communication process between different levels. The concerns are more acute in North America partly because of the special relationship this division has had with the General Conference. The North American model has become somewhat aberrant owing, in part, to the lack of a strong, well-defined division. As a result, conferences and unions have tended to shift into roles not originally intended.

If a pastor wants to see a change, say in the Church Manual, what process should he or she follow?

The pastor should first write a letter to the conference president and urge that the conference administration pass this on for consideration by the Church Manual committee. The president can determine if he would like it to have the backing of the conference committee or process the suggestion administratively. Of course, the pastor can send a copy directly to the General Conference Church Manual Committee. Needless to say, the suggestion will carry far more weight should it receive support from the conference, union, and division committees.

Are there some areas that the church should clarify its position, or take a stand, such as abortion and ordination of women?

A commission on the Christian view of human life was established several years ago. One of the areas they are considering is abortion. They have submitted a preliminary report, and I expect this matter will be on the 1992 Annual Council agenda. It is too bad we are taking a position this late in the game. Some have interpreted our silence as approving abortion or downplaying the sanctity of life. We need to take a stand on something that has such clear moral overtones, regardless of how controversial it is.

You mentioned women and ordination. I don't feel that it would be appropriate to reopen that debate at this time. I feel it would be destructive and divisive to the church to continue debating this issue. The second action taken at the Indianapolis GC session provided divisions such broad latitude in terms of function that I believe the emphasis now needs to shift to the implementation of that action. These functions have nowhere been implemented to their maximum.

I don't pretend to be a prophet, but it could be that this matter would be dis cussed at some time in the future, but it would be inappropriate to consider it further at this time.

What holds a world church together? Structure? Sabbath school quarterly? The gospel? The Holy Spirit? Or what?

I would say several things in addition to all of the above. There are many elements that contribute to unification, but these at times seem to be few com pared to the forces trying to pull us apart. I would add to your list our fundamental beliefs. I would also add our representative church organization, which admits that there is an authority greater than mine to which I may be called upon to yield my opinion. I may argue long and hard, but eventually I will yield my authority to a duly constituted group. This step is very painful, especially in an individualistic society. Sometimes I wonder which gospel we are preaching the gospel of individual rights or that of Jesus Christ. It is vital to remember that in our church, no individual (especially the General Conference president) has the right to draw these lines of identity. Only the world-wide community of believers has that authority. At that time I can choose to accept the will of the body or step outside the body.

The 27 fundamental beliefs constitute the boundary that defines a Seventh-day Adventist?

That is right. Whether you land in Papua New Guinea, Malawi, or Sweden you will meet people with common beliefs and practice. All may not see every thing in quite the same way, but they will share the same fundamentals. But back to the question of what holds us together. The Adventist Review and Ministry provide a forum for debate, discussion, interchange of ideas and purposes across cultural boundaries, communication of re sources, etc.

When all is said and done, we must never forget our total reliance on Jesus. As Paul has reminded us so well: "We will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work" (Eph. 4:15, 16, NTV).

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Robert S. Folkenberg is the former president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

J. David Newman is the former editor of Ministry

June 1992

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