The saints who comprised the Advent movement were enthusiastic, focused, A and determined—but not organized. A.W. Spalding describes the decade following the disappointment as "a time of chaos in Adventist circles." 1
"Couldn't we accomplish the mission more effectively if we were organized?" some wondered. "Take care that you do not seek to manufacture another church," others warned. "No church can be organized by man's invention but that it becomes Babylon the moment it is organized."
Faithful Adventists on both sides advanced persuasive arguments. How ever, as early as 1850 Ellen White received instruction regarding order in heaven. Again in 1853, the Lord showed her that "order should not be neglected." 2 By October 1862, seven conferences were organized. Thirty years later, Ellen White wrote from Australia to the 1893 General Conference delegates, clarifying the need for organization. "As our numbers increased, it was evident that without some form of organization there would be great confusion, and the work would not be carried forward successfully. To provide for the support of the ministry, for carrying the work in new fields, for protecting both the churches and the ministry from unworthy members, for holding church property, for the publication of the truth through the press, and for many other objects, organization was indispensable."3
The issue was settled. God's will was clear. We must organize.
Tithe? What's that?
If few become ministers today for the money, even fewer did so in the early Adventist church. James White wrote in 1858: "Satan seems to have the control of the purses of the church, with very few exceptions. Repeated disappointments are saddening and discouraging our preachers. They have generally moved out expecting to be sustained by their brethren in their arduous work; but their brethren have often failed to do their duty.... Disappointment has been the sad lot of our preachers, and now several of them are much sunken down in poverty."4
How could ministers who labored for God be supported? White had a brainstorm: Each believer, he suggested, should give to the church an amount equal to the annual taxes on his property. Such a plan would bring to "the Lord's treasury double the amount wanted to sustain the cause in all its departments."5
Nice try, but there must be a better way!
Later that year, Ellen White told her husband: "The Lord has shown me that, if you will call the ministers together, and have J. N. Andrews come down from Waukon, and hold a Bible class, you will find that in the Scriptures there is a complete plan to sustaining the work of the ministry."6
James did call for Andrews to come to Battle Creek for such a study, which took place in January, 1859. Loughborough wrote, "The Bible class was held in Battle Creek for two days, and at the end of it our brethren said,'The tithing system is just as binding as it ever was.' They said, however, in first introducing it, 'Let us call it Systematic Benevolence or the tithing principle.'"7
"Systematic Benevolence" or "Sister Betsy" as it was soon nicknamed, caught on rapidly. Precise tithing practices did not come into effect fully until 1876 when the General Conference in session formally resolved that it was the duty of all brothers and sisters, "under ordinary circumstances, to devote one tenth of all their income, from whatever source, to the cause of God."8
Affirming the promise of Malachi 3, committed Adventist believers accepted tithing as God's way of financing the work of the gospel.
Use of tithe
All churches organize in whatever way they deem best to fulfill their mission. Once Adventists decided to organize officially, how we did so was crucial.
Consider tithing. Sooner or later, most churches adopted a tithing plan. They quoted "I will.. . pour you out a blessing" with the same vigor and conviction as Adventists did. The manner in which we handled the tithe, however, was unique. It grew out of our unswerving passion to take the gospel to the world as quickly and efficiently as possible.
In the nineteenth century, other churches employed the term "tithe" to refer to all church giving. Tithe was spent for any church-related purpose. Local churches dispensed tithe as they saw fit, which may or may not have included supporting mission fields. Ministers were paid from tithe to pas tor already-established churches.
Adventists considered "tithe" and "offering" as two different funds. Tithe was for the support of the ministry; offering for the support of all other church causes. Local churches sent all tithe to the conference. The conferences dispensed the tithe to fulfill the Great Commission locally as well as in mission fields. Ministers were paid from tithe to be evangelists and church planters. Tithe was also used to support a thin layer of administration to coordinate and support the front-line evangelistic work of the church.
Protestant churches hired ministers to serve already-established churches as their pastor. Adventists did not. Early Adventist leaders decided that the best way to fulfill our mission was to spend the tithe for salaries of full-time workers who would be evangelists (win souls) and church planters (establish new churches).
Here's how it worked. A gifted, dedicated minister went into an area that needed the Adventist message. He pro cured a hall or pitched a tent and started preaching. New converts were organized into a church. This evangelist-turned-church-planter then began the process of training the new members to lead the new church and carry forward its ministry. How long did he stay? As long as it took to assure that the good work that was begun would continue. Like the Apostle Paul, he then committed them to the Lord, bade them farewell, and moved on to establish yet another church.
How did Adventists begin the never-before-heard-of practice of sending tithe to the conference instead of paying the minister directly? Easy answer. Not long after the church was started, he was gone—out planting an other church somewhere. The tithe thus had to be sent to the conference, which made sure that the money found its way to the worker.
Church planting priority
Early Adventist leaders weren't impressed with resumes. Application forms were useless. Interviews were short and focused. References were valuable only as they pertained to church planting experience and potential. Anyone who aspired to preacherhood in the Adventist Church must first demonstrate his call to ministry by the raising up of a church.
"In no way can a preacher so well prove himself," James White wrote, "as in entering new fields.... If he be successful in raising up churches, and establishing them, so that they bear good fruits, he gives to his brethren the best proofs that he is sent of the Lord."9
"If they cannot raise up churches ... then certainly the cause of truth has no need of them," he intoned, "and they have the best reasons for concluding that they made a sad mistake when they thought that God called them to teach the third angel's message." 10
Our largest church, Battle Creek, did not have a settled pastor for many years, but was led by dedicated lay persons. Ellen White advised, "There should not be a call to have settled pastors over our churches, but let the life-giving power of the truth impress the individual members to act, leading them to labor interestedly to carry on efficient missionary work in each locality." 11
The work of church planting, in fact, was so central to Adventist life that General Conference President A. G. Daniells urged conference presidents to occasionally drop out of office and spend a year raising up new churches! Spontaneous explosion resulted. The effect was astonishing. Adventism grew so rapidly in North America that we were the envy of the Christian world. Every denomination said they wanted to reach the lost. Adventists not only said it, but we structured to make it happen.
The falling away
As late as 1912, the Adventist mission was still advancing with unparalleled power. In March of that year, A. G. Daniells made an assessment and a prediction. "We have not settled our ministers over churches as pastors to any large extent. In some of the very large churches we have elected pastors, but as a rule we have held ourselves ready for field service, evangelistic work and our brethren and sisters have held themselves ready to maintain their church services and carry forward their church work without settled pastors. And I hope this will never cease to be the order of affairs in this denomination; for when we cease our forward movement work and begin to settle over our churches, to stay by them, and do their thinking and their praying and their work that is to be done, then our churches will begin to weaken, and to lose their life and spirit, and become paralyzed and fossilized and our work will be on a retreat." 12
Sadly, Elder Daniells' words were prophetic. Adventists fell away from the system of dispensing the tithe for frontline evangelistic work and embraced the flawed practice of other churches. The result was a loss of evangelistic fervor. Spiritual weakness set in. Church members, used to working with passion for the lost, now came to depend on the minister. Dedicated volunteers, used to praying and working to help start the next new church, sat back and warmed the pews.
Evangelism, once the heart-pulse of every saint, ceased to be a way of life in the local church. Evangelism, once a mandate that possessed every believer, was redefined as a once-in-a-while event performed by someone hired by the church members. Tragically, it be came the almost-exclusive domain of the professional.
Resources were increasingly spent for pastors to hover over churches that had reached their plateau. Fewer and fewer means were available for front line evangelistic work. Church planting, the evangelistic lifeblood of the Church, ground to a virtual halt. The explosive evangelistic movement was stilled.
Reestablishing a church planting movement
In the 1870s, Adventists planted one new church a year for every 1.7 pas tors; today it takes 123 pastors to plant a church.13 A lot of time has passed since those early days. So long that none of us personally remembers what it was like. Today, reestablishing the North American Division as a church planting movement seems radical, outrageous, and illusive. Yet we must start. We must recapture the vision, retrieve the mission, and redeem the time. 14
Peter Drucker states that the purpose of organization is to make weaknesses irrelevant. 15 Our major weakness today is creating outreach-focused churches that grow and reproduce, churches that win unreached people. We need churches that hold our mes sage high while presenting Adventist truth in a way that attracts thousands to Jesus. Properly organizing the vast resources of the Adventist Church can and will make this weakness irrelevant. Strategically seizing the potential of nearly a million Adventists in North America can and will reignite the vision.
Four crucial steps
First, acknowledge that all churches eventually plateau. And that the plateau factor will continue to frustrate our efforts to grow existing churches.
For years, we have not been aware of this. We have made repeated, vigorous, and well-meaning attempts to make existing churches larger only to find that no matter what pastor we assign, how much money we spend, or what evangelist conducts a series, the church remains at its plateau. Through a reaping crusade we often experience a temporary surge in membership, but as time passes, the increase dissipates.
Once a church reaches its plateau, it faces a choice: Minimum impact—trying to get bigger itself; or Maximum impact—deciding to give birth to a baby church. When it gives birth, the parent church quickly grows back to its original size while the baby church grows to maturity and reaches hundreds of the lost.
Second, assign some of our finest, most gifted and dedicated ministers to the work of planting churches. We should start churches any way we can, but our primary method should be to hire full-time workers for the pivotal work of planting churches. Recharting that course will make us a Great Com mission movement once again.
What about lay pastors for new churches? If it is difficult for a pastor to lead a church to win souls, imagine how challenging it is for a lay person. With out training in church administration, theology, soul-winning skills, or man aging volunteers—not to mention having to hold a full-time job—most lay-led churches plateau quickly. When ever an exceptional lay leader emerges, let him or her lead a new church. But to recapture the soul-winning zeal of the early days, Plan A must be to place our "best and brightest" into this work.
Third, adopt a financial plan that enables us to start churches without disrupting the other good things the Church is doing. This can be done with a two-step process.
1) Each conference and/or union commits seed money for church planting. How much? The more the better, but the amount really doesn't matter. Ideally, each conference will have at least enough to hire one full-time church planter.
2) Each conference and union invests some of the "fruit" from each new church into future church planting projects. Once the system is set up, the principle of the harvest takes over and assures future funding.
"The creation of a thousand forests," Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "is in a single acorn." Our greatest impact comes, not from the number of seeds we plant, but what we do with the seeds we have. Tracking tithe from a new church separately and investing an equivalent amount into future church plants will assure that church planting will never lack for funding. 16
Fourth, establish strategic systems to assure high levels of church-planting success. Include the following:
1. Vision casting. Paint the big picture for church leaders—from the local church to the conferences and unions— to help them grasp the powerful potential of planting new churches.
2. Demographics. Collect and organize data from communities and churches to identify the "hot spots" for new churches. 3. Assessment. Evaluate and identify the very best persons to lead church plants. Criteria include gift mix, personality, leadership skills, character, and denominational loyalty.
4. Conception. Aid church planters and core groups in designing healthy, balanced, outreach-focused churches. A flaw in the fetus results in a flaw in the child—a healthy fetus results in a healthy child.
5. Support/Training. Offer events and resources to provide whatever a new church needs to retain its vision, stay on track, and achieve its purpose.
6. Reproduction. Urge each new church to become a parent church, at the appropriate time, so that each church continues to be fruitful unto the third and fourth generation.
Let's go for it!
Should we organize? We settled that issue long ago. We organized to harness the awesome energy and commitment for souls toward a single goal. To more quickly and efficiently take the gospel to the world. Our single motivation was the Great Commission.
Today's issue is: Will we organize for explosive evangelistic growth?
Adventists are restless, hopeful, and eager. They love Jesus. They are proud of our message. They believe that the coming of Christ is soon. They care deeply that so many remain lost. They stand ready to sacrifice to fulfill the Great Commission.
The ingredients are in place. God's presence is promised. The potential is huge. In the footsteps of those who pioneered this movement, let us realign our resources, readjust our priorities, and recreate the wave that will once and for all wash across this land and usher in the return of Jesus the King.
1 A. W. Spalding, Origin and History
of Seventh-day Adventists (Hagerstown, Md.:
Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1962), 1:291.
2 Ellen G. White, Early Writings,
(Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub.
Assn., 1945), 97.
3 ————, Testimonies to Ministers and
Gospel Workers (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific
Press® Pub. Assn., 1962), 26.
4 James White in Review and Herald,
April 8, 1858.
6 Arthur White, The Early Years
(Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub.
Assn., 1981), 388.
8 James Nix, Memorable Dates from
Our Adventist Past (Silver Spring, Md.:
North American Division Education Dept,
9 James White in Review and Herald,
April 15, 1862.
11 Ellen G. White in Atlantic Union
Gleaner, January 8,1902.
12 An address to a ministerial institute
in Los Angeles, California. Quoted in Russell
Burrill, Revolution in the Church (Fallbrook,
Calif.: HART), 41.
13 Statistics compiled by Russell Burrill.
14 North American Division Year-end
Committee Resolution, 1996.
15 Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive
(HarperCollins, reissue ed., 1993), 71.
16 The Mid-America Union has such a
plan in each conference and at the Union.
For details call the MAU church planting