Reprioritizing our resources for the harvest

Back to our heritage, forward to our mission

Russell Burrill, D.Min., is the director of the NAD Evangelism Institute and chair, Christian Ministry Department, Adventist Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

Most North American Adventist church members act as if they are living in a Christianized country. That's a big mistake.

Only ten percent of the population of the United States are "biblical Christians."1 The percentage of unreached in Canada is even greater. Our message must penetrate the urban masses that we have neglected for so much of our history.

Nearly all Adventist clergy of the nineteenth century were evangelists and church planters. This was a key in their success. If Adventist pastors today were to raise up new churches at the same rate as their nineteenth-century counterparts, they would need to plant approximately 1,822 new churches each year. In actual numbers, nineteenth century Adventists planted more churches each year than North American Adventists did during the first half of the 1990s. In the 1870s our pioneers raised up an average of 42 churches each year; in the early 90s, 27 churches per year. In the 1870s it took two pastors to plant one church each year, but in the early 1990s—it took 122 pastors to raise up just one church!

Something needs to be changed— and fast.


Church planting is, once again, receiving major attention in the North American Division (NAD). The SEEDS conferences over the last few years, with their heavy emphasis on church planting, have helped turn the tide. While North America averaged only 27 churches per year in the first half of the decade, the number has dramatically increased since SEEDS '96. Between SEEDS '96 and '97, NAD planted 135 new churches, or an average of 9 per month for the 15-month period. The rate increased again between SEEDS '97 and '98. During those 10 months, an other 125 churches were planted—an average of 12.5 per month.

This change, however, is only a beginning. The pace needs to continue to accelerate because of the hugeness of the harvest.

How did nineteenth-century Adventist pastors plant so many churches? The answer is simple. None of them served as located pastors over churches. All churches were taught to care for themselves, leaving clergy free to evangelize and plant new churches. That was a mission-driven organization. In contrast today, most of our resources are channeled into existing small churches.

Adventism's unique tithing system was constructed to support this church planting movement. Because no clergy served a local congregation, all tithe was returned to the conference to support the church planters. This system served the Adventist Church well throughout the nineteenth century.

The change

As the twentieth century dawned, North American Adventism began to copy the popular Protestant model of clergy over churches. At first, we placed them over our largest churches, and after the death of Ellen White, we began placing them over all churches. A. G. Daniels and Ellen White vigorously op posed settled clergy. Ellen White's demand that Adventist churches not have settled pastors stemmed from two principles: the need of the harvest and the health of the local church. She felt churches that needed a pastor over them to survive were weak and Laodicean; churches without clergy dependency, in contrast, were strong and vibrant. She was emphatic in her God-given opinion: "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. As the hand of God, the church is to be educated and trained to do effective service. Its members are to be the Lord's devoted Christian workers."2

"The churches are dying and they want a minister to preach to them. They should be taught to bring a faithful tithe to God, that He may strengthen and bless them: they should be brought into working order, that the breath of God may come to them. They should be taught that unless they can stand alone, without a minister, they need to be converted anew, and baptized anew. They need to be born again."3 These two statements enunciate Ellen White's two basic reasons for a non-pastor-dependent clergy: mission and church health.4 Even H.M.S. Richards, writing in the 1950s, indicated that when he began his ministry, they looked upon churches needing pastors as decadent.5 After the death of Ellen White, North America slowly began to add pastors over churches. The more pastors were added over churches, the weaker the churches became, until finally a mission mind-set nearly disappeared and the pastor's chief responsibility became the care of the saints, who have ended up not being cared for. It is simply impossible for today's pastor to provide the kind of quality care needed by most congregations. The ultimate result has been every little church wanting to have its own pastor to nurture them, while the mission of Christ goes unfulfilled. As Roland Allen has observed: "Where churches are helped most, there they are weak, lifeless, and helpless.... Nothing is so weakening as the habit of depending upon others for those things which we ought to supply for ourselves."6

A new beginning

It's time, therefore, to return to a role for pastors in harmony with Adventist heritage. That role must be mission-driven. When clergy work with existing churches, their role should be that of the trainer/equipper (Eph. 4:11 - 12). However, such a role works best in churches with over 150 in attendance. A clergy person may be needed for co ordination and training. Below 150, the presence of clergy tends to create weak churches, as well as emaciated saints.

In such an environment, what should happen to small churches with under 150 in attendance? Should they be closed? Absolutely not. Many of them can be vibrant centers for the nurture of God's people and the outreach of His kingdom. Rather than close them, free them to care for themselves, much like the small churches of early Adventism. Create districts of 10,15, or even 20 churches, and provide clergy on a consultation basis rather than for the performance of ministry. According to Ellen White, the churches will be healthier. Even Adventist eschatology argues that churches will not have pas tors over them in the final crisis. People will need to exist on their own then. Why not now?

In January 1999, I presented this concept to a group of lay people and pastors in a small North American conference of under 5,000 members. With over 10 percent of the attending membership present, the group enthusiastically embraced the concept and asked their conference leadership to free them of their pastors. In this conference only two or three churches had attendances over 150.1 believe that our lay people will willingly follow the counsel of the servant of the Lord when they truly understand that counsel.

What should the conference do with the money saved by the combining of districts? Hire church planters to enter the large urban areas and plant new churches. In this particular conference, there was one city of over one million people, and it had no church. Clergy need to be allocated on the size of the harvest rather than on the needs of the saints. Church-planting teams could even be created, placing us once again in harmony with Jesus' command to work "two by two."

Radical surgery

This may seem like radical surgery. In reality, it is a return to our mission-driven roots. Some may wonder if clergy could be persuaded to be a district leader of 20 churches. However, 20 churches should be easier to handle than two or three churches. When a pastor has only five churches, each of them still expects the pastor to do everything, but when there are 20 churches, everyone knows it is impossible to depend on the pastor, and therefore, lay people will be more open to accept their God-given role. Actually, the pastor in this role would need superb administrative skills, for the person would act not as just a pastor, but as a mini-conference president.

If we are serious about our mission, we must address the absorption of our resources in the small church that rarely grows. What is suggested here and expanded in my books7 is one suggestion. However, there may be other equally valid ideas. Whatever direction our church moves must lead us back to our heritage and forward to the accomplishment of our mission. It is high time for mission to be the compelling motivation for all that the North American church does. Let us begin to become a mission-driven, church-planting movement now.

1 George Barna, The Index of Leading
Spiritual Indicators
(Dallas: Word, 1996), 124-

2 "The Work in Greater New York,"
Atlantic Union Gleaner, January 8, 1902.

3 Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Hagerstown,
Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn.,
1970), 381.

4 For a more detailed account of early
Adventism's view of clergy, see the author's
book, Recovering an Adventist Approach to
Life and Mission in the Local Church

(Fallbrook, Calif.: HART, 1999).

5 H.M.S. Richards, Feed My Sheep (Hagerstown,
Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn.,
1958), 156.

6 Allen, Roland. The Spontaneous Expansion
 of the Church
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,
1962), 35.

7 See Revolution in the Church, Radical
Disciples for Revolutionary Churches, The
Revolutionized Church of the Twenty-First
, and Recovering an Adventist
Approach to the Life and Mission of the Local
. Published by HART.

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Russell Burrill, D.Min., is the director of the NAD Evangelism Institute and chair, Christian Ministry Department, Adventist Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

October 1999

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