The General Conference meets in St. Louis: a historic milepost

A reflection on the meaning of the 58th General Conference Session of the Seventh-day Adventist Church

John M. Fowler, Ed.D., is an associate director of the Department of Education at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, and a contributing editor of Ministry.

When I first attended a General Conference session in 1966 in Detroit, Michigan, two large communication outbursts close to the venue caught my attention: the first one was a colorful billboard on a just released movie, Dr. Zhivago, based on Pasternack's portrayal of Lara's struggle for human freedom and dignity. The second one, more humble and its mes sage widely distributed through handbills, called upon the Adventist delegates meeting inside the Cobo Hall to ensure that their church cash the promisory note of Genesis 1, particularly verse 26, guaranteeing equality, dignity, and opportunity to all believers—black and white.

The movie held no attraction for me, although I later ploughed through Boris Pasternack's Nobel-prize-winning novel with great enthusiasm. But from 1966 on I watched, sometimes with joy, sometimes with disappointment, my church's stance to walk the talk and live the faith that the redeemed and the remnant indeed constitute an inclusive, global, united, and loving community ready for translation at the imminent Second Coming to live with their one Lord, one God. The church's journey toward that goal has not been easy or at the speed desired by thousands like me who at times felt excluded from the global community of the gospel.

The 58th General Conference session concluded on July 9, 2005, in St. Louis will go down as one of the great historic convocations of the global church, now some 16 million strong, now ready to fully embrace oneness in talk and walk. Historians defined four previous sessions as mileposts in the church for various reasons. The 1863 session saw the infant church put on its global organizational cloak, unique in its departmental and mission structure. The 1888 session defined the theology of the infant Church, as it bathed Adventism in the blood of Jesus and clothed it with the gospel's only garment—that of righteousness by faith. The 1901 session fine-tuned the organizational structure, and several succeeding sessions concentrated on that structure in order to balance between the urgency of the global mission and organizational authority, a task to which perhaps the 59th session in Atlanta, Georgia, will again return; 1980 moved the organization into theological maturity and unity by voting the 27 Fundamental Beliefs that are crucial to the essence of Adventism. Not a creed, but this statement defined our beliefs in God's creation, revelation, redemption, saving message, redeemed community, and eschatological purposes.

Can we now dare say the 58th session at St. Louis will go down as a historic milepost in Adventist mission and its preparation for the imminence of the Lord's coming? Yes, and for three reasons.

A more inclusive church

First, more than any other session before, the 58th session has shown to the world that Adventism is truly an inclusive and global church. Previous sessions did take some small steps, token in nature and hesitant in speed.

The last session in Toronto leaped for ward with the first African, Matthew Bediako, as the second officer of the world church. But look at St. Louis; it was a stride toward globalization both in participation and appointments.

Speakers for the morning and evening devotionals represented every continent. The Nominating Committee, at the speed with which it completed its business, sent two messages to the delegates: there was a Spirit-filled smoothness in the deliberation and completion of its work; and there was an intentional march to make the church truly global, a call that was issued in the opening message by President Jan Paulsen, him self a non-North American. This did not mean that North America's significance was not appreciated, but its contribution to the development of a worldwide church is now a reality. The session, for the first time in the history of the church, appointed a woman and an Afro-American, Ella Simmons, the provost of La Sierra University, as a vice president of the General Conference— sending a message to the world that God and His church values every person to fulfill a definite role in its mission. A second appointment was equally significant: Rosa Banks as associate secretary of the world church. Other appointments also crossed the frontiers: nine vice presidents represent seven countries; six in the secretariat represent five countries; six in the treasury represent three countries; the departmental positions likewise were filled from around the world. Truly, a global accomplish ment—a significant arrival from the Cobo Hall of 1966. God moves and moves mysteriously His wonders to perform!

Transformed to serve and lead

Second, service and servant leader ship were much the tone of the St. Louis session. Consider the theme, "Transformed in Christ." In previous sessions, the Church had chosen the imminence of Second Coming, unity, witness to all the nations, hope that never dims, etc. Each served a purpose. What motivated the leaders to choose the theme of the current session? I put the question to Elder Jan Paulsen, the newly-elected president. His answer was simple and direct: "The Lord we worship must be seen in the transformed lives we lead and in the unselfish service we render. 1 want a Church without frontiers—inclusive in fellowship, mission-minded in life and service, transformed by the grace, love and power of the living Lord." The apostle Paul, who concluded his grand presentation of righteousness by faith with a call that believers should not be "conformed to the world" but "trans formed" in order to reveal "the perfect will of God" (Rom. 12:2), would have said a loud amen to this session's theme that calls for a life of service and servant leadership.

The General Conference leaders, in planning the 58th session, intentionally devoted considerable time for this theme to penetrate the mind and soul of the delegates so that as they disperse back to the ends of the earth, the mission of Adventism will take on a new focus: a life that lives by its faith, and life that witnesses for what it believes. Beginning with Sunday, the session devoted each day 90 minutes for presentation and discussion on profiling the Adventist leadership: its fundamental characteristics, its motivations, its style, its directions, its empowering. Can an Adventist leader afford to be a political or economic or technological supremo? Or must he or she renounce leadership as defined by the world and echo, reecho, and live by the words of the One who said, "For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45).

The church, statisticians project, will have some 50 million members by 2020, and about 85 percent of them have been members for less than 15 years. The church of the future is a young church— demanding of its leaders character, integrity, humility, vision, and faithfulness.

How shall we develop that kind of leadership? The question leads to the third significance of St. Louis, the voting of a new statement of fundamental belief.

Growing in Christ

The new statement calls for members and leaders alike to grow in Christ—in a life of prayer, study, worship, witness, spiritual warfare. In other words, it is a call: to take up the towel and wash some lowly feet, to share the bread and wine of community, to take up the cross and walk that lonely path, to celebrate the risen Lord, and to hope for the new dawn that will forever bring a transformation that will be our eternal reward. The inclusion of this new statement of belief rounded up the theological agenda of the Church to emphasize that we are not simply a people of doctrine but of living the doctrine, that our ecclesiology transcends structure and organization to embrace community of faith, worship, and service, that our hope consists not just the certainty of the second coming of Christ but letting that hope transform our life here and now so that every Adventist community around the world becomes a reflection of the life and mission of the Lord who gave Himself for us.

Thus the call of St. Louis—for inclusiveness, for servant leadership, for a sanctified life in Christ—will mark the 58th session of the General Conference as a historic milepost on the way to the kingdom.

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John M. Fowler, Ed.D., is an associate director of the Department of Education at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, and a contributing editor of Ministry.

September 2005

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