It is indicative of the growing maturity of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, both in years and in self-awareness, that a book with the sweeping scope and global perspective of “We Aim at Nothing Less Than the Whole World” has been published by the General Conference itself. It presents a bird’s-eye view of the growth and development but ultimate stagnation and steep decline of the missionary work of the church and calls for corrective action.
This story is told through the eyes of the secretariat, once the engine that drove the church’s foreign mission program but that later became distracted by, and eventually mired in, bureaucratic maintenance activities. With grandparents who served as missionaries to East Africa in the 1920s and parents who served as missionaries to West Africa in the 1960s, I am a firm proponent of Adventist mission, with a large part of my work in secretariat focused on trying to reengineer the expertise of the past to meet the challenges of secularism, postmodernism, and multiculturalism that the church faces today.
Considering the book’s origins within the Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research, some readers may be surprised to find that the book is very readable. Authors Chism, Trim, and Younker are passionate about their work and have illustrated their meticulous research with easily accessible graphs, tables, and charts, as well as numerous human-interest stories. Together, these take the reader back in time and bring to life characters whose names may be familiar but whose contribution to mission may have been forgotten. Hugely influential in the early drive for foreign missions were William C. White, son of Ellen G White; Arthur G. Daniells; and William A Spicer. Of these, it was A. G. Daniells who developed the global strategy for Adventist mission, transitioning the early zeal into a golden era of mission for the church.
The different phases of Adventist mission are clearly defined by statistical records, and two figures, in particular, stand out. First, the number of new missionaries sent out per annum per 10,000 members reached a peak of 19 just after the First World War. Second, the total number of new missionaries sent out per annum reached a peak of more than 450 in the late 1960s. These contrast sharply with the third phase of Adventist mission, where currently, there are a mere 3 missionaries in service per 10,000 members, and only 2.2 percent of these are engaged in pastoral or evangelistic work.
The figures alone may paint a bleak picture, but many other factors are considered in the book. The world has changed, and language has changed. Our initial understanding of mission as “foreign” mission no longer applies to the Adventist Church of today, which used to operate out of a North American “home base” but now operates out of many home bases around the world. One hundred years ago, missionary expertise and appetite were concentrated in just a few countries; today, international service employees (ISEs), as missionaries are now known, may be sourced from any of the world divisions. Cultural understanding and appreciation have also changed. The early twentieth-century missionary may still have held vestigial paternalistic or colonial views, but those are long gone. In fact, more than 100 years ago, the church was already carefully studying and developing expertise in cross-cultural mission. As early as 1910, the church sent delegates to the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, and by 1917, other denominations were coming to the Adventists to ask for their advice.
Despite the many positives that come from this study, the overall conclusion must be that of mission drift. The Adventist Church, once so vibrant in its efforts to reach those of other cultures, predominantly in other lands, with the gospel of Jesus Christ, has, to a large extent, lost its way. Bureaucratization and institutionalization have sapped our energy and stifled our missionary efforts, and if we wish to reclaim our identity as a mission-driven church, something has to change. “We Aim at Nothing Less Than the Whole World” is a call for leaders to repent—and reform.
The book concludes with the hope that the process of reform has begun. A reorganization of the secretariat, together with innovative programs, such as Global Mission Pioneers, Waldensian Students, Direct-Contract Workers, and Tentmakers may yet usher in a new era of genuine, strategic, well-organized, and well-funded mission. Whether this era will be as golden as that of the first half of the twentieth century remains to be seen.