World Church: Redefining the Meaning of Adventist Mission

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What is this? A news report that includes differing viewpoints by an official church organization. And it raises significant issues about Adventist Mission. Props to those involved in this story.

What do you think about the issues raised? Wither lies the future of Adventist mission?

Reprinted from the Adventist News Network:

January 10, 2007 Silver Spring, Maryland, United States .... [Taashi Rowe/ANN]

Up until fairly recently the idea of mission in the Seventh-day Adventist Church was relatively simple to define. "Real" mission work involved church members from Western countries moving across the world to live among native groups for long periods of time with the hope of sharing the gospel and eventually baptizing people into the Adventist church. Today, there are literally hundreds of ways to become involved in mission work in the Adventist church independent of that traditional concept of cross-cultural mission work. What is mission? It depends on whom you ask. Some say mission is volunteering in your local community. Others say mission is a youth group spending 10 days building a church in another part of the world, risking life to share the news of Christ with neighbors in heavily non-Christian areas, or offering an in-demand skill such as medicine to communities where public proselytizing is illegal. Still others think mission is working for an Adventist institution, a school or hospital for example, in another part of the world. Bruce Bauer, a missiology professor at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, says, "the Adventist church is struggling right now [with] what mission is all about." Today, there are some 1,000 mission workers sent out by church headquarters, about half of what there used to be. And close analysis of that number reveals that many of those missionaries are in fact institutional workers not directly involved in frontline work, or preaching the gospel to first-time hearers. Bauer, who has spent years in the traditional mission field, is concerned by how many missionaries are "working for those who are already Adventist." "When our early church leaders were recruiting missionaries they were going out as pioneers, as church planters to start the work in some countries. They went for long periods of time, learned the language and culture and thought of going for the rest of their lives. As we moved into the 1940s and 50s missionary work became more institutionalized," explains Bauer. But working for Adventist institutions is still mission, insists Cheryl Doss, a former missionary and associate director for the Institute of World Mission at Andrews University.

"Yes, we tend to concentrate mission work in areas where we have had success," says Doss, "[But] that doesn't make you not a front line worker. We lived on a mission station that had a ministerial training school. During the 10 years we were stationed there seven new churches were planted. There were already 250,000 members in that little country so it wasn't like pioneer work but it was ... an important part of the mission work that needs to continue." In 2005 the Seventh-day Adventist Church came up with a new way to articulate its mission. Church leaders made plans to Tell The World--a slogan that embodies the church's mission to introduce as many people as possible to Jesus. The Tell the World statement challenges "five million Seventh-day Adventists to reach at least one person for Jesus and bring them into fellowship with God's family by 2010." Telling the whole world about Jesus would mean going beyond traditional methods. One non-traditional way of Telling the World has already been implemented through Global Mission, which was created in 1990 to help establish churches in areas where there were no Adventists. Global Mission's role is to "reach the unreached with hope." They mainly function in areas of the world that the church calls the 10/40 window, a term used to describe a geographical rectangle that extends from West Africa, through the Middle East, and into Asia. Since Global Mission came on the scene there has been some growth of the Adventist church in those areas.

Jon Dybdahl, former president of Walla Walla University and a former missionary, said Global Mission "quite radically changes the mission strategy of the church. Instead of emphasizing the number of people we move into the baptism tank we focus on how many churches we can start in places where there are no Adventists."

While filled with praises for Global Mission, Lester Merklin, director of the Institute of World Mission, is however concerned about its impact on cross-cultural mission work. "I suspect ... it has left an impression in the [Western world] that everywhere in the world there are local people that can do the mission if we give them a little stipend. Mission is a world church responsibility. We don't have any Muslim contacts in the 10/40 window who can go and do the mission work. It will take cross-cultural effort."

Although there is a visible decrease in "professional" long-term missionaries there has also been a surge in people who volunteer for short-term mission work. People like Tom Slikkers, who most people would not consider a missionary. But the vice president of S2 Yachts, a boating company based in Holland, Michigan played a big part in building a long-lasting monument to Christ. Along with the short-term mission group, Maranatha Volunteers International, Slikkers and his company applied their expertise in boat-building to establishing a floating church on the high-altitude Lake Titicaca in Peru. Though many church leaders agree their impact is significant, short-term missionaries are another cause for concern for some in the church. Traditionalists like Bauer, Lester Merklin and others worry that short-term missionaries do not have the training to be effective in foreign cultures. He adds that long term missionaries tend to think of what they do as a result of "God's call on one's life to a particular people and place. You have to have a sense that you are where God wants you to be at that time and that place." On the other hand, Vernon Parmenter, associate secretary at the church's world headquarters, says short-term mission workers are a boon to the church. He says because the church doesn't have the budget to pay as many missionaries as it would like they have come to depend upon short-term missionaries. Through the Adventist Volunteer Center, which Parmenter directs, some hundreds of people go out to do mission work for anywhere from two months to two years. He says much of what these volunteers do, preaching and holding Bible studies, would be considered frontline mission work. Bauer says he doesn't believe in instant missionaries. "I'm having trouble understanding the type of people that are baptized after three weeks without any insight into culture." Bauer's concern is one that has been expressed by church leaders. Over and over again the church's statistics have proven that along with a huge influx of new newly baptized members into the church after a three-week crusade comes a sizable exit months later.

But long-term mission does not have to be pitted short-term mission says, Scott Griswold, who directs the Adventist church's Buddhist Study Center in Asia. He says, "short-term mission can take up a lot of time of the long-time workers, but can really inspire those who go." He shares Bauer's concern that proper contextualization of the gospel message is where short-term missionaries tend to fall short: "When it comes to short-term mission, stumbling blocks are there because of their own perspective and beliefs. We must try to understand what [natives] believe and then present God's truths in ways they can understand. This is not changing God's message but changing the way it is heard. However, contextualization is not near as important as a reliance on the Holy Spirit who is able to overcome any barrier especially through His incredible divine love."

Griswold, who has been a missionary for 10 years, advises, "Short-term missionaries should listen carefully to the field to see what is truly needed instead of letting their agenda push what happens. A careful, long-term partnership with short-terms going frequently to one spot may be more helpful."

Kyle Fiess, vice president of marketing for Maranatha Volunteers International, agrees that changing people's hearts and minds for eternity doesn't happen in 15 nights at a crusade. He explains that Maranatha mainly works in areas where there is already an Adventist church working with the community and preparing people for baptism.

"We are definitely committed to the opportunity for people to be missionaries. Through these [short-term] experiences we hope to influence people's lives and change the way they think of mission," Fiess says.

When asked about the future of mission work in the Adventist church, Dybdahl expresses a concern that many "people in the church really know very little about the international church and its mission, history of mission and mission strategy." Bauer agrees, saying that this is because many Adventist churches give members the "impression that there is nothing left to do. We can sit in our rocking chairs and wait for Christ to return." Bauer suggests that the church redirect more of its resources to unentered areas. Doss says, "We have a long way to go. There are a lot of people who haven't heard about Jesus in a way that makes sense to them. We have to find people who are willing to listen and learn and live with them. I see movements in that direction. I hope and pray that we seize the moment and find ways that we can empower people to answer God's calling." Involvement in mission is a crucial part of the Christian experience, says Gary Krause, director of the Office of Adventist Mission at the Adventist world church headquarters. He sums up the church's need to do mission by pointing to Matthew 28:19: "Jesus didn't suggest or request--He told us to go into the world. We are a world church with a world commission."

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at