A two-day clergy professional development conference organized by the Ministerial Association of the North American Division explored the definition of Adventist evangelism, highlighted challenges in achieving church growth, showcased innovative examples of service, and provided guidance for the new and evolving realities created by the COVID-19 pandemic. The sixth annual “eHuddle” or “evangelism huddle,” which is the gathering of the division’s evangelism visioning and leadership team, was held virtually March 8-9, 2021. The event was broadcasted live from the NAD headquarters in Columbia, Maryland.
Ivan Williams, director of the NAD Ministerial Association, and two of his associate directors, Jose Cortes Jr., and Dave Gemmell, led and moderated various presentations and sessions while attendees and the majority of the presenters attended via Facebook Live and Zoom. Interactivity was strongly encouraged throughout the event. The Ministerial Association leaders asked for engagement via chat features in both Facebook Live and Zoom, and ran polls in every session to gauge knowledge on certain topics or assess significant ministry needs.
“It is a privilege to talk about what God is doing in the NAD, how he’s winning people … and how he’s using us,” said Williams.
G. Alexander Bryant, president of the North American Division, echoed the observation and set the tone for the conference during his welcoming remarks. He acknowledged the challenges and lessons learned from carrying out ministry during the COVID-19 pandemic, and offered words of encouragement to attendees.
“I’m amazed at all the stories I’ve heard of how God’s mission has continued to go forward,” said Bryant. “Together in mission we can multiply the ministry of Christ, and thousands will respond to his voice.”
Evangelism and Multiplying
The anchoring theme for eHuddle was “Multiply,” which is also the quinquennium strategic focus for the Ministerial Association. Multiply is also a focus of the division’s 2021-2025 strategy that falls under “Together in Mission.” “Multiply” aims to activate discipleship among members that will in turn create more disciples, and encourage churches that plant additional churches.
The biblical inspiration for “Multiply” can be found in Acts 12, where there are accounts of persecution toward Jesus’ earliest followers, including the imprisonment of Peter. However, in the midst of tremendous challenges “the word of God continued to spread and flourish,” (verse 24). Cortes added, “Even though the church was going through difficulties – there was persecution, and racial tensions – the word of God continued to grow and multiply,” relating the passage to current events.
The format around the 2021 eHuddle was largely centered on a newly revised definition of what it means for Adventist ministers and lay leaders to evangelize within the NAD territory. The definition, presented by Cortes, is to “reach, reclaim, and retain the people of North America with Jesus’ mission and message of compassion, hope, and wholeness.”
Within this definition of evangelism lies six components: love, serve, baptize, equip, planting, and revitalize. Six of eHuddle’s eight sessions were dedicated to an individual element of evangelism through presentations given by multiple pastors and church leaders who had inspirational testimonies.
Tracking Growth and Loss
Kyoshin Ahn, NAD executive secretary, highlighted statistical challenges related to attrition and loss, growth rates, and church culture within the division.
“Are we effectively nurturing members to retain them?” asked Ahn.
Ahn says while the church has annually added three new members for every 100 members over the past 10 years, approximately 120,000 members have gone missing or requested to be removed from membership over the same period.
“This is a startling number. That is more than the entire membership of one union or the largest conference within the NAD,” said Ahn.
Although the numbers can be discouraging, Ahn said true hope and guidance comes from God.
“When we see these challenges it’s a reminder that we need to go back to where we began our journey and refresh ourselves with the core message of the gospel, which is Christ crucified. Christ is the power and wisdom of God,” said Ahn, referencing 1 Corinthians 1:23, 24.
Ahn concluded his remarks saying, “Christ crucified recharges us, reenergizes our congregations, reinvigorates our souls with his love and mercy, and he shares with us his infinite wisdom. May that be realized as we continue to serve his church and his kingdom.”
In a later presentation, Brian Ford, director of eAdventist, focused on the data behind church vitality, introducing the benchmarks of multiplying, growing, plateauing, and declining as a way to assess the health of a church or company. Between 2017 and 2019, 74 percent of churches in the NAD were plateauing, 17 percent declined, and 8 percent grew.
“We want to encourage reporting membership numbers,” said Williams to attendees, as a way to gain a better sense of congregation vitality across the division.
Pastoring in the New Normal
One major focal point of eHuddle was understanding the new realities of church-life as the nation moves toward the end of the coronavirus pandemic. Sam Reiner, president of Church Answers, an organization that creates resources to help strengthen churches, believes that this year may present more challenges for church leaders than last year — when the pandemic was at its peak. He predicts denominations will see their steepest decline with a movement toward “neighborhood churches” as more people have become hesistant of gathering in crowds.
“Nationwide, attendance and giving are down. Very few churches have grown during the past year,” said Reiner. “Further, people have developed new routines and habits that no longer include church.” Reiner says in addition, there is much uncertainty of how the nation’s economic recovery will impact churches. Pastors are also experiencing burnout and “decision-fatigue.”
Reiner also believes there are many ways this year will be a better year for the church experience. “People are more flexible than they’ve ever been. The core membership is stronger than ever, and accelerated changes mean mission replaces preferences,” said Reiner.
Encountering Conspiracy Theories
Another key emphasis of eHuddle was equipping pastors and church leaders on how to confront the spread of conspiracy theories among congregants. This topic was presented by Ed Stetzer, the distinguished chair of church, mission, and evangelism at Wheaton College, and executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. Stetzer is also a repeat presenter, having addressed the first eHuddle in 2016.
“Conspiracy theories substantially harm Christian witness,” said Stetzer. “Jesus says He’s the way, truth, and life. As people of the truth, we want to make sure we have congregations that reflect and share that truth.”
“Pastors need to see this as a fight for discipleship,” Stetzer added. “Those who spread conspiracy theories are trying to disciple people away from the gospel and are co-opting the mission.”
Stetzer says there are three types of conspiracy followers, those who are “attracted, advocates, or apostles.” Attracted followers are intrigued, advocates are confident in the theories and work to share within their networks, and apostles generate and propagate conspiracy theories. With the different followers come different, recommended actions to protect a congregation from damage caused by the spread of misinformation.
“If they’re attracted, focus on discipleship and care. Help them turn to the truth and security of the gospel. For the advocates, engage in love and discipline when rejected. Act in equal measure of boldness and love. And for apostles, warn the congregation. Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseer,” said Stezer.
The Ministerial team also announced a number of resources and upcoming events that are geared toward empowering ministry leaders. The “Best Practices Podcasts” became available on March 8 on all major podcasting platforms. The three shows under the umbrella of “Best Practices” includes, “The Leadership Effect” with Ivan Williams, “Adventist Ministry” with Dave Gemmell, and “Multiply” with Jose Cortes, Jr.
“eHuddle means ‘evangelism huddle’ and but it can also mean ‘everyone huddle.’ Evangelism cannot happen without everyone. Without you, without our church members, this cannot happen,” said Cortes. “We got together in the midst of the pandemic to talk about the things God wants to do through us, so we can do back into this game to win for God’s honor and glory. The game is won when we bring people in touch with Jesus.”
The next NAD Ministerial Association sponsored event, the Church Planters Boot Camp East, is set to take place April 8-10, 2021. The boot camp, for East Coast viewing, will be available in English and Spanish for registered participants. Information will be made available on the Best Practices’ Facebook page.
Click here to watch Day 1 of the 2021 eHuddle.
Click here to watch Day 2 of the 2021 eHuddle.
Click here to watch Day 2 (part 2) of the 2021 eHuddle.