Isaiah Long was appointed pastor of an Apostolic church in Washington, D.C., in 2014. Throughout his life he’d seen other pastors leading their churches in various ways, but he didn’t want to just mimic others; he wanted to fulfill his calling in the way God created him to.
“God is not satisfied with us being copycats,” Long said, “he wants us to be authentic.”
He began to pray that God would show him how to lead. In October 2016, a question from a congregant started him on a journey that would lead him somewhere very unexpected: The Seventh-day Adventist Church.
As Long dug into Scripture, seeking an answer to the question he’d been asked, he began to find more and more puzzle pieces that didn’t fit into the spiritual picture as he understood it. His research brought him to Amazing Facts, which helped him answer the question he’d been asked originally, but also led him to ask other questions, including questions about the Sabbath.
“As the pieces began to fall into place, God revealed the Sabbath to my wife and me,” Long said. “We were worshiping on Sunday but felt convicted by God of the Sabbath.”
They began keeping the Sabbath, while also worshiping on Sunday. After nine months of this, the Lord challenged them to transition their congregation, and in the summer of 2017, Long stood in front of them and shared what the Lord was doing in his heart.
Through this admission, Long learned that the church organist was Adventist, and he connected Long to an Adventist pastor, who provided resources and support as Long and his wife worked with their congregation on the shift.
Over the next 18 months, Long and his wife met with each family in the church individually to discuss their new understanding of Sabbath. In the end, they lost around 60 percent of their congregation, but since September 2018 they have been worshiping as a church on Saturday.
“We had some tough conversations — including in our home — but as long as we stuck to the Word of God, everything made sense.”
Long’s story is unusual, but it doesn’t need to be. It was an Adventist online resource that began leading him to the Bible truth, and endless opportunities exist for similar experiences to become reality.
Long’s story, shared during the North American Division Year-End Meeting on Sunday, Oct. 31, 2021, perfectly demonstrates the strategic focus of the division: multiply, media, mentorship. Over the course of three days, G. Alexander Bryant, NAD president, asked union leaders to consider specific questions related to these three words during breakout sessions. The results of these discussions were compiled into a master list and voted on each day, and the final selected list of ideas will guide NAD leadership as they move the division forward into the future of the church.
How can we increase members’ involvement in the mission of the church? How can we increase our impact and influence on the community? What are some opportunities to collaborate with other entities? Should our methodology change in a post-COVID world? If so, how?
These were some of the questions presented on day four of the meetings to the NAD union and conference executive committee representatives as they gathered in nine different breakout sessions based on the nine unions.
Evangelism and church planting are standard go-to responses to questions about how to grow the church, but many church leaders are beginning to thoughtfully consider what those activities look like. Long’s story, for one, is an example of how church planting doesn’t necessarily have to come from an outside entity moving into an area; church planting can be effectively accomplished from within an already-assembled group.
Similarly, evangelism doesn’t necessarily need to happen in a faraway place; sometimes the most effective evangelism is done in the day-to-day.
“We have 300 teachers in our union, and we want each of them to recognize that they are evangelists,” said Jose Joseph of the Atlantic Union Conference (AUC), sharing that one idea they had was to set a goal of having at least one baptism in every school in 2022.
Meeting people where they’re at is an important part of connecting the church to its community, even beyond the classroom.
“We need to focus on things that are actually needed in the communities and neighborhoods we propose to serve,” reported Mark Johnson, president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Canada (SDACC), on behalf of the SDACC, following the breakout session.
By way of example, the SDACC shared that several of their churches have turned their large open lawn areas into growing space for community gardens.
“We want the Adventist church to be known as the place to go to be fed,” they said. “Not only physically fed, but spiritually and socially as well.”
Ken Denslow, reporting on behalf of the Lake Union Conference (LUC), shared a similar sentiment.
“We need to reach out to community leaders and get involved in community programs as a church,” Denslow, LUC president, said. “We shouldn’t be focused on ‘winning’ them, but we should be engaged as part of the community, helping to make it a better place. People will be interested in a church that serves.”
“The church is not the building,” said Gary Thurber, president of the Mid-America Union Conference (MAUC), speaking on behalf of MAUC. “Church isn’t what happens in the building. It’s what happens outside all week long. Church is being good neighbors and loving people.”
Sometimes, however, the best of intentions from laypersons don’t translate into increasing discipleship.
Representing the Pacific Union Conference (PUC), Sandra Roberts, PUC executive secretary, suggested it would benefit the church’s growth efforts to fully understand and address the reasons behind why more members aren’t involved in efforts to bring others to Christ.
“We need to hear their stories and figure out what they need, then make sure we’re working to equip them,” she said.
Ron Smith, president of the Southern Union Conference (SUC) echoed Roberts’ comments: “We need to get to the bottom of why people are reluctant, and then we need to address that ‘why.’”
The union breakout sessions on the fifth day of the year-end meetings were intended to focus on the following questions: What attributes do you believe are currently associated with the Adventist brand in North America? How is my entity maximizing the power of media? How can we best brand the Adventist church? How can our church entities best collaborate to tell a bigger, better story? How can we encourage our members to use their social media accounts as evangelistic outreach?
Before the breakout sessions, several media related presentations were shared including one on brand by Kurth Lampe Worldwide, a strategic communications firm, the “rest” campaign idea (sharable video clips) presented by the NAD Communication department, a presentation from the Adventist Learning Community, and an update on Adventist Information Ministry, the NAD’s evangelistic customer service call center.
During their reports, each of the unions recognized and acknowledged the importance and necessity of digital ministry — if they weren’t already aware and onboard before the pandemic, they certainly are now. Many also recognized the role young people can play in utilizing this valuable tool for the church and for Christ, primarily because they are already doing it. Those who aren’t engaged in using digital media as a resource have the skills to do so, they simply need to be invited and trained to use those skills for ministry.
One suggestion from the PUC was to shift digital focus from websites to apps, and to use members of the church who are already successful online.
“We have pastors and young adults who have thousands of followers,” Roberts shared. “Let’s identify our social media influencers and work with them.”
The LUC report agreed: “There’s so much we fail to recognize in our young people,” said Denslow. “They have the potential for great impact on multiplying the church — and some are already doing so — and we need to engage them in the mission of the church.”
Many groups recommended that the church offer training opportunities so that social media could be effectively used to its full potential. This includes helping church members know what and when to post about the church, and training pastors and youth on how to effectively and positively interact with people online. It also includes providing ready-made content or training in how to create effective content.
“We need to provide our members with information that is easy to share, that’s relevant, and that always leads people to a place to learn more,” said Carlos Craig, Southwestern Union Conference (SWUC) president, on behalf of the SWUC.
“We have to prepare our members to engage in social media,” shared John Bradshaw, It Is Written speaker/director, reporting on behalf of the North American Division (NAD). “We must intentionally teach church members how to go about sharing us and sharing Jesus.”
Another theme that came out for many groups was the idea of working to ensure the Adventist brand is known for community.
“We should be known as people who live out the gospel in our lives and in our communities,” pointed out Johnson (SDACC). “When there’s an apartment complex fire or riots in our cities, are we known for showing up? If we could bridge that gap, our communities would know that if something is happening, the Adventist church is there.”
Though showing up speaks volumes, what really sells a story is actually telling it. The LUC recommended that church members should share on their personal pages when the church is present in important moments.
“Community engagement is key,” commented Smith (SUC). “We tend to underutilize things like local pastor gatherings, which really make a difference in the community. We need to be part of those groups and become a greater part of our communities.”
All of this boils down to one word: Branding. When listing words, phrases, and concepts that are typically associated with the Adventist church, most groups identified those related to education and healthcare — in particular, BlueZones. Though not everyone knows the Adventist connection to the BlueZones project, Bradshaw (NAD) pointed out that “many are familiar with the project, we just need to market the church as a ‘Blue Zone’ of our own.”
At the conclusion of the discussion, participants were asked to vote on methods for three goals: Increasing member involvement in the mission of the church; increasing disciples in the church; and multiplying the impact and influence of the church in the community. Out of 10 options, an overwhelming majority (78 percent) chose “Focus on the needs of the community.” A close second on all topics were options related to mentorship.
According to numbers reported by Bryant during the NAD Year-End Meeting, 78 percent of presidents, 58 percent of secretaries, and 50 percent of treasurers within the church become eligible for retirement in the next five years. Nearly 50 percent of pastors are eligible for retirement in three years.
The need to develop a new generation of church leaders is growing exponentially each year. And, as Bryant pointed out, working together on mentoring young leaders will yield a better result than trying to accomplish it as a field of silos.
“We must collaborate in creating intentional leadership development plans,” Bryant said.
Union groups were asked to consider several questions in the final breakout sessions, including: How are we equipping the next generation of leaders? How do we bring our young people into leadership and prepare them for successful church leadership in the future? How do current leaders find someone to intentionally mentor? How do we change the perception of “ambition” as being negative?
In an interesting twist, the SWUC suggested that perhaps young people themselves have some answers.
“We should start by asking them what should be done to attract and prepare young leaders,” Stephen Brooks, SWUC executive secretary, said. “We should find out from them what mentorship should look like, and how we as a church can earn their trust.”
Roberts (PUC) reported that there is already something similar happening in their union; a youth constituency session meets to discuss and vote on ideas and have important conversations. She reported that they also have a thriving internship program and an annual student leadership Bible conference to connect students with each other and the church while learning leadership skills.
Sometimes, “it’s not about reinventing the wheel,” as Bryant mentioned; sometimes we already have systems in place to accomplish what we need, it’s simply a matter of recognizing and intentionally utilizing them.
“Sixty percent of church employees have participated in and/or worked at summer camp,” pointed out Bradshaw (NAD). “Evidently there is already a strong mentorship setup in our summer camp system; we should capitalize on that.”
In the Illinois Conference, shared Denslow, every director and officer has been asked to seek out one employee in their field as a mentee, helping them expand in the areas of their strengths and giftedness. Denslow also mentioned the leadership program at Andrews University, commending its quality.
The Atlantic Union suggested that entities establish core values of leadership and criteria of what the church is looking for in a leader.
“Once we identify people with those core values and criteria we can intentionally recruit, mentor, and facilitate a group of leaders-in-training,” stated Pierre Omeler, executive secretary (AUC).
Omeler went on to describe how placing youth and young adults on church and school boards would allow them to learn through experience how the church operates, growing them into leadership roles in the process.
Bryant’s question regarding ambition being viewed as negative within the church was well-taken by the groups, as many participants could relate to the concept.
“There seems to be a lingering fear of hiring someone who will take over our jobs,” Hubert Morel Jr., MAUC executive secretary, said. “We need to move away from fear and toward intention so we can bring people who will gladly and capably accept the torch from us when the time comes. We cannot be fearful in our hiring.”
Emmanuel Asiedu, CUC treasurer, shared that mentoring is of particular importance to him, because he is where he is due to what the previous treasurer did for him — taking intentional interest and guiding him into the role he now fills. The church cannot grow if those in current positions of leadership are not willing to “train up” the coming generations.
Cross-training; normalizing leadership development; internships; recruiting; structured coaching programs; inviting youth to be part of committees, boards, and other decision-making and advisory groups, and many other ideas were suggested by various unions as ways to intentionally and effectively engage the younger generations as leaders within the church.
“No matter what we come up with,” Smith (SUC) summed up on the breakout topics, “we need to pray, or it won’t succeed.”