100th Anniversary of the Book Acts of the Apostles
150th Anniversary of the Ohio Conference
An estimated 5,000 Seventh-day Adventists from across the Midwest gathered near Wilmington, Ohio, Sabbath, October 22, to celebrate two historic milestones. It was the 100th anniversary of the publication of Acts of the Apostles by Ellen White and the 150th anniversary of the formation of the Ohio Conference. A history published in the program booklet indicated that Ohio was probably the first organized state conference in the denomination instead of the long-standing claim by Michigan.
Speakers included General Conference (GC) President Ted N. C. Wilson, Pastor Rebekah Liu from China and Dr. Ganoune Diop, a missiologist on the GC staff from Senegal. Pastor Liu is a Ph.D., candidate at Andrews University and pastors a district in Sichuan province in the People’s Republic of China that includes more than 400 Adventist churches. In May last year she was ordained to the gospel ministry by the church in China.
The focus of the day was on the forward-looking mission of the Adventist movement, its global reach and growing diversity. The event was called, “Acts 11.” The speakers embody these elements. Pastor Liu was raised in a Communist family and is writing a Ph.D., dissertation in English which also requires a knowledge of Biblical languages. She preaches in more than one language in China and, together with her pastor husband, is the parent of a six-year-old. Dr. Diop was already an accomplished musician when as a Muslim young adult he became a Christian and joined the Adventist Church. He has a Ph.D., in Old Testament studies and currently serves as the denomination’s primary representative at the United Nations in Geneva and New York City. Pastor Wilson grew up in a missionary family in the Middle East, started in the ministry in New York City where he earned a Ph.D., at New York University, and has served as a missionary in Africa and Russia.
Pastor Liu told stories about her own journey to faith and the rapid growth of the Adventist movement in China, even during years of persecution. Dr. Diop laid out a theological framework for relating Adventist theology to world religions, what he called a “Trinitarian approach to mission” in which “the way of the Father...the way of the Son...and the way of the Holy Spirit,” guide missionary activity and personal witness. He stressed a “kind, respectful dialog,” with those of different faiths. “We do not need to put down other faiths to hold up Jesus,” he stated. “Adventists must seek to meet this world’s needs before Christ returns.”
Pastor Wilson also emphasized a wholistic approach to Adventist mission, praising the health care ministry exemplified by Kettering Medical Center and its network of hospitals near the location of the event. The church is to, “share the gospel in word and in deed.” He clearly does not agree with those who would narrow the mission of the church to include only evangelistic preaching and media.
The GC president appealed for support in the major strategic initiatives voted at the recent Annual Council. “I appeal to you in Ohio, with several large cities, to join the Mission to the Cities initiative. Especially encourage young people to get involved.” He also urged every individual to join in a Bible reading plan to be launched in the spring by reading one chapter a day, referring to Ellen White’s statement in Acts of the Apostles (page 475) that, “in every generation and in every land the true foundation for character building has been the same — the principles contained in the word of God.” She recommends “the truth of God [as] the subject for contemplation and meditation,” and encourages each believer to, “regard the Bible as the voice of God speaking directly to him.”
He noted that he was speaking on October 22, a full 167 years after the day on which the founders of the modern Adventist movement believed that Jesus would return, but his emphasis was on hope and looking forward to the coming Kingdom. He led the congregation in singing, “We Have This Hope,” the signature Adventist hymn.
He carefully nuanced some of the things that he has been quoted as saying with comments both pro and con in the last year. “We are all free to read other Christian authors,” he stated twice while affirming the writings of Ellen White. “The Bible is the final authority, make no mistake.” He reiterated his concern about “mystical” ideas and practices and the “emerging church,” but went out of his way to be clear that “a wide variety of approaches” are needed in the mission of the church, including “many more methods yet to be initiated.”
He said, “we can learn from other Christians,” and made it clear that his expressed concern about inviting non-Adventist speakers is “not talking about community service events to which civic leaders are invited” or “educational lectures” in which outside speakers share “technical or professional knowledge that we can use.” His concern, he said, is about “major presentations of spiritual or theological messages.”
One retired Adventist worker at the Ohio event suggested that many of those who have been quick to apply Wilson’s comments to various things they are against in North America are ignorant of developments many places in the world which are more likely the focus of his concern. The simple fact that the GC president came to the Ohio Conference event is body language that indicates he may be considerably less reactionary in his attitudes than some think.
Pastor Wilson took a balanced position on the topic of missional innovation. He quoted 1 Corinthians 9:19-21 and Ellen White’s comment on this passage in Testimonies for the Church, Volume 6 (page 476), and summarized, “we must look for every possible opportunity...make every effort possible to reach postmodern people...yet remain ever mindful that our creative initiatives must be based on biblical principles.”
Some attendees were surprised to see Pastor Wilson on the same platform with Pastor Liu because he recently opposed the request of the North American Division and the Trans European Division for a ‘variance’ from the GC Working Policy, which prohibits women from being conference or union presidents. He has reportedly opposed the ordination of women pastors, although he has evidently accepted the actions of the church in China. He announced at the recent annual meeting of the GC committee, and mentioned again at the Ohio event, that he is going to China next spring to meet with church leaders there. He clearly intends to affirm the progress the Adventist Church is making in China.
The Ohio Conference, like all of the denominational units in the ‘Rust Belt,’ the old industrial region of the U.S. that extends from Pittsburgh to Chicago, has struggled for decades with no growth. It has a higher than average percentage of recently-baptized members, but also suffers from higher percentages of dropouts and people moving away. The only exception to this flat growth pattern has been in the Regional Conferences, with a largely African American constituency, although more recently the growth rate in these conferences has also declined.
Events like ‘Acts 11’ help to encourage the people attending small churches and working in complex metropolitan areas, to refocus on the larger mission and fabric of the Adventist movement. This event was strongly Christ-centered and in the grace-oriented corporate culture of the Ohio Conference. Contemporary music boomed across the parking lot from a tent where youth services were held parallel to the adult gathering. A children’s church met in the morning in a side room. Families enjoyed box lunches together at noon. A group of pastors, conference staff and lay members from across the state provided Bluegrass Christian music and the orchestra from the Kettering Church performed. “My cup runneth over,” smiled one senior citizen as he headed for his car in late afternoon.
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