Happy New Year everyone.
It is hard to believe that we are two decades into this millennium. Remember all the anticipated drama when the year 2000 came around? Remember Y2K and all of the turmoil that was supposed to happen technologically when the clock struck midnight on January 1, 2000?
You may well not remember-because nothing happened. All the catastrophic possibilities that were being discussed prior to Y2K didn’t happen. Twenty years later, we are still here.
I thought about that when I looked at Facebook and saw a discussion that comes up from time to time: “Why do we still need separate conferences?” Actually, there were those who turned that sentence from an interrogative (i.e. “Why do we still have separate conferences?”) to a declarative sentence, i.e., “We don’t still need separate conferences!”
Now, let me confess to being at a disadvantage in discussing this: First, I am the Executive Director of the Office for Regional Conference Ministry (emphasis supplied). And even though the vast majority of you have no idea of what that is (something we need to address), just by looking at that title, you are going to assume that I have a bias in answering questions as to the need for Regional Conferences. And-you might be right.
Second, when people say things like, “Why do we have to have separate conferences?”-who wants to be in favor of being separate-especially in the church-and most especially-in the church that is the remnant church (I know that it is popular in some circles in the Adventist Church to argue that the Adventist Church is not the remnant church. That seems to me to be a rather curious argument for an Adventist to make).
I confess that I am at a rhetorical disadvantage in this discussion. It is hard to argue for “separate” conferences or when people say things like, “Let’s all come together” or “There aren’t going to be separate conferences in heaven-there’s not going to be a black heaven or a white heaven” (although I am old enough to remember that is exactly what some of our Caucasian brothers used to believe. I remember hearing stories when I was growing up where our Caucasian brothers and sisters would hear a good black choir sing and compliment them by saying, “When we get to heaven, we are going to come to the colored-we were “colored” in those days-side of heaven and listen to you folks sing”).
On the surface, not being “separate” and “all coming together” and being “united”, etc., are difficult arguments to counter. But I would want to suggest that if we look a little closer, you may look at this a little differently.
First… It is true that there will be no separate conferences in heaven. But it is also true that there will be no conferences of any kind in heaven. No unions, no divisions, and no General Conference-not even any local churches-at least, no local churches as we know them today-no administrative structure of any kind.
But because we shall not have those structures then does that mean that we do not need those structures now? Of course not. We may need administrative restructuring or reorganization-any business that does not at least occasionally re-examine how they do business is asking to go out of business. We may well need to change our structure. But I don’t think we need to blow up our structure.
It is very popular to complain about the structure of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and how that structure impedes mission. As someone who has spent a fair amount of my life involved-in at least, a small way-in the operation of that structure, I can tell you that sometimes I complain about it, too (I was just doing that today).
We have a structure that has flaws-how can it not have flaws? Human beings with flaws-like me-are involved in our operational structure.
But that flawed structure has taken the gospel to 90% of the countries in this world. That means that an operational structure that was designed to take the gospel to the world-has largely done that. It has an educational system from pre-school to the doctoral level that operates around the world. It operates one of the largest healthcare systems in the world.
As flawed and as criticized (sometimes with justification) as our organizational structure is, I would suggest that no other denomination would turn down a trade of their structure for ours. Go to the next Pathfinder Camporee in Oshkosh. Go to the General Conference session in Indianapolis and stand in that arena with 70,000 Adventists from all around the world on Sabbath and sing about the common hope that we have in the coming of the Lord. No other denomination-I would venture to say-has anything like that.
I read in one of leadership guru John Maxwell’s books an expression that I copied: Before you tear down a fence, make sure you know the reason why it was put there. Before we tear down our organizational structure, make sure we know why it’s there and how we would accomplish the mission that God gave us if that structure is no longer there.
Second…When we say “There will be no separation in heaven”, the operative phrase is “In heaven”. The ugliness and the sin that so divides us on earth, will not exist in heaven. And while I wholeheartedly agree that we ought to do our best to approximate heaven while we are still on earth, I would suggest that the greater priority is to finish the work here on earth so that we can go to heaven.
In Part II, I tell you the important part that Regional Conferences have historically played in the mission of our church and why they are still needed to play that part today.