It looks as if the United States is emerging from some of the most traumatic 15 months in recent memory. Last week, was my first Sabbath in a Regional Conference church that was fully reopen for worship since February 29, 2020.
When Mrs. Edmond and I walked out of the Shiloh SDA Church in Cincinnati, Ohio on that pleasant Sabbath afternoon and headed towards a delicious Sabbath dinner meal with our gracious hosts, we had no idea that it would be over a year before we would be in a Regional Conference church again and over to someone’s house for Sabbath dinner.
But things are reopening. I have had to fly several times of late and airplanes and airports are full again. Fans are returning to basketball arenas and baseball stadiums. People are going back to restaurants for meals other than takeout.
And while I suspect that things will never go back to exactly the way they were and while there is a part of me that wonders if perhaps things did not re-open a little too quickly, it seems pretty clear that things are getting back to “normal”-albeit, a “new” normal.
So perhaps now is a good time to look back over the past 15-16 months and reflect upon the things that we learned-particularly what we learned as a church-at least, from my perspective.
I would like to mention 2 things for now and a few more things next month:
- We learned that God will take care of His people and His church. The first Adventist churches that I knew closed because of the coronavirus pandemic were out West. My best friend lives in California and he told me in late February or March that it was announced that the churches in his conference were closed for the next 2 months.
I remember saying to him that if Regional conferences had to close their doors for that long, we would be “out of business”.
Churches are a unique blend of business and ministry. They have to do enough business, i.e., take in more money than they spend, so they can stay in business. But the business of our church is ministry-and doing ministry sometimes is antithetical to business. Here’s an example:
When I had the privilege of being a conference administrator, the vast majority of the churches in that particular conference turned in less money in tithe than the conference was paying out in salary and benefits to the Pastor of that church.
Now-that is not because we were paying out big salaries; it is because most of our churches were smaller churches, in rural areas. Often in the secular world, if you have an entity that takes in less money than it takes to operate that entity, you simply shut it down.
But the Gospel Commission requires taking the gospel to the entire world-which means, we need churches-not just in the big cities, where there is the potential for more tithe dollars-but also in the small towns, where there isn’t.
That means that even in conferences that are financially healthy, there tends to be a small operating margin-a margin that depends on God’s people being faithful and placing their tithe and offering when the offering plate was passed. Except with churches being closed, there was no offering plate to pass. Additionally, at the time when our churches closed, more than 60% of our churches did not have on-line giving.
I remember meeting with the Regional Conference Treasurers/Vice Presidents for Finance when the pandemic hit and asking them, essentially, “What is the financial position of your conference right now?” No one said, “Yeah, we’re good-even if our churches remain closed for 15 months”.
But God got us through. Five of the 9 Regional Conferences experienced tithe gains-one of which-South Central- experienced its largest tithe gain ever (nearly 2 million dollars). To their credit, South Central returned a portion of their tithe gain back to its churches in the form of assistance to churches and individual members.
Overall, Regional Conferences collected approximately 99% of the tithe in 2020 that they collected in 2019-despite our churches being closed and the economy in certain sectors being devastated.
I do not believe that anyone would have predicted that the combination of higher tithe revenue and lower expenses (because our churches and offices were closed) meant that instead of our conferences having to close their doors because of the pandemic, at least some of them had a better year financially during the pandemic than they had before the pandemic. God “is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think”, Ephesians 3:20.
Not only is God able to do that for His people and His church; God did do that. May we never forget it.
- We learned more about how to use technology to spread the gospel. There has been so much innovation in our church these past 15 months-particularly in the area of online church, which allows people from all over the world to worship in our local church.
I preached in a church last week where there were 200 people in attendance. But that service has had thus far nearly 4,000 views-which means 20 times more people have viewed it online than saw it in person. And that story is one that is true all over the Regional Conferences. It is almost certainly true that last year, more people than ever were able to be part of our worship services.
And look what has happened on a weekly basis at the Oakwood University Church- their worship services on Sabbath consistently gets 30 thousand views.
And not only are people turning on their iPads, cell phones and computers to see ministry at Oakwood, but they are opening their wallets to fund Ministry at Oakwood. Last year-in a pandemic, with the doors of Oakwood University closed-the Lord blessed Oakwood with a tithe gain of nearly $750,000 dollars.
To put that in perspective, out of over 1,200 churches in the 9 Regional Conferences, only 27 had a total tithe in 2020 of more than $750,000. Almost certainly, Oakwood’s tithe gain last year-in a pandemic- was the largest in the history of Regional Conferences-maybe, the history of the Adventist church.
Now-the blessings of technology are not unmixed blessings. They come with some major challenges-ones that we shall talk about in this space next month. It is true that we can reach more people with the saving gospel of Jesus Christ on-line than we can ever reach in person. But viewership and discipleship are 2 very different things. It is easy to go to church on-line; it is much more difficult to be the church on-line. On-line technology was never designed to take the place of personal ministry. It is not enough for people to get the Adventist message into their homes; they need some Adventist members to become involved in their lives.
Two-thousand years ago, Jesus could use whatever technology He wished to reach our world. He could have invented the technology a long time ago that would have allowed Him to have stayed in heaven and had people hear Him preach the Sermon on the Mount on-line. That would have been a lot easier and convenient for Him.
But that is not what He chose to do. Instead of sending technology to us, He chose to come down here and be Emmanuel, or God with us. And that is ultimately what ministry is: People connecting with people and as a result of that, people becoming connected with God.
And doing that is sometimes inconvenient, it requires our time, it requires our commitment-it asks of us a whole lot of things. But it is what Jesus asks from us.
But as we return back to church and the new normal, it would be good to remember that what Jesus asks from us, is nowhere near what He did for us.
We’ll finish this in this space next month.