very five years the Seventh-day Adventist Church meets in a massive stadium. Nearby restaurants offer vegetarian burgers, vegetarian hot dogs, even vegetarian corn dogs. City streets fill with modestly dressed families who gaze at each other at crosswalks, similar questions taking form in their eyes: Don’t I know you from Andrews University? Don’t I know you from Spicer Memorial College?
Every five years an additional question also arises: Why have a General Conference session? This is a valuable question to ask. No small expense goes into gathering a sampling of the world church into a single city and holding both devotional meetings and business sessions. Why not simply gather the delegates, make administrative decisions on a smaller scale, and use the money saved to build schools or hospitals, or to address crises, such as the current one in Haiti?
I must admit I’m drawn to any idea that shifts more money to humanitarian work. I believe our church is at its best when we respond to social and economic injustices, when we are concerned about our neighbors’ most basic needs: food, clothing, water (see Matthew 25:34-46). But I also value belonging to a world church, not just a North American church, or a local church. And a healthy world church needs to meet regularly for the following reasons:
It’s easy to think of the Seventh-day Adventist Church as North America-centric, especially if you’re from the United States. The church began in Battle Creek, Michigan; its administrative headquarters is in Silver Spring, Maryland; and while the Adventist Review has a world edition, the magazine is based in the United States. A
General Conference session is a chance to immerse ourselves in our actual identity. Adventists live in more than 200 countries and speak more than 800 languages (thank you, Wikipedia). We are growing fastest on the continents of Africa and South America. Fewer than 7 percent of Adventists now live in the United States.
General Conference sessions reaffirm the worldwide identity of the church. In Atlanta 2,400 delegates will elect church officials and vote for changes in the constitution. These delegates represent the church’s global makeup and are drawn from the church’s 13 divisions. The direction our church is headed is being steered not by a single individual (or a single country), but by a representative community of believers.
You don’t have to be a delegate to experience the global impact of General Conference session. By attending a General Conference session, you can feel the pulse of the church as it is—modern, diverse. You can attend business sessions and discover what the church as a whole is grappling with. You can stand in line at the cafeteria and meet fellow Adventists from South Korea, Brazil, or Nigeria. You can attend a lunchtime seminar and learn how leaders in different parts of the world are dealing with the same concerns your local church might have, such as improving Sabbath school attendance.
But perhaps the best opportunity to immerse yourself in the identity of the church is to visit the exhibit hall. There, you can get a global taste of Adventism. You can pick up some stamps, attend a mini camp meeting, visit ADRA’s exhibit, bump into an old friend, meet someone new, and perhaps get a fresh insight into what it means to be Adventist.
Most of the year church matters are local. Who will teach kindergarten Sabbath school? How will we reach out to our community? The politics and administration of the global church feels more distant, less relevant. But every five years we Adventists gather and get to dialogue about our church as a global institution.
I first attended a General Conference session in 1990, and the two big issues then were women’s ordination and the election of a new General Conference president. I was 15 years old, and I spent more time babysitting than attending business sessions. (OK, I admit it; I didn’t attend any business sessions.) However, because I was in Indianapolis, I became immersed in the church’s dialogue. I learned about the issues, talked with other believers, and formed a passionate opinion. Attending a General Conference session made me a more informed member of my church.
During the fifty-ninth session, as with every other session, Adventist delegates will be examining and voting on a myriad of items. Some of them will be important but dull. Others will create tremendous buzz. All of the items will be taking place in the open. There probably won’t be many surprises, but the meetings will be accessible, and the votes and decisions will be talked about in restaurants and hotels across Atlanta. All this discussing will be done not only by delegates, but, more important, by attendees, by you. To be a healthy church, we need dialogue. We might not always agree, but it’s vital that we can come together and converse.
It’s a small Adventist world, I sometimes say. It seems that if I talk to another Adventist long enough, we’ll discover that we both know the same person. It’s as if there’s a string that connects every Adventist to every other Adventist.
Attending a General Conference session both affirms this sense of connectiveness and reveals the vastness of the Adventist community. The Georgia Dome seats more than 70,000 people. On Sabbath morning the space will be filled with believers from all over the world. Business affairs will be set aside, differences will be set aside, someone will have a prayer, then thousands of brothers and sisters will join their voices in a common song. This, as my mother liked to say, is it. It’s community. It’s a mountaintop experience. It’s a General Conference session.
Sari Fordham teaches writing at La Sierra University in Riverside, California. She is constantly impressed by her students’ talents and insights.