Leaning Toward the Future [Main Story]
Adventist Review editor Bill Knott recently sat down with Todd Stout, pastor of Manhattan’s Church of the Advent Hope, to talk about the remarkable congregation that is dreaming big dreams for Christ’s kingdom in the heart of New York City.
When I visit Church of the Advent Hope, I’m struck by a sense of expectancy: members are looking forward to being together—they’re leaning toward the Word and toward each other. They talk as though they expect God to do great things here.
Yes, there is the expectation in the congregation that God is at work here and that He has great things in store for the future of this ministry. I would say that even among those who aren’t part of the church there’s a feeling that something needs to happen here spiritually. There’s a hunger, a longing for something more. Individually and corporately you can feel it in this church, and in the culture around us. In the church there’s a clear awareness that God wants to move powerfully in this city for His kingdom. God has been assembling a congregation here with skills and talents that match a big vision. We’ve noticed individuals with particular skill sets coalescing in an overall vision for what needs to happen here—educators, architects, lawyers, persons with financial management skills, students—all of whom have a heart for ministry, and who want to do something for God. These are the signs that God is up to something.
Your congregation looks and feels different from many “settled” Adventist congregations.
About 60 percent of our congregation is 35 and under, so it’s a very young congregation. We’re a transient congregation: people are always moving in and out, and a lot of them are young people. The population of Manhattan is fairly young itself, and a healthy church here is going to resemble the demographic of its surroundings. We have a strong collegiate ministry outreach, and a lot of college students attending. But we also have a large post-collegiate group that plays an active part in how the church operates, on our church board, leading ministries, active in the worship service, etc. This church is overflowing with young adults.
Tell me about the ethnic and racial diversity of the congregation. Does it look like the city?
It looks very much like the city, and that’s the way it should be. In many faiths, congregations grow up around a major ethnic identity, but here, it’s like a United Nations Assembly going on, and that’s a beautiful thing. One of the nicest comments I’ve heard about Advent Hope in the last six months was a young adult telling a friend, “This is what heaven’s going to look like.” That brings joy to my heart.
One prominent theory about church leadership says that the pastor goes to the summit of the mountain, where he meets God, and then he comes down with a vision to share it with the people—what you might call the “Moses model.” Is that the way vision develops in this congregation?
Definitely not. I know that members hope that I, as a pastor, have some vision, and certainly I do share my experience and where I feel that God is leading us. But the vision of this church—for worship, for ministry, for the impact we need to have in this city—is a corporate thing. So the key objective is to facilitate the times when the body can pray and vision together. The most helpful thing we’ve done in the last year was to take our leaders on a leadership retreat. We went up to the mountains, literally, and spent a weekend together.
You all went to the mountain?
Yeah, we all went to the mountain. They didn’t send just me! And it was really, really helpful. When you learn that God is impressing your leaders and your members with the same ideas He’s laying on your heart, you come to trust that His plans are bigger than any one person or one pastor.
No one’s going to get solo credit if this thing works.
No, and there’s nothing that could be more joyful for me as a pastor than to have the church body as a whole recognized as being God’s instrument as opposed to one or two individuals receiving any recognition. Certainly no one’s going to say, “Well, Todd Stout did this, and boy, he was great.” We’re going to say, “The Lord was responsible for whatever happens in His work in this city.” And that’s great!
Give me a noun that you’d use to describe Church of the Advent Hope.
Tell me about that.
Well, this is a group of people who have experienced a lot of both adversity and joy, and through it all, they’ve really been able to persevere. They sense that God is at work and He wants to do something in this city through them. That’s what keeps them together as a group; that’s what made them a very strong force for God’s work here. Once you come to trust that God can bring you through difficult situations and still work through you, joy grows, confidence grows.
Many other urban Adventist congregations that have faced a changing ethnic community around them have moved 20 miles out—or more. Why didn’t this congregation do that? Why did it persevere?
Our building on 87th Street was constructed in 1956 when this was a German-speaking congregation and neighborhood. The inscriptions above our front door are still in German. But as that population waned, the congregation didn’t pull up stakes and head upriver. The church shifted right along with its community—becoming the ethnically diverse congregation we have today.
I think there’s always been a sense that Manhattan is a unique place, and you don’t want to abandon this place. Manhattan is one of the most important cultural centers of the world. So even if the neighborhood changes, we don’t give up our presence here. We adapt, we try to adjust to the reality around us in the immediate neighborhood, and we must continue to have a presence—a positive presence. It’s about kingdom presence—not comfort.
Your church has big dreams for Manhattan and for the metro New York region. I’ve seen the 60-page detailed strategic vision your church has embraced: it talks about multiple high-quality vegetarian restaurants, a health spa, a first-rate Adventist church school, even a second campus for this congregation—all in Manhattan. Your team is imagining ministry on a scale and at a cost that might cause treasurers everywhere to run screaming into the hills. What leads you to think that these might be God’s plans?
First of all, there’s clearly a need—a huge need to make the gospel live and breathe and walk and talk in this city. The need has led to the realization that we’ve got to think big. New York, and Manhattan in particular, is a unique place: every organization that has any kind of presence in New York has to think big. You don’t thrive in New York by thinking small! Some have called our dreams “audacious,” but if we’re going to be faithful in building the kingdom here, those are dreams that we must realize.
What do you need from fellow Adventists around North America?
Believers need to recognize that the cities are a place where Jesus is determined to have His gospel preached before His second coming. Ellen White told us more than a century ago that Adventist work in New York City ought to be well planned and high quality because of the unique influence of this city on the world. Demographers tell us what we see every day: thousands—millions of people worldwide—are relocating to cities. As of 2008, and for the first time in the history of the world, more people are living in urban settings than rural ones. * So we need our brothers and sisters in Adventism to embrace the fact that city ministry needs their concern, their prayer support—and yes, their financial support.
We’re ministering to other people’s children—college and graduate students—while they get an education here. We’re providing a strong, confident Adventist environment for young adults at a critical time in their lives. And we are moving forward with a vision of outreach that will facilitate the growth of God’s kingdom in one of the greatest cities in the history of the world. Those are tasks that need support—and deserve support.
For a copy of the strategic plan for Church of the Advent Hope, or to learn more about its new non-profit organization Advent Hope Ventures, e-mail info@advent hope.org. For more information about the church, go to www.adventhope.org.
Church of the Advent Hope partners with Adventist Christian Fellowship (ACF) to provide a year-round ministry for Adventist and other Christian young adults attending dozens of colleges and universities in the metro New York region. If you know of college or graduate students in New York City, invite them to visit:
11 East 87th Street
New York, NY 10128
Phone: (212) 534-8245
For information about Adventist Christian Fellowship and its ministry to thousands of college and graduate students across North America, go to www.acflink.org