British Adventists Should “Look at Reality,”
Union Conference President Says
Ian Sweeney urges evangelistic push at pastors’ meeting
BY VICTOR HULBERT, British Union Conference
“If we followed national statistics our membership would be more than 300,000,” Ian Sweeney told South England Conference provincial ministers at an early-November meeting. It was the third in a series of meetings that the recently elected president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the United Kingdom and Ireland is holding with ministers around the country. As president, he wears his passion for evangelism and mission on his sleeve—and that passion is causing him to think about how Adventists are reaching out to the majority of the population in the British Isles.
The Adventist mission ethos means that members can be found in almost every country of the world. Yet, while the church in the U.K. sent out many missionaries from its shores in the past century, the indigenous church over the past 30 years has struggled while church growth has come via immigration followed by evangelism largely within the ethnic minority communities.
While hard statistics are difficult to come by, it is estimated that less than 10 percent of those 32,000 members would be regarded as indigenous. In earlier discussions with the London ministers he noted that within the 11,000-plus members in the London area there are probably fewer than 200 that can be described as “White British.”
He said: “This is a total role reversal in terms of the British population, where fewer than 10 percent are immigrants; in reality we have become a Black-majority church within a White-majority population.” To be proportionate with the general population would require a membership increase of 90 percent! An impossible dream? “We need to wake up and look at the reality,” Sweeney says. “We need to look for ways to make an impact.”
The aim of the meetings he has so far held with ministers in the North and South England conferences, as well as with a number of local congregations, is not so much to provide solutions as to raise awareness of the enormous challenge and commission the church faces. Quoting E. E. Cleveland, Sweeney said, “You can’t finish the work without doing the work,” and has pledged that the primary focus of the union’s executive committee will be evangelism. However, it is at local church level where the real impact is made, and in his discussions Sweeney is challenging every local congregation to “take seriously its reason for being.” The aim of every board and business meeting should be “How do we reach the lost?”
Reacting to the presentation, Ron Clemow, a local pastor, said Adventists have to be more proactive in their communities. The discussion focused on how many Adventists have genuine friendships in the community, how to develop them, and noting that “we must be friendly, but we must present the gospel.”
Mick Smart is one of a small number of ministers who have been released from normal pastoral duties in order to church plant. He has found it to be an astonishingly refreshing experience and challenged the conference to release more ministers for “frontline” evangelism. South African pastor Robin Lewis, who has served in the South England Conference for eight years, recommended the book Watching the English, noting that he has been challenged to learn how to relate to the English mind-set. He said, “It is well worth a read and has helped me to understand the culture that I need to work with in order to be successful.”
A meeting such as this is obviously just the start of a process. However, Sweeney, with Antiguan parents and an Irish grandfather but born and bred in Leicester, finds within himself a burning desire to use his time in leadership to reach beyond the histories of the past and the challenges of the present in order to allow God to do something amazing in our communities in this increasingly secularized country.