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Church Chat: Strategies for advancing ministry in South America

Köhler on management of big projects, big growth

Church Chat: Strategies for advancing ministry in South America

Erton Köhler, president of the Adventist Church in South America, says big ministry projects help people "think big" for other methods of outreach. [photo: Ansel Oliver]

"Move the strategy along, go ahead," says Erton Köhler, snapping his fingers to emphasize immediate action.

The president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church's South American Division will later head into a meeting, something he would rather keep short. More time to get things accomplished, he says, explaining the South American culture of practicality over theory.

In recent years, leaders in South America have implemented a variety of evangelism outreach initiatives - from weekly small group meetings to major, continent-wide projects advertised in magazines and billboards, some members even covering their cars with ads.

South America lost about 14 percent of its membership after a division-wide membership audit from 2007 to 2009. Still, the region is home to one of the fastest growth rates of any of the church's 13 world divisions. Accession rates are more than 8 percent, and leaders at the world headquarters say those figures are solid. The division's present membership totals about 2.25 million.

Köhler, 41, former Youth director, is originally from Brazil's southern state of Rio Grande do Sul. On a recent Monday in São Paulo, he met with ANN to talk about some of the denomination's issues in South America. He discussed church growth, strategy in mission and how to inspire members across the continent to think big.

Though his English is better than he gives himself credit for, ANN granted his request of editing the following interview excerpts for clarity.

Adventist News Network: Some divisions are experimenting with placing young people on the Executive Committee. Are young people represented on the Executive Committee in South America?

Erton Köhler: In the last [Adventist Church World Session], we did not have a single delegate under 30 years old. This shows that, despite having many active young people, many young pastors and young administrators, we still need to involve our youth more in the administrative decisions of the church. For the next Session, we will have several young people as delegates and I hope for the composition of our steering committee for the next five years that they are a part of it.

ANN: This division has a significant commitment to media. Is that changing Adventist life? Is there an inclination for members to watch church at home on TV instead of meeting together?

Köhler: [Television] has not affected, or diminished the attendance of our churches. On the contrary, it has been a tool to stimulate people to look for our churches. Our members end up benefited because it has programs of quality and spiritual reinforcement to follow on radio, TV or Web during the week. This strengthens their spiritual life. More than this, they follow the church movement and are involved in missionary projects, which strengthen church bonds.

ANN: Gender roles are perhaps more defined in South America than in, say, North America. But if we're all equal under God, how about under the treasurer? Do a man and a woman doing similar work here receive equal pay and benefits if they're working for the church or the media center or an educational institution?

Köhler: Well, just a general view for you, we live in a society here that has a strong difference between a man and a woman. This is a strong cultural issue in South America. We are paying men and women the same salary. The difference is that if you have a man or woman who is a full gospel worker, the man receives more benefits than the woman. I know in North America it's very different. Here, the man is the base of the family. If we offer social security or a health program for the man, we offer the same benefits for the children and his wife. If a woman is a full gospel worker, she will receive benefits for her, but not for the family, because we recognize that the husband is the head of the family and he needs to provide the financial basis. But the salary is the same.

ANN: How effective are the large, one-day projects coordinated across the continent?

Köhler: For us it's not one day, it's a lifestyle. But we need to find one day to unify everyone to work together and to challenge the church to do the same. If we can do something together we can do big things. The result is that our people are thinking big. We shared 20 million magazines in Live With Hope and another was inviting community members to our homes -- Homes of Hope. Today, if you visit different unions, they have big projects they are doing there. You'll find that they have started to think big, too.

ANN: What's the composition of membership and church assets by country in your division?

Köhler: Just to give you a broader perspective of our situation, the South American Division consists of mainly two languages, Portuguese and Spanish, eight countries and more than 2 million Adventists. About 800,000 Adventists are in the seven countries that speak Spanish and the others are in Brazil, serving about 1.2 million members. The tithes of the Church are concentrated 82 percent in Brazil and 18 percent in the other seven countries in our territory.

ANN: Lots of people are joining the church in the north -- more than 40,000 people a year. It seems that often the church is reaching the lower class. How can it reach all socio-economic levels of society?

Köhler: North Brazil used to be the region where the church grew more. Today, northeast Brazil is the region with the largest growth. I would say that in the North and Northeast our greatest growth comes from urban areas instead of rural. These areas are also poorer regions in Brazil. That's why the church grows more among poorer people than more wealthy people. But we are also trying to reach a higher-socioeconomic level of people through different activities. Small groups and friendship strategy has worked better than previous methods. We're also trying to open new churches in better neighborhoods of the cities. We also have churches in some places of Brazil mainly designed for upper-class cultures. We used to baptize few people of a higher social level, but this has been changing in the last few years.

ANN: How do you balance governance and administrative needs of small countries? Is there equality with the management of the South American Division?

Köhler: Our team distributes their time equally among all local regions, trying to give as much attention to the smaller countries, as to the larger. We also hold the principle that everything that is produced in one language has to be produced in the other, so that all have access to the same opportunities. We hold frequent meetings with the administrators of all the Unions and countries, involving them in the planning process, progress and decisions. We all have the same amount of participation and the feeling that we are all together in our projects and challenges. More than this, we are using our financial resources strategically, investing in the smaller countries, seeking to strengthen them and minimize the differences.

ANN: ANN once visited a pastor in Northern Brazil who works every day of the week. Is it healthy for a pastor to not take a day off?

Köhler: We recommend that they take Monday's off in order to rest. It may happen that some emergencies occur on Mondays, people die or couples have problems. But we don't have regularly scheduled meetings on Mondays, we don't usually have councils or meetings or an interview with the division president on Monday because we are trying to respect this day off.

--Jobson Santos contributed to this story