Top tourism officials of Atlanta, Georgia, welcomed Seventh-day Adventist world church President Jan Paulsen to their city today for the denomination's 59th General Conference Session, which is projected to pump $80 million into the local economy.
"We are thrilled to have you in our city -- as you can see now, we've got the street pole banners in downtown welcoming your attendees here," said Mark Vaughan, executive vice president of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau. "And we're more than confident that each person will have a great experience here in Atlanta."
Mark Zimmerman, general manager of the Georgia World Congress Center and the 72,000-seat Georgia Dome, acknowledged Atlanta's hot and humid weather may be uncomfortable for attendees. "But there's one thing you can count on: It will always be 78 and sunny inside the Georgia Dome," he said.
Vaughan and Zimmerman's comments came at the opening news conference of the session, which is expected to draw tens of thousands of Adventists over the 10-day run, during which more than 2,400 delegates will elect church leaders for the next five years.
Paulsen, who said the church was "delighted to be in Atlanta," laid out the organization's goals for the session, and answered several questions about the agenda.
The most important discussions, he said, will focus on: updating the Church Manual, deciding whether some decisions should be made at annual executive sessions instead of at the every-five-year General Conference Sessions, looking into how the church defines departments inside the church, and selecting the organization's leadership.
Updating the language in the manual, which has been amended by "bits and pieces" over the decades, he said, is challenging because of the world church's diversity. "As a global community there will be many differences inside the cultures," Paulsen said, "and somehow the church has to be aligned where it is, and not so tight that it can't function."
One part of the Manual that won't be updated, Paulsen said, is the church's current stance on ordination of women. Church officials are not expected to recommend changes to the church's position, he said.
Paulsen also called the Adventist Church "a strong and rapidly growing community" that is becoming better known among world political leaders.
"In years past, we were ... just a small community. There's a huge difference between a community of 1 million and a community of 25 million," he said. The church currently has 16.3 million baptized members in more than 200 countries.
The "community," which includes several million children, grew by at least one in the minutes before Paulsen spoke to reporters. While waiting for the news conference to begin, Paulsen said he received an electronic message on his wireless phone stating that his youngest grandson was just born in Geneva, Switzerland just seven minutes ago.
Not long after the news conference concluded, hundreds of delegates flocked to folding chairs on the floor of the Georgia Dome for the Session's first official activity -- an afternoon of spiritual emphasis.
They heard from church leaders such as Mark Finley, a General Conference vice president; Angel Rodriguez, director of the world church's Biblical Research Institute; and Carlton Byrd, pastor of the Atlanta Berean Adventist Church.
"We need to be deeply immersed in the scripture in order to speak with authority," said Rodriguez, who spoke about the importance of the Holy Spirit.
Byrd, one of several Atlanta-based preachers speaking this week, urged attendees to be "in one accord" in fulfilling the mission of the church.
Drawing an analogy between the uncontrollable oil spill in the Gulf Coast and the Holy Sprit, Byrd said, "The Adventist Church needs a BP moment, and I'm not talking about British Petroleum. I'm talking about Big-time Power."
Let the Holy Spirit's oil spill across the globe, Byrd said. "Drill, baby, drill."