Top leadership of the Seventh-day Adventist Church today endorsed a plan to evangelize the world's cities, beginning in 2013 with New York City. The vote came as a practical response to world church President Ted N. C. Wilson's call yesterday to prioritize outreach to large urban centers, where half of the world's population now lives.
Historically, rural areas have responded to the Adventist Church's message of hope more than cities, said world church Secretary G. T. Ng. "We are a church of islands and villages," he told more than 300 delegates at world church headquarters on October 9 for Annual Council business meetings.
"Urban evangelism can be overwhelming," Ng added.
An estimated 19 million people who speak some 800 languages live in metropolitan New York.
Outreach to cities weighed heavy on the minds of even the first Adventists, Ng said. Church co-founder Ellen G. White wrote that she spent many sleepless nights thinking about evangelism to big cities. "It is distressing to think that they have been neglected for so long," she wrote.
Even today, "most of the church's resources are going outside the cities, even though most of the needs are now inside cities," said Gary Krause, director of the church's Office of Adventist Mission. Echoing a well-known statement from White, Krause said the church must follow Jesus' New Testament example of outreach -- He mingled with people, showed care and compassion and met physical needs before calling anyone to follow Him, he said.
The plan that delegates endorsed today hinges on both corporate and personal evangelism. Between 2012 and 2015, church leaders will equip pastors and lay members alike to launch outreach efforts in more than 650 of the world's major cities. To better reflect the "cultural diversity and unique character" of the church's thirteen world divisions, regional administrators will choose the outreach cities and craft an approach that will best connect with their respective communities.
Adventist evangelist Mark Finely compared the nine-page blueprint on urban evangelism to the U.S. Declaration of Independence. "This will be looked on as one of the most significant turning points within the modern-day Seventh-day Adventist Church," Finley said. "This document is more than paper; it can be a north star in modeling comprehensive care and compassion to big cities."
While delegates demonstrated collective support for the plan, several offered suggestions on how to strengthen it. Many said it should acknowledge the work of Adventist evangelists and laypeople already ministering in New York City.
Leslie N. Pollard, president of church-run Oakwood University, said such people should be recognized in the document. "We would like to see these people affirmed for sticking with the city, not abandoning it. We don't want to invalidate them because now the big boys from Washington are coming in," Pollard said.
G. Earl Knight, president of the church's Greater New York Conference, echoed Pollard's call for collaboration with those on the ground in New York City. "They know the challenges. Some who entered that battlefield got discouraged and left. Some stayed and fought the battle." Knight said. By working together, and through the world church's "insight, vision and all the resources we can find," the church can accomplish "this tremendous task," Knight said.
Other delegates questioned whether a major evangelism effort in New York City could be sustained "long after the lights go out, the speakers leave and the tent is pulled down." One suggested a lifestyle center focusing on the church's emphasis on healthy living.
"I promise you that Health Ministries is here to train, to coordinate with you, to come work with you in the trenches to do whatever we can, because Health Ministries is a first way we can approach evangelism," said Allan Handysides, Health Ministries director for the world church.
"Every department of the General Conference will bend their backs to provide you in the field with whatever resources you feel you need to accomplish whatever you feel is most appropriate for your region," Handysides said.
The church's educational institutions, too, can play a central role in making urban evangelism sustainable, Pollard said.
"Our schools could serve not just as havens," Pollard said, "but as mission centers." Schools could also coordinate research on which methods of urban evangelism are most effective, turning evangelists into "professors of ministry," Pollard said. Here again, he called for input from those already ministering in the city. "They have a strong sense of what works and what doesn't work."
Trevor Baker, president of the church's regional Northeastern Conference, reiterated the need for a "sustained presence" in New York City after the "onslaught of evangelism."
Ministry to New York City has been a longtime passion of Wilson's. The world church leader's 1981 New York University doctoral dissertation was "A Study of Ellen G. White's Theory of Urban Religious Work as it Relates to Seventh-day Adventist Work in New York City."
While the church's focus on urban evangelism will begin in New York City, Wilson reminded delegates of the global scope of the effort. He visited cities in Europe several times this year and told delegates he holds a "deep burden" for the region.
--Click HERE to read the document on mission to cities.