Presentations discuss post-pandemic church life and conspiracies in faith communities.
A two-day clergy development conference organized by the Ministerial Association of the North American Division explored the definition of Adventist evangelism, highlighted challenges in achieving church growth, showcased innovative examples of service, and provided guidance for the new evolving realities created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The sixth annual eHuddle or “evangelism huddle,” which is the gathering of the division’s evangelism visioning and leadership team, was held virtually March 8-9, 2021. The event was broadcast live from the NAD headquarters building in Columbia, Maryland, United States.
Ivan Williams, director of the NAD Ministerial Association, and two of his associate directors, Jose Cortes Jr. and Dave Gemmell, led and moderated a variety of presentations and sessions while attendees and the majority of the presenters attended via Facebook Live and Zoom. Interactivity was strongly encouraged throughout the event. The Ministerial Association leaders asked for engagement via chat features in both Facebook Live and Zoom. They ran polls in every session to gauge knowledge on specific topics or assess significant ministry needs.
“It is a privilege to talk about what God is doing in the NAD, how he’s winning people … and how he’s using us,” Williams said.
Ivan Williams, director of the NAD Ministerial Association, and Dave Gemmell, associate director, lead a session during the 2021 eHuddle. [Photo: Pieter Damsteegt/NAD Communication]
A member of the NAD studio production team for eHuddle monitors a camera angle. [Photo: Pieter Damsteegt/NAD Communication]
NAD Ministerial Association leaders and staff view the livestream and virtual attendees of the 2021 eHuddle on March 8, 2021. The two-day conference was broadcast from the North American Division’s headquarters building in Columbia, Maryland, United States. [Photo: Pieter Damsteegt/NAD Communication]
Luis Sanchez (left), senior office assistant for the NAD Ministerial Association, monitors slides presented by Kyoshin Ahn, NAD executive secretary, on membership accession rates. [Photo: Pieter Damsteegt/NAD Communication]
Attendees on Zoom listen to presentation on conspiracy theories by Ed Stetzer (upper left corner), dean of the School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership at Wheaton College and executive director of the college’s Billy Graham Center. [Photo: Screencapture of Zoom video call]
G. Alexander Bryant, president of the North American Division, echoed the observation and set the conference tone during his welcoming remarks. He acknowledged the challenges and lessons learned from carrying out ministry during the COVID-19 pandemic and offered words of encouragement to attendees.
“I’m amazed at all the stories I’ve heard of how God’s mission has continued to go forward,” Bryant said. “Together in the mission, we can multiply the ministry of Christ, and thousands will respond to His voice.”
Evangelism and Multiplying
The anchoring theme for eHuddle was “Multiply,” which is also the quinquennium strategic focus for the Ministerial Association. “Multiply” is also a focus of the NAD’s 2021-2025 strategy that falls under “Together in Mission.” “Multiply” aims to activate discipleship among members that will, in turn, create more disciples and encourage churches that plant additional churches.
The biblical inspiration for “Multiply” can be found in Acts 12, where there are accounts of persecution of Jesus’ earliest followers, including the imprisonment of the apostle Peter. Amid tremendous challenges, however, “the word of God continued to spread and flourish” (Acts 12:24, NIV). Cortes added, “Even though the church was going through difficulties — there was persecution, and racial tensions — the word of God continued to grow and multiply,” relating the passage to current events.
The format of the 2021 eHuddle was primarily centered on a newly revised definition of what it means for Adventist ministers and lay leaders to evangelize within the NAD territory. The definition, presented by Cortes, is to “reach, reclaim, and retain the people of North America with Jesus’ mission and message of compassion, hope, and wholeness.”
Within this definition of evangelism lie six components: love, serve, baptize, equip, plant, and revitalize. Six of eHuddle’s eight sessions were dedicated to an individual element of evangelism through presentations given by multiple pastors and church leaders who had inspirational testimonies.
Tracking Growth and Loss
Kyoshin Ahn, NAD executive secretary, highlighted statistical challenges related to attrition and loss, growth rates, and church culture within the division.
“Are we effectively nurturing members to retain them?” Ahn asked.
Ahn said that while the church has annually added three new members for every 100 members over the past 10 years, approximately 120,000 members have gone missing or requested to be removed from membership over the same period.
“This is a startling number. That is more than the entire membership of one union or the largest conference within the NAD,” Ahn said.
Although the numbers can be discouraging, Ahn said, true hope and guidance come from God.
“When we see these challenges, it’s a reminder that we need to go back to where we began our journey and refresh ourselves with the core message of the gospel, which is Christ crucified. Christ is the power and wisdom of God,” Ahn said, referencing 1 Corinthians 1:23, 24 from the Bible.
Ahn concluded his remarks by saying, “Christ crucified recharges us, reenergizes our congregations, reinvigorates our souls with His love and mercy, and He shares with us His infinite wisdom. May that be realized as we continue to serve His church and His kingdom.”
In a later presentation, Brian Ford, director of eAdventist, focused on the data behind church vitality, introducing the benchmarks of multiplying, growing, plateauing, and declining as a way to assess the health of a church or company. Between 2017 and 2019, 74 percent of churches in the NAD were plateauing, 17 percent declined, and 8 percent grew.
“We want to encourage reporting membership numbers,” Williams said to attendees, as a way to gain a better sense of congregation vitality across the division.
Pastoring in the New Normal
One major focal point of eHuddle was understanding the new realities of church life as the nation moves toward the end of the coronavirus pandemic. Sam Reiner, president of Church Answers, an organization that creates resources to help strengthen churches, believes that 2021 may present more challenges for church leaders than the previous year — when the pandemic was at its peak. He predicts denominations will see their steepest decline with a movement toward “neighborhood churches” as more people have become hesitant of gathering in crowds.
“Nationwide, attendance and giving are down. Very few churches have grown during the past year,” Reiner said. “Further, people have developed new routines and habits that no longer include church.” Reiner said that in addition, there is much uncertainty about how the nation’s economic recovery will affect churches. Pastors are also experiencing burnout and “decision fatigue.”
Reiner said he also believes there are many ways 2021 will be a better year for the church experience. “People are more flexible than they’ve ever been. The core membership is stronger than ever, and accelerated changes mean mission replaces preferences,” Reiner said.
Encountering Conspiracy Theories
Another key emphasis of eHuddle was equipping pastors and church leaders on how to confront the spread of conspiracy theories among congregants. This topic was presented by Ed Stetzer, dean of the School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership at Wheaton College and executive director of the college’s Billy Graham Center. Stetzer is also a repeat presenter, having addressed the first eHuddle in 2016.
“Conspiracy theories substantially harm Christian witness,” Stetzer said. “Jesus says He’s the way, truth, and life. As people of the truth, we want to make sure we have congregations that reflect and share that truth.”
“Pastors need to see this as a fight for discipleship,” Stetzer added. “Those who spread conspiracy theories are trying to disciple people away from the gospel and are co-opting the mission.”
Stetzer said there are three types of conspiracy followers, those who are “attracted, advocates, or apostles.” Attracted followers are intrigued, advocates are confident in the theories and work to share within their networks, and apostles generate and propagate conspiracy theories. With the different followers come different recommended actions to protect a congregation from damage caused by the spread of misinformation.
“If they’re attracted, focus on discipleship and care. Help them turn to the truth and security of the gospel. For the advocates, engage in love and discipline when rejected. Act in equal measure of boldness and love. And for apostles, warn the congregation. Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseer,” Stetzer said.
The Ministerial Association team announced a number of resources and upcoming events geared toward empowering ministry leaders. The “Best Practices Podcasts” became available on March 8 on all major podcasting platforms. The three shows under the umbrella of “Best Practices” include “The Leadership Effect” with Ivan Williams, “Adventist Ministry” with Dave Gemmell, and “Multiply” with Jose Cortes Jr.
“[The] eHuddle means ‘evangelism huddle’ but it can also mean ‘everyone huddle,’” Cortes said. “Evangelism cannot happen without everyone. Without you, without our church members, this cannot happen.
“We got together in the midst of the pandemic to talk about the things God wants to do through us, so we can go back into this game to win for God’s honor and glory. The game is won when we bring people in touch with Jesus.”
The next NAD Ministerial Association-sponsored event, the Church Planters Boot Camp East, is set to take place April 8-10, 2021. The boot camp for East Coast viewing will be available in English and Spanish for registered participants. Information will be made available on the Best Practices Facebook page.