From where I sat in the press room of the Edward Jones Dome, six floors above the arena, the General Conference Session was a kaleidoscope of color, a thing of beauty. I could say to myself, “Look at my church. From this distance, the colors of skin and fabric blend together in a tapestry woven with love, bound by a commitment to a common mission. Ethnic or national origin is immaterial. It is a global church, God’s church on this earth.”
But it wasn’t until I was up close, on the front row next to the stage, surrounded by individuals who make up my church, that I realized its true beauty. It is not our blending together that is so remarkable. What is remarkable is that our blending does not erase our differences.
Those who think the Adventist Church is cult-like, that its members are somehow brainwashed into all thinking alike have not been to a church business session like this one. There are serious differences within our church and there is little hesitation to voice those concerns. During the business sessions, delegates found themselves in disagreement over policies, over statements, over individual words. It is clear that the Adventist Church does not function the same way in every church around the world and painfully obvious that all Adventists don’t think alike.
The evidence that this church is led by God is that in spite of our differences, we can come together and agree on elected leaders, statements of belief, and policy changes. We can argue, we can disagree—then we can worship together and move forward with our mission.
Elected to serve another five years as our church’s leader, Paulsen called on Adventists to make their churches impact their communities. He continued his call for more involvement of youth in church decision-making. I was especially struck by a statement he made at his press conference when asked about trends in Adventist giving. Paulsen said, “No Adventist wants to meet Jesus with his banking account intact.”
This GC Session made history as the delegates elected the first woman to the position of GC vice president. Ella Simmons, former provost of La Sierra University and vice president of academic administration at Oakwood College, was elected to serve with responsibilities in the area of education. Later, Rosa Banks, former NAD director of human relations, was elected to serve as a GC associate secretary, also a first for women in our church. These elections are recognition of the valuable contribution women are making in the administration of our world church.
The 28th fundamental belief voted—Growing in Christ—is not new, but it is a clear statement of our belief in God’s power over evil forces in our world and the value of prayer and Bible study. This vote showed our recognition of differing needs in our global church, where some struggle daily with demonic powers. Even the last minute compromises on the exact words of the statement showed sensitivity to cultural differences.
It was a treat for the delegates to be in St. Louis over the 4th of July weekend. The city’s celebration stretched over three days, and the delegates were treated to air shows in the afternoon and fireworks displays after the evening meetings. The uniquely beautiful setting of the Arch and the Mississippi River made for treasured memories.
The high point of any GC Session is the Parade of Nations on the last Saturday night. Our church now has members in 204 of the 225 countries in this world, and representatives of each were proud to cross the stage and wave their flags as the crowd cheered and praised God for the miracle of seeing the gospel spread around the world. Like the opening ceremony of the Olympics, the flag bearers in their national costumes circled the floor of the auditorium as 40,000 Adventists waved glow sticks.
It was a sight to behold and a feeling that can barely be described. As the nations of each division cheered their flags, there was a sense of celebrating both what makes us all so different and what binds us so tightly together—our mission to the world.
In the end, what remains with me from the GC Session is a sense of how large our church is—not just because of the 13.9 million members or the more than 20 million people who worship in our churches each Sabbath. When I looked around that auditorium, through the hallways, and in the exhibit hall, I could see that our church is large enough to include people of differing races and cultures. It’s large enough to include lovers of soy milk and lovers of cow’s milk. Large enough for those who are opposed to women’s ordination and those who see a place for women in leadership.
The 58th General Conference Session in St. Louis showed me the vast spectrum of people and practices within our church family. It made me proud to be a part of such a large family, proud to be a part of God’s family on earth.