The 61st session of the General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is expected to be a business meeting with a small (almost) side celebration. I pray that in 2025 we can return to a mighty celebration of God’s work, with some side business.
What kind of hope?
Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California October 7, 2009. It’s a beautiful Wednesday night, as are most Southern California nights. The Los Angeles Dodgers take on the St. Louis Cardinals and 56,000 people, mostly in blue, chant, sing and cheer their beloved Dodgers to victory in Game 1 of the National League Division Series. I was one of those 56,000 fans. It was the first playoff baseball game I attended. I will never forget the energy, electricity and excitement of that night. The Dodgers won and we left this stadium with a collective hope – which was ultimately dashed – that the end of these playoffs would result in a World Series championship.
There is power in being part of a great community. This community is one of the lures of the sports fandom. Whether it’s baseball at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California, cricket at Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad, India, or watching Real Madrid football club at Santiago Bernabéu Stadium in Madrid, Spain , people long to come together and celebrate.
The church, while different in focus, is similar in experience – except the people of the Church of God have far more to celebrate than the fans at a sporting event. They can celebrate God’s guaranteed and ultimate victory. It’s a celebration of hope — not the futile hope that sporting events give us, but the eternal hope in the soon coming of our Savior Jesus Christ.
“They kept me in the church”
I was recently reminded of the value of great celebrations of hope over breakfast with another church member. “Chad,” he told me, “I went to my first General Conference session in 1985 when I was a kid, and I’ve been to every session since.” And then he made this startling statement: “Those early sessions kept me in the church.” I had never heard of anyone crediting the General Conference session—which some view as just a business meeting or a waste of money—for “keeping them in the church.”
As I walked home reflecting on his words, I remembered key moments in my life. On the campus of Andrews University in the fall of 2003, I was a seminary student tasked with organizing an event that would excite young people and sign up to participate in Jesus’ ministries. The result was the inaugural Andrews University Ministry Fair – a two-day event designed to showcase more than 100 ministries from the Berrien Springs community, North American Division, Pioneer Memorial Church and from Andrews University.
From very young to very old, thousands of people filled the ministry booths set up in various areas of the Pioneer Memorial Church over the two days. The following week, during the ministry fair debriefing, I remember campus chaplain Tim Nixon saying, “It had the energy and enthusiasm of a General Conference session.” Having never attended a session, I had no context for his comment, but I knew what happened there on the campus of Andrews University. Young and old walked through these ministry stalls, inspired by the impact of Jesus working through the Seventh-day Adventist Church in their community, on their campus, in their local church and around the world, and they registered en masse to say, “Here am I, Lord, send me.”
Jump two years later to July 2005. I was in St. Louis, Missouri, for my first session of General Conference. Suddenly I had a context for Chaplain Nixon’s words. I was only supposed to be at this session for the first two days, but I was so moved to watch the church go about its “business”, mingling with people from all over the world in the exhibit area, eating at the cafeteria with a stranger, who were as excited as I was to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, that I called my wife, Christina, and said, “Can you you fly to St. Louis? I do not want to leave. I looked for another room and my wife joined me; then, this Saturday (Sabbath), we worshiped with tens of thousands of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
As we collectively sang Wayne Hooper’s classic, “We Have This Hope,” tears streamed down my cheeks of joy and thanksgiving. This collective celebration reminded me of the privilege of being part of a movement created to share hope with the world. I did not cry as a fan at a sporting event with futile hope but as a fan and follower of the King of Kings, who saved my life and gave me eternal hope. This moment among all these people reminded me of this gift of Jesus, and I will never forget this experience.
This year, I am returning to St. Louis for my third session of General Conference. I anticipate it will feel a little more like business and a little less like a rally than the previous two sessions I attended. I hope that on the Sabbath, even though fewer of us will sing, I will still be moved when we sing the promise of Jesus’ soon return. I will recommit to serve in the movement established by Jesus to tell the world that he is coming.
But at this session, I will also be a little sad. Sad for Adventists far from St. Louis, Missouri, who save all they can year after year to travel and just to experience once in a lifetime what it is to be part of a global church. I will be sad for the missionaries who look forward to their five-year stay for a worldwide celebration of their efforts, a celebration of the harvest that Jesus has brought through them. I will be sad for the many pastors working in small communities who need hope. GC Session reminds them that God sees and values their service, unnoticed by many. I will be sad for pastors and administrators who need the experience of the celebration crowd to humble them as they realize the movement is more important than any individual. And I will be sad for the young people who need to experience what my friend experienced in 1985: “This is the church of God, and I dedicate my life to the service of Jesus.
I hope I will only be sad for one session. So I invite you to hope with me that only the second coming of Jesus will prevent our 62nd session of the General Conference in 2025 from being a celebratory gathering of the people of God, with some business on the sidelines, rather than a session of business with a little celebration on the side.
Chad Stuart is Senior Pastor of the Spencerville Seventh-day Adventist Church in Maryland, USA.