Meet the Future
Young GC session delegates talk frankly and hopefully
about their church.
One year ago in Atlanta, Georgia, United States, I was nervously waiting in a lobby. I had planned a Friday meeting with some General Conference delegates—during their lunch break—and checked my memo for accuracy in location, date, and time. Inadvertently twisting the paper in my fist, I scanned the crowd stepping out of the Georgia Dome for unknown faces I was unreasonably trying to recognize. As people streamed into the hotel, I studied delegates and badges and finally began to see reciprocal behavior. Soon I was relieved to usher in almost all of the special delegates I had invited.
These 10 delegates, representing nine different countries at the 59th General Conference session, were, indeed, unique—all of them, excited to serve their church in such an important capacity, were under the age of 35.
Here are their names (in the order they appear in the photo, left to right): Thuy Tien le Tran, from Vietnam; Srey Neang, from Cambodia; Blessings Gonbwe, from Malawi; Justin McNeilus, from the United States; Alice Danla, from India; Emilia Rouhe, from Finland; Samia Henriette, from the Seychelles; Deepak Boro, from India; Rochael Shemali Perera, from Singapore; and Tshwanelo Bryan Sekwababe, from Botswana.
Below are excerpts from our hour-long conversation. You’ll get to hear many of their voices: while each had valuable insights to share, space permits us only to include the most salient. Hopefully, you’ll take from this what I did—the church is, and will be, in good, capable hands. No nervousness or hand-wringing necessary—meet the bright future [leaders] of our church.
— Kimberly Luste Maran
First question: How did you become a delegate?
It was a surprise for me. I considered coming to the GC session as the greatest privilege. It has always been a dream for me to attend. But I never expected to be chosen as a delegate. The place where I come from is very primitive. It’s in the northeast side of Manipur. Of course, my father is a [Global Mission] pioneer for [the church], so there’s always been a dream for him to be here.
This is a great achievement, the greatest blessing of an Adventist. And I’m so happy to be here!
—Alice Danla, India
I never dreamed of coming to the GC session. In my country as young people grow up, we always figured these things are for older people. Then I got a call one Sunday from one of our conference presidents. He introduced himself and said, “Are you driving?”
I said, “Yes.”
And he answered, “OK, stop by the side of the road.” I did. Then he told me, “You’re going to the GC!”
I didn’t believe him for weeks until he invited me to come to the conference and start doing the paperwork. Wow! I thought. What am I going to do there? What’s my responsibility?
So that’s how I got here, and really, I’m very excited. It’s such an eye-opener for young people to see the organizational structure of the church now.
—Tshwanelo Bryan Sekwababe, Botswana
Tell me why you think it’s important that young delegates are invited to the GC session.
We are the leaders of tomorrow, so we have to learn things from the people who have more experience. We need to be together in this.
—Blessings Gonbwe, Malawi
I think it opens your eyes to start realizing that our church is a global church. When you’re in your own locale, in your small little place, sometimes you forget that whatever decisions you make also affect the unity of Seventh-day Adventists. But when you get here, you realize that there are actually many people from so many different countries, languages, and cultures. Your decision-making is actually very critical—you now know that whatever decision you make as a leader (and a young person) doesn’t affect only the people in India, but is also united with everybody else in the world.
—Deepak Boro, India
I strongly hope that the GC will invite more young adult delegates to participate in the future. As we know, young people can be very strong in motivating people to listen to God’s words.
—Srey Neang, Cambodia
Alice Danla, Blessings Gonbwe, Tshwanelo Bryan Sekwababe, Srey Neang, Rochael Shemali Perera, Srey Neang, and Thuy Tien le Tran, Justin McNeilusSo what is the biggest challenge facing the church in your
area of the world?
Finland is a very secularized country at the moment, and religion is not really talked about. It’s really difficult to show that you are a Christian. We don’t have many Adventists, and it’s a challenge to reach out and preach to the community.
—Emilia Rouhe, Finland
In our country [Malawi] the biggest challenge is the doctrinal challenges to Adventism that are creeping in. It takes much time discussing these many issues . . . we need to go on with the message of Jesus Christ and not get too distracted by other non-Adventist doctrines.
Another challenge we are facing is the HIV/AIDS epidemic. A lot of our youth are dying because of this disease. But we praise God that now at least education is being provided.
In North America it’s involvement from young people. There’s such a lack of young people being involved and leading out, and even being excited about being Adventist. There seems to be a culture among pastors, church leaders (not necessarily youth leaders), that you have to have gray hair, or something to that effect, before you can be an elder, or before they share the pulpit for you to speak.
But we have to start letting young people be involved. Sure, it’s a risk—we’re going to mess up, we’re going to make mistakes. But if young adults aren’t in that environment, they’re just going to leave the church.
The other part, though, I think, is that God needs a generation that isn’t selfish and self-serving. One that steps above that and just says, “Well, fine, we’ll find a church within the Adventist realm that does let us lead out and do things.” And I think that’s coming. I sense that young people in North America are excited. There are people in our church, and in churches around the U.S., that are excited about the Adventist message, and they want to be involved. So I think regardless of what leadership does or doesn’t do, I think young people are there ready to lead out and take ownership in the church.
—Justin McNeilus, United States
I’d say that it’s probably the fact that young people don’t feel as if they have a place to go away from the pressures in society. They feel alone in problems they are facing right now, and this has dragged them away from the church. The church should make the youth feel that they are a part of the church, problems and pressures—and all. The older generation and the younger generation—I feel like there is a gap between them. Maybe each of them also has their personal problems that they could overcome together, if they could help each other.
—Samia Henriette, Seychelles
The youth tend to leave the church, so keeping them is one of the problems we face. When I first moved to Singapore, we had youth there, and now you don’t see them around at church. So we have to do something that will keep them interested and involved.
—Rochael Shemali Perera, Singapore
The one thing that I’ve come to realize is that we’re at a point where it’s the chicken-and-egg scenario. The elders are saying to us, “Show us that you can do this,” and the young people are complaining that they’re not allowed to show them! And God has become, especially to the young people, common. Going to church has become popular. It’s one of those things that people just do—they just come to church on Sabbath, sit there, and listen to the preacher, and that’s it.
That’s one of the biggest challenges, actually motivating young people to get up and say, “Let’s do this. We can do this. We’ve been given the platform.” In our country we’ve got the liberty to do almost anything, and yet we’re still sitting down—we need motivation.
—Tshwanelo Bryan Sekwababe
What has impressed you the most about the GC Session?
I’m most impressed that they made space for a prayer room.
For me, it must be the spiritual music and songs, the choir, and the people who perform—and really sing! At my church I’ve heard people just mumbling. [Here] I really get a true, worshipful spirit—100 percent—in me when I hear all the music.
—Thuy Tien le Tran, Vietnam
"The church should make the youth feel that they are a part of the church, problems and pressures—and all."
I love that I can go to the prayer room at almost any time. And, oh yes, one more thing, I’ve seen Mark Finley for so long [on satellite programs]—and I got to see him in person! I was really excited and moved by this. He is one of my favorite speakers.
The first thing that made me excited this morning was when they introduced the new president. Most of the time we hear lots of people talking about big promises or something, but in his acceptance speech, Pastor Ted Wilson quoted many words from the Spirit of Prophecy, from Ellen G. White. We have this spiritual man to help lead the church.
Pastor Tara VinCross preaching one of the devotionals. That was a very big pleasure for me, because previously I used to say, “I am not a boy, or I would have been a pastor.” They don’t usually allow us women to take part in leading the church, but we can lead too, just like anyone else.
It’s been really encouraging to hear how the church is doing in different parts of the world. There is so much growth. In Europe it feels like young people are leaving the church, and it’s kind of discouraging. I feel like I’m being left alone. But here you can see that it’s a big global church, and it’s going well.
You all seem to feel that the church has good leadership. So this is a bit of a pointed question: What do you all think the church is doing right? What could it do better?
We have to be careful about how we prepare members to be Adventists, and when we baptize them. New members are more than numbers—they have to know who we are as a church and whom we stand for.
Here’s what happened to me during an outreach event at my church. We were dispensing medicine for those in need. At one point I was writing down a woman’s name, and there was a friend of mine just next to me. My friend very nicely asked the woman, “So how did you learn about Jesus?”
The woman responded, “Who is Jesus?” She really did not know—and she had just been baptized! I can’t imagine a person who is baptized not knowing. But it was true.
I commend the church on what they are doing by establishing the [Maranatha] program of the One-Day Church. This is a very big motivation for Christians—those Christians from rural areas used to worshipping in a grass hut, under a tree, something like that. When there’s a heavy rain it disturbs everything. But with a One-Day Church, most of the members know that help is out there—like the church is really a family.
Reports from all over the world are so exciting. Sometimes you get wrapped up in your own local church and forget this is a global movement that God is leading. The church is moving in that right direction, to fulfill our mission, to tell the world that Jesus is coming again.
There’s not the sufficient level of trust needed to let young people expand, and I’ve sensed that from some of the other comments. The church needs to have a culture that says, “We trust young people. We let them make some mistakes, but we’ll let them preach, we’ll let them go out, we’ll let them start initiatives. We’ll bring them on to the Executive Committee at the GC. We’ll actually listen to their input and start putting that into our plan.”
If you look at how our church was started, it was all young people. The Spirit of Prophecy says that the army of young people, rightly trained, can finish the work. So if you put all that enthusiasm into the young people, the work will be finished. In fact, I don’t think you can do it without the young people.
Kimberly Luste Maran is an assistant editor of Adventist World.