One Year to Change the World
Adventist World editor Bill Knott recently sat down with Pastor Ted Wilson, president of the General Conference, to talk about harnessing the gifts of the church’s millions of young adults.
Every leader dreams of things they could help make happen while serving God’s people. I’ve heard you refer several times to one dream that sounds very big—the goal of building a culture of service among Seventh-day Adventist young adults. What do you mean by that?
One of the clearest teachings of the New Testament is that Jesus gives gifts to everyone who follows Him in baptism and becomes a part of His faithful church. It’s really that simple: If you’ve become a part of God’s remnant people, the Holy Spirit has given you gifts to use for the sake of the rest of the church. That giftedness isn’t restricted to those of a certain age or educational level. Speaking of the great revival God will send to His people, the prophet Joel said: “And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions” (Joel 2:28, NIV).*
The worldwide Revival and Reformation initiative is making it really clear that there are hundreds of thousands—actually millions—of Advent-ist young adults to whom Jesus has given tremendous gifts to help His church finish the work. I want the Seventh-day Adventist Church to plan for a way to tap the enormous creativity and energy that God has already placed in this people by giving gifts to faithful young people.
I know you are well acquainted with such longstanding church initiatives as the Student Missionary program, Taskforce, Adventist Volunteer Service, the 1000 Missionary Movement, and Global Mission Pioneers. How does what you are thinking about go beyond even what those programs are already doing?
Those programs have been incalculable blessings to the church, and tens of thousands of young adults have given wonderful service through them. I know the value of these programs on a very personal basis: one of our daughters spent a year as a student missionary. Enormous responsibility was thrust on her for teaching courses that she hadn’t expected, so she really had to dig in, challenge herself, and grow in her skills. That year sharpened her skills greatly, making her an even better high school teacher when she graduated from college. Because of our family’s history, she had grown up in a mission environment. But that year reinforced it, and her life will never be the same. All three of our daughters have been on various mission projects, and they just loved the experience.
My daughters’ experiences have been matched by tens of thousands of others who have discovered what a lasting joy it is to give back to the church that has shaped you and nurtured you and taught you about Jesus. Giving nine to 12 months at an early stage in your life—when you are beyond adolescence but before you’ve taken on family commitments or gained professional experience—will reshape your whole world perspective. One thing I promise: you’ll never be the same again!
Are you describing something that will in some sense be obligatory for every young adult?
No, a church that has consistently underlined the importance of the power of choice can never dictate to young adults what they must do as part of maturing in their faith. But the Seventh-day Adventist Church has an obligation to put in front of its young adults a stimulating vision of a life of consecration and discipleship and service. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, as they listen to a personal call for revival and reformation, they will realize that God has given them gifts and talents for which He holds them responsible. Jesus isn’t asking them to give up on all the dreams He’s given them. No, He’s asking that they dream bigger dreams than simply getting a good education and raising a strong family. There’s a world to win for Christ, and God’s church needs every gift He’s put in those young adults to reach lost people.
Best estimates suggest that perhaps 25,000 Adventist young adults worldwide now give a year of their lives to serve as you’re describing. How do we attract more than just the exceptional, highly motivated young person and make this more the norm for Adventist young adults? How do we create the expectation that 2 to 3 million young adults will build their lives around this opportunity?
It will certainly require a carefully thought-out and coordinated plan that involves virtually all of the church’s service departments, as well as its educational institutions and its youth ministries. In large part we’ve taught Seventh-day Adventist young people to be very goal-oriented: finish high school, complete your college degree in the minimum amount of time, move on to your professional experience. Inviting young adults to interrupt that very focused march will mean helping to build the structures at every level—including in our schools—that make it easy and natural for a young person to choose a year of service before graduation.
We have to start talking about service at every opportunity—not just waiting until a mission recruitment week comes around at a college. From our earliest training experiences with children, we have to hold out the goal that those kids will one day get to do the most exciting work imaginable—giving a year of service to help spread the three angels’ messages somewhere in the world.
An idea this expansive can’t depend on just the General Conference, can it?
No, it certainly can’t! We also have to build a culture in hundreds of thousands of local Seventh-day Adventist congregations that will help them realize how much they have to gain—in every way—from hosting young adults who are serving, and sending their own young people to a year of service. We have to appeal to all those local churches to help fund an initiative this big: there’s no “superfund” at the General Conference big enough to do this all by itself!
Local churches will want to sponsor their own young people who make a commitment to a year of service—and they’ll want to take other young adults from other places into their homes when they come to serve. There’s no better way to grow the character and the spiritual maturity of a young person you care about than to help support them when they make a commitment to give a year of their lives serving God’s church.
You’re saying that the value of this idea isn’t only the missionary work that gets done by these young people: it’s also the character growth that happens while they’re doing it.
Exactly. There are really two great benefits to the church from an idea like this one. First is the tremendous push, the tremendous advance, that the church will discover when it encourages hundreds of thousands of young people to give Bible studies, work as medical missionaries, assist pastors, conduct public evangelistic campaigns, and serve other youth. The surge of talent and creativity from such a year will require the church to adopt structures and policies that are flexible enough to accommodate the gifts God has given us in our young people.
But the second benefit—what happens to that young adult personally—is probably the most lasting impact. If you’ve helped to support a young person in giving a year of service to God’s church, you’ve helped launch them on an entire lifetime of service, because service will become a way of life. And Jesus tells us that the way of service is the way of joy and lasting happiness. In a similar way, God didn’t need human beings to proclaim the gospel of Jesus: angels could have done it—even the rocks could cry out! But God knows that service to others changes everything in us—our goals, our dreams, how we raise our families, how we feel about this remnant church.
How near are we to such an initiative becoming a reality for the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church?
I hope no more than a year. Our church’s Secretariat Department—at the General Conference and every other level—will have to work closely with those in the Youth Ministries Department and the Education Department to design a program simple enough and clear enough to catch the imagination of those millions of young adults that God is calling to serve Him. Congregations will have to change and adapt to make an initiative like this one workable. But the blessings they receive will be all out of proportion to what they need to do themselves. Our colleges and universities will be set on fire with revival and reformation as young adults come back from a year of service in some other community and ask, “So what does God want to happen here?”
God is doing His job: His Spirit is stirring up hearts, summoning energies, giving gifts, equipping young people. Now it’s time for His church to do its job and find a way to harness the tremendous potential God has placed among us.
* Scripture quotations credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Ted N. C. Wilson is president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in Silver Springs, Maryland, U.S.A.