The call to make disciples for Jesus is the most important mission given to the Christian church. However, despite being one of the fastest growing churches today, the Seventh-day Adventist Church continues to face challenges in terms of membership retention and spiritual growth.
At the 21st AIIAS Annual Theological Forum, both regional and international Adventist scholars addressed the issue of discipleship and disciple-making to gain a deeper understanding of Jesus’ commission for all believers.
To have a successful retention rate is probably to first understand the essence of the Great Commission. Plenary speaker and executive secretary of the Seventh-day Adventist Church World Headquarters, Dr. G. T. Ng, cautioned against making baptism the ultimate goal of the Great Commission. “The end product of the Great Commission is not to baptize but to disciple. Baptism is the beginning of the story. After baptism, teaching continues until the church becomes a disciple-making church,” stressed Ng. He urged participants to make discipleship the strongest feature of the church.
The forum presentations also emphasized the need to balance the quantitative concern with qualitative checks that will help the church fulfill the Great Commission.
The chair of the forum committee, Dr. Remwil Tornalejo, noted that disciple-making is a very relevant topic in the context of church growth and membership retention. By having participants from different disciplines, everyone has a better grasp on this vital topic. According to Dr. Cristian Dumitrescu, professor of Intercultural Studies and Missiology at AIIAS, “The assumption that everyone knows what is discipleship is and how it should be done is not warranted.”
Pointing out to the encouraging turnout, Tornalejo noted the positive responses of participants from unions and institutions within the SSD territory. “Through the theological forum, AIIAS is able to share biblical, theological and practical insights of what is the essence of the church existence--to do mission. Participants are able to engage in a dialogue with the presenters and other participants. Thus, they will be able to catch the vision and mission of the church and resonate this to their respective ministries,” continued Tornalejo.
Amongst the conference participants, there was a consensus to make discipleship central again in Adventist theology and practice. Pastor and administrators that were present concluded that the loss of membership was not to be blamed solely on those who left the church but also on our desire to meet baptismal goals. Instead, the Gospel Commission and the Bible emphasized careful instruction before baptism and the necessity of continuous growth after baptism.
According to AIIAS Seminary Dean, Dr. Ricardo González, “Everybody in the church has a practical role in the Great Commission. Discipleship is a task given to the Adventist church, to reproduce in this world the life, message, and testimony of Jesus.”
The conclusion among the attendees was unanimous that changes need to be made in the overall mission strategy in order to improve the effectiveness and faithfulness to God’s missionary calling. Participants also agreed to oppose unbiblical methods of discipleship and realize that approaches focusing on numerical growth come with a cost to the kingdom of God.
The three-day event which took place on AIIAS campus and brought together nearly 350 participants concluded on November 10, 2018. The fact that the event took place at AIIAS is timely as the institution is actively engaged in training mission leaders in the 10/40 window. The interaction has enriched the perspectives and dialogue on vital issues of discipleship.
Notable speakers of this year’s forum included Drs. G.T. Ng, Executive Secretary of the Seventh-day Adventist Church World Headquarters; Ekkehardt Mueller, Associate Director from the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists (USA), Drs. Joseph Kidder, Andrews University (USA); Erick Carter, Loma Linda University (USA); Yuri Drumi, Zaoksky University (Russia), and Ben Mergal, Vice President for Nurture, Discipleship, Reclamation and Integrated Evangelism at Southern Asia-Pacific Division of Seventh-day Adventists.