Sweeney says that within the more than 11,000 Seventh-day Adventist Church
members in the London area there are probably less than 200 white British.
Sweeney, president of the Adventist Church in Britain, wants members to reach
out to all cultural groups. Many areas in the UK have no Adventist presence, he
several world regions of the denomination, church growth there is mainly among
causing Sweeney, the president of the Adventist Church in Britain, to assess
how Adventists are ministering to the 70 percent majority white population in
London, as well as throughout the British Isles. His advice is for Adventists
to find better ways of impacting communities surrounding its congregations.
plans to identify people who excel at conducting ministry across cultural
barriers in un-entered areas, which may require financial support for those
regions without an Adventist presence.
46, a black British national, was appointed president of the Adventist Church's
British Union Conference in July.
spoke with Adventist News Network (ANN) by phone from his office in Watford the week before a quarterly
meeting with his five local field presidents. He discussed issues involved in
creating a plan to grow membership across the board, regardless of race or
culture. He also discussed his influences and which biblical character might
offer the most relevant example for his situation. Some interview excerpts have
been edited for length:
What's the demographic makeup of the Adventist Church in the British Isles?
We're about 45 percent West Indian, and then slightly less than that is African
and some from Asia. About 10 percent at most is white English, and I think I'm
being generous with that.
ANN: What's your
plan to build membership across the board, regardless of race and culture?
Sweeney: To start, we
need to have the discussion, and we have begun that. My Communication director
has started a blog
on our website about this. It's also gone into the union paper, which comes out
on a fortnightly basis. Within the church there are people who can
minister cross-culturally and cross racially. I look at Peter and Paul. Peter
was a great guy, but God had to give him a whole vision of sheep and unclean
things just to get him to do one Bible study. Paul, however, had an ability to
minister to the gentiles. It's not without significance that Paul was the major
contributor to the New Testament. So my call to the pastors is, let's identify
the Pauls who can minister outside their own cultural context.
ANN: What role does
leadership play in reaching all cultures?
Sweeney: What we have
to do is really support the pastors and conference presidents who are prepared
to make the bold steps and say, "We see that things need changing. This is
how we're going to try to reach our host community." It may evolve into
placing pastors into un-entered territories and saying to them, "What do
you need, how can we support you?" Then again, we put a person into an
un-entered territory and there's no tithe to pay his wage. But I think it's
about the stronger supporting that which is not so strong. We're going to have
to be pioneers and send people into those un-entered territories.
ANN: Why is
outreach a big part of this plan?
Sweeney: I suspect --
and I can tell by some of the comments on the blog -- that sometimes the church
is so internalized looking at our own issues that our board meetings, for
example, haven't spent the time as our church manual says for our primary focus
In my previous church, instead of praying that people come in, we prayed about
going out and we saw results. The figures weren't brilliant in context of big
numbers, but the impact for me is not simply about how many accessions we
bring, but about whether or not people know. Noah for example, was a useless
evangelist if we look at him only by number of accessions. He reported zero
baptisms for a century. But when the rain began to fall, everybody knew. Impact
for me is about "Did somebody hear?"
ANN: How open are
we to talking about race and racism in the church?
Sweeney: I think we're
moving into a stage where we can speak more openly and honestly about issues
that really face us. I'm not fully conversant on the history of the church here
in Britain. I think there is [pain] and I'm sort of hesitant to speak of that
era of the 50s and the 60s. I was raised here but that all predates me. I don't
want to open too much of the old wounds. When we have those discussions, I want
it in the context of, "I hear where you came from, but this is where I
think we all need to going." I know for some folk who are black they may
say, what about the [historical] struggle? I'm not decrying the struggle. I'm
simply saying let's never lose sight of what God has called us to do. I really
want us to place our focus on the bigger picture, which is the 65 million or so
in Britain who don't know Christ.
ANN: Where might
repentance fit into how Revival and Reformation is expressed in UK?
Sweeney: I'm really
glad for the whole emphasis that Elder Wilson is putting on Revival and
Reformation and the Great Controversy Project, because to me it's about
remembering our Adventist roots. One of the great challenges Britain has is
that it isn't as God-friendly as the United States. Sure the queen is the head
of the church in England, but believe me, this is not a Christian-welcoming
society. Christians are often in the media under attack. Having said that,
there is also in Britain a search for some sense of spirituality. There are
churches that among the host community outside of Adventism that are growing. A
lot of times Adventists think it's about the worship service and that you have
to bring a band in. It's not about that. You have to be relevant to people's
lives where they're at. Most of these growing churches do things that impact
their community, whether it be childcare, mentoring, youth clubs, they are
there visibly in the community saying, "We're here, we see your needs, how
can we help you?" I think that's what we are to do as a church.
ANN: Who are your
mentors and models of success?
Sweeney: One of the
church leaders who has been an inspiration to me is Fredrick Russell [president
of Allegheny West Conference based in Ohio, United States]. He has a principle,
"Hang around people who are successful." And anyone who I see is
doing something [I admire] I'll call them so I can sit at their feet. I'm
reading Ted Engstron, The Making of a Christian Leader, I'm sharing that with
our staff. I'm also looking at a book by Nigel Rooms, Faith of the English,
which talks about integrating Christ with Culture. And Ellen White of course.
Right now my biblical inspiration is Jeremiah. It's a difficult example -- God
tells him to go preach and says "No one's going to listen, but do it
anyhow." That's [caused] me to re-evaluate success. Do we need people to
listen, or is it a success that we do what God asks us to do? He asks us to
preach to those people because He loves them, not because He's trying to waste
our time. I really want folk to go and witness because they love Christ.
ANN: How are you
going to integrate faith and prayer into an action plan?
Sweeney: Coming back to
Jeremiah, he cried for the people, cried over Jerusalem. The one thing we as
Adventists are not seen to do well, when last have we cried over the lost? And I
ask that starting with myself. We cry for money, for jobs, for this, for that,
but what [Jeremiah] was doing was crying for the people who have been lost. One
of the things we're emphasizing for 2012 is that if you're not crying in prayer
for the lost, you're certainly not going to be interested in seeing them saved
and working for their salvation.