According to the most-recently available figures, official Adventist church membership now stands at about 19.1 million (a figure reported by Adventist News Network as of December 31, 2015). This is a big number, perhaps almost “a vast crowd, too great to count, from [almost] every nation and tribe and people and language” (Revelation 7:9*), who now join together in praise of our God.
In 2005, I had the opportunity to attend a General Conference session, culminating—as has been its tradition—with the “Parade of Nations,” a colourful pageant representing the Adventist Church’s spread across the nations and cultures around the world, while also acknowledging the work not yet done. In recent decades the numerical growth of the Seventh-day Adventist Church has been dramatic. We celebrate this apparent success under God’s leading and blessing, while at the same time being daunted—at least in human terms—by the magnitude and difficulties of the unfinished evangelistic task.
Imagine that for every person worshipping with you, there are two slaves and three refugees somewhere in the world.
But while numbers are one measure of the progress of Adventist mission, other numbers dwarf ours, giving us cause to reflect on our mission that is larger than counting our members or our tithes: that of “justice, mercy, and faithfulness” (see Matthew 23:23). Our heartening numbers must be framed by heartbreaking numbers, and our reporting tempered by the continuing call to faithful and compassionate response.
According to recent estimates, 45.8 million people are held in slavery in the world today, more than at any other time in history (www.walkfree.org). This is more than twice the number of Seventh-day Adventists. Among this number are victims of the scourge of sex trafficking. But many of these modern-day slaves work in more “respectable” industries, including agriculture, manufacturing, or construction. Often their labour, exploitation, and oppression are key to the supply of cheap food, clothing, and other consumer goods in both developed and developing nations.
Old Testament and New Testament prophets agree that this is an outrage of particular concern to God: “Hear the cries of the field workers whom you have cheated of their pay. The cries of those who harvest your fields have reached the ears of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies” (James 5:4). Deuteronomy 24:15 is explicit that the withholding of fair wages will come to God’s attention and “be counted against you as sin.”
In the final fall of “Babylon” (see Rev. 14:8), specifically listed among this evil system’s sins, is the trade in “bodies—that is, human slaves” (Revelation 18:13). When we are aware of, or can easily become aware of today’s slave trade and our benefit from it, silence is complicity—and sin. We have voices and resources; so we must speak and act (see Proverbs 31:8, 9).
According to reports released in conjunction with World Refugee Day, more than 60 million people around the world are internally displaced, seeking asylum, or living as refugees in countries other than their home countries (www.adra.org/refugees). This is more than triple the number of Seventh-day Adventists.
These people are not only those represented in current news headlines but also numbered in so many other forgotten tragedies and conflicts around our world. A recurring theme in the Bible is stories of migration, exodus, refugees, and exiles. And the faithful response is clear: “Do not take advantage of foreigners who live among you in your land. Treat them like native-born Israelites and love them as you love yourself. Remember that you were once foreigners living in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33).
It is remarkable how fully Jesus identified with so much of our human experience in His short earthly life. Remember, Jesus and His family were refugees—asylum seekers—escaping a murderous king to seek safety in a foreign land (see Matthew 2:13–15). Indeed, the experience of His earthly family was the identical experience of being “once foreigners living in the land of Egypt.” This common experience of Jesus is one of the reasons that serving the “least of these”—those in most desperate need—is truly serving Him.
In an essay reflecting on visiting Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Greece, and Serbia earlier this year, Australian writer Richard Flanagan concludes with an urgent and human response: “Refugees are not like you and me. They are you and me. That terrible river of the wretched and the damned flowing through Europe is my family. And there is no time in the future in which they might be helped. The only time we have is now.” **
This week at church, imagine that for every person worshipping with you, there are two slaves and three refugees somewhere in the world. As part of a worldwide church family, these slaves and refugees truly are our brothers and sisters. In many cases it is likely we “know” people who know them. As we grow, we have more to learn, seek, help, defend, and fight for: “Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows” (Isaiah 1:17).
Our growing, global church must hear this call; and I am humbly proud of the various reports of this happening in different parts of the world. In furthering the kingdom of God, one of the reasons for pursuing continuing membership growth is to grow our capacity for speaking up, serving, helping, and healing in a world of need. As well as welcoming new members into a saving relationship with God, we must urge new members to join with us in the tasks of justice, mercy, and faithfulness to which God calls us, and human need compels us.
Originally published at www.adventistworld.org.
* Bible quotations are from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc, Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
** Richard Flanagan, Notes on an Exodus, Vintage, 2016, p. 53.