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The Role of Institutions in Evangelism – A Call to the Adventist Business Community

Last week the lesson was about personal evangelism and this week about team evangelism.  The importance of both seems too self-evident to require prolonged discussion, let alone debate, in this forum of the wise.  I decided therefore to take a slightly different approach.  The inclusion of the word “corporate” in the title of the lesson brought to my mind on first read the potential role of business corporations and institutions (which are a type of corporation) in evangelism.

My commentary will focus on institutions and their potential role in evangelism.  The term “institutions” covers a multitude of entities and therefore there is danger of misunderstanding.  To avoid this, by the word “institutions” I will refer to supporting entities that are not immediately involved in the proclamation of the gospel or in a work of education.  For example, I will not be discussing the role of Adventist schools.  My commentary will only affect institutions that are distinctly business-like in operations, food companies, hospitals, health centers, and the like.

Institutions in Decline

The last twenty five years can be characterized as the era of the decline of Adventist institutions, at least as far as Western Europe is concerned.  I remember in the late 80’s sitting on the entrance steps of Country Life restaurant in the heart of London, waiting for a table to empty so I could have my lunch.  The place was jam packed.  Today, Country Life restaurant is no longer there.  I remember my good friend at Newbold, earning his school expenses by working every summer at Nutana health foods in Denmark.  Nutana is no longer there.  I remember the first international conference I attended as Youth Director of the Greek Mission, in the beautiful facilities of Skodsborg Sanatorium, Denmark, sometime in the early 90’s.  Skodsbord is no longer an Adventist Sanatorium.  And I remember not too long ago while pastoring in Northern Ireland, having pastors’ meetings in the beautiful settings of Roundelwood health centre in Crieff, Scotland.  Roundelwood has since been sold and is currently a luxury hotel and spa.  Stories could be multiplied.

Decisions to sell such institutions were painful and were taken with a heavy heart.  They were painful for at least two reasons.  First, they provided employment for many Adventist professionals.  Once they were sold, the employment opportunities went as well.  Second, and perhaps more importantly, they were flagship institutions reflecting the holistic approach of the Adventist message which emphasizes not only the spiritual but also the physical and mental health of a person.  As such, their loss has left a vacuum both in our heart and in the ministry of the Church.

A Principle

Were such decisions justified?  Let me begin by stating a principle which some may find disagreeable but which I wholeheartedly believe: Tithe and offering funds should not be used to habitually fund loss making business operations that do not have a direct spiritual and/or educational impact.

I can offer two reasons in support of the above principle.  First, in biblical times tithe was used to support the Levites and priests, the spiritual leaders of Israel.  Offerings could be used more freely but still focused on the spiritual and social welfare of the people of God.  The second reason is much more practical.  Institutions that aim to operate as profitable businesses and do not, are by definition problematic.  Financing their losses habitually is both against sound business practice and can become a heavy financial burden to the Church.

Of course applying such a principle in practice can be difficult.  The term “institutions” covers a multitude of diverse entities.  Most schools of all levels, for example, are institutions but would not able to operate without heavy subsidies.  And schools, when properly run, do have a direct spiritual impact in the lives of students.  This is why I said earlier that I do not include schools in my discussion of institutions.  Conversely, health centers, food factories, hospitals and the like should operate profitably or not operate at all.

Possible Ways Forward

It seems to me that the efforts of the church to run successful business enterprises has not succeeded and is coming to a somewhat inglorious end, at least in the part of the world where I come from.  It seems that the business environment has become much more competitive than it was two or three decades ago, while managerial structures of church institutions do not seem to have the flexibility and robustness required to ensure survival in today’s business world.

But that does not mean that we should abandon the field to others.  Adventists were pioneers in many aspects relating to holistic living and today, as much as ever we have a message and a lifestyle model that the world needs and wants to hear.  What we offer is not outdated; rather it needs to be promoted in ways that combine both high moral integrity and effective business practices.

The key ingredient to success is, in my view, Adventists business men and women.  Every year our colleges and universities around the world graduate hundreds.  Some take up leadership positions within the church structures.  But most find employment in the secular world and most often do very well.  I often look on facebook at my erstwhile fellow Newboldians from the Business Departments and am impressed, indeed proud, of the positions of influence they occupy both within and without the Church.  Adventist business people do well because the healthy Adventist lifestyle is conducive to the development of the intellect while the biblical work ethic based on honesty and assiduity is highly regarded and sought after in the business world.

Adventist business people can play an increasingly important role in the mission of the Church by establishing business ventures on sound business principles that will promote the message of the Church for this end time.  The vacuum left by the demise of Church run institutions, need not be left void but can be filled by institutions operated privately by Adventists.  If secular businesses can succeed in the very fields were Adventists institutions failed, there is no reason why private Adventist businesses should not succeed either.

The possibilities are endless and examples of mission minded successful Adventist businesses already abound.  Let us work to multiply them.           

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