I have heard from a number of people, including pastors, that they feel General Conference is a waste of resources. "It's thousands of dollars spent on OURSELVES. Couldn't that money have been better spent doing REAL ministry instead of being internally focused?" To me, these complaints sound familiar. In John 12, Judas complained of the wastefulness of resources devoted to anointing Christ's feet. He couldn't see the value (or so he said). Obviously I'm not saying that those who criticize the use of funds for GC are modern day Judases. Yet, an apt comparison can be made: we are often hard pressed to see the importance of things beyond our own priorities. However, unlike Judas, (whose motives were less than pure) I believe those church members who critique GC actually have good intentions. They just genuinely underestimate the worth of this quinquennial gathering.
The multi-pronged approach to effective church ministry is nothing new. But despite cognitively understanding that fellowship, discipleship, outreach, and worship are all important facets of church life, we find it easy to dismiss some of these aspects in favor of our preferred component. For those concerned with evangelism/outreach, it can be especially tempting to downplay the importance of the other areas, particularly fellowship. Spending time together can seem like a superfluous exercise that should take the back burner so we can attend to more pressing matters like "reaching the world"! However, almost everyone can recall an evangelistic series where dozens of people were baptized only to see hide nor hair of them within a few weeks. Why? Although there may be a variety of reasons, often, people leave if they don't make meaningful connections. Particularly if converts have relinquished old habits and associations when they joined Adventism, our negligence in making sure they are meaningfully connected is tantamount to holding open the back door for them. Conversely, there are those who stay in spite of the disconnect: members who remain isolated within the crowd. They occupy the same pew for years, but never create deep ties nor really feel as if they belong to the church or that the church belongs to them.
Admittedly, I'm an ardent proponent of outreach. I've have written about it alot--even on this very website. Yet I can't stress enough the significance of balancing outreach with forging healthy fellowship. We have to stop viewing these as competing priorities and begin seeing them as inextricably linked necessities for vibrant church life.
The significance of General Conference is often taken for granted, especially by lifelong Adventists. It's easy to underestimate the impact this event has for new believers. It's hard to realize how huge it is when a new Adventist first recognizes that they belong to a worldwide family. Having been converted to Adventism myself, I unashamedly gush that my favorite part of General Conference is the closing ceremony Parade of Nations! It's astounding to watch the wonderful diversity that our world church comprises.
But the value isn't just for first generation Adventists. The entire church benefits. Now more than ever, in a time where we have so many differences of opinion and are so quick to lash out at each other from behind our computer screens, it's crucial to see each other eye to eye in flesh and blood. When we get to rub elbows with one another, breath the same air, and sit side by side, it becomes that much more difficult to remain consumed with vitriol towards one another--even with regards to those with whom we sharply disagree. We recognize that the communion service is an essential part of our heritage: eating together, touching each other, praying together. These things bind us together as family. Likewise, our huge reunion that takes place once every five years can help bind us together too! True, planning General Conference expends alot of resources. But I think the value added is definitely worth it.
Courtney Ray is a pastor in the Southern California Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.