Why we need big General Conference Sessions
The 61st General Conference Session of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is scheduled to be a business meeting with a small(ish) celebration on the side. I pray that in 2025 we will be able to return to a mighty celebration of God’s work, with some business on the side.
What Kind of Hope?
Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California, October 7, 2009. It’s a beautiful Wednesday night, as most Southern California nights are. The Los Angeles Dodgers are playing the St. Louis Cardinals, and 56,000 people, mainly in blue, are chanting, singing, and cheering their beloved Dodgers on to victory in Game 1 of the National League Division Series. I was one of those 56,000 fans. It was the first baseball playoff game I had ever attended. I’ll never forget the energy, electricity, and excitement of that night. The Dodgers won, and we left that stadium with a collective hope — which was ultimately disappointed — that the end of those playoffs would result in a World Series Championship.
There is power in being a part of a large community. This community is one of the lures of sports fandom. Whether it’s baseball at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California, cricket at Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad, India, or watching the Real Madrid Soccer Club at Santiago Bernabéu Stadium in Madrid, Spain, people long to gather and celebrate.
The church, though different in purpose, is similar in experience — except that the people of God’s church have much more to celebrate than fans at a sporting event. They can celebrate God’s guaranteed and ultimate victory. It’s a celebration of hope — not the futile hope that sporting events give us, but eternal hope in the soon coming of our Saviour Jesus Christ.
“They Kept Me in the Church”
I was recently reminded of the value of large celebrations of hope at a breakfast with a fellow church member. “Chad,” he told me, “I went to my first General Conference Session in 1985 as a child, and I have been to every session since.” And then he made this startling statement: “Those early sessions kept me in the church.” I had never heard anyone credit the General Conference Session — which some view as simply a business meeting, or a waste of money — as “keeping them in the church.”
As I drove home pondering his words, I remembered some key moments in my life. On the campus of Andrews University in the fall of 2003, I was a seminary student tasked with organizing an event that young people would become excited about and sign up for to participate in the ministries of Jesus. The result was Andrews University’s first ministry fair — a two-day event designed to highlight the more than 100 ministries of the Berrien Springs community, the North American Division, Pioneer Memorial Church, and Andrews University.
From very young to very old, thousands of people swarmed through the ministry booths set up in various spaces in the Pioneer Memorial Church during those two days. The following week, at the ministry fair debrief, I remember campus chaplain Tim Nixon saying, “It had the energy and enthusiasm of a General Conference Session.” Having never attended a Session, I had no context for his comment, but I did know what had happened there on the campus of Andrews University. Young and old walked through those ministry booths, inspired by seeing the impact of Jesus working through the Seventh-day Adventist Church in their community, on their campus, in their local church, and around the world, and they signed up in droves to say, “Here I am, Lord, send me.”
Jump ahead two years later to July of 2005. I was in St. Louis, Missouri, for my first General Conference Session. Suddenly, I had context for Chaplain Nixon’s words. I was only supposed to be at that Session for the first two days, but I was so moved to watch the church go through its “business,” mingling with people from all over the world in the exhibition area, eating in the cafeteria with complete strangers, who were as excited as me about being part of something bigger than ourselves, that I called my wife, Christina, and said, “Can you fly here to St. Louis? I don’t want to leave.” I scoured around for another room, and my wife joined me; then, that Saturday (Sabbath), we worshipped with tens of thousands of our brothers in sisters in Christ.
As we collectively sang Wayne Hooper’s classic, “We Have This Hope,” tears streamed down my cheeks in joy and thanksgiving. This collective celebration reminded me of the privilege of being a part of a movement created to share hope with the world. I cried not as a fan at a sporting event with futile hope but as a fan and a follower of the King of Kings, who saved my life and has given me eternal hope. That moment amongst all those people reminded me of that gift from Jesus, and I will never forget that experience.
This year I return to St. Louis for my third General Conference Session. I anticipate that it will feel a little more like business and a little less like a gathering than the previous two Sessions I’ve attended. I trust that on Sabbath, even though there will be fewer of us singing, I will still be moved as we sing about the promise of Jesus’ soon return. I will recommit myself to service in the movement established by Jesus to tell the world that He is coming again.
But at this session, I will also be a little sad. Sad for the Adventists far from St. Louis, Missouri, who save all that they can year after year to travel and just to experience one time in their life how it feels to be a part of a global church. I’ll be sad for the missionaries who look forward to their quinquennial sojourn for a global celebration of their efforts, a celebration of the harvest Jesus has brought through them. I’ll be sad for the many pastors toiling in small communities who need hope. GC Session reminds them that God sees and values their service, unnoticed by many. I’ll be sad for the pastors and administrators who need the experience of the celebratory crowd to humble them as they realize the movement is more significant than any single individual. And I’ll be sad for young people who need to experience what my friend experienced in 1985: “This is God’s church, and I commit my life to the service of Jesus.”
I’m hoping that I will only be sad for one Session. So I invite you to hope with me that only Jesus’ second coming will prevent our 62nd General Conference Session in 2025 from being a celebratory gathering of God’s people, with some business on the side, rather than a business session with a small celebration on the side.
Chad Stuart serves as senior pastor of the Spencerville Seventh-day Adventist Church in Maryland, United States.