The Seventh-day Adventist Church ranks among the smaller protestant bodies in America. It is estimated that 80 percent of the black church in America are members of the seven major black denominations. The story of black people in the American Seventh-day Adventist Church, however, is one of intrigue and interest, loyalty and longsuffering, participation and protest, and a commitment to the global mission of the Seventh-day Adventist World Church.
1944 was a turning point in black-white relations in America. It was the year Gunnar Myrdal, the noted Swedish sociologist, published his penetrating analysis of black-white relations in America in their stride toward freedom and equality in America. Ironically, it was also the year during which the Annual Council of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, held in Chicago, Illinois, that the first black-administered conference was organized, and others shortly thereafter, in each Union Conference of the North American Division.
The civil rights movement of the 1960s and 70s, generically referred to as the Afro-American freedom struggle, is one of the most thoroughly researched and carefully documented stories in the twentieth-century history of the United States. Americans did not simply endorse equality as a cultural ideal and then gradually learn to live up to its high moral content. With unprecedented speed, remembering that the founding documents undergirding the American nation held the indisputable “self-evident truths” that all men are created equal; the majority of Americans embraced it.
Key characters in the story are not only the great white American leaders such as: Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, and Abraham Lincoln. Other more contemporary great leaders in the black community, people like Absalom Jones, Maria Stewart, Frederick Douglas, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois, A. Phillip Randolph, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, took center stage in the struggle for equality. These and a host of others played a prominent role in the story as it developed and beginning in the 1960’s black people, taking advantage of the loosening cords that bound them, charged into the middle-class
Today the middle-class comprises the largest single segment of the black American community. Accordingly, what is true in the general American society is also true in the Black American Adventist Church. Biblical faith was born amid similar times of transition and transformation. Population migrations are reshaping the social demographic map of North America. We live in a time when the institutions and organizations of the Black Adventist Church are facing formidable challenges resulting from this time of transition and transformation. Eugene Robinson, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist, in his groundbreaking book, Disintegration, argues that over decades of desegregation, affirmative action, and immigration, the concept of Black America has shattered. Black America, as we once knew it, is history.
The saga of the continued rise and progress of Adventist Blacks in America is carefully chronicled the book We Have Tomorrow, by Louis B. Reynolds. The volume deals with the history of American Seventh-day Adventists with an African American heritage and destiny, and reveals the enormous contribution they have made to the Adventist movement and mission. Among notable leaders in the thrilling accounts of exploits of black ministers are, E.E. Cleveland, E. C. Ward, W.C. Scales, C.D. Brooks, (evangelists); Charles E. Bradford, Charles E Dudley, Robert Carter, Warren Banfield, R. L. Woodfork, Walter M. Starks, George Earle, W.C. Jones, L. R Palmer, Harold Cleveland, W.L. Cheatham, Henry Wright, Charles Joseph, (all former conference presidents), and many others too numerous to mention. These leaders and a host of others, with the support of a loyal lay group that included Frank Hale and Mylas Martin, are responsible for the astounding growth of Seventh-day Adventist Blacks in America. Succeeding generations of leaders such as Alvin Kibble, Joseph McCoy, Robert Lister, Norman Miles and Alex Bryant continued the legacy of reaching out to black people in America. Today, more than one-third of the membership of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the United States is black.
For blacks in America who are not of our faith, to see how God has led in elevating a race of people who came out of slavery, the mission and ministries will continue to be a blessing to blacks in America. In many respects the state of black America has changed and continues to change, culturally, socially, demographically, economically, religiously, and in other ways.
Rationale for this Presentation
This presentation proposes a “Middle Class Member Initiative” for black people in America. Black American Adventist leadership and congregations face an adaptive challenge of immense proportions. That is, a new image of the Church has emerged with the appearance of a new middle class. It is this new image, which challenges us, for it shapes the need and possibilities for a leadership ministry for black people in America. This new image of the Church is a reflection of the dominant principle of associations in American life, economic integration: people in a metropolitan area associate with one another on the basis of similar occupations, prestige, income, residence, and style of life, including worship. The features of the “American Dilemma” in racial relations, ethnic and cultural diversity illustrate the nature of economic integration.
The challenge to reignite the passion that activates the middle class membership to witness to their neighbors next door and across the street remains. Clearly understanding this fact is critical to the success of our mission to Black America. We must realize and admit, as hard to believe as it may seem, that in the Black Adventist church, as in the general Black American population, middle class members have become the largest segment of the Black Adventist Church in the United States. If we fail to get them actively involved in direct and personal witnessing ministry, with very simple entry level and non-threatening tools and methods, our mission to Black America is in serious jeopardy. We must get them ready to witness because we must rely upon them as they are the best positioned to effectively carry the everlasting gospel of Jesus Christ to their non-Adventist middle class neighbors.
The fact is, the black Adventist Church in America, especially in large city metropolitan areas, has become middle class. The church is the church and also now the mission field. We share the blindness and injustice of our age. We ourselves, the middle class, need a re-igniting of passion for witnessing and soul winning. The church is the very culture that must change.
As a result, the church struggles to provide a convincing witness within the wider culture of what it means to live under the mission and servant leadership example of Jesus Christ. The challenge is how to activate the Adventist black middle class in America to witnessing the everlasting gospel of Jesus Christ to the non-Adventist middle class neighbor next door and across the street. Qualitative and quantitative membership growth and economic growth in many Regional Conference Congregations and Conferences is, for the most part, flat across the North American Division. Black leaders in America face the arduous task of cultivating with its own community, and with its own different set of values.
Simply stated, we cannot continue doing ministry and mission the way we have done it in the past. The growth and development of the Black Church in America was driven by a public evangelism method during the 1950s through the 70s. In our church indigenous American blacks are a disappearing group in certain parts of the country in much the same way as the disappearance of white members in an earlier time. Our instinctive and habitual ways of doing community evangelism often do not work successfully any more. This is particularly true among the socially and economically advantaged of society. While the essentials of the gospel remain changeless, new methods and appeals to reach the masses beg for strategic thinking, innovation, and action. New thinking, new models, and new methods for church ministry are needed.
Regional Conferences, including the Regional work on the West Coast, referred to as the Black Adventist Church, as an organizational entity in the North American Division is now under considerable pressure. It is incontrovertibly true that Black Conferences are still essential for attracting and retaining black adherents and for meeting the social and educational needs of the black community. They are responsible for assisting other community organizations in providing greater opportunities for leadership among their aspiring constituents, and above all, for determining their own priorities and the destiny of millions of people.
There was a time when black leaders were in agreement when they talked about the state of Black America, but not anymore. Black America has gone through a process of disintegration. Disintegration isn’t some something we like to talk about. But it’s documented in census data, economic reports, housing patterns, a wealth of other evidence just begging for honest analysis. And it’s right there in our daily lives if we allow ourselves to notice. Eugene Robinson, quoted earlier in this piece, asserts that instead of one black America, now there are four:
- A mainstream middle-class majority with a full ownership in American society.
- A large, Abandoned, minority with less hope of escaping poverty and dysfunction than at any time since Reconstruction’s crushing end.
- A small Transcendent elite with such enormous wealth, power, and influence that even white folks have to genuflect
- Two newly Emergent groups—individuals of mixed race heritage and communities of recent black immigrants—that made us wonder what “black” is even supposed to mean.
Robinson shows that these four black Americans are increasingly distinct, separated by demography, geography, and psychology. They have different profiles, different mindsets, different fears, and dreams. What’s more, these groups have become so distinct that they view each other with mistrust and apprehension. And yet, all are reluctant to acknowledge division.
These groups are present in our congregations and it requires different approaches to get them to work for souls. Each must be given well thought out activities to reach the groups in the larger community out of which they come. However at this time our target group is the largest group – The Mainstream Middle-class Majority. The Middle Class, black and white, does not respond favorably to neighborhood doorknockers. They will open their doors for their neighbors, whom they know by name or by sight. Most of our members especially in the large-city metropolitan areas are in the Middle Class. They don’t respond favorably to doorknockers either. The truth is our soul winning efforts are missing the middle class and our last best hope at this time to reach them is to have our middle class members go next door and across the street with soul winning initiatives.
As relates to witnessing/soul winning, accountability is a two way street. Pastors and members are co-agents in the mission and ministries of the church. Together they are a mutually interdependent accountability group – co-laborers in the gospel imperative to go despite diminishing returns for our traditional soul winning efforts. We must admit that the day for big events evangelism is past and traditional Bible Workers are becoming more and more ineffective. Members are not coming to the meetings because they have heard all of the sermons and do not have any interested friend or relative to bring to meetings.
The question remains, “How will Adventists effectively carry the Gospel story to a Black America that is largely middle class?” The answer is our middle class membership whose passion for witnessing has been reignited. In this space we will provide some simple tools that, under the power of the Holy Spirit, will get our Middleclass membership back into the soul winning witnessing business.
The Tools for the Mission
The success of this initiative must have a spiritual foundation. It must also address Christian living across a broad range of ministry. We will not cover everything in this space at this time but we will highlight several places to begin moving toward more effective ministries that activate our most important asset – our members. You can expect that this is only the beginning of good things to come in this space.
- On the Street Where You Live – A Power Point Presentation
 Lincoln, Eric C. and Mamiya, Lawrence H. “The Black Church In The African American Experience”, p.
 Africans in America
 We Have Tomorrow, Louis B. Reynolds.
 The Suburban Captivity of the Churches. Gibson Winter, pp. 62,63.
 Disintegration .Eugene Robinson,