General Conference Session: Reversing Decline in Finland

July 4, 2005 St. Louis, Missouri, United States.

General Conference Session 2005 in St Louis, USA

What does a church leader do when he faces a secular and disinterested population, discouraged and disillusioned members, and depressed ministers? What if this church is part of the Seventh-day Adventist world church where growth, optimism and enthusiasm are the norm?

Atte Helminen, president of the Adventist Church in Finland.
Atte Helminen, president of the Adventist Church in Finland.
This was exactly the situation that Atte Helminen faced when he was appointed leader of the Adventist church in Finland just over a year ago. Today, at the Adventist business meetings in St. Louis, Missouri Atte told ANN his story.

“Finland is similar to most countries in Western Europe. There’s a high standard of living and for most people life is easy. But not everything is good. Finland is a secular country. The people have lost interest in God and the churches are struggling. There are still needs, but they are not material needs. Increasing individualism has left people isolated from their family networks and the older support networks like local communities and the church. There is something missing from their lives.”

“Unfortunately the church is not dealing well with the new situation and is failing to meet the real needs that people have. Our churches generally don’t know how to relate to the people around them. In fact they don’t even do well at looking after their own members.”

“One of the reasons for this is that we are losing pastors every year and we don’t have enough to care for our 5,000 members. But a more fundamental reason is that we have failed to train our members to be disciples and leaders themselves. We can win a few new members into the church but we don’t know what to do with them. Our members and our pastors get depressed because they don’t see the success that the Adventist church is enjoying in other parts of the world, where people are coming to Christ in the thousands.”

“The good news is that we now recognize that we have a problem — and not just us, this is a problem faced by virtually all Christian churches throughout Europe. Our ministers and members now realize that they desperately need God’s help in their work and there has to be a much greater openness to the leading of the Holy Spirit. We have to be open to anything and be willing to accept major changes.”

“Last year the Adventist church in Finland responded to this leading in a dramatic way — they changed virtually all of the leaders in the church structure! Starting from scratch, the new leaders had to rethink everything that had been done before, and we came up with a simple strategy which we called Rakastaa Suomi Kristukselle [Love Finland for Christ]. We dedicated two full weeks to a study of the Holy Spirit — 1,500 people came to the first week of meetings and 300 stayed for deeper study in the second. And we saw big changes, in both our members and our ministers. The biggest change was that we saw a narrowing of the gap between two members when they began to realize that they were just as much ministers as the employed clergy.”

“All this happened just a couple of weeks ago so we are still in an exciting phase of our work here. Now we are going to start small groups all over Finland and encourage all of our members to win one person for Christ. In fact this is our slogan — ‘Win One for Christ’ — and we want people to do this through friendships. We want them to find a friend, be a friend, walk with a friend, and then lead that friend to Christ.”

“As a leader I have to set an example and so I’m involved in the process as well. In fact I’ve seen it working in my life. Years ago, when I’d just finished my first year of theology study, I met a guy on a plane and during our conversation I gave him the full gospel message. I don’t think I would do the same today but surprisingly he contacted me again a year later. His life was in a mess and he needed a friend, so I sent him a pile of religious books. Not surprisingly I didn’t hear anything from him again, at least, not for 15 years. Then we happened to meet. He was now a successful businessman – but still searching, so instead of just talking or giving him books, this time I made a deal with him: I would help him in his search and he would help me with my management strategies. We became good friends and a year ago he was baptized. A little while ago I conducted his marriage and now his wife is a church member as well.”

“The problem with many churches, and many Christians, is that they don’t care. If we can make caring and friendships our priority, and set a target of just winning one person for Christ, then I believe that we can have success, even in Finland.”

John Surridge / ANN