Ella Smith Simmons

​Alternate Models for Achieving Adventist Educational Mission in Urban Education

Most Seventh-day Adventists have read and taken seriously Ellen White’s advice for country living. She advised: “Whenever possible, it is the duty of parents to make homes in the country for their children. . . . Get out of the large cities as fast as possible. . . . Let children no longer be exposed to the temptations of the cities that are ripe for destruction. The Lord has sent us warning and counsel to get out of the cities. . . . There is not one family in a hundred who will be improved physically, mentally, or spiritually, by residing in the city. Faith, hope, love, happiness, can far better be gained in retired places where there are fields and hills and trees. Take your children away from the sights and sounds of the city.”1 She was emphatic when she declared, “Out of the cities is my message for the education of our children.”2

We now face a conundrum in decisions for Adventist education. By 2014, 54 percent of Earth’s population had moved into cities worldwide in search of shelter, food, health care, jobs, and more. Once there, many found themselves embroiled in poverty and strife. Researchers predict that urban populations will grow to 70 percent of the population by 2050.3

So, then, how should Seventh-day Adventists respond to the needs of urban dwellers? We are told in Galatians 6:9 (KJV): “Let us not be weary in well-doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.” And, Ellen White wrote: “Do not wait to be told your duty. Open up your eyes and see who are around you; make yourselves acquainted with the helpless, afflicted, and needy. Hide not yourselves from them, and seek not to shut out their needs.”4

Some years ago, the Seventh-day Adventist Church took significant steps to address the needs of urban populations through an initiative called Mission to the Big Cities. Leadership committed itself to ensuring that the divisions of the world church and all of their organizations and institutions would give priority to the growing challenge of urban mission. The 2013 International Urban Mission Conference produced a vision for every big city in the world to have an influential Adventist presence actively engaged in a comprehensive mission using Christ’s method of ministry. The church set goals to engage its collective resources in cities of a million or more, with similar goals for the smaller but still large cities, to establish an Adventist presence for reaching out in ministries to the large number of people living in these locations. Recent advice for those who engage in outreach ministry offered this challenge: “a culture of outreach must come from the top.”5

Church ministry leaders from all levels must believe in that culture of outreach and must model it in order for that culture to take root and flourish in our institutions and organizations. Divisions, unions, conferences, and local churches considering taking on an engagement with an urban community that might be outside of their typical comfort zone should understand that this outreach is core to their mission, not an extracurricula or add-on. We have to know that God is calling us to a mission and ministry in the cities. His call includes Adventist education as an integral part of wholistic ministry.

There are overwhelming challenges for mission outreach and ministry in the big cities. There are things we don’t want to face, things that are harmful. The challenges are there. Nevertheless, we know that education, along with health care, is one of the primary means for reaching the cities, for helping to improve lives and communities, for modeling the love of God, and for introducing people to the plan of salvation. Some researchers have found that “truly disadvantaged” urban families typically live in public housing, experience the highest crime rates, are least likely to attend church, and have higher percentages of children who are abused, neglected, and homeless.6 Studies have also shown that help to children and families living in concentrated poverty and social dislocation must differ in fundamental ways from traditional programs that have been successful for traditional school populations living in the countryside. According to Education Week, urban education that aims for transforming lives requires

  1. Strong leadership, where principals are “strategic, focused on instruction, and inclusive of others in their work”;
  2. A welcoming attitude toward parents and formation of connections with the community;
  3. Development of professional capacity, which refers to the quality of the teaching staff, teachers’ belief that schools can change, and participation in good professional development and collaborative work;
  4. A learning climate that is safe, welcoming, stimulating, and nurturing to all students; and
  5. Strong instructional guidance and materials.7

Actually, these just sound like good Adventist education. However, to achieve the goals of urban education, Adventist educational programs must be designed differently from our traditional models. Although we know we can never be all things to all people, we must be open. There must be a balance between individual needs and context demands, and our ability to deliver. So, we must begin with prayerful investigation and move forward with faith and the conviction that when called by God, we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. We know that our services to the big cities must be wholistic. High-risk families in big cities need medical, dental, visual, nutrition, and social services, educational, literacy, and tutorial programs; and help with identifying and securing assistance from various agencies. They need community development. They need family support such as parenting education and training, financial management, and marriage-enrichment programs. They need workforce and vocational training, child care, after-school care, sports and recreation programs, and much more. The needs are enormous and extend beyond education.

What can we do? Adventism can build on its foundational principles of wholistic approaches to education, health care, and ministry for addressing these needs. We already have the philosophy, basic structures, and processes. We can pull together agencies and organizations that we already have. We have schools, we have children's and youth ministries, women’s ministries, health ministries, family ministries, community services, and so forth. In seeking to assist these often disregarded children and families, we must remember that Jesus’ special concern for the poor extended to all the marginalized, weak, and socially ostracized. In sharp contrast to His contemporaries, Jesus demonstrated a special interest in the disabled, children, drunkards, prostitutes, and lepers.

Research during the past 30 years or more has taught us something about our responsibility, not just as Seventh-day Adventists, but as citizens. One researcher, Lisbeth Schorr, has stated it this way: All citizens have a vested interest in improving the lives of those around us. She said: “We all pay to support the unproductive and incarcerate the violent. We are all economically weakened by lost productivity. We are all diminished when large numbers of parents are incapable of nurturing their dependent young, and when pervasive alienation erodes the national sense of community.”8

Back in 1862, James White said he saw education as a means to mission, observing that “a well disciplined and informed mind can best receive and cherish the sublime truths of the Second Advent.”9 Ellen White said she “was shown the difficulties that must be met in the work of warning the people in the cities; but in spite of difficulties and discouragement, efforts should be made to preach the truth to all classes.”10 God is calling us to move forward now, to put Adventist education at the heart of our mission to the cities. Ellen White said regarding work in the cities: “Oh, that we might see the needs of these cities as God sees them! At such a time as this, every hand is to be employed.”11

The Lord is coming. The end is near. Ellen White said: “Much more can be done to save and educate the children of those who at present cannot get away from the cities. This is a matter worthy of our best efforts. Church schools are to be established for the children in the cities, and in connection with these schools provision is to be made for the teaching of higher studies where these are called for.”12 She said, “We must do more than we have done to reach the people of our cities.”13

So, what should we do now? Ellen White says, in the fifth volume of the Testimonies: “Shall the powers of mind and soul be misapplied? Shall opportunities be lost? Shall a form and routine be gone through day after day with nothing gained? Oh, awake, awake! teachers and pupils, before it is too late. Awake before you hear . . . the terrible wail: ‘The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.’”14 We cannot reach the world if we do not go to the cities. We must engage in mission to Earth’s major metropolitan areas, and that includes establishing schools, including mission schools, in our large urban centers.

Paul spoke of these kinds of situations, the conundrums and challenges in the cities, which are also relevant to us. In 1 Corinthians 16:9, he spoke of a great door for effective work that had been opened. God has opened a door to the cities for us, but warns that there will be many adversaries. He is saying that there are both opportunities and obstacles. Unbelief sees the obstacles, but faith sees the opportunities because we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. Indeed, “He says, ‘It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant To raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make You a light of the nations, So that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth’” (Isaiah 49:6, NASB).15


Introductory remarks presented as part of the October 6, 2016, LEAD Conference panel titled “Alternate Models for Achieving Educational Mission.”

Ella Smith Simmons

Ella Smith Simmons, EdD, serves as a General Vice President of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in Silver Spring, Maryland.

NOTES AND REFERENCES

  1. Ellen G. White, Country Living (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1946), 12, 13.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Global Health Observatory (GHO) Data, Urban Population Growth: http://www.who.int/gho/urban_health/situation_trends/urban_population_growth_text/en/; Population Reference Bureau (PRB), Human Population: Urbanization:
  4. https://www.fastcodesign.com/1669244/by-2050-70-of-the-worlds-population-will-be-urban-is-that-a-good-thing.
  5. Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1871), 2:29.
  6. Julie Bourbon, “Partners in Progress: College, Community, and the Board’s Contribution,” Trusteeship Magazine 23:1 (January/February 2015): http://www.agb.org/trusteeship/2015/januaryfebruary.
  7. Debra Viadero, “Chicago Study Teases Out Keys to Improvement,” Education Week 29:19 (January 2010): 1.
  8. __________, “Scholars Identify Five Keys to Urban School Success,” Education Week (January 2010):
  9. http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2010/01/27/19ccsr.h29.html?tkn=TNZFOo3eeJNWSzI7ukN4TdKwJNAsy0%2FfkGdK.
  10. Lisbeth R. Schorr, Within Our Reach: Breaking the Cycle of Disadvantage (New York: Doubleday, 1988), xvii-xix.
  11. George R. Knight, A Brief History of Seventh-day Adventists, 2nd ed. (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald, 2004), 76. From James White, “Questions and Answers,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald 21:4 (December 23, 1862): 29.
  12. Ellen G. White, “City Work—No. 2,” Review and Herald 89:4 (January 25, 1912): para. 2.
  13. Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1901), 9:101.
  14. __________, Child Guidance (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1954), 306.
  15. __________, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1948), 7:115.
  16. Ibid., 5:589.
  17. Isaiah 49:6. New American Standard Bible Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, Calif. All rights reserved.