“I Want This City” offers an unflinching look at the correlation between mission offerings and what happens on the front lines of mission.
The average Seventh-day Adventist in North America gives U.S.$21 a year to the church’s frontline mission work in other countries.
That’s enough to buy a medium-sized bag of dog food.
And that’s why the Adventist Church will debut a 13-part television series unlike any you have ever seen.
“I Want This City,” which premieres on Hope Channel on Friday, is a gritty TV show that traces the direct correlation between mission giving and what happens on the frontlines of mission. The reality-style show follows Adventist missionary E. Douglas Venn for nine months in Thailand’s capital, Bangkok, one of the most unreached cities of the world.
“This TV show will make people upset,” said Venn, who now oversees mission outreach to the world’s cities as the recently appointed director of Global Mission’s Urban Centers for the Adventist world church.
Venn said some people have asked him about the TV show: “Is this really the face of foreign mission that we want to show church members?”
Venn said it is.
“We are showing how lives are being changed when people sacrifice,” he said. “But we also showing the result of the closing of mission work — and this is happening in big cities all over the world.”
The grim reality is mission giving has plummeted since the 1930s, Venn said. North American Adventists, long at the forefront of mission giving, used to give $6 to missions for every $10 that they returned in tithe, he said. Today the amount for missions has dropped to 28 cents for every $10 in tithe.
That amounts to a meager $21 a year — enough to buy the bag of dog food, according to data compiled by Adventist filmmaker Jon Wood, who followed Venn around Bangkok to create the TV show.
Venn sat down with the Adventist Review in his office at the Adventist world church’s headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, to discuss the television series and his passion for mission. He wept as he spoke about his longing to share Jesus in the world’s cities and his desire to see North American Adventists contribute more for mission offerings.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Why should I watch this TV series?
A: Many Adventists are excited about the grace that we have received from Jesus. But our mission offerings are like a black hole sometimes. We don’t see where those offerings are going. We hear a little about what is happening, but there isn’t a direct understanding. This TV show explores how our giving actually affected a mission in a Buddhist neighborhood in Bangkok.
Q: How did the show come about?
A: “I Want This City” was commissioned by Gary Krause, director of the Office of Adventist Mission for the Adventist world church, in cooperation with Adventist filmmaker Jon Wood during a missions conference in the U.S. state of Washington. They wanted to document the correlation between mission giving and what happens on the frontlines of mission.
From the United States, they reached out to me in Thailand, where I was working as a missionary.
Initially, I didn’t understand the premise of the TV show. I was just trying to do my job as a front-line missionary, planting churches in Bangkok. I wondered why Jon kept asking about money when I was trying to do my work with impoverished people in the slums or the affluent in a mall. Jon was like a mosquito buzzing in my ear, asking, “Why don’t we have money for this literature?” or “Why don’t we have money to work in that area?”
As the months passed, I gained an understanding of Jon’s pointed questions. The TV show documents that. It looks in a self-discovery way at the correlation between the money that people give for mission every Sabbath and what happens on the front lines.
Q: Will I want to give money to Adventist mission after I watch?
If you watch this, I think you will be troubled. You will feel proud watching some episodes. You will say, “Wow! I am so proud that my church is doing this.” But in other situations you’ll see that the work is truly languishing. The show actually documents that the mission work is truly languishing.
In Bangkok, I met a community of 80 families of trash pickers. They would go get plastic, paper, and aluminum tin cans to earn their rice money for the day. Then a flood came. God’s people in North America gave a mission offering for flood disaster response. We were able to directly impact that community of 80 families. As a result, the community leader later on accepted Jesus and was baptized. That led to us opening a center of influence, a Sabbath afternoon Bible club for children in the neighborhood.
This experience was a highlight — to see lives are changed when God’s people pour out the money. I didn’t even ask for that money. God’s Spirit moved upon donors in North America, and they sent the check at the right time.
Many thousands of similar stories are taking place. The TV show documents some of those lives changed.
After watching, we could pause to reflect on how God emptied heaven to give us grace and the three angels’ message, and then say, “What can we do?” We are told by Adventist Church cofounder Ellen G. White that when invest in foreign mission, we receive a blessing not only individually but also corporately as a world church. We need that blessing now.
Ellen White speaks about this in her book Testimonies for the Church, Vol. 6, p. 27, where she says: “The home missionary work will be farther advanced in every way when a more liberal, self-denying, self-sacrificing spirit is manifested for the prosperity of foreign missions; for the prosperity of the home work depends largely, under God, upon the reflex influence of the evangelical work done in countries afar off. It is in working actively to supply the necessities of the cause of God that we bring our souls in touch with the Source of all power.”
Many church conferences don’t even list “Global Mission” as a giving option on their tithe envelopes. There is perhaps a corporate lack of awareness of the need.
Q: How did your experience in Bangkok affect you personally?
It was thrilling to share hope with Buddhists in Bangkok. But I didn’t realize at first that the church as a whole is facing a major challenge because of declining mission giving.
You might say mission offerings are just numbers and everyone is doing what they can. But as a frontline missionary, I don’t see numbers. I see lives. [Venn gestures toward a large photo of Bangkok’s cityscape in his office.] When I look at this, I see a city where mission giving propelled us into new communities.
This TV show allows viewers to see how the gospel and the three angels’ message of Revelation 14:6-12 impact neighborhoods. But then you’ll also see that church plants are being closed and publishing is closing because of a lack of money. The camera is in my face every day — both on the good days and the not so good. In a way, it’s like a reality show. But it’s not meant to entertain. It’s meant to be informational.
Q: Which Bible texts give you strength?
I have two favorites: Matthew 28:18-20 and Galatians 6:9.
Jesus says in the Great Commission in Matthew 18-20: “Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Galatians 6:9 says: And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart.”
Q: How can viewers contribute?
The television series was commissioned by Adventist Mission, and people can go to the Adventistmission.org website to make an online donation. The money goes directly to the front lines.
You can support mission offerings during Sabbath School in your church every Sabbath.
Sometimes people want to see a compelling video or learn about a specific project before giving. We’ve lost sight of that ongoing sacrificial lifestyle where we exclaim, “Wow, I have received God’s grace, and now I can share it through my giving!” We need to return to something that was called “Sister Betsy” in Adventist history: systematic benevolence. We have lost her.
I am convinced that Christ’s coming is sooner than we expect. Many Adventists and people in the greater Christian community mistakenly think that we are done with missions. But that’s not the case. Foreign mission and home mission has such a great need right now. If we can break through that complacency, that ignorance, I think we will receive greater joy. We will get to see lives changed — like those trash pickers in Bangkok.
Adventist Mission’s new series, “I Want This City,”premieres on Hope Channel on Friday, Sept. 23, at 9:30 p.m. Eastern Time/Pacific Time. Visit hopetv.org for our local time as well as viewing options such as online streaming.
Watch the trailer for “I Want This City.” (Adventist Mission)