How Adventism can stop growing

Around the country stand numerous empty, abandoned old churches. But they aren't Mormon churches. They aren't Seventh-day Adventist churches. They aren't Church of Christ churches or Southern Baptist churches. In describing why certain denominations flourish while others decline, the author also gives Seventh-day Adventists a formula for how to stop growing.

Dean M. Kelley is an ordained minister of the United Methodist Church and currently serves the National Council of Churches as executive for religious and civil liberty. He is the author of Why Conservative Churches Are Groining (New York: Harper & Row, 1972). This article is adapted from Mr. Kelley's presentation to the Second Annual Seminar on Church Growth held August 29 to September 2, 1982, on the campus of Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

It's a little ironic, I think, that somebody from one of the declining churches should come to talk about church growth to a body that is growing at very significant, precisely constant rates. Maybe it is growing and continuing to grow precisely because of meetings such as this, but I don't really think so. I don't think that even a gathering as excellent and meritorious as this is going to affect the rate of church growth. It may facilitate some of the mechanics of bringing growth about, but I believe denominations basically grow or decline because of something far more profound and basic—whether or not they are good religious institutions. If they are not able to meet people's religious needs, they're not going to grow. The mainline ecumenical bodies are declining, by and large, because they are not meeting people's religious needs. They may be very good as adult education institutions, or entertainment arenas, or baby-sitting enterprises, or any number of other things, but they're not making the grade as religions. It isn't a matter of how much energy they have, it's what they use it for, and what they understand themselves to be doing.

The focus of what I am going to say is not on the local church, but on national religious bodies. Some denominations grow in all parts of the country, and in all sizes of local congregations. Others seem suddenly to stop growing and decline, not just locally or regionally, but nationally, which suggests that there is something about the character or nature of a denomination that causes it to behave like one body, irrespective of what's happening in specific local congregations. Some local congregations may be growing; some-may not. But the denomination as a whole will behave in surprisingly organic ways.

If you look at the membership curves of mainline, national denominations from 1958 to 1974 (these are the curves I used in the paperback 1977 edition of my book Why Conservative Churches Are Growing), you will see traces of one of the most interesting phenomena of the twentieth century. Certain of the so-called mainline, national Protestant religious bodies that had been following the population escalator for nearly two hundred years suddenly stopped going up, peaked, and started down. That isn't easy to do, but we managed to do it in the mid-sixties!

The United Church of Christ, which wasn't going up very strongly to begin with, suddenly started dropping off, followed shortly by the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., which showed an even sharper rate of decline. The Episcopal Church likewise headed downward.

The three Lutheran churches behaved in what I think is a very significant fashion. The Lutheran Church in America dropped off sharply. The American Lutheran Church dropped off a little less precipitously. And the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod just began to drop off in the early seventies. Now the interesting comparison here is that the Lutheran Church in America is the most ecumenical of the three, since it belongs to both the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches. The American Lutheran Church is a little less ecumenical, because it belongs to the World Council, and of course, the Missouri Synod doesn't belong to either. But even the Missouri Synod began to decline slightly in the early seventies.

My book, apparently, was one of the first national publications to point out this embarrassing development. For that reason it was not received with great enthusiasm by these bodies, who thought that although this decline might actually be happening, it was poor taste at best to call attention to it. Particularly when one noted that some other churches were behaving rather differently. The Church of the Nazarene, for example, was going upward when these larger, more august bodies were declining. The Jehovah's Witnesses were heading up like skyrockets, and the Seventh-day Adventists were showing a strong upward trend that contrasted sharply with the declining curves of the mainline Protestant churches. That contrast is, perhaps, most notably apparent in a comparison of two of the largest Protestant bodies in the country—my denomination, the United Methodists, and the Southern Baptists. The Methodist Church merged with the Evangelical and United Brethren in 1968, and rather than the merger serving as a shot of adrenalin to the larger group, they both went down together. The Southern Baptist Convention, however, headed ever onward and upward.

Now since that time there have been some interesting additions to those curves. Recently we have plotted graphs to show where various denominations currently stand in relationship to their 1958 membership. A few of the denominations listed are the result of mergers that took place after 1958, but the rest begin with 1958 memberhip figures as 100 percent. The latest statistics we have are from the 1983 Yearbook of American Churches and are figures for 1981.

These figures show the United Church of Christ is still drifting down like this. The United Presbyterian Church has the sharpest drift—it has fallen to 75 percent of the membership it had in 1958. The Espicopal Church has shown a few little bumps and hollows, but in the past three years, despite some one-year encouragements, the direction is downward. The Lutheran bodies have tended to flatten out. The Lutheran Church, and the American Lutheran Church, and the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod may even be going up a little bit. But if the decline was going to bottom out any where, I would have predicted it would have been in the Lutheran churches. Why? Because of all the mainline ecumenical denominations, the Lutherans (all of them) have traits that are most like the churches that are still growing. They are a little less permissive, wishy-washy, or however you want to put it.

When we turn to the record of the upward-moving churches, we find that the Southern Baptists, because they are so large, have curves that are a little less exuberant than smaller bodies. The Salvation Army has a real zigzag trail that seems to be flattening out at the upper end, though I think they'll take off again shortly. The Church of the Nazarene goes up until we have to move it down to get the upper reaches on the chart. The Seventh-day Adventists go climbing off toward the upper right-hand comer of the graph.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) are increasing at the rate of almost 5 percent a year; and Jehovah's Witnesses have the highest rate of increase of all of those on the chart. They run clear off the board up to about 240 percent, and then they have a sudden glitch, drop down, and then head up again. Their last figure was more than 250 percent of their 1958 membership! Why this glitch? The editor of the Yearbook of American Churches tells me that they predicted the end of the world again, and that produced a certain drop as a result of disappointment. But they'll take off again and keep on going, I expect, for quite a while.

One wonders why these churches, at this particular time, behaved in that way. Why did some churches suddenly stop growing and start declining? Why at that time? A three-year research project at Harvard Seminary involving some of the most brilliant researchers in sociology of religion devoted itself to that question. And after three years of work and numerous papers, the researchers came to the conclusion that they didn't know. They used a lot of tables and charts and graphs and sociological jargon, but the upshot of it was, they didn't know! It remains a riddle.

I have my ideas of why it happened, and a couple of the researchers here "disproved" some of those ideas. For instance, I felt that strict membership requirements were very important in maintaining church growth, as well as rigorous theological assertiveness. Not indoctrination so much as the idea "This is what we believe, and we stand by this. If you don't believe it too, you don't belong here."

Bill McKinney, a brilliant researcher, compared several congregations in his denomination—United Church of Christ—to see whether these traits were apparent in the more rapidly growing congregations within that denomination, and less apparent in the nongrowing ones. He found out there wasn't that much contrast in those aspects between the two kinds of congregations. And he felt that disproved my hypothesis. But the difference between growing United Church of Christ congregations and nongrowing United Church of Christ congregations is not very great. I wouldn't expect any of them to show those traits, which is why the denomination as a whole is declining. The same thing was discovered among the United Presbyterians—differences between one and another of their congregations in these areas were not great, which is only to be expected.

I think one reason the researchers didn't find any really vivid answers in this whole enterprise was because their data was derived entirely from the visible end of the religious spectrum. If you put at one end of the spectrum the most traditional and long-lived denominations, and on the other end the most recent and vigorous and vital ones, you realize that we have virtually no data on this whole vital, growing end of the spectrum. The churches on this end don't hold still long enough to get any statistics on them, and they don't usually report their statistics to anybody. Thus, all the data we have is from the middle over to the stodgy end of the line. The really vital, effervescent area of religious development is not recorded, not studied. The students of sociology of religion, aren't really sure it's there, because it isn't in the Yearbook.

The Church of Christ, for example, is one of the large denominations in this country—probably more than 2 million members—but they don't have any national organization. They don't report their statistics to any headquarters. So they really can't be there, from the viewpoint of the researchers. But they are there. They're building big brick churches, while the Methodist churches are sitting there vacant, and others are going for museums and real estate offices and boutiques, and Howard Johnsons.

As you travel across the country, you see all those empty, abandoned old churches. They aren't Church of Christ churches. They aren't Mormon churches. They aren't Seventh-day Adventist churches. They are old Methodist, Presbyterian, and United Church churches. They are the relics of once-flourishing religious bodies that are no longer flourishing because, in my view, they are no longer ministering religion to people who need it. They are largely content with the handful of people left over from the last great awakening or, rather, their children or grandchildren.

Now, if those churches that are best able to meet people's religious needs are the churches that are growing, what are our religious needs? What is the business of religion? The business of religion, in my view, lies not in the area of power, or economics, or entertainment, or art. It's in the area of meaning. It is an effort to respond to the universal question: Why do bad things happen to me? Or to those I love? Or to good people? This is not the only religious question, but it's one of the central ones. Why is the universe the way it is?

If people are unable to find answers to these questions, to bound back from the bad experiences that come to us all, they will tend to fall victim to bitterness, frustration, resentment, listlessness, and aimlessness, and will fall into one or another of the maladies of meaninglessness that are increasingly prevalent today—various escapisms, drug or alcohol addiction, derangements, and even some forms of crime and suicide.

So the function of religion, in my view, is to explain the meaning of life in ultimate terms to its adherents. Not to everybody, but to those who find that explanation meaningful. And it is that enterprise alone that has succeeded in rejuvenating tired empires and worn-out economies.

The great religious movements have the ability to take a handful to unprepossessing little men and women who, because of their total commitment to the explanation of life that a charismatic leader at their center has given them, are lifted up in the scale of human enterprise till the rest of the world slopes down from them, and they become the index of what it means to be really human. That happened in Britain in the eighteenth century, in the Wesleyan revival, where it changed people's expectations of one another. People no longer were willing to put up with the corruption and the exploitation and the victimization that was going on in that society. The Wesleyan revival transformed England.

Well now, suppose that is the function of religion. Then why do some groups succeed with it and others do not? Why does one religion appeal to those with religious needs better than another? I don't know the answer to that. What I do know, I think, is the one sine qua non of the meaning business: The thing that counts in providing a meaning for life is not whether it's logical or rational or consistent or coherent or entertaining or ego-stroking. The thing that counts is the cost. How much does it cost you to follow this gospel? The function of religion depends upon its being a religion that answers people's meaning needs. And I would contend that it is effective in doing that to the degree that it costs people to belong to that group.

In the realm of religion, money is cheap. Now it's a lot cheaper for Methodists than it is for Adventists, or maybe the other way around, because the per capita giving rates are very different. The Seventh-day Adventists just about lead the field in the amount of money they are willing to give to their church. Methodists are way down here somewhere, and Episcopalians are down further yet.

The editor of the Yearbook of American Churches, who is an Episcopalian, told me with a great deal of triumph in his voice that though it has been losing members, the Episcopal Church has increased per capita giving each year for the past three or four years. I said, "Great!" But money is cheap. That's just the first level of commitment. After someone cares enough about the promulgation of the gospel that he is willing to tithe to support it, then he's on the first level of discipleship. After that comes the giving of one's own time. And then his own energy. And then his own anguish. And then the discipleship of the whole self. Most of the conventional religious bodies haven't even gotten to the first step. For them, religion is one of the peripheral interests of life, meritorious, no doubt, but not one that should take up too much of one's time or effort. That's what passes for religion in most churches, including mine.

What I have to say next might be pointed up best if I speak about how the Seventh-day Adventist Church can stop growing and begin declining like the Methodists. I'm sure you want to know that! There are several ways in which the Adventists could become like the rest of us, and I would be surprised if there were not, somewhere among its advanced thinkers, some who have unknowingly found them already. I don't know; I'm not referring to any individuals. But judging from other churches, including my own, I would suggest that there may be those who are offering what they fondly hope will be seen as brave and startling new insights.

If Adventists want to stop growing and begin declining like everybody else, all they have to do is to emphasize that abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine isn't really essential to salvation. Decide that vegetarianism isn't actually all that important, and foot-washing is a little tacky—too much like those hill billy Pentecostals in the Ozarks. Recognize that membership in labor unions sometimes might be not altogether a bad thing, and that tithing, like the requirements already mentioned, can be a form of righteousness by works. And (I am almost unable to mention this) introduce the idea that one can worship as well on Sunday as on Saturday!

You have probably never heard any of those ideas before, but those who are on the advanced edges of religious thought may sometimes come upon them. I don't want to belittle entirely the necessary role of those whose task it is to go about and test the pilasters and the stanchions and the other pillars that hold up a temple, to make sure they're not deteriorating. But sometimes they also discover that the church doesn't need this one, it doesn't need that one, and that all these quaint and peculiar truths are really just trimming on the cake—all that one needs is love or faith.

If rightly understood, it may be true that love or faith is all one needs. But the trouble with these unstructured simplifications is that they're too easy. There is almost nothing you cannot justify doing, if you hold yourself only to the criterion of love as you interpret it. It's too easy. It is too self-indulgent. Rather than being guilt-ridden, most of us are prone to be innocence-ridden, that is, to find justifications and excuses for doing what we want to do anyway. And if we can justify it in the name of love, all the better. These oversimplifications are inadequate because they deprive faith of its unique and necessary texture and practice and cost.

I would suggest that there need to be a few rather rigorous and specific demands in every religious group to bolster its explanation of life and make it convincing, because convincingness derives from seriousness, which derives from strictness. How can a religion expect anyone to take it seriously if it doesn't take itself seriously? The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints requires each of its members to put in two years as missionaries. Not at the expense of the church, but at their own expense! And the Mormons are increasing, not in spite of that requirement, but because of it! What is the point of being a Seventh-day Adventist if an Adventist's religious duty and activity becomes indistinguishable from that of a lukewarm Methodist or Presbyterian?

The things that I have mentioned about tithing, the seventh-day Sabbath, foot-washing, et cetera, are the things that make the Seventh-day Adventist movement unique, distinctive, and demanding. They give it its bite, its convincingness, its seriousness. Each church needs its own way of insisting that "you've got to live up to this to be one of us." If you strip the requirements all away, you can render the movement feeble, pallid, and ordinary overnight. So there's the answer to the question: How can the Seventh-day Adventist Church stop growing? Be like the Methodists.

I was asked by my publisher, in preparing my book, to provide a little "how to" at the end of it. I don't know what will cause those, curves to reverse, and declining churches to turn around and start increasing again like an old man growing young. But I suggested what I thought it might take. At the end of the book, I listed several maxims of seriousness:

First, those who are serious about their faith do not confuse it with other beliefs, loyalties, or practices, or mingle them together indiscriminately, or pretend they are alike, of equal merit, or mutually compatible, if they are not.

Second, those who are serious about their faith make high demands of those admitted to the organization that bears the faith. They do not include or allow to continue within it those who are not fully committed to it. For decades there hasn't been anything you could do that would get you drummed out of the Methodist Church. But John Wesley, in his journal, describes how he came to one of his little societies in Bristol, and found there among the eighteen members a number of triflers and dissemblers. He says, "I made short work of them." After he left, there were seven members of the society. And it was much stronger!

Third, those who are serious about their faith do not consent to, encourage, or indulge any violations of its standards of belief or behavior by its professed adherents.

Fourth, those who are serious about their faith do not keep silent about it, apologize for it, or let it be treated as though it made no difference or should make no difference in their behavior or relationships with others.

Now I know it's true that there is no particular thing you can do to commend yourself to God. But there are a lot of things you can do that will separate yourself from God. They are called sins, and we do them all the time. But true, effective religious faith requires that you do something different, that you be something different, than you would otherwise do or be if you didn't have it. It must make some significant difference in your life, something that will cost you a lot, because that's what makes religion work. If it doesn't cost, it can't be worth much.

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Dean M. Kelley is an ordained minister of the United Methodist Church and currently serves the National Council of Churches as executive for religious and civil liberty. He is the author of Why Conservative Churches Are Groining (New York: Harper & Row, 1972). This article is adapted from Mr. Kelley's presentation to the Second Annual Seminar on Church Growth held August 29 to September 2, 1982, on the campus of Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

February 1983

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