Reaching new generations

Research in North America shows some innovative ways

Monte Sahlin, D.Min., is vice president for creative ministries at the Columbia Union Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Columbia, Maryland. An important collaborator in this research is Hoger Dudley, director of the Institute of Church Ministry at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, who serves as research director for the Adventist segment of Faith Communities Today (FACT).

Are some Seventh-day Adventist churches successfully winning and holding younger adults from the Baby-Boom and the Baby-Bust generations? If so, what are these churches doing differently?

The Pacific Union Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church commissioned the Center for Creative Ministry to study these questions, and it has provided some interesting results.1

Five Seventh-day Adventist churches were selected for the study (with input from conference administrations). Each church has a proven, multiyear record of attracting and baptizing people in their 20s to 40s. One of these is a "celebration" church, two are known as "conservative," and two are "middle-of-the-road." All five are known to be committed to the Adventist message and to have had significant sustained growth.

Seven key characteristics emerged as significant in all of these churches characteristics that can be implemented by any Adventist congregation.

A strong ministry with dropouts

Two out of five members in these churches (38 percent) report that it was specifically "this congregation, or one of its pastors or members," who helped bring them back into active membership. Half the members in the Baby-Boom and Baby-Bust generations said the same.

Two-thirds of the converts baptized in the last five years were church dropouts. In fact, these five churches alone have reclaimed more than one thousand former and inactive members during recent years, many of whom returned with nonmember spouses. More than a third (37 percent) say that their spouses eventually became Adventists.

Acceptance and forgiveness

The study showed that an inclusive attitude and a church program appealing to both former Adventists and their unchurched spouses are important factors that explain much of the success in reaching and winning Baby Boomers and Baby Busters.

Nine out of ten members give their pastor high affirmation for displaying love, acceptance, and forgiveness. Divorced singles, new converts, and people from low-income households are even more likely to give a positive response when it comes to this question.

Asked to make the same evaluation of the entire congregation, 80 percent of the respondents rate the entire body high on being inclusive and accepting. Many appreciative comments and deeply-felt stories were shared during interviews conducted as part of the study.

Displaying a genuine sense of inclusiveness has become a basic value in these congregations. Asked if there should be more acceptance of different lifestyles, a majority agree. The longer respondents have been church members, the more likely they are to favor greater acceptance of diverse lifestyles.

A grace orientation and vibrant spirituality

Three out of four members describe their local church as having a strong grace orientation. Nearly all (95 percent) agree that "a right relationship with Jesus Christ is the key to spirituality and salvation." Seven out of eight of the members (87 per cent) indicate that they are "very certain" of their "assurance of eternal life," a number that contrasts favorably with the 1981 survey of Adventists across North America where only 68 percent expressed a high level of assurance. 2

Nearly a third of the members (30 per cent) regularly meet with a small group for Bible study, prayer, and spiritual fellowship, significantly more than the 24 percent of Adventist members who reported the same behavior in the baseline 1981 study.

In many ways these churches are more "evangelical" and less "sectarian," which causes some worry that the Adventist Church might lose its unique, identifying characteristics. Yet, encouragingly, according to the study, five out of six members (83 per cent) agree that "the standards of the Adventist Church are important to uphold and keep strong among church members."

An active, practical compassion

These churches demonstrate a commitment to the practical application of Christ's compassion in their communities. Nine out of ten (92 percent) believe "the compassion of Christ is demonstrated in the lives of believers through service to the poor and hurting," and 93 percent would like to see the Adventist Church "do more to meet the needs of the homeless, inner-city children, abused women, the unemployed, and others in crisis situations in their lives." Recent converts are even more likely to agree. In fact, three out of five members (59 percent) volunteer in community service. The norm for Adventists in North America is 41 percent.

A progressive outlook

The congregations in this study have a distinctly progressive outlook. This con tributes to the inclusive, compassionate values of these churches.

Almost every member (94 percent) believes that racism is "un-Christlike and immoral." Four out of five members (79 percent) want the church to teach environ mental stewardship. Three out of five (62 percent) say that "more needs to be done to advance equal opportunities" for women and ethnic minorities. Nine out of ten believe that husbands and wives should share responsibility for careers, housekeeping, and child-rearing; and 54 percent disagree with the more traditional view of gender roles in the family. Also, 58 percent agree that it is good for women to have jobs out side the home.

A relational approach to evangelism

The churches in this study do not use the conventional methods of evangelism. Most members saw that the most productive means of winning converts were nontraditional ones that focused on building relationships with nonmembers.

The most effective method is "friend ship evangelism," say three out of four respondents (77 percent). The second most effective is small groups (63 percent of the responses). The third is community service (58 percent). Recent converts are even more likely to agree, as are the Boomers and Busters.

Other effective soul-winning methods include recreation and fellowship (55 per cent), youth ministries (49 percent), and children's ministries (47 percent). Younger respondents were more likely to indicate this observation than older respondents. Only a third of the members saw conventional evangelistic strategies such as Revelation seminars, a pastor's Bible class, and public meetings to be as effective as the more innovative methodologies. Bible lessons and video Bible studies were reported to be key in winning 21 percent of the con verts. Ethnic minorities and older adults were more likely to see these outreach methods as effective.

Reaching new people groups

From this study, an entirely new profile for the growing evangelistic church seems to emerge. The members are much more likely to feel---at rates greater than the norm in churches across North America---that their congregation is focused on Christ's mission. These churches are reaching groups that have been largely untouched by conventional strategies. This includes not only new generations but individuals who have a more secular background.

Wade Clark Roof has identified a trend in the Baby-Boom generation of unchurched adults who are returning to church after a permissive childhood, experimentation with nontraditional values and lifestyles, and personal crises that have evidently caused them to reevaluate their behavior and beliefs.3

The Adventist churches in this study are winning similar types. This is especially true among individuals raised in an Adventist family who dropped out and have later been won back. A significant difference between these returning Adventists and those surveyed under the Roof study is that the majority of Adventists say that their upbringing was "somewhat" or "very" rigid, while the Roof group identify their up bringing as more permissive. Only one in five of the total Adventist sample (22 per cent) report a permissive childhood. Perhaps this is where the Adventist experience differed from the surrounding culture during the Baby-Boom generation.

It can be done!

This study demonstrates that an Adventist church can be part of the denomination and have success with innovative approaches that reach the unchurched. In fact, the Center for Creative Ministry has identified about four hundred churches in the North American Division reaching out to new generations and former and inactive members as well as developing other nontraditional ministries.

Healthy innovation is alive and well in the Adventist Church, and it presents a hope for the future of our mission in an increasingly "post/denominational" world.

1. A complete version of the research report by Monte Sahlin, Carole Kilcher, and Paul Richardson (report #3), including information on sample size and data-collection methods, can be obtained from the Center for Creative Ministry at 800-272-4664.

2. Roger Dudley and Des Cummings, Jr., "Indicators of Seventh-day Adventist Church Growth in North America" (Berrien Springs, Midi.: Institute of Church Ministry, Andrews University, 1981).

3. Wade Clark Roof, A Generation of Seekers (San Francisco: Harper, 1993).

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Monte Sahlin, D.Min., is vice president for creative ministries at the Columbia Union Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Columbia, Maryland. An important collaborator in this research is Hoger Dudley, director of the Institute of Church Ministry at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, who serves as research director for the Adventist segment of Faith Communities Today (FACT).

December 1998

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