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Reflections on the future of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America: Trends and challenges (part 1 of 2)

David Beckworth , S. Joseph Kidder

 

Editor’s note: This article focuses on the church in North America. We suggest that other parts of the world may want to do a similar analysis and determine how the church is doing in that area.

How is the Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) Church doing in terms of growth, finances, and Christian education? We will examine important long-term trends in these areas in the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America (NAD).1 The research presented here covers the period between 1913 and 2005. The conclusions, however, have far-reaching consequences. These trends affect the fulfillment of the mission and vision of the church, its growth, structure, polity, and the finances worldwide. We find a significant departure in most trends beginning in the mid to late 1970s in both absolute and relative terms. The causes of these trend changes and their implications for the future of the Seventh-day Adventist Church will be explored in detail.

Methodology

The methodology followed in this research is threefold. First, we collected our data about the Seventh-day Adventist Church from the NAD Archives and Statistics office. Second, in order to understand and interpret the results of the research fairly and accurately, we interviewed 51 thought leaders, opinion-makers, researchers, church administrators and leaders, pastors, educators, and laypersons from across the NAD.2 Third, we researched the literature to find out the experience of other denominations and what they are doing about it.

Though we tried to provide solutions for the future based on the interviews we conducted, the literature we reviewed, and sound biblical answers, we are aware that we are raising more questions than providing answers. We pray that the publication of these findings will lead to a better understanding of the trends and changes of our time, create vigorous debate, and lead us to prayer, renewal, and meaningful changes so that we might be more effective in fulfilling the mission of Jesus Christ.

We are convinced that no one single factor has caused this radical change in the church. Rather, we are certain that a series of events, factors, and changes taking place in the church and in society, as well as generational and demographic shifts, has contributed to the situation in which we find ourselves.

Church growth: The big picture

In 2007 the Adventist Church in North America baptized 37,359 people. Yet, as we examine the numbers in context, we find this reality: even as we added members, we shrank.

1. Membership growth rate3 The membership growth rate (membership growth = [previous year’s membership – apostasy and death + converts] / previous year’s membership) in the NAD since the mid-1980s has been hovering around 2 percent or less (see figure 1). In order to exceed the population growth rate and thus experience meaningful growth relative to the population, the church must grow beyond the 2 percent level. In the last hundred years we have exceeded the 5 percent growth level only twice. The first time was during the First World War in 1917, the second time was during the Depression of 1935.

How do we know what is a healthy and meaningful growth rate for the church? It is possible to have a positive rate of growth (any percentage over zero) but still not grow at least as fast as the population is growing. In such a case we will find ourselves adding more members and yet still shrinking relative to the population. Consequently, a more focused measure of church growth includes the number of NAD converts as a percent of the population. Figure 2 reports both the absolute number of NAD converts and the number of NAD converts relative to the NAD population. This figure reveals that from 1913 till about 1982, the growth of NAD converts did fairly well in keeping up with the population growth rate. Since that time, though, the membership growth rate on average has been less than the population growth rate. The population grew by 1.31 percent from 1913 till 1975, but the church grew by 3.61 percent. However, from 1975 to 2005 the population grew by 1.09 percent, but the church grew by 0.06 percent. This indicates that the Seventh-day Adventist presence is shrinking in the NAD. If the number of the converts continues to grow below the rate of population growth, the church will become a shrinking part of the population, making it increasingly more difficult to fulfill its mission.

David T. Olson, in The American Church In Crisis, shows that most denominations are experiencing a decline4 that is similar to the phenomenon experienced by the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America.5 Olson demonstrates that the number of people attending all churches has essentially stayed the same from 1990 to 2006.6 The church attendance numbers thus stagnated while the population, during the same time, grew by 51 million.7 Thus Olson’s research shows that church attendance, as a percentage of the general population, dropped among evangelicals, mainline Protestants, and Catholics.8

2. Ethnic composition of the Seventh-day Adventist Church

Not only is the church not keeping up with the general population growth in the NAD, but the membership growth does not match the ethnic makeup of the population. New membership in the NAD comes mainly from the African descent demographic. This group makes up approximately 30 percent of the NAD membership compared to its 12.8 percent share of the population. Though we rejoice in the diversity of the church, this figure shows that NAD is not effectively reaching the Caucasian descent group. They make up 55 percent of the NAD church relative to a 67 percent population in 2005. Similarly, the Hispanics make up 9 percent of the NAD church; they constitute 13 percent of the population. Those of Asian descent and other races are represented in the church at rates closer to that of the population.

3. The graying of Adventism

Another important trend is reflected in what is being called the “graying of Adventism.”9 In 2008 the median age of Adventists in the NAD was 51 years while the median age in the population was 36. These numbers mean the church is not doing well in keeping or attracting young believers. The church seems to be surviving by the energy and resources of previous generations. But if this graying trend continues, what is going to happen to the church when these supportive generations fade into the sunset?

4. The ratio of Seventh-day Adventist churches to the population of the North American Division10

The NAD had 3,000 more Ad- ventist churches in 2005 than in 1913. The ratio of the general population to the number of Adventist churches has also risen. In 1913, there were approximately 52,000 people in the population per church, but in 2005 there were 65,000 people for each Adventist church. This indicates that there is an urgent need to plant churches if the NAD churches are to maintain their current presence in North American communities. Increasing the Adventist presence and visibility in local communities would require even more aggressive church planting efforts. If we maintain the ratio of population to a church in 2005, as it was in 1913, we should have 6,285 churches today (about 1,100 more than we currently have).

Another phenomenon emerging in the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America is that the average church is getting bigger. In 1913, the size of the average church was 36 members, while in 2005, it was approaching 200 members.

5. Church and membership productivity The landscape of church productivity is changing, mostly for the worse. (In this context, productivity is a snapshot of resources put into baptisms.) Member productivity has declined since 1980. It now takes about 27 members to produce one baptism, whereas from 1913 to 1980 it took only about 15 members. The figure indicates this number is on the rise, heading quickly toward 30. While this change may be the result of member inefficiency, apathy, or lack of involvement, some of this change also probably reflects an increasingly secularized public less interested in organized religion. The bottom line is that, as the years pass, we are becoming less effective in evangelism and it takes more members to produce one convert. Other established evangelical denominations are in the same situation as we are or even worse. Today it takes the Southern Baptist Convention11 about 40 people to gain one convert, whereas it took only 17 members to win one convert in 1913.

6. Pastoral productivity

If pastoral productivity is defined as the number of converts per pastor, then pastoral productivity is on the rise. Pastoral productivity, however, has risen and fallen through the years. The best years were associated with the First World War, the depression era, and the Second World War. In 2001, it stood at about nine baptisms per pastor per year. This number would likely be higher if we considered only frontline pastors (those who minister in a local church) and excluded those who are in conferences, unions, and divisions and administration, teaching, and other areas. Other factors may also be related to pastoral productivity: the ratio of members to pastors and the number of Bible workers and literature evangelists.

The ratio of members to pastors has risen from less than 86 in 1913 to about 250 in 2005. This trend became particularly pronounced in the mid to late 1960s. The number of ordained and licensed ministers in the church rose to about 3,500 in the early 1980s and has essentially stayed the same since that time. However, the number of Bible workers and literature evangelists in the NAD is dropping. This trend reveals a potential loss of frontline, congregational workers.

7. Economic productivity: Total dollars spent per convert

In terms of economic productivity, the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the NAD was spending about $41,000 in 2005 per convert while in 1913 it took about $5,500 (2005 US$) to do the same. This indicates inefficiency in resource management, with much of the donated money to the denomination being spent to support the structural system of the church in its various levels and organizations, nurture members, and sustain our educational system. Should we not be investing more of our resources directly in the evangelistic mission of the church and less in the administration of the church?

Conclusion

Our research shows major disturbing trends in Adventism in the North American Division in the area of church growth. While the church experiences a decline in the rate of church growth as compared to membership and the rate of growth in the population, the church also takes more and more financial resources to produce one convert.

Busting these disturbing trends in the North American Adventist Church will take much more than a few small changes of technique; it will require a reconsideration of our values and methods. In the February 2011 issue we will deal with plausible explanations of the current trends and some suggestions to reverse the trend.

 

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1. The Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America, as a church geographic entity, consists of Bermuda, Canada, and the United States of America.

2. The 51-person group consisted of 10 pastors, 10 laypersons, 8 seminary teachers, 4 elementary and secondary teachers, 7 conference workers, 4 union workers, 3 division workers, 2 General Conference workers, and 3 researchers.

3. All the statistics related to the Seventh-day Adventist Church are taken from the Office of Archives and Statistics
of the North American Division, http://www .adventistarchives.org/documents.asp?CatID=27& SortBy=1&ShowDateOrder=True (May 2008).

4. David T. Olson deals with attendance figures and the data that we collected from the NAD deals with membership figures. However, it is safe to say that if there is a decline in membership, there is a decline in attendance and vice versa. Olson, The American Church in Crisis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008).

5. Ibid., 28–32.

6. Ibid., 35.

7. Ibid., 35.

8. Ibid., 36.

9. Monte Sahlin, Adventist Congregations Today (Lincoln, NE: Center for Creative Ministry, 2003), 35, 36. See also Monte Sahlin and Paul Richardson, Seventh-day Adventists in North America: A Demographic Profile (Milton Freewater, OR: Center for Creative Ministry, 2008), 5, 6.

10. The population figure came from http://www.census.gov/and http://eh.net. In 1913, there were 97 million people in the United States and 8 million in Canada, totaling 105 million for NAD. In 2005, there were 298 million in United States and 32 million in Canada, totaling 330 million for NAD.

11. http://www.sbhla.org/.

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