Reflections on the future of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America:The long view of church growth (part 2 of 2)
Part 1 of this series (December 2010) presented research findings showing major disturbing trends in church growth in the North American Division (NAD). If we take the number of NAD converts as a percent of the population rate of growth, the church is experiencing a decline in growth. The growth pattern also shows that it takes more and more members to produce one covert (30, as opposed to 13). In addition, we now spend up to about $42,000 per conversion; this is up from about $8,000 (2005 U.S. dollars) in 1948.
Most of these long-term trends are not very promising. They indicate that NAD church is struggling and will continue to experience challenges moving forward. So what explains these long-term trends? After reviewing the literature and interviewing 51 people1 within the organization,I found that some salient factors came to the forefront.
1. Internal factors. Real growth in the church takes place when laypeople are passionate about the mission of Jesus Christ and very active in sharing His love. Lack of member involvement in evangelism could be attributed to weak spirituality; lack of vision; fear of rejection; busyness; disdain of traditional methods of evangelism, such as door-to-door and public methods; professionalizing of evangelism; or doubt that people are interested in the gospel, particularly in our unique message. Some people may even be embarrassed by their local church.
2. Cultural factors. The spiritual and religious landscape of the larger society has been significantly changed by the postmodern world. It is difficult to persuade postmoderns of the authority of a single truth when they believe that every viewpoint is equally valid and important.2 These cultural shifts, which attach more authority to the personal experience and more distrust to institutions, are making people less interested in church, though interest in spiritual things is strong.3
Many, especially the young, are spiritual and looking for an experience with God, but they are not inclined to look for it in the church. 4, 5 This difficulty is felt in most Christian churches across North America. It is worth noting that David T. Olson shows that all denominations are experiencing a decline in their membership as well as attendance partly because of societal changes.6
3. Methodological factors. For many years our church has relied heavily on public evangelism as a means to fulfill the great commission and grow churches. Most people I interviewed believe that our strategies and techniques of public evangelism worked very well in the past when many people were Christian and religious, but less so today. Monte Sahlin’s recent research shows that we are doing more public evangelistic meetings but fewer people are coming.7 Furthermore, the standard assumption of getting one or two people to come to public evangelistic meetings for every 1,000 advertising flyers sent out shows that a very small segment of the population responds to our methods of evangelism and marketing. 8
Today we have an entirely new generation with radically different views than the generations of yesteryear. This new era challenges us to color outside the old evangelistic box and try for something more effective to win people for Jesus. Public evangelism, strongly connected with friendship evangelism and saturated with prayer and the Holy Spirit, has a definite place in our outreach efforts. Yet while keeping the traditional methods as tools in our toolbox, we must use every avenue to win people for Jesus Christ. The more tools the church utilizes, the more effective it will be.
Exploding the trends
How can the NAD church bust the trends and turn the church around? Here are some pointers that emerged from our interviews as well as our study and observations.
1. Spirituality. How do we strengthen spirituality? First, prioritize spirituality and revival. An emphasis on spirituality and revival should be the main work of the church. Ellen White strongly connected renewal with an on-going experience with Jesus. “A revival of true godliness among us is the greatest and most urgent of all our needs. To seek this should be our first work. . . But it is our work, by confession, humiliation, repentance and earnest prayer, to fulfill the conditions upon which God has promised to grant us His blessing.”9
The church must invest much more in the spiritual development of our pastors, leaders, and members.
The emphasis of the church should be to grow fully devoted disciples of Jesus with a passion to win the world for Him.10 The most important asset the church has is its members.
When those members are spiritually healthy, growing, trained, and equipped, they will do great things for God. The early church joyfully gave their time, talents, possessions, and even their lives for the cause of God because of their love for Jesus.11
The second way to strengthen spirituality is to be intentional about prayer. Church growth is always closely related to prayer and the power of the Holy Spirit. Ellen White clearly showed this link: “A revival need be expected only in answer to prayer. While the people are so destitute of God’s Holy Spirit, they cannot appreciate the preaching of the word; but when the Spirit’s power touches their hearts, then the discourses given will not be without effect.”12
The early church did not grow because of programs or talents; they grew because of prayer and the Holy Spirit.13 Let us remember “the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.” (Zech. 4:6).
Tom Rainer shows that praying churches tend to grow and keep a higher percentage of their members.14 Ellen G. White notes: “Prayer and faith will do what no power upon earth can accomplish. We need not be so anxious and troubled. The human agent cannot go everywhere, and do everything that needs to be done. . . . Earnest prayer and faith will do for us what our own devising cannot do.”15
Third, bring about worship renewal. Church renewal is always connected with worship renewal.16 James Emery White writes that church growth and renewal are always connected with a revival of inspiring worship experiences.17 We learned from our interviewing that most people are hungry for powerful, vibrant, energetic worship. Many are longing to have an encounter with God, to feel His presence and live His power. Every time the church is intentional about prayer, building discipleship, and bringing about worship renewal, the church becomes healthy and starts to grow.
George Barna18 makes it clear that the number-one expectation people have of the church today is to feel the presence of God. Our churches are urged to pay much more attention to their worship services and bathe them with prayer, and nurture true worshipers who themselves experience the presence of God. Rainer found that dynamic worship services contribute in a very positive way toward evangelism, discipleship, and assimilation.19
2. Leadership. What is the role of church leadership in promoting church growth? First, focus on instilling the vision for evangelism and ministry. As spiritual leaders, administrators and pastors are in the best position to instill the vision that lost people matter to God and should matter to us. The mission of the church ought to be front and center, cast in creative and compelling ways. As the leaders cast this vision for reaching lost souls, there must be an emphasis on the urgency of our time. The early church was caught up with the conviction that Jesus was coming soon, and that conviction drove them to take His message to the entire world. They did it with passion and urgency. People who love Jesus and have a clear vision of their destiny will do anything for Him.
Second, train, equip, and motivate the laity for ministry and evangelism. The main role of the pastor is to train and equip the laity for evangelism. Jesus spent more than three years training a group of people for ministry. Paul defines the role of the pastor as an equipper of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ (cf. Eph. 4:12; 2 Tim. 2:2). Ellen White wrote: “Every church should be a training school for Christian workers . . . there should not only be teaching, but actual work under experienced instructors. Let the teachers lead the way in working among the people, and others, uniting with them, will learn from their example. One example is worth more than many precepts.”20
She also emphasizes that ministers should not do the work that belongs to the members, thus wearing themselves out and preventing others from performing their duty. They should teach the members how to labor in the church and the community.21
Third, engage in critical and creative thinking and evaluation skills. Effective leaders practice critical and creative thinking and are not mere reflectors of other people’s ideas, plans, programs, and visions. Too often pastors, because of lack of time or skills, are doing very little critical thinking and reflection. In their effort to grow the church, they copy existing models and direct their energies on promoting programs. Programs—not saving souls—become the mission of the church under such leaders. Assessing the situation, asking critical and thoughtful questions and coming up with solutions to meet the urgent needs of our time is the heart of leadership work. For the spiritual leader there are three basic questions: Where is God in action so we can join in with Him? How can we be more effective in what we do? What are we doing that is not effective anymore? After reflecting on such questions, we should have the courage to end what is not effective or repurpose it so it would be. Critical thinking will help us move from stagnation to creativity and innovation.
Fourth, use a variety of methods and strategies to reach people. The church today needs to focus on a variety of methods to win people,22 such as friendship evangelism;23 building authentic spiritual disciples; 24 and meaningful worship, Sabbath School, and public evangelism.25 Too many people think of evangelism as an event rather than a way of life. In reality, evangelism is a way of life. It takes place at any time, anywhere, any place, by anyone, under any circumstances.
The book of Acts records dozens of incidents and methods of evangelism and ministry. The early church grew by employing every means available to them to evangelize the world. We would do well to follow their example and experience. The varieties of these programs serve at least two purposes. The first creates an avenue for believers to share their faith in a natural way. The second reaches multiple groups of people when one method might not be the right one to reach them.
We are now doing research to identify the fastest-growing Adventist churches and what they do that makes them so effective. We discovered that all growing churches use multiple avenues and venues to reach people. Growing churches use Sabbath School, the worship service, multiple ministries, seasonal events (Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, etc.), personal and public evangelism, and even sport events, to reach seekers. Some studies show that healthy and effective churches employ at least nine pathways26 and entryways27 a year to reach the community. Every event, every ministry, every activity should be done with the purpose of connecting people with God.
Fifth, re-examine the anatomy of the denominational structure and make it more efficient. The mission of our church will never change. Our methodology and system, however, need to be ever-changing, adapting to shifting needs. All measures indicate that a thorough re-examination of our structure is necessary and that any adjustments made should contribute to efficiently accomplishing the church’s mission. Almost all the people interviewed agree that something needs to be changed in our system. George Knight believes that the denomination’s institutional structures need to be totally reevaluated in the light of current realities and possibilities.28 The basic of the structure should be one of functionality for mission.
The fundamental objective ought to be fulfilling our commission, and this means investing our resources in the building-up of people and the kingdom of God, and releasing all of our resources into outreach and mission. This could be done by putting fewer people in management positions and more people on the front line of ministry and evangelism, cutting back on travel, and thinking carefully about efficiency in finance.
A creative idea that emerged from our interviews is to make conference departmental directors (Sabbath School, youth ministries, personal ministries, etc.) pastors or associate pastors of local churches and have them develop effective programs in the local context. Then people from throughout the conference could observe how they do it. This model not only saves money but gives credibility to those who are engaged in the ministry.
Another strategy for conserving financial resources is to eliminate one layer of structure.
Finally, many of those interviewed believe we need to reexamine the way we manage our educational system. Perhaps we might combine some of our colleges, academies, and elementary schools to free up more money for ministry and evangelism and find additional ways to fund our educational system. “Every level of church organization from the local church to the General Conference exists solely to serve the mission of the church, not to perpetuate itself. . . . We must be driven by a vision of mission and not by policies carved in stone by people who lived under different circumstances.”29
Sixth, plant more churches. All experts agree that church planting is the most effective means of church growth. According to C. Peter Wagner, “The single most effective evangelistic methodology under heaven is planting new churches.”30 Lyle Schaller writes, “Without exception, the growing denominations have been those that stress church planting. . . .Church planting continues to be the most useful and productive component of any denominational church growth strategy.”31 Olson discovered that new churches tend to grow by attracting younger people, providing synergy, and raising a new generation of lay leaders.32
Church planting should be put into the DNA of every local church and conference. A church plant coordinator in every conference, one who carefully and systematically directs the planting of churches, would be one way to prioritize church planting. Ellen White stresses that “upon all who believe God has placed the burden of raising up churches.”33 A realistic target could be to reach a ratio of one church to about 35,000 people in the population. Olson stresses the need for church planting because the decline rate of established churches probably will not change. To keep the American church growing at the rate of the population, about 3,200 additional new churches would need to be started each year. The Adventist Church finds itself in a similar situation.34 To maintain the ratio of churches to population as it was in 1913, we would need to add 1,000 churches to the North American Division today.
Exploding the disturbing trends in the North American Adventist Church will take much more than a few small cosmetic changes of technique; it will require a reconsideration of our values and methods. The challenges that the church faces today are varied and serious; yet as we consider the way to move forward in the future, it is crucial for us to understand that our greatest need can be supplied by only one source: the Lord Jesus Christ. Through the ages, the church has always had some serious challenges from the inside and the outside—persecution, compromise, dissension, secularism, apathy, and worldliness. Yet God has promised that He will be with us all the time, even till the end of the age (Matt. 28:18–20). He has assured us that the church will go on to triumph because she is “the one object upon which God bestows in a special sense His supreme regard.”35
The greatest need of the church today is not a new program—but a new passion; not to live in the past—but to engage in the present and vision for the future; not to rely on human effort—but on divine power. The mission calling of the church today will never be fulfilled by the use of worldly methods and ideas, but only through a connection with the Lord Jesus Christ, who said that without Him we can do nothing, but with Him we can do all things (John 15:1–5). So as we go into the future, let us go with Him. The best days of the church are still ahead of us.
A new approach for church growth: ten points for the North American Seventh-day Adventist Church36
1. Be honest about the state of the church today and personally lead the church forward in spirituality, renewal, and strategy.
2. Have the courage and commitment to pursue both health and growth. This dedication needs to come from the top leadership all the way to the local pastor, lay leaders, and members.
3. Accept and learn to thrive in a world that is post- Christian, postmodern, and multiethnic.
4. Follow the best model we have for the mission and vision of the church: the early church’s passion, attitude, mission, and commitment.
5. Upgrade pastors’ ministerial gifts and skills, helping them learn to articulate the message and love of Jesus with passion, power, and relevancy.
6. Engage people in their sphere of influence with prayer and a humble, listening attitude, taking every opportunity God gives. A great way to begin is through the recovery of the historic Christian ministry of hospitality.
7. Encourage conferences and churches to embrace church planting as a primary means of passing the faith on to future generations.
8. Encourage pastors and leaders to be involved in recruiting and training young leaders.
9. Embrace and promote, in every church, the indispensable importance of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church.
10. Bring about worship renewal. People are hungry for a life-changing, transformational encounter with God.
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1 This group of people was composed 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.
2 Leonard Sweet, Soul Tsunami (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 77.
4 George Gallup, Jr. and D. Michael Lindsay, The Gallup Guide: Reality Check for 21st Century Churches (Loveland, CO: Group, 2002), 8.
5 Reggie McNeal, The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003), 4, 5. See also James H. Rutz, The Open Church (Jacksonville, FL: SeedSowers, 1992), 3.
6 David T. Olson, The American Church in Crisis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 36.
7 Monte Sahlin, interviewed by S. Joseph Kidder, Berrien Springs, MI, March 14, 2008.
8 Norman Shawchuck, Philip Kotler, Bruce Wrenn, and Gustave Rath, Marketing for Congregations: Choosing to Serve People More Effectively (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1992), 190–195.
9 Ellen G. White, Selected Messages (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1958), 1:121.
10 Robert E. Coleman, The Master Plan of Evangelism (Old Tappan, NJ: Spire , 1963), 21.
11 Bruce Larson, The Power to Make Things New (Waco, TX: W Publishing, 1986), 79–90.
12 White, Selected Messages, 1:121.
13 Randy Maxwell, If My People Pray (Boise, ID: Pacific Press, 1995), 31.
14 Tom Rainer, High Expectations: The Remarkable Secret for Keeping People in Your Church (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 1999), 174–175.
15 Ellen White, Manuscript Releases (Washington, DC: E. G. White Estate, 1981–1993), 8:218.
16 Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Quest for Renewal: Personal Revival in the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), 11–25.
17 James Emery White, Opening the Front Door: Worship and Church Growth (Nashville, TN: Convention, 1992), 62–64.
18 George Barna, “How to Reach Post-Moderns.” (keynote speech, Adventist Ministries Convention, Myrtle Beach,
NC, January 20, 2009).
19 Rainer, 20.
20 Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1974), 149.
21——, Historical Sketches of the Foreign Missions of the Seventh-day Adventists (Basel, Germany: Imprimerie
Polyglotte, 1886), 291.
22 Lyle E. Schaller, 44 Ways to Increase Church Attendance (Nashville, TN: Abingdon , 1988), 49–63.
23 S. Joseph Kidder, “The Power of Relationships in Evangelism,” Ministry, July 2008, 10–12. See also Win Arn,
The Master’s Plan for Making Disciples (Pasadena: Church Growth, 1982), 33–54.
24 Bill Hull, The Disciple-Making Church (Old Tappan, NJ: F. H. Revell, 1990), 19–27.
25 Thomas Rainer, The Book of Church Growth: History, Theology, and Principles (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1993), 239–247.
26 Pathways are events that take place over a long time and have a strong spiritual emphasis, like Sabbath School classes for seekers or evangelistic meetings.
27 Entryways are events that take place in a short time, like cooking seminars or stop-smoking classes.
28 George Knight, If I Were the Devil (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2007), 166.
29 Robert Folkenberg, “Renewing Church Organization,” Adventist Review, August 6, 1992, 15.
30 C. Peter Wagner, Church Planting for a Greater Harvest: A Comprehensive Guide (Ventura, CA: Regal, 1990), 11.
31 Lyle E. Schaller, 44 Questions for Church Planters (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1991), 20.
32 Olson, 155–156.
33 Ellen G. White, Medical Ministry (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press, 1963), 315.
34 Olson, 142–157.
35 Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1911), 12.
36 Adapted from Olson, 183.