Spiritual life, involvement and retention

Spiritual life, involvement, and retention

Research stats but not rocket science—if they like your church, they’ll probably stay. Let’s make it happen!

Galina Stele, DMin, is the research and evaluation manager for the Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

Have you ever wondered whether the Seventh-day Adventist Church has reliable data on its members’ spiritual lives and practices? The answer is yes.

Twice in the recent past, the General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church (GC) commissioned a Global Church Member Survey (GCMS) to obtain data on members’ beliefs, practices, attitudes, and other data illustrating current trends to enable strategic planning. The 2013 GCMS covered 9 divisions,1 while the 2017–2018 GCMS surveyed all 13 divisions. The GC Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research (ASTR) supervised both projects. ASTR director David Trim presented key findings at the 2018 Annual Council.2 This office also publishes a blog that includes results from both surveys.3

So what does the research data reveal?

Respondents’ profile and overall well-being

The 2018 GCMS is the largest global church member survey ever administered by the Adventist Church. Its sample (n = 63,756) is more than double that of the 2013 GCMS sample (n = 26,343). Each gender was well rep-resented: 51 percent females and 49 percent males, although some divisions had more respondents of one gender than the other. Young people 26–40 years old composed about 30 percent of the sample, 27 percent were adults 41–55 years of age, and respondents of 56+ years old comprised 21 percent.4

While most participants (59 percent) were married and living with their spouses, 28 percent had never married, while others were divorced, widowed, or separated (11 percent). Overall, 51 percent of households have 3–5 family members, and 47 percent have at least one child at home. The data shows that 91 percent of respondents live in a household in which at least one additional family member observes the Sabbath, and a majority (64 percent) live in households in which all its members observe it. Regarding their religious commitment, 30 percent saw themselves as having had a relationship to Christ since childhood, 38 percent gradually developed their connection to Him, 16 percent experienced a sudden change and commitment, and the same percent-age of respondents either had lost their relationship or were unsure about it. A significant number (41 percent) reported that they were the first generation of Adventists in their family.

By and large, Adventists are happy people: 88 percent said that they are very happy or rather happy, with the highest results from North American Division (NAD) and Northern Asia-Pacific Division (NSD) (93 percent each). Adventists in West-Central Africa Division (WAD) and Southern Asia-Pacific Division (SSD) scored higher than others in a “very happy” category (54 percent and 57 percent respectively). The surveys also asked respondents to imagine themselves on a ladder of life (a 10-point scale from worst possible life to best possible life) and rank their current location. Only 11 percent of respondents considered themselves at points 0–4, while an overwhelming majority (89 percent) found themselves in the middle of the scale and beyond it, with 65 percent at points 7 and above. Additionally, 83 percent said that they found their lives filled with meaning and purpose either often or sometimes often.

Spiritual well-being

One of the important dimensions of Christ’s followers is their close relationship with Him. The survey showed that the “Revival and Reformation” initiative has become one of the most well-known GC programs among church members: only 22 percent have not heard of it. “Revival and Reformation” has influenced members’ spiritual lives and involved more people (44 percent participated) compared to any other global program. Figure 1 shows what their spiritual journey looks like on both a daily and weekly basis.

If we compare these results to the data from the 2013 GCMS, we see progress during the five-year period in the following daily practices: reading of the Bible, from 42 percent to 48 percent; personal devotions, from 39 percent to 52 percent; reading of the writings of Ellen G. White, from 14 percent to 17 percent. Results for family worship stayed about the same for daily but dropped from 22 percent to 17 percent in option “more than once a week.” Interestingly, on a daily or weekly basis, more people use cell phones or tablets for Bible study or personal devotions (41 percent) than for reading Ellen G. White’s writings (24 percent), perhaps reflecting fewer readers of her works.

Figure 1: How often do you engage in the activities listed below?

Daily or more than once a day

Several times a week

Personal Prayer

65 percent

17 percent

Personal Devotions

52 percent

22 percent

Thinking about Jesus

51 percent

23 percent

Read the Bible

48 percent

28 percent

Study the SS Lesson

36 percent

27 percent

Family Worship

37 percent

17 percent

Read EGQ’s writings

17 percent

19 percent

Figure 2: Attendance and involvement during the last 12 months

Every week or more than once a week

Almost every week

Attended church services

71 percent

18 percent

Attended Sabbath School

68 percent

19 percent

Attended small group

36 percent

16 percent

Helped with a church ministry on Sabbath

38 percent

17 percent

Helped with a church ministry during the week

35 percent

15 percent

Ate with church members

28 percent

12 percent

24 percent

12 percent

A significant number of respondents reported that they had grown a great deal spiritually during the past 12 months (47 percent), changed their priorities as a result of their spiritual growth (46 percent), and spent more time thinking about spiritual questions (44 percent). Although these are good numbers, they represent less than half of the total sample. What is even more troubling—between 28 percent and 30 percent responses to these particular questions fell under “not true at all for me,” or “rarely true,” or “neutral,” with the rest of respondents picking “somewhat true.”

The surveys also indicated growth in the emotional sphere for more than 50 percent of respondents who said that it was true “a great deal” that they tried to avoid anger and bitterness in their hearts (51 percent) and experienced a sense of gratitude more frequently (57 percent). About 17–27 percent said this was “not true at all for me,” or “rarely true,” or stayed “neutral.”

Overall, three in five were confident in what they believe and said their faith had not been shaken in the past 12 months (64 percent) and that they had not lost the important spiritual meaningfulness that they had before (52 percent).

One observes high scores for principles applied to personal life: 84 percent strongly agreed or agreed that they apply to their daily life what they learn from the Bible, 79 percent said the same about Sabbath School, and 68 percent about Ellen G. White’s works.

However, in spite of such progress in spiritual life, 43 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement, “Although I am religious, it does not affect my daily life,” while exactly the same percent strongly agreed or agreed with the idea. It shows that for many members their religious convictions have not become an intrinsic part of who they are. The highest results of strongly disagreed or disagreed came from NAD (90 percent), Trans-European Division (TED) (79 percent), Euro-Asia Division (ESD) (72 percent), suggesting that a strong majority of members there live their faith.

Additionally, some people admitted that they had struggled spiritually during the past 12 months and regarded it as true or somewhat true that they thought they were spiritually lost (25 percent), their faith in what they believe had been shaken (18 percent), or they had lost some important spiritual meaning that they had had before (24 percent).

Ellen White writes, “Are we hoping to see the whole church revived? That time will never come.”5 Although this is a reality, nevertheless, we need to work on improvement in disciple-making and our daily connection to God.

Involvement in church activities

Local congregations vary in size and attendance. The GCMS research showed that, in churches with membership up to 100 people, perceived attendance on a typical Sabbath exceeded their membership. In contrast, congregations with membership more than 100 typically had fewer people attending than the actual number on their roles.

Figure 3: When I am at church …

Very true

Somewhat true-Very True

Somewhat true

I feel free to be who I am

57 percent

11 percent

23 percent

I feel loved and cared about

49 percent

13 percent

30 percent

I often feel inadequate or incompetent

14 percent

6 percent

27 percent

I have a say in what happens and can voice my opinion

41 percent

13 percent

32 percent

I often feel a lot of distance in my relationships

14 percent

7 percent

30 percent

I feel a lot of closeness and unity

40 percent

14 percent

33 percent

I feel pressured to behave certain ways

17 percent

6 percent

24 percent

How regularly did members attend church services and how frequently were they involved in church-related activities during the 12 months before taking the survey? Figure 2 presents the results

A strong majority (74 percent) participated in communion service quarterly or more often, while only 10 percent had never done so in the past 12 months. A majority (62 percent) also reported that they hold a local church office, an important sign of active involvement in the life of the local congregation.

However, more should be done to involve the other half of the congregation in weekly prayer or small group meetings and church ministries on Sabbath or during the week. Slightly more than half (54 percent) said “very true” to the question of whether they were able to use their spiritual gifts at church. A surprisingly small number shared meals together with people from their congregation other than their family. Social events and involvement in different ministries could help create stronger bonds between church members.

Congregational climate

Are Adventist church members happy with their church atmosphere? The Valuegenesis studies have demonstrated that church climate plays an important role in developing intrinsic religion.6 It is also a powerful factor in making members feel at home and prompting visitors to return.

A strong majority agreed or strongly agreed that their pastors (74 percent), Sabbath School teachers or leaders (71 percent), and other people in the church (80 percent) cared about them. A majority also sensed unity between pastors and lay leaders and that they worked together as a team (75 percent) and that youth and young adults play an important role in decision-making in their congregations (65 percent).

However, in response to more specific questions on how they feel in their churches, the results were different, especially for the “very true” category (see figure 3).

While they possibly appreciated the efforts of church leaders and members who cared about them, on the individual level many people felt disconnected and under pressure, albeit to varying degrees. Unfortunately, 41 percent also responded affirmatively to the question about whether church leaders, people, or incidents in their congregations had hurt them.

Given these responses, it is clear why only about half (48 percent) of respondents were very satisfied and 26 percent somewhat satisfied with their local churches. Although 64 percent agreed or strongly agreed that the local church provides programs for everyone in their families, more than a third (37 percent) disagreed, strongly disagreed, or were not sure. It would be helpful if we could determine what, if any, groups were not having their needs met. Also, a correlation appears between satisfaction with the local congregation and lifetime commitment to the church. About 94 percent of respondents who were very satisfied with the local church said it was very likely they would stay in the church.

Witnessing and meeting needs

Two other well-known global initiatives are “Christ’s method of reaching people” and “comprehensive health ministry.” About 65-66 percent of respondents had heard about them. Additionally, a majority agreed or strongly agreed that their local congregations offered training on Christ’s method of reaching people (70 percent) and had the ability to communicate across cultures, clans, tribes, and religion (60 percent), although 24 percent were not sure and 16 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed with the latter.

Research results show that, overall, we have about 31–41 percent of members actively involved every or almost every week in witnessing and service to non-Adventists while 14–17 percent of respondents had never done so during the past year (see graph below). Obviously, church members need more training and equipping to reach total member involvement in local outreach.

Figure 4: Witnessing to or serving non-Adventists in local community in the past 12 months

Every week or more often

Almost every week

Once a month or at least once a quarter

Only once



25 percent

13 percent

22 percent

22 percent

14 percent

Spent time forming new friendships

27 percent

14 percent

23 percent

22 percent

14 percent

Spent time meeting their needs

20 percent

11 percent

28 percent

24 percent

17 percent

The data reveals that we have, overall, a significant number of members who demonstrate a mature faith in various aspects of their lives. Combined results for “often" or "sometimes often” score highest in the following areas: feeling a deep sense of responsibility for reducing pain and suffering in the world (69 percent), helping others with their religious questions and struggles (64 percent), and giving a significant amount of time to aid other people (58 percent). Half of the respondents stated that they cared a great deal about reducing poverty in society (50 percent), and close but less than half “often” or “sometimes often” give a significant amount of money to assist others (45 percent). About half (49 percent) apply their faith to political and social issues.


Pastoral or member visitation is vital in discipleship and retention. However, overall, 38 percent had never received a pastoral visit during the previous 12 months, while a quarter received a visit once or twice during this period. In contrast, a sizeable group, but still only one-quarter, enjoyed regular pastoral visits, varying between once a month to more than once a week. Lack of pastoral visitation could result from differing systems of member care in the many cultural contexts existing in the 13 world divisions. However, elders’ visitations were even rarer: 41 percent reported that a church elder never visited them; 23 percent noted that an elder visited them once or twice; 10 percent had elder visitation at least once a quarter, while a quarter experienced such visitation once a month or more often.

Interestingly, more members received visits from other church members than from pastors or elders: 40 percent reported such visits from between once a month to more than once a week during the previous 12 months, 26 percent received one or two visits, 13 percent had visits at least once a quarter, and only 21 percent said that they were “never” visited by a church member. Such results reflect the findings of the retention study,7 which show that, when former members were visited at all, it was largely by their friends and church members rather than by pastors or elders. Interestingly, a majority of survey respondents felt that church efforts for caring for and nurturing members (70 percent) as well as for reclaiming of former members (75 percent) should increase.

Challenges and implications for discipleship

The research data suggest several discipleship challenges that face the church:

  • Given the large number of those who are the first converts in their families (41 percent), and those who did not grow up in the church since birth (overall, 69 percent), local churches need discipleship programs. Such figures mask great diversity between divisions, an aspect still under study. It has huge implications for discipleship and retention and explains some confusion that respondents have on doctrines, such as the state of the dead.8
  • Results of the 2018 GCMS show that fourth- and fifth-generation Adventists constituted 19 percent of the overall sample. Some divisions have larger populations of such members, and they are not limited to the traditional Adventist “homelands.” Divisions in Africa and Southeast Asia have significant populations of fourth- and fifth-generation Adventists. It calls for special efforts to keep the faith alive and be involved in church-related activities and outreach.
  • We have about 28–30 percent of members—and in some areas even more—who seem to have halted in their spiritual progress.
  • A majority (65 percent) agreed or strongly agreed that their local church offers training in nurture and discipling. Additionally, the local church must have programs that involve all members in active discipleship.
  • Half (50 percent) agreed or strongly agreed that their local church offers training on conflict resolution while the other half did not: 27 percent were not sure, and 23 percent “strongly disagreed” or “disagreed.” Such training could tremendously help in member retention as conflicts and perceived hypocrisy are some of the major reasons why members leave the church.9 Introducing such training was one of the recommendations of the 2013 World Summit, and yet it is clear that there has been little follow-up from church administrators.
  • An overwhelming majority of church members globally (89 percent) agreed or strongly agreed that it is important for them that their local congregation is part of a worldwide church. This is encouraging, and thus it is even more important to find a good way of communicating about global initiatives from the top to the local church level and then involve members in such programs.
  • The overwhelming majority of church members are proud of their church and its role and reputation in their community: 79 percent agreed or strongly agreed with this statement. However, only up to 41 percent were involved in ministry to non-Adventists every or almost every week. More efforts are needed to involve more members in such service and to improve the spiritual climate in local congregations. Discipleship could strengthen this area and help the local church successfully become a center of influence and “a house of prayer for all nations” (Isa. 56:7, NKJV).

In conclusion, it is very encouraging that 82 percent of respondents said it is very likely that they will be attending a Seventh-day Adventist church for the rest of their life. Additionally, 11 percent said it is somewhat likely. You may feel that this article is overloaded with research data. But that is its purpose—to share with you the voices of thousands of Adventists around the globe with the hope that we will hear them. Each number speaks volumes, and behind each response is an invaluable person.

1 Divisions’ 2013 CMS reports can be found on the ASTR Research website at adventistresearch.org/research _reports.

2 David Trim, “Reaching the World: How Did We Do? The Global Church Member Survey 2018” (PowerPoint presentation, 2018 Annual Council, Battle Creek, MI, USA, Oct. 15, 2018), adventistresearch.org/sites /default/files/files/AC2018%20-%20Global%20 Church%20Member%20Survey%20Data%20Report.pdf.

3 See ASTR research blogs at adventistresearch.org/blog.

4 Figures are rounded for readers’ convenience and based on the 2018 GCMS Codebook, database, and Meta-Analysis Final Report, October 2, 2018, writtenby a research team at Andrews University: Karl G. D. Bailey, Duane C. McBride, Shannon M. Trecartin, Alina M. Baltazar, Petr Cincala, and Rene Drumm.

5 Ellen G. White, Last Day Events (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 2002), 195.

6 Andreas Bochmann, “Valuegenesis Europe: Family Matters,” Spes Christiana: Valuegenesis Europe 24 (2013): 40.

7 General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, ASTR, Leaving the Church: Why Some Seventh-day Adventist Members Leave the Church and Why Some Come Back,April 2014, adventistresearch.org/sites/default/files /files/Revised%20Leaving%20the%20Church%20 combined.pdf; Paul Richardson, Monte Sahlin, Petr Činčala, Curtis Rittenour, and Melissa Sahlin Bruno, Survey of Former and Inactive Adventist Church Members, Center for Creative Ministry, 2013,adventistresearch.org/sites/default/ les/les/2013-retention-study.pdf.

8 Trim, “Reaching the World.” See also research blogs on the state of the dead at adventistresearch.org/blog.

9 “The Narrow Road,” ASTR blog, May 2016, adventistresearch.org/blog/2016/05/narrow-road.

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Galina Stele, DMin, is the research and evaluation manager for the Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

April 2019

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