I migrated to the Washington, DC, metropolitan area May 20, 2004, with my wife and two adult children. With nearly 30 English-speaking Seventh-day Adventist churches in the area, my family and I took the opportunity to worship in various churches on different weeks. Almost all of them were warm and welcoming. Finally, we decided to become members of the Southern Asian Seventh-day Adventist Church (SASDAC) in Silver Spring, Maryland. Situated on a 20-acre property with a well-laid-out and exquisitely furnished sanctuary, it can seat nearly 1,000 people. Its membership rolls list 905. With the addition of children and visitors, the sanctuary should be full every Sabbath. Yet, one can easily observe empty seats most weeks.
The head count
After attending the church for a couple of weeks, I noticed two young women standing behind the last pews of each row at the eleven o’clock service, counting those present. Not having seen it done in the churches in India, it seemed a peculiar practice to me. Curious to know the reason for the practice, I ventured to ask them. They explained that the local conference1 required each church to report the number in attendance at each worship service. Later, when I became one of the church’s associate pastors, I learned that the conference employed the head count to determine the level of member participation in each church. The conference also used the statistics to train and motivate pastors to increase and strengthen member involvement. Attendance at worship services provided a way to assess member engagement.
I became curious to learn more about the practice. The opportunity came my way when I was appointed as the congregational pastor of SASDAC. I went back to the clerk who did the head count each week. She told me the average attendance for a particular month was 543, which is 60 percent of the membership, meaning that 40 percent of the members were missing during that period. I wondered whether such a condition existed not only in my current home church but also in congregations throughout the Potomac Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.2
When I contacted the conference administration for statistics on church attendance, they quickly confirmed that a similar situation existed in almost all the churches. Out of the total conference membership of 34,728, the average weekly attendance is 16,909, which meant 48.69 percent in attendance and 51.31 percent missing.3
Researchers use a variety of terms to label the process of not attending or affiliating with a church or denomination: dropping out, backsliding, exiting, disidentification, leave-taking, defecting, apostasy, disaffiliation, disengagement,4 being unchurched,5 and becoming dechurched.6 Adventists commonly refer to members who do not attend church regularly as missing or inactive. Admittedly, although missing members seems to be a common phenomenon in each church, I had never realized that more than 50 percent of the members of churches across the conference were absent each week.
The global, interdenominational trend agrees with what has been observed in North America. In Europe, while the Catholic countries such as Italy, Spain, Ireland, and Portugal tend to have relatively higher attendance, Protestant countries such as Denmark, Iceland, and Sweden have lower attendance levels.7 In his research, Detlef Pollack found similar patterns of decline in many other Eastern and Western European countries. Concluding the study of church attendance in Europe, Philip S. Brenner says, “Most Eastern European countries resemble those in Western Europe—low and stable (e.g., Estonia, Czech Republic) or declining (e.g., Slovenia) attendance. Others with relatively high attendance, like Poland, have attendance rates similar to higher-attendance Western European countries (e.g., Italy, Ireland), and demonstrate similarly negative trends. Only in three countries, namely Romania, Russia, and Bulgaria, is there somewhat consistent evidence of increasing attendance.”8
Trends from the general population in Australia demonstrate a long-term reduction in church attendance. About 40 percent of Australians reported at least monthly attendance in 1981, but that dropped to 25 percent by mid-1990.9 Tom Smith then found that attendance fell from 28 to 17 percent by 2009.10 While Kevin Ward reported 20 percent of the population in New Zealand goes to church regularly,11 Smith stated later that attendance had shrunk to 13 percent.12
Latin America has fared better than North America and Europe. By the year 2000, attendance rates ranged from 33 percent in Brazil to 57 percent in Puerto Rico.13 African and Asian countries did even better, though surveys have yet to take all the major countries into consideration. Stable attendance by the early 2000s was 52 percent in South Africa and 80 percent in the Philippines. But subsequent study also reveals a decline in attendance.14
Mark Chaves’s recent summary of religious trends in America noted that since 1990, attendance “unambiguously has not increased.” “Attendance has gone down or essentially remained stable.”15 According to American National Election Studies (ANES), from the 1960s until 2008 church attendance declined from about 43 to about 38 percent.16
Based on the most recent data, 38 percent of Americans are active church-goers, 43 percent are unchurched, and the rest are dechurched.17 Another report suggests only 23 percent visit a church every week, 11 percent almost every week, 12 percent once a month, 25 percent seldom, and 27 percent never.18 While the numbers differ from one report to another, they do indicate declining attendance and engagement.
The statistical report of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America is not different.19 According to a statistical report presented during Annual Meetings in Silver Spring, Maryland, in November 2017, the total membership of the North American Division was 1,218,397 for the year 2016. But the average attendance per week stood at a mere 177,372 (14.5 percent).20 But a report presented during the same period by the Potomac Conference showed a much better picture. Of 34,725 members on the roll at the end of 2016, an average of 16,591 attended every week.21 That is 47.77 percent in attendance, close to or even better than the national average presented by the Barna group of researchers. Nevertheless, 52.23 percent are still absent from church every week.
So far, I have been presenting facts based on numbers. The anti-number proponents may not agree with the importance the church gives to numbers, but I, for one, believe that numbers do matter. They did to God. Speaking to Moses in the tabernacle of meeting in the Wilderness of Sinai on the first day of the second month, He asked the Israelite leader to conduct a census of all the males 20 years old and above—“‘all who are able to go to war in Israel’ ” (Num. 1:3, NKJV). The total came to 603,550. And toward the end of their wilderness journey, as they were about to enter into Canaan, God directed Moses and Eleazar to “ ‘take a census of all the congregation of the children of Israel from twenty years old and above’ ” (Num. 26:2, NKJV). It came to 601,730. Although the numbering here was not related to member engagement, it illustrates that God was interested in numbers.
Jesus and His disciples counted how many the five loaves and two fishes fed. The early church noted that on the day Pentecost, “about three thousand were added to their number” (Acts 2:41, NIV). Later, Peter and John reported their evangelistic success as 5,000 new members. The leaders of the church reported to Paul at the Council of Jerusalem that “ ‘many thousands of Jews have believed’ ” (Acts 21:20, NIV).22 Such examples suggest that God requires us to count too.
William Hoyt states that the church needs to keep track of how many come to worship services, how many unbelievers become believers, how many participate in small groups, and how many serve in ministry.23 Gone are the days when the church clerk would ask the congregation to report how many sick it had visited, how many Bible studies it gave, how many poor it cared for, and how many literature pieces it distributed during the week. Keeping track of the visitors that the Lord brings to the church, how many visitors return the following week, how many of them later became believers, and how many members engage in or disengage from ministry are important in assessing the effectiveness of our ministry as well as the value we place upon each member.
When the Pharisees and the scribes sighed and muttered about Jesus, “‘This Man receives sinners and eats with them’” (Luke 15:2, NKJV), He questioned, “ ‘Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep”’” (vv. 4–6).
The shepherd in Jesus’ parable represents God, for He “agonizes over every lost soul.”24 He actively seeks out the missing until they are found. Nor does He make distinctions between the sheep because “all sheep are important to Him.”25 Laying aside His glory, Jesus came in search of every lost individual in the world. Ellen White states that “this world is but an atom in the vast dominions over which God presides, yet this little fallen world—the one lost sheep—is more precious in His sight than are the ninety and nine that went not astray from the fold.”26 To Christ, every person is important, because He gave His life for every single soul on Earth. “The Saviour would have passed through the agony of Calvary that one might be saved in His kingdom.”27
To emphasize the value of each member and to gauge the effectiveness of our ministry, it is important for us to keep track of members in attendance, their spiritual growth, and their ministry and mission involvement. In 1986, the church attendance in the United States was 48 percent. By 1996, it had dropped to 37 percent, 47 percent in 2006, and 35 percent in 2016.28 Seeking after those who are lost and engaging them in ministry and mission is critical. Failure to count and seek after that which is lost has serious consequences.
While I agree that cultural factors, such as secularism; pluralism; post-modernism and liberal education; and sociological factors, such as excluding, judging, and rejecting, as well as failing to provide opportunity to be involved in the ministries and mission of the church will affect member involvement in the church, neglecting or not seeking to bring back missing members is also a major factor in declining attendance. Recent statistics from the Barna Group state that between 6,000 and 10,000 churches in the United States die each year. That means about 100 to 200 churches close each week. Thirty-two percent of people surveyed after they left the church reported that no one from their congregation ever contacted them.29
Early in my ministry, I learned that a particular member had disengaged from the church for a couple of years because of some relationship issues and was in danger of falling back into her old ways. I did three things: (1) Feel the pain. Her pain must become my pain (1 Cor. 12:26); (2) Fast and pray. Some battles are only won that way (Matt. 17:21); and (3) Beat a path. It took several attempts of visitation and prayer—but a big celebration took place the day she came back to church and worshiped with us.
Jesus said, “‘For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost’ ” (Luke 19:10). I imagined how heaven celebrates when a soul is brought into or back to the fold of God. Where is the flock given to us? They are bought with a price! Numbers and members matter for the kingdom of God.
1 SASDAC functions under the Potomac Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, which includes the territory of Northern Maryland, Virginia, and the Washington, DC, area.
2 Adventist Churches in the Washington metropolitan area are part of the Potomac Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, headquartered at 606 Greenville Ave., Staunton, VA 24401.
3 Potomac Conference of Seventh-day Adventists Annual Membership Statistical Report, 2015.
4 David G. Bromley, Falling From the Faith: Causes and Consequences of Religious Apostasy (Newbury Park,CA: SAGE, 1988), 23.
5 Thom S. Rainer, Surprising Insights From the Unchurched and Proven Ways to Reach Them (GrandRapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 11.
6 Skye Jethani, “Who Are the De-Churched? (Part 1),” Christianity Today, March 2010.
7 Detlef Pollack, “Religiousness Inside and Outside the Church in Selected Post-Communist Countries of Central and Eastern Europe,” Social Compass 50, no. 3 (Sep. 2003): 321–334.
8 Philip S. Brenner, “Cross-National Trends in Religious Service Attendance,” Public Opinion Quarterly 80, no. 2 (May 2016): 563–583.
9 Ronald Inglehart and Wayne E. Baker, “Modernization, Cultural Change, and the Persistence of Traditional Values,” American Sociological Review 65, no. 1 (Feb. 2000): 19–51.
10 Tom W. Smith, Religious Change Around the World, GSS Cross-National Report No. 30, August 2009.
11 Kevin Ward, “Towards 2015: The Future of Mainline Protestantism in New Zealand,” Journal of Beliefs and Values 27, no. 1 (April 2006): 13–23.
12 Tom W. Smith, Religious Change Around the World, GSS Cross-National Report No. 30, August 2009.
13 Brenner, “Cross-National Trends.”
14 Brenner, “Cross-National Trends,” 581.
15 Mark Chaves, American Religion: Contemporary Trends, 2nd ed. (Princeton: Princeton UniversityPress, 2017), 47.
16 Brenner, “Cross-National Trends.”
17 “Church Attendance Trends Around the Country,” Barna, May 26, 2017, barna.com/research /church-attendance-trends-around-country/.
18 Antonella Mei-Pochtler, “Church Attendance of Americans 2017,” The Statistical Portal, statista.com.
19 Territory: Bermuda, Canada, Federated States of Micronesia, Guam, Johnston Island, Marshall Islands, Midway Islands, Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, United States of America, Wake Island, and the French possession of Saint Pierre and Miquelon
20 D. J. Trim, 2017 Annual Statistical Report, Seventh-day Adventist Church Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research, 19.
21 Trim, 2017 Annual Statistical Report, 18.
22 William R. Hoyt, Effectiveness by the Numbers: Counting What Counts in the Church (Nashville:Abingdon, 2007), xvi.
23 Hoyt, Effectiveness by the Numbers, 3.
24 Henry G. Covert, Discovering the Parables: An Inspirational Guide for Everyday Life (Westport, CT:Praeger, 2008), 101.
25 Covert, Discovering the Parables, 101.
26 Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1941), 190, 191.
27 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), 483.
28 George Barna, Barna Trends 2017: What’s New and What’s Next at the Intersection of Faith and Culture,2017 ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2016), 146.
29 Thom S. Rainer, “Hope for Dying Churches,” Facts & Trends, Jan. 16, 2018, factsandtrends.net/2018 /01/16/hope-for-dying-churches/.