Can World Church Membership Statistics Be Trusted?
by Alexander Samuel | 7 March 2019 |
According to the 2017 annual statistical report published by the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, there are 1.6 million church members and 4,514 congregations within the Southern Asia Division (SUD), most of which lies in the country of India. This translates into 345 members per church. This same report claims that an average of 170 members attend each church across India.
I have been to many churches within India. Most of them have fewer than 50 in attendance. Is it possible that the Southern Asia Division has exaggerated the church attendance and membership count?
Let’s look at a few facts that may serve as a corrective to these numbers.
Deaths, Tithe and Quarterlies
- According to the World Fact Book, 7.3 people die out of every 1,000 in a year in India. But if you use the Southern Asia Division statistics, a mere 0.5 people die out of every 1,000 Adventist members in India per year. While we Adventists may have a somewhat better lifestyle than the general population, it isn’t possible that the mortality rate of Indian Seventh-day Adventists is 0.5, while that of the country as a whole is 7.3. What it says, in fact, is that people long dead are still counted as current church members. While I understand how it may be difficult to audit membership based on non-attendance, whether a person is alive or dead is a straightforward measure of church membership: if his heart isn’t beating, and he’s buried or cremated, he’s by definition not an active church member!
- According to the 2017 Annual Statistical report, tithe per member from East Central India Union is approximately $1 per year. That is not a typo: it is $1 per year per member from East Central India Union. India’s per capita income is about $1,700 per year. This implies that less than 1% of the East Central India Union (ECIU) members pay tithe. What of the other 99%? They must be people with no income, people who do not pay tithe, or (as mentioned above) people who are already dead. Again, it seems unlikely that less than 1% of East Central India Union members pay tithe. It is more likely that the membership count of the East Central India Union is grossly inflated.
- Another measure I considered was resources needed to serve the church members. I asked Elder Measapogu Wilson, who is the secretary of the Southern Asia Division how many Sabbath School Lesson Study guides are printed and distributed every quarter. Again, this could help us estimate the number of attending members. Elder Wilson did not respond to that question.
The Southern Asia Division Response
To my queries about the discrepancies I identified in the 2017 Annual Statistical Report, Elder Wilson replied that a membership audit was going on. This includes a head count on 1st and 3rd Sabbaths to estimate attendance. The biggest union within Southern Asia Division, he told me, is the East Central India Union, which accounts for 62% of Southern Asia Division membership. So far, he said, the audit has showed 363,038 members are non-existent or untraceable in East Central India Union. The table below was provided by Elder Wilson as an evidence of the church membership audit. The conclusion of the audit is that East Central India Union has shown an inflated membership of approximately 60%.
Can we trust the Southern Asia Division audit numbers? While I applaud any effort at accuracy, my personal view is that a thorough audit would probably have found the true membership inflated by far more than 60%, and the untraceable number in the ECIU even higher than the given 363,038.
Inflated membership numbers are probably not unusual in the world church. In an enterprise like ours, it serves the claims of leaders, from the congregation on up, to say that we have more people involved in the church than we actually have. High numbers look like a great deal of successful activity is going on, requiring more pastors and resources—meaning there is a built-in incentive to keep the numbers high, and a disincentive to correct them.
Add to that the difficulty of doing these audits—they require conscientious cooperation by everyone from the local church clerk and pastor on up to the division officers—and one must look with some doubt at the worldwide statistics of Seventh-day Adventist membership and participation.
Gordon Christo, former Secretary of Southern Asia Division said: “While this speaks of the failure of the Division secretariat in being unable to fix the problem, it also speaks of the failure of almost every church to (1) audit their membership records, and (2) record their average attendance. The Division secretariat merely adds up all the reports sent higher up. Every church is supposed to physically count members present twice a quarter. When was the last time you saw a deacon or other appointed person going around counting heads in your church?” He adds, “We have cultivated a culture of lethargy and falsehood that runs from top to bottom.”
A Challenge to Be Honest
The 2018 Annual Statistical report was released recently. I expected the Southern Asia Division leaders would have corrected their membership count, but despite their own audit revealing inaccuracies, Southern Asia Division leaders published the same old inflated number of 1.6 million as its membership. They still claim that the Southern Asia Division mortality rate is 0.6 in their new report, while India’s mortality rate is 7.3.
I can’t help but agree with Dr. Christo when he says a culture of lethargy and falsehood runs from top to bottom.
Rita Corbett, who represents a group from a Williams Lake, British Columbia, congregation that discovered fraud in a project they funded in the South East Andhra Conference, explains what she and her group see in these large numbers. “Claims of many baptisms and full churches lead to communicating exaggerated success to donors, like us. This leads to substantial donations for properties and new church buildings. But when the membership drops—or perhaps the church never really succeeds in the first place—the leaders plead budget shortfalls and sell off the real estate, and we have evidence that some skim profits or receive kickbacks.” This is aided, she says, by a lack of clear and legal titles for land throughout the SUD, which makes fraud involving property fairly easy.
Corruption is endemic to the Indian culture, and that same corruption has also infiltrated the Seventh-day Adventist church there. That some church leaders skim money through kickbacks, bribes and theft is almost certainly the case. So it is only sensible to ask how much dishonesty is involved in inflating membership numbers to make a field look much more successful than it really is.
I challenge the leaders within the Southern Asia Division—my home territory—as well as the other divisions in the world field, to publish honest statistics. When are we going to grow from a culture of lethargy and falsehood, to a culture of truthfulness? Likewise, I request that the leaders of the General Conference challenge inflated membership statistics before they are published in the Annual Statistical report.
Alexander Samuel was born to Adventist parents in an impoverished part of rural India. He graduated from Spicer University, Notre Dame and Indiana University with advanced degrees in business administration and mathematics. He now works as a senior risk manager in the financial industry. He is married to Thanda and has three children. He once met Mother Theresa.