Why Is the Inter-American Division Losing So Many Members?
By Daniel A. Mora | 11 September 2020 |
During an online Evangelism Summit for pastors and lay leaders on January 14, 2020, Elder Leonard Johnson, Executive Secretary of the Inter-American Division (IAD), presented the membership statistics for 2018 and the first semester of 2019. In 2018, 236,067 members joined, but the loss was 286,059 members, resulting in a net loss of 49,992 members.
This news was not published on the official website of the Division—only the link where the meeting was broadcast was given. That may be because these membership losses in the IAD are more substantial than its administrators like to admit.
The approach in the January summit was quite different from an earlier meeting in June of 2019. At that meeting the 2018 member loss figures were available, but Elder Johnson presented the figures in a somewhat ambiguous and not straightforward way. The focus at the 2019 summit had been one of challenge to reach the goal of one million baptisms by the end of the five-year period ending in June 2020. The loss of members was mentioned as a “challenge.”
In 2020 the focus seemed to shift to a “problem”.
The plan for a million baptisms in a five-year period was created under Elder Israel Leito, retired president of the IAD (1993-2018). Called “Vision One Million,” its aim was to accelerate the growth of the IAD. It was announced this way:
The Seventh-day Adventist Church leadership in the Inter-American Division wants all of its administrators, pastors, lay preachers, Bible instructors, small group leaders and church members to focus on a comprehensive plan to baptize more than 200,000 new believers by the end of this quinquennium, which ends June 2020.
Yet by June 2019 the division had only 732,256 baptisms, still 267,744 baptisms short of the one million goal. Compare this to the highest yearly number since 2000, which was 219,730 baptisms in 2008.
“We stand together in soul-winning in the Inter-American Division,” said Pastor Balvin Braham, assistant to the president of the Inter-American Division for evangelism. Elder Johnson challenged listeners in 2019 not to be afraid to meet the IAD 2020 goal:
We need 267,000 baptisms…. it is more than possible. I challenge you as I challenge myself, let it be by the grace of God; let us be faithful to fulfill the mission, to fulfill what we have promised by the grace of God, and together we can rejoice when we go to the General Conference congress next year (2020).
However, the membership balance closing for December 2019 was disappointing. Growth in IAD closed with negative numbers, and annual growth contracted to -112.61%. That is, over the course of a year, more members were lost than joined the church. The total loss was 29,246 members. Although, by this time the administrators knew that the 2018 loss was 49,992 members, they continued adding the baptisms of that year, although they did not make any difference in growth.
This reality of what “growth” means in the IAD makes their methodology questionable.
Vision One Million
Vision One Million had been presented as a “discipleship initiative, through which one million church members in the Inter-American Division are recruited, trained and challenged to become disciples, fervent in Jesus.” (IAD, “One Million Vision: To Let the World Know,” page 9) These lay people were to receive training, and participate in activities of “prayer and fasting, study of the Bible, study of the spirit of prophecy and missionary activities.”
The purpose of training a million laity was so they could contribute to winning a million souls. In a presentation by the Mexican Central Union dated 2011, Vision One Million is described this way: “Launch a million laity to proclaim the Gospel to the fields of the Inter-American Division and baptize a million souls between now and 2014.”
Goals were assigned to the union conferences, who in turn distributed their goals among their local conferences and missions, who then divided the baptism goals they’d been assigned to the congregations.
In the end, the entire burden fell on the pastors. Some pastors of small churches or districts were assigned goals of 100 to 200 baptisms per year to fill the quota required by the chain of command. Administrators from the conferences, the union conferences and missions and the divisions sat at their desks and waited for numbers to arrive.
While the IAD left room for local fields to develop their own methods of evangelism, the goals had to be achieved one way or another. In one PowerPoint, the IAD baptism target imposed on the Central Mexican Union to reach in a five-year period (2011 to 2014) was 20,000 baptisms.
The worn-out machine that can’t stop
If there is a phrase that can describe the mentality in the IAD, it would undoubtedly be: “numbers of baptisms.” Reaching the goals of one million baptisms in a five-year period puts exhausting pressure on pastors and local churches. Accelerated attempts to grow are causing contrary and catastrophic results. The goals end up being more important than the human cost to the workers, who in many cases succumb to this machinery called “soul winning.”
The prescribed stages of preparation to achieve the objectives of the Vision One Million demonstrate the way in which the plan is conceived:
- PREPARATION (September-October)
- SOWING (November-December-January)
- HARVEST (February-March-April)
- CONSOLIDATION (April-May-June-July-August)
The IAD expected a total of 104,000 evangelism campaigns during one year (June 2019 to June 2020) throughout the territory of the Division. In one presentation, the leaders spoke of 300,000 Bible workers, a number for which the evidence is lacking.
The pattern is repeated every year. There is no rest for local pastors and churches. This accelerated growth model ignores the needs and realities of the local fields in the IAD. In some cases, pressure on pastors from administrators to achieve goals ends up including reprimands in pastoral meetings, and punitive measures such as firing pastors who do not achieve goals consistently. The high levels of stress to which these pastors are subjected ends up weakening their emotional and physical health. Only heaven will know how many corpses have been left on the road.
Has the IAD really grown? The answer lies in the calculation of the members that were added from the members that were subtracted. I prepared this statistical analysis using longitudinal data from the Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research of the General Conference (2000 to 2019). In 2000, the IAD membership was 1,964,489. As of December 2019, the membership was 3,708,308. Membership growth during these years is 1,743,819.
Two large categories group other subcategories:
- MEMBERS ADDED: Baptisms, POF (Professions of Faith), Letters Received (transfers in), Adjustments.
- MEMBERS SUBTRACTED: Letters Granted (transfers out), Deaths, Dropped, Missing, Adjustments. (The “Adjustment” subcategory is used to make adjustments for reporting errors or corrections.)
IAD Summary 2000-2019
- Total Members Added: 5,749,211 (100%)
- Total Members Subtracted: 4,005,389 (69.67% of Total Added)
- Total Growth of IAD: 1,743,819 (30.33% of Total Added)
During these past 19 years the IAD has added more than 5.7 million members, which represents a 100% increase. But in the same period it has lost more than 4 million members, which represents a decrease of 70%, leaving a net growth of around 1.7 million members. In other words, the real growth of IAD from 2000 to 2019 is 89% (or 3.4% per year), because out of every 10 people who joined (baptisms, professions of faith and letters received), 7 members were lost.
The net growth looks so bad, I believe, because the IAD tends to focus on baptisms as their only measure of success, in contrast to the General Conference, which takes into account other indicators for a more realistic picture of growth in a Division.
Analyzing the item “Baptisms,” from 2000 to 2019 there were a total of 3,618,097 baptisms, which some may see as an indicator that the IAD goals are being met. But, as I’ve said, that number has to be adjusted by losses. Furthermore, even the baptism numbers are suspect: it is impossible to tell how many of those baptized members requested letters of transfer, died, or were dropped. The “missing” column does not mean that these members forgot where the church was, but that they stopped attending and were not interested in continuing to be in contact with the church.
One of the most curious findings that raises questions is the numbers in the “Transfers In” and “Transfers Out” items (columns “Letter R” and “Letter G”) and how small the difference often is. In 2017 transfers in were 146,766, and transfers out 146,787. The difference was 21 members. Every time the column says that tens of thousands of members from other divisions came to the IAD in a year, almost the same number of IAD members went to other divisions in the same year. This ought to raise suspicions. Which divisions do all those thousands of IAD members go to in a year? And, from which divisions do all those thousands of members come to the IAD in a year? Are these real numbers—or what are these columns really being used for?
We have to ask, is this methodology working? Do these statistics support the notion of rapid and sustained growth?
The Inter-American Division has tried, with high-pressure methods, to achieve accelerated growth. Instead, it ended up with massive member losses. Evangelism as a concept is being misused, and pastoral staff and local churches are weakened by goals that focus only on baptism numbers. Unless there is profound change that leads to changes of such harmful mission practices, I believe church growth in the IAD will continue to be compromised.
Daniel A. Mora is from Venezuela. He is an editor and writer trained in theology. He writes about issues such as feminism, immigration, racism and social justice.