by Monte Sahlin
Based on a Report from Adventist News Network, October 22, 2013
The most extensive research ever conducted on the attitudes, beliefs, experiences and spiritual practices of the members of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination reinforced some long-held assumptions about the denominational loyalty of members, yet revealed an emerging trend toward secularization that is worrisome for some church leaders. The findings were released last week at the annual meeting of the General Conference executive committee.
The research comes from five separate studies with more than 41,000 respondents around the world, including 4,260 pastors, nearly 26,000 church members, 1,200 college students and recent graduates, and 900 former Adventists. Research teams from Adventist universities on several continents were involved in the unprecedented effort commissioned by the Office of Archives, Statistics and Research over the past three years.
Among the most significant findings, according to Dr. David Tim, director of the office:
• Sabbath School teachers were ranked higher than pastors and elders when church members were asked who had a positive effect on their spiritual lives.
• About three-fourths of Adventists strongly embrace the prophetic ministry of church co-founder Ellen G. White.
• Only about one in three families worldwide conduct daily worship. Previous studies have shown a higher percentage in North America.
• Almost half of college students and recent college graduates said they would accept practicing homosexuals as church members in good and regular standing.
• About 9 in 10 people who left the Adventist church were never contacted by their pastor after they stopped attending.
“In terms of both the breadth and depth,” said Trim, “this is the best snapshot we’ve ever had of the worldwide church.” As he introduced the report to hundreds of church administrators, Trim warned the group to not be quick to judge. “Data is what it is,” Trim said. “What it means, is something else.”
The findings debunked long held assumptions about the denomination’s gender makeup. The church is 57 percent female, and 43 percent male, quite a ways off from the belief that 65 percent of worshipers were female and 35 percent were male.
The findings also showed a denomination that is young. A total of 54 percent of the members worldwide are between the ages of 16 and 40. This has two disadvantages, according to Trim. For one, young members may be called too quickly into leadership positions without sufficient experience. In addition, older leaders may need training to learn how to understand and work effectively with the younger generation.
Only 10 percent of church members globally are older than 60, and the largest proportion of aging congregants are in North America, Europe and Japan. Research done for the North American Division put the median age there at 51. In contrast, Trim said, “Our church in Latin America and Africa in particular is an extremely youthful church.”
The findings contained several bright spots, Trim said, including a statistic that shows that 53 percent of respondents stated that the Sabbath School adult Bible study guide helped “very much” to develop their religious life. The study guide is least popular with worshipers in North America, parts of Europe, Australia and New Zealand. “As someone who is both from Australia and Europe, and married to an American,” Trim said jokingly, “I will accept the blame for all those things. We are very cynical people in America, Australia and Europe.”
Another “success story,” Trim said, was that 92 percent of Adventists have an overwhelming conviction that the Seventh-day Sabbath is the true Sabbath, and only 3 percent disagree. Because that particular survey’s margin of error was 3 percent actual disagreement could be nearly zero.
The findings also pointed to several areas deemed problematic, such as people leaving the church unnoticed, and the seeping influence of secular values, Trim said. Interestingly, the vast majority of inactive and former members do not reject the message and mission of the Adventist church. “They are moving with the strong dynamics of contemporary society away from established forms of religious activity,” Trim said. “The fabric of most Adventist local churches is not sufficient to stem this tide.” He then told the committee, “Brothers and sisters, I think this is a real challenge to us.”
While only 9 percent of these inactive and former members were contacted by their pastor after they stopped attending church, a larger number said they had been visited by elders or other church members. However, the findings show that 4 out of 10 inactive and former Adventists slipped out of the church without ever being contacted by anyone. The fact that members leave unnoticed is a “tragedy,” Trim said.
From 2000 to 2012, more than 13.6 million people joined the church, mostly through baptism. But during the same time, 5.9 million Adventists were lost (and that doesn’t include those who died). That’s a loss rate of nearly 43.4 per 100 new converts. “That is too high,” Trim said.
Approximately 90 percent of respondents strongly agreed that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is God’s true last-day church with a message to prepare the world for the Second Coming of Christ. When asked if they expect the world to end within the next 20 years, just 22 percent of respondents strongly agreed, and 45 percent strongly disagreed, Trim said. “It’s not that people don’t believe that Jesus is coming, but there does seem to be some kind of skepticism about Him coming soon.”
The report concluded that secularization is no longer limited to America, Europe and Australia. “It’s a globalized society,” Trim said. “People are watching the same television programs, reading the same apps and websites on their phones and computers, and secularization is a problem.”
Pastor Benjamin Schoun, the General Conference vice president in the chair at the time of the report, acknowledged the challenges facing the denomination. “We have much to learn and we probably need to incorporate these results into our strategic planning,” he stated, “because it is a very sobering picture in some cases, even though we have our strengths as well.”
This report is based on a bulletin from the Adventist News Network, the official news service of the denomination.