Research Summit: Why Large Numbers are Leaving the Adventist Church
by Monte Sahlin
By Adventist Today News Team, November 21, 2013
Scholars in the social sciences from around the world convened this week to try to understand why such large numbers of members drop out of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The Summit on Nurture and Retention is the second annual gathering of researchers organized by the Office of Archives, Statistics and Research (ASTR) at the denomination's General Conference (GC). The meeting was held at the GC office in Silver Spring, Maryland.
More than 30 million people have been baptized since the 1960s, reported Dr. David Trim, key organizer of the gathering and director of ASTR. Nonetheless the denomination's total membership is less than 18 million. Losses from those who are dropped from membership or stop attending often equal half the number of baptisms, and in recent years audits of membership records in some parts of the world have resulted in large adjustments in the statistics.
A survey based on interviews with 1,053 former and inactive members around the world found that some of the reasons for the large number of dropouts that are commonly believed by pastors and lay leaders are not as significant as stressful life events and the failure of local church leaders to respond with adequate care when members are hurting. Monte Sahlin, representing the Center for Creative Ministry, told the group that 74 percent of the individuals interviewed reported at least one major event in the year before they decided to stop attending church. These included serious illness, break up of a marriage, getting married, moving out of the community, becoming unemployed or getting a new job, a death in the family, and other items well known in studies of stress that use the Holmes-Rahe Scale. Most had multiple events.
Only 40 percent of those interviewed reported that the pastor or someone representing the church came to visit them after they stopped attending. "The general impression is that many dropouts are uncontested, and when visits were made they usually were based on the assumption that the departing member was in disagreement with the teachings of the church, which proved to be relatively rare," said Sahlin. "This pattern of not sensing and responding to the real needs of hurting people appears to be strong in Adventist congregations around the world and is the main reason for the high number of membership losses. A more actively caring church would retain more of the people baptized."
Another important pattern that Sahlin pointed out was the high percentage of members who were baptized as children and then as young adults moved to metropolitan areas to seek education or start careers. "As part of this journey they lost connection with the Church, although most still identify with the Adventist faith." He stated that this includes children born into Adventist families and almost an equal percentage who were baptized prior to adulthood but were not raised in Adventist families.
A second survey was conducted in which the union conferences around the world were asked to have a questionnaire completed by five individuals who had dropped out of the church and five more who had both dropped out and later returned to regular attendance. This resulted in more than 500 responses and an analysis prepared by Dr. Anthony Kent, an associate secretary of the GC Ministerial Association. Kent reported similar findings to those in the Center for Creative Ministry survey.
More information about Adventist young adults and their relationship with the Church was presented in a survey of recent graduates of three Adventist universities and colleges by Dr. Douglas Jacobs and Mia Lindsay from Southern Adventist University (SAU). Most of the respondents were graduates of SAU with smaller numbers from Oakwood University and Pacific Union College. "There is a large group who are connected and still active in the Adventist Church," the two reported, despite significant numbers who have stopped attending. "They tend to be found in large and medium-size congregations." They strongly support most of the doctrines of the Church, although "the unique doctrines are less accepted" and "many question the denomination's stand on homosexuality."
Other research papers provided information on family life among Adventists, single parents in the church, the "perceived emotional/verbal and spiritual abuse of adult children of pastors," how Adventist education relates to the nurture and retention of members, an evaluation of classes on "science issues" and the extent to which they strengthen the faith of Adventists, various approaches to encouraging spiritual growth among members and general surveys of members conducted in most of the denomination's world divisions. Trim announced that ASTR would eventually publish as many of the papers as possible through its Web site. The report from the survey conducted by the Center for Creative Ministry which was presented by Monte Sahlin is available at: https://www.creativeministry.org/transaction_detail.php?id=270
Several presentations showed that the denomination has learned how to better conduct more realistic outreach by learning from past examples, reported Adventist News Network (ANN), the official news service of the denomination. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, many Adventist groups sponsored extravagant evangelism events, eager for the once-in-a-generation opportunity, but most of those new converts soon stopped attending church.
One presentation revealed that in South Africa, the rate of accession of new members had slowed, but membership had significantly increased due to retention. That fact prompted Pastor Harald Wollan, a GC associate secretary, to suggest to the group that future evangelism efforts should focus on nurturing members. “What if the church used some evangelism funds for our own members’ care? We might see a similar increase in numbers,” Wollan said. “We will have to do that,” responded Pastor Armando Miranda, the GC vice president who was chairing the session.
One delegate, Jimmy V. Adil, from the Philippines, asked why conferences feel pressure to increase membership, often from the parent unions, whom he said feel pressure from the divisions. He asked if the world headquarters was exerting pressure for growth. Dr. G. T. Ng, GC executive secretary, replied, “There’s no pressure for growth. Do we pressure a papaya tree to produce? … If so, we may stunt its growth.”
Trim said the problem is common in some regions. He had earlier revealed that 30 percent of church clerks in one of the denomination's world divisions had been pressured to inflate baptismal numbers. “It’s a sin to lie about anything … but for some reason, too many people think it’s OK to lie about membership numbers.” Trim stated that several regions have made membership audits a priority, including South America, Southeast Asia and West Africa.
On the meeting sidelines, the youngest attendee, Cheryl Simpson, told an ANN reporter she was encouraged by the summit because she said it showed church leaders wanted to encourage young adults like her. Simpson, a senior psychology student at Andrews University, said she was glad that church leaders were willing to look at reality. “For me, this is essential because it’s showing me that theologians aren’t afraid to face the facts,” Simpson said.
A statement from the participating scholars, released November 21, concluded, "Responsibility for ensuring that every church member remains part of the body of Christ, and for reconnecting and reconciling with those who do not, is mutually shared by the Church at large, each congregation, and every church member. We therefore affirm that building loving and Christ-like relationships within the local church must be an urgent necessity for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. We recommit ourselves to God’s vision of mission, which is founded on discipling, believing that this will enable us better to fulfill the prophetic mission of the Remnant Church."