by Ed Dickerson
At the recent North American Division Ministries Conference, George Knight remarked that the church in North America is not growing. Wintley Phipps, in a presentation at Oakwood College said that fully one-third of NA congregations are first generation immigrants. Among the indigenous population—regardless of race or ethnicity—the church is shrinking, not growing. Those who read this column know that the continuing loss of young adults is a continuing theme.
What I find most frustrating is that this news is not news at all. Some have been sounding the alarm for twenty years or more. The first Seeds church-planting summit was held in 1996,* because the late NAD President A.C. McClure recognized that “What we’ve been doing is not working.” For the first time in church history, in 1995 the number of SDA congregations in the NAD declined. The original purpose of the Seeds conferences was to plant churches to reach indigenous North Americans, in recognition that only growth among first generation immigrants kept the North American church from showing a decline in total membership.
Let this be clear. Everyone is grateful that we are successful among first generation immigrants. But if we cannot keep our own children, if we cannot reach those around us, we will soon cease to exist. Because hidden in the numbers is the simple fact that we don’t reach second generation immigrants, either. As soon as people reach a certain level of affluence, education, and mobility, and become part of the secularized Western culture, whether here, in Europe, or anywhere—Adventists don’t reach them well.
This represents a demographic disaster for Adventists. Because where we are in terms of affluence, etc., the rest of the world is going. Put simply, if we cannot appeal to our own children today, there will be fewer and fewer we can reach anywhere tomorrow.
“Seeds” was a recognition that we needed to plant not only new congregations, but new kinds of congregations, congregations that ministered to the larger culture where they are, rather than trying to move them to where we are. No matter how often I say or emphasize the next sentence, many will still go off on a tangent about changing our doctrines, but still it must be said. This is not a matter of theology, but of methodology.
Our church plant, which focuses on young adults and the larger culture, is pretty orthodox when it comes to doctrine. But it is very different from other congregations when it comes to approach.
Unfortunately, McClure’s illness made it difficult for him to carry through. There was another difficulty as well. Although the President of the NAD had the vision for church planting, most of the attendees at the early Seeds conferences were conference presidents, departmental secretaries, or pastors—in other words, part of the institutional church. And conferences are made up of existing congregations, who regard with suspicion any new congregation which doesn’t look and feel just like the existing ones. The record is clear: Conferences in general are hostile to church plants which actually seek to reach the secular world we live in.
In 1996, McClure declared that church planting was going to be the way the NAD did evangelism from then on. He said that we would be planting new congregations rather than re-invigorating older ones because “Birthing babies is easier than raising the dead.” But babies are noisy and needy, and the spiritually dead don’t like the commotion. Church politics are a lot like Chicago politics: the unborn don’t vote, but the dead vote early and often. Spiritually dead or dying churches still control finances.
McClure had the vision, but conferences had to implement that plan. Seems there was little incentive for conference presidents to upset their dying congregations, and increase the likelihood of their consequently becoming former conference presidents! Within a few years, much of the emphasis had changed from planting new congregations to revitalizing existing ones. Midwifery gave way to gerontology.
A big part of this status quo is the Evangelism/Industrial complex, though we have known for some time that traditional evangelism does not reach the wider secular culture. A number of years ago, a prominent member of the Evangelism/Industrial complex, who had often supported church planting, defended traditional evangelism to the NAD executive committee because “Statistics showed that more than 50% of people baptized through evangelism were still members two years later.” Two years? I can introduce you to people who have been attending other denominational churches for more than twenty years who are ‘still members,’ because they are still on the books. And that pastor was defending traditional evangelism because only 50% were already gone in two years. Meanwhile, we continue to lose more than 70% of our own young adults.
Little of this seemingly matters, as conferences and existing congregations are comfortable spending thousands of dollars on traditional meetings, where perhaps half a dozen are baptized In this same time frame (and perhaps as result of the evangelism methodology) 25 or 30 of the younger generation in that same congregation move inexorably to the exits. We have multi-million dollar independent ministries devoted to traditional evangelism, and while their traditional approaches may not be successful in reaching the prevailing culture around us, they are very skilled in appealing to big donors, many of whom are business people. And that completes the circle. Donors support traditional evangelism. Traditional evangelism has the funds for more visibility and more fund-raising. Alternative possibilities are starved out; congregations become more even less relevant to the world we live in, while we continue to lose our own children.
Until we are ready to put as much effort and as many resources into retaining our own children and reaching the ones who have left as we do into all the public evangelism events, we are going to keep losing our young adults. They can see where our last-generation values fail them. For the first forty years or so, this was a young people's movement. For more than the last forty, it has become an aging people's status quo. To change that, we will have to take on the Evangelism/Industrial Complex.
*editor notes: Ed Dickerson attended every Seeds summit through 2003 and spoke there in 1999.