by Lawrence Downing
Charles Scriven opined recently that if the Adventist Church does not shift toward a new kind of Adventism, “our church will go out like a spent candle. It’s a matter of time, but it will happen.” (Spectrum, Winter 2013, p. 3) Only time will tell if Scriven’s prognostication is correct. What is possible now is to examine growth trends in North American Protestant churches and consider how the data may apply to Adventist congregations.
Church life studies report that the majority of Americans, Adventists included, are members of a congregation with an average weekend attendance of 150 or less. On the other end of the scale, there are a relatively small number of megachurches. (A megachurch has an average weekend attendance of 2,000 or more.) The PATHEOS study found in 2011 that the median Protestant church weekend attendance was 75.
Data from 2010 analyzed by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research found that congregations with a weekly attendance of 99 or less numbered 177,000 with 9 million total attendees. Twenty-five million people attended some 105,000 congregations with weekly attendance of 100 to 499. Churches with 500 to 999 weekly attendance numbered 12,000 with 9 million attendees.
A 2003 study by the George Barna group provided further information relating to church attendance. Barna reported that the average church had an attendance of 89 adult members and that 60 percent of the Protestant churches had 100 or fewer members.
The Church Leadership website reported that for the years 1994-2004 the churches with the smallest weekly attendance (49 or less) and the largest (2,000 or more) grew in numbers. The mid-sized congregations, with weekly attendance of 100 to 299, showed a membership loss of one percent. They also reported that established churches, those that had been in existence between 40 and190 years, declined in membership.
The above data is not encouraging for North American Adventists. We find ourselves among the groups most vulnerable to membership loss. Many of our churches are mid-sized congregations that have been established 40 years or more. In contradiction to the above findings are the reports from other sources that assure us that the Adventist Church in North America is on an upward trajectory. Example: a March 2011 Religion News Service article by G. Jeffrey MacDonald reports that Adventists are growing at the rate of 2.5 percent a year, “a rapid clip for this part of the world.” This growth spurt is compared to the decline in membership found in the Southern Baptists and other denominations. The 2.5 percent growth rate, MacDonald points out, comes in at a 75 percent better rate than the 1.4 percent Mormon growth rate. To paraphrase Alfred E Newman: What we worry?
Monte Sahlin and others who research growth in the North American Adventist Church provide data that is cause for concern. They found that recent immigrants account for a majority of those who join the Adventist church. Conversions among those who have been in America a generation or more are far less than the number needed to replace those who have died or who no longer count themselves Adventist.
The recent immigrant who unites with an Adventist congregation comes with religious traditions and practices far different from those found in American Protestant churches. The new immigrants do not have the economic clout of those who have long been in the country. They are therefore less able to provide economic support when compared to those who have long lived in America. This demographic change within the church carries with it significant implications for the educational structures of the church, the Adventist mission impact, and the ability to support existing administrative structures. There is also a sociological component to consider: those who have long been in America do not always feel comfortable to worship in a congregation composed of a high percentage of people from cultures and language groups different from their own. This factor has implicit impact upon our church and its future.
One question that nags at me when recent news articles report that the Adventist church is a church growth leader is this: Why are so many of our North American Caucasian churches stagnant or in decline? Visit four or five Adventist churches in your area. Look at those who are there on Sabbath morning. Check out the majority age group. Note the racial mix. Talk to 6 or 8 pastors who work in non-ethnic churches or ethnic churches composed of second generation immigrants. Ask them for an honest opinion of what they see for the future of their congregations. Ask them whether their conference is hiring pastors from outside the conference and how many churches have been put into districts in the last five years. Visit the youth director of your conference. Ask what percentage of young people will still be active in the church when they reach adulthood. When you’ve done this, let’s talk about whether we should pay attention to the studies that find churches with our demographics face a bumpy road ahead.
When we acknowledge the reality that the church is not what it may at first appear we can give thought to how we can give responsible and reasonable response to our situation. At present, the administrative personnel of the church largely continue to support what has been done in years past. The evangelistic outreach to New York City is one of several examples. What we do not see is a strategic plan to address the outflow of young people from the church. Where is the think tank with the assignment to explore ways that will attract the kind of people that once were the backbone and foundation of the Adventist church? Is there a willingness on the part of Adventist believers to examine the theological issues that no longer speak to contemporary women and men? Where are the risk-takers, the people who will dare challenge the attitudes and theological traditions that deter thinking people from uniting with their local Adventist congregation? Rather than relegate the questioners to the fringe, celebrate their courage and join them as they apply their spiritual gifts and energy toward endeavors that promote the kingdom of God. We in the parish can invite thoughtful people from the world of technology, business, sociology and the other disciplines to apply their skills to make a local congregation more effective and attractive to contemporary Americans. It is the local parish that is the light on the hill, the apple of God’s eye, not a headquarters building in a far-off city.