15 Million Adventists, But Who's Counting?
hurch membership at the Phoenix Camelback Seventh-day Adventist Church in Phoenix, Arizona, United States, tops out at a weighty 1,000. But weekly head counts in the pews reveal an average Sabbath worship service draws only between 350 and 400 attendees.
The church's senior pastor, Charles White, admits the church's membership roster hasn't been updated for 15 years. "There's a lot of dead wood in the books," he conceded.
Church officials say it's common for only 30 to 50 percent of a church's membership to regularly attend services.
Last October, the church's Office of Archives and Statistics (AST) reported there were nearly 14,400,000 baptized members of the Adventist world church. The church estimates that number reached 15 million early this year, a figure AST director Bert Haloviak says is "fairly accurate."
Not so in 2000, when, despite glowing reports of church growth worldwide, church officials suspected the books might be padding the truth.
"We had relaxed on membership audits for many, many years," says Matthew A. Bediako, world church secretary. "You expect that the secretaries' reports are accurate, but when we looked closer we found unreasonable statistics."
G.T. Ng, associate secretary of the world church, believes the church is morally obligated to accurately report membership. "If membership is bloated, who are we fooling? Ourselves?"
Back in 2000, Ng worked as secretary for the church's Southern Asia-Pacific region, an area at the time fraught with sketchy statistics gathering. He welcomed a call from world church headquarters to conduct comprehensive membership audits of the church's 13 world regions -- a "painful, painstaking process," Haloviak remembers.
Ng recalls the church asking regional secretaries, "Please don't give us any more lies; give us honest, realistic figures."
Hendrik Sumendap, secretary for the church's Southern Asia-Pacific region, says audits there resulted in a "very discouraging" loss of 300,000 people.
In 2002, Haloviak says such results began showing up in the church's statistical reports, steadily chipping away at the church's annual growth rate, which dropped from 5.42 percent in 2001 to last year's 3.32 percent. Early reports for 2007, however, indicate a climb to a 4.98 percent growth rate.
Seven years after the major membership audit push, Haloviak says some regions still haven't cooperated, tempering the recent rallying of church growth rates.
"If you look at their statistics, it's beyond obvious their numbers are way out of line," Haloviak says. "It's clear that when the secretaries of some of these regions are told to do audits, it just doesn't register."
Separate from 2000's sweeping membership audits, each of the church's regional secretaries is supposed to submit quarterly membership updates to church headquarters. These reports keep track of baptisms, membership transfers, deaths, missing members and losses.
Kathleen Jones, who handles general statistics for the world church, says figures aren't always accurate.
"Sometimes the columns don't even add up," Jones says. In other cases, entire conferences fail to report anything for an entire quarter, sometimes due to staff shortages. Jones says she wishes the church offered more incentives to get people to cooperate.
Church statisticians estimate at least 10 people die per group of 1,000 every year. When one regional secretary reported 0.6 deaths some years ago, Haloviak remembers the excuse the secretary gave for such a "preposterous" statistic: "'He didn't die; he just had a really bad headache.'"
Ng believes individual churches should be "cleaning the books" on a yearly basis, as recommended by the Church Manual. But deciding when to remove an inactive member from the records is agonizing, he admits. "The purpose of audits is to redeem, not to cut people off."
Harold Wollan, secretary for the church's Trans-European region, agrees. "We do not encourage just dropping members for not showing up [Sabbath morning]."
Ng worries that some churches, hoping to accelerate the audit process, will in one fell swoop remove all missing or inactive members from the record. "There are no shortcuts to a proper audit," he says.
In North America, 53 of the region's 58 conferences use eAdventist, a secure computer software program implemented in 2003 to streamline accurate record keeping. Church clerks can enter membership votes electronically, replacing traditional paper records, says Nancy Lamoreaux, the church's North American director of Information Technology Services.
Sherri Ingram-Hudgins, eAdventist programmer analyst, says eAdventist's role is limited to recording votes taken at the local church level. "There's no giant behemoth out there going around arbitrarily wiping people off the records."
What Ng calls the "sacred job" of accurately managing membership is ultimately up to local churches.
White, the Phoenix Camelback church pastor, says inaccurate membership records are inevitable. Without an associate pastor or membership committee, he says tracking every lapsed member is simply out of the question.
"I've become more diligent in keeping up with members over the seven years I've been here, but there are a lot of people who have been absent for 10, 15 years," White says.
Church secretary Cheryl Oberlick says when elders visit such members, positive reception is rare.
"We've found people as a rule prefer not to be contacted," Oberlick says. "If there is any contact, they want to initiate it."
White agrees efforts to keep current with church membership are important, but far from top priority. "It's a matter of time management; we would rather get our active, current members involved in ministry and small groups," he says.
Sometimes, however, Ng says inaccurate records are deliberate. "I can think of instances when local administration told a church, 'Don't you dare do a membership audit.'"
Ng says he can understand the motivation: when membership drops the pastor can look bad. And, he adds, because representation in elected church positions is based on membership, no pastor or conference worker wants to stymie his chances of election.
Ng and other church officials have observed that when leaders take an honest look at membership, they help ensure the church's credibility.
Regional secretaries such as Barry Oliver, who works in the church's South Pacific region, also report audits result in a dramatic shift in church focus: from ratcheting up baptism rates to nurturing and retaining active members.
Ng agrees. "Baptism is important, but when you look at the [Bible], you see the goal is not only to baptize, but to make disciples." If the church more diligently practices "responsible evangelism," he says, the need for membership audits will decrease significantly.
— Elizabeth Lechleitner, ANN
Cayman Adventists Plan Church in “Hell”
A small spot on a Caribbean island — not much more than a post office and shops which overlook a black limestone formation — is not only a tourist destination, but also a potential site for a Seventh-day Adventist Church.
The town of Hell, on Grand Cayman Island, chief of the Cayman Islands, is a highly popular spot for most of the 2 million tourists who visit the Caribbean holiday spot each year, says Adventist pastor Jeffrey K. Thompson, who is wrapping up a 17-year tenure as church president there. He is due to become pastor of the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Seventh-day Adventist Church.
"We get about 2 million visitors here each year; I'd say all of these visitors, if they don't go anyplace else, they go directly to Hell," Thompson said.
|HISTORY IN PRINT: Author Jeffrey K. Thompson, left, with Patrick Allen, president of the Adventist Church in the West Indies who wrote a foreward for a book highlighting the church's history in Cayman Islands. The church first came to the Caribbean nation in 1894. [Photo: Nigel Coke/WIU/AR]
Thompson said the church's treasury department recently received a donation for a building fund there: "We hope someday to literally build a church in Hell,” he said
The pastor was working as a photojournalist in the Bahamas in 1975 when he decided to join the Seventh-day Adventist Church. An award presentation for a government official in Nassau he was covering was actually the first night of an Adventist evangelism campaign. He returned to the meetings and eventually joined the church.
Now in his last month as president of the church in the Cayman Islands, Thompson said he still thinks of himself as a journalist; and now a historian, having recently authored the book "Legacy of the Pioneers -- the History of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the Cayman Islands," released June 21 in George Town.
The 220-page book documents the birth and growth of the Adventist religious movement in this tiny Caribbean nation. The country's top government official, Governor Stuart Jack, wrote one of the book's two forewords.
"We [Adventists] are one of the largest denominations in the Cayman Islands and we have a good working relationship with the government," Thompson said. About 3,300 people in the country's population of 45,000 — one out of every 13 people — are Adventist Church members. Thompson also expanded the Cayman Academy from an enrollment of 49 to 250 students and from primary to secondary school status.
"If people can recognize where they're coming from then certainly they'll have a better appreciation of where they are and the possibilities of where they can go," Thompson said of the church's history that began here in 1894. Caymanian sea captain Gilbert McLaughlin first joined the church in Honduras and brought its teachings back to Grand Cayman, one of the nation's three islands. McLaughlin later donated land for a church.
Upon becoming local church president in 1990, Thompson said the church's goal was self-sufficiency. In 2004 the church here earned "conference" status making it financially self-supporting and no longer considered a "mission field."
|EARLY LEADERS: I.G. Knight, leader of the Cayman Islands Mission of Seventh-day Adventists, with his wife in Grand Cayman in 1931. [West Indies Union/AR]
Since then Thompson credits significant membership growth to lay evangelists. Six Adventist churches have been established in three years, bringing the total to 15.
"When, as Adventists, we get lay people involved in evangelism, growth is phenomenal," Thompson said. "We have to do whatever we can to empower them."
Adventists have long maintained a strong development and relief presence here. Governor Jack mention's the church's aid during hurricanes that routinely pound the islands.
"It was a tremendous opportunity for us to display love in action," Thompson said of the church-sponsored stress management seminars and gospel concerts provided for displaced residents in temporary shelters.
During his time in West Indies Union, Thompson served in all four of its territories. He was educated in Jamaica, where he held his first evangelistic campaign in 1977. He also served in his native Bahamas, along with the Turks & Caicos Island Mission.
According to Pastor Patrick Allen, West Indies Adventist Church president, Thompson’s work in the Caymans had a significant impact: “He repositioned the church in the community to be a visible and respected entity. Quietly, persistently, indefatigably and prayerfully he built the work of God giving leadership to the workers and members uniting them and eliciting their support in a hard demanding and critical [area].”
The Caymans, a British crown dependency, are known as an international banking center, as well as being a destination for scuba diving, and tourism. As one authoritative reference notes, “With no direct taxation, the islands are a thriving offshore financial center. …. Caymanians enjoy one of the highest outputs per capita and one of the highest standards of living in the world.”