or a church whose eschatology eschews the “secret rapture” theory, in which believers are snatched away before the tribulation period begins, some Seventh-day Adventists may feel “left behind” these days.
It’s not a prophetic reversal, but rather a continuing trend of “church dropouts,” people who once attended faithfully, and then stopped showing up at weekly worship, Bible studies, and other events. They often are still in the neighborhood, but they no longer attend church.
In 2007 the world church reported that “out of the 5 million people baptized into the [Seventh-day Adventist] church between 2000 and 2005, 1.4 million left.”1 That would suggest a dropout rate of 28 percent among new members, but the number isn’t as clear-cut as might first be suspected. Some of that adjustment comes from more thorough checking of church records. Since 2000 world church leaders have insisted on more accurate membership records and audits, which have resulted in the “dropping” of long inactive, perhaps even deceased, members.2
Yet even after allowing for improved recordkeeping, a good percentage of the membership decline comes from people who entered the church through the “front door” of evangelism and left via the “back door” of unmet needs, personal crisis, or neglect, observers inside and outside the Adventist Church say.
“Most of our churches have about 25 to 35 percent of the names on the books that have not participated in church in any meaningful fashion for a year or more,” says Monte Sahlin, a Seventh-day Adventist pastor who is director of research and special proj-
ects for the Ohio Conference. “Some church boards have an aversion to dropping any names, while others have dropped names in violation of the rules,” he noted.
Has “Membership” Been Devalued?
Cultural shifts have compounded the confusion, Sahlin says: “The notion of a membership in a free church association is a very eighteenth-century, Enlightenment construct. As time goes on it becomes less relevant to life in the contemporary Western world. The word has been diluted a lot by organizations such as AARP or AAA that will sell you a ‘membership,’” which is really just a service, he adds.
As a result, Sahlin asserts, “when you devalue membership, then whether people are members of a church or not isn’t very important to them, and they don’t even keep track of it.”
According to Paul Richardson, the North American Division’s coordinator for “reconnecting ministries,” the church may not be suffering from an exodus so much as an inactivity crisis.
His research found “only a small number” of people who identify themselves formally as “ex-Adventists,” he told Adventist Review in a telephone interview from Walla Walla, Washington. “Most are [just] inactive in their attendance. They’re still part of the family; we just don’t see them at family gatherings.”
Those who join the church and then leave are only one part of the problem, however. New research, released in March 2009, suggests that the very
religious fabric of the United States is changing.
According to the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), released
in March 2009, some 18 percent of Americans number themselves as “unaffiliated” with any religion, outpacing the percentage of the population that claims any church, synagogue, or mosque affiliation.
Further, the study’s authors concluded, “The percentage of Christians
in America, which declined in the 1990s from 86.2 percent to 76.7 percent, has now edged down to 76 percent,” according to a news release from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where the survey was headquartered.3 “Ninety percent of the decline comes from the non-Catholic segment of the Christian population, largely from the mainline denominations, including Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians/
Anglicans, and the United Church of Christ. These groups, whose proportion of the American population shrank from 18.7 percent in 1990 to 17.2 percent in 2001, all experienced sharp numerical declines this decade and now constitute just 12.9 percent.”
Among evangelical denominations, “Southern Baptist churches baptized fewer people in 2008 for the fourth year in a row to reach the[ir] lowest level since 1987,” the Associated Press reported on April 25, 2009.4
A Malaise in Churches
There’s “a malaise, especially among evangelicals,” about belonging to, and participating in, formal communities of worship known as churches, said Julia Duin, an assistant national editor at the Washington Times in Washington, D.C. Last year, Duin, a veteran religion news reporter, published Quitting Church: Why the Faithful Are Fleeing and What to Do About It (Baker Books), noting the trend of church dropouts across a spectrum of denominations.
“I don’t think it’s a good thing,” Duin told Adventist Review in an interview. “For a society to become ‘de-churched’ really removes morality as a baseline.”
What are the reasons for this trend? In her book, Duin cites people who felt cut off from the church either through a life change, a personal crisis, or inability to have their needs met by a local congregation. In one case, a dedicated church member, legally blind, stopped attending his church when promised weekly transportation fell through. For others, being unmarried leads to feeling the “odd one out” in family-oriented churches, leading to disassociation.
Some departing Seventh-day Adventists voice similar concerns and reasons, Richardson and Sahlin said.
“More than anything, it’s a person saying, ‘I’m going through X, and I want a place that’s safe to support me. I can’t handle it alone. . . . When it really comes down to it, I want someone to journey with me, because when I go through these things, I get the feeling God is distant or unhappy with me,’” Richardson explained.
In one case Richardson described the experience of a member who, when he tried to return to his Adventist congregation, received a bracing welcome from a “greeter” in the church’s lobby: “You’re on the fast track to hell. What are you doing here?”
Needless to say, he added, that individual didn’t feel welcome.
“We do damage in those moments,” Richardson said. “And people go, ‘It’s as bad as I remember it.’”
Sahlin spoke of those who confront personal crisis and fail to find help in their congregations.
“They quit attending, hoping someone will call or knock on the door and give some emotional support,” he said. “Churches don’t do that, unless they’ve got people who’ve been trained to do that in a specific way.”
Then, he said, “after a period of time, six weeks to three months, they say, ‘well, forget them,’ [and] emotionally cut ties and reinvest the time and energy into going somewhere else. Among Adventists, a number say they invest in spending time quietly on the Sabbath. The majority of Adventist dropouts still observe the Sabbath.”
How churches respond to dropouts is important, Richardson said.
“People who are not attending churches talk to each other,” he explained. “They tell each other about the status [of a congregation]. A church’s reputation is well known by those who aren’t actively in attendance.”
That’s a signal, Richardson said, for congregations to pay attention to those who leave. Duin said church leaders could talk to departing members, not necessarily to win them back immediately, but to learn what motivated them to exit.
Keeping Young Adults
Still another area of church dropouts that recently has been studied, and specifically within Adventism, is the loss of young adult children of church pastors. Martin Weber, a pastor and communication director for the Mid-America Union in Lincoln, Nebraska, surveyed 123 pastoral families, including 57 retiree families, on whether the pastors’ children are still affiliated.
According to Weber, “The greatest single predictor of whether a teenager is going to be in the church 10 years from now is whether they approach a clergy father with spiritual questions on their own.”
If the child feels open enough to do this, that’s a good thing. Another key predictor, he said, “is if parents entered ministry in their 30s, than either immediately out of college or later in their 20s.”
Weber speculated that those who become pastors in their 30s might undergo a career change the spouse doesn’t fully support. Or, children who were accustomed to having Dad there on Sabbath during a more or less stationary period in seminary now see the seventh day as the one “where Daddy’s gone” overseeing a circuit of churches.
He added that the “biggest thing was love and freedom” in a clergy home. If those factors were there and if children were “allowed to discover Adventism for themselves,” those children were more likely to stay active in the church as adults.
However, Richardson said, there’s another challenge to keeping Adventist youth, clergy or otherwise, in the church. Once they graduate from Adventist schools, their initial church experiences may serve to push them away from active membership.
“A lot” of these young adult graduates, Richardson explained, “just went to school where the best churches are—the best programming, best preachers, and the best music. They take a job somewhere, often not where they grew up, go there, and it really is kind of a shock to go to some of the local churches they find wherever they’ve taken this new job.”
One solution, he noted, had its origins in the North Pacific Union.
“What is excellent is what some of the Adventist universities are now doing—it started at Walla Walla University, and now Pacific Union College and Southern Adventist University have picked [it] up,” Richardson said. “They not only help graduating seniors look for jobs in their field, but look for housing, introduce them to alumni in that area, and introduce them to a church. Fully 70 percent of the 2008 graduating seniors at Walla Walla asked for that help. That’s a wonderful solution [and] response.”
To stem the tide of church-leavers, pastors are being told to keep an eye on who’s attending services—and who isn’t.
Count the Sheep
“Count your sheep,” said Mark Finley, a general vice president of the General Con-ference, alluding to Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep recorded in the New Testament, in addressing world church leaders two years ago. “How will you know if new believers are slipping away?
If they’re not [in church], what are you going to do about it? Do you care enough to go out and find them?” he asked those gathered for the annual Council on Evangelism and Witness (CEW) meeting in 2007.
“Love does not wait for new members to return; it passionately pursues them. Care must replace complacency,” Finley, who also acts as CEW secretary, added at the time.5
Adds Monte Sahlin: get everyone involved, and get ready to listen.
“Make a fervent appeal to the people to . . . get involved in ministry,” he said. “There are lots of hurting people who still in their heart want to be part of the Adventist Church [but] feel like they’ve failed and want to be reconnected. Take time and trouble to listen to them, don’t argue, [and] just love them.”
Sahlin added that it’s also vital to be trained to help members reconnect. He suggested “Learning to Care,” a training curriculum developed by Ben Maxson, a former NAD stewardship director who is currently pastor at the Paradise Seventh-day Adventist Church in California, as a prerequisite for members seeking to go out and reclaim others.
For those who are concerned with seeing as many people in the kingdom of God as possible, it’s clear, as in the parable, that there are “lost sheep” who need to be gathered in. The good news, it appears, is that there are ways and means to bring them back home.
1See Elizabeth Lechleitner, “World Church: Keep ‘Counting Your Sheep,’ Church Leaders Say,” Adventist News Network, April 6, 2007; accessed online at http://bit.ly/Ft4pn on May 7, 2009.
2See Elizabeth Lechleitner, “15 Million Adventists, but Who’s Counting?” Adventist Review, July 12, 2007, p. 20.
4Rose French, “Memberships, Baptisms Down for Southern Baptists,” Associated Press, published in Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 25, 2009, http://bit.ly/ahsWs; accessed online May 7, 2009.
5As quoted in Lechleitner, op. cit., Adventist News Network, April 6, 2007.
Mark A. Kellner is news editor for Adventist Review and Adventist World magazines.