In the past quinquennium the world church carried out a series of far-reaching membership audits, the results of analysis by the Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research (ASTR) that indicated that our membership is overstated, in some areas, considerably overstated. Further analysis suggested that membership figures are inflated because of systemic failures to accurately report losses: both deaths, and the loss of living members described in different parts of the world as apostasy, backsliding, and so on. This report summarizes the results of the membership audits, and suggests some implications for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Often just one key statistic affords an organization vital insight into the accuracy of a range of other data. For Adventist membership metrics, that key statistic is the mortality rate: the number of deaths per 1,000 members of a population. In ASTR’s analysis, Adventist mortality rates were calculated for each division and globally, and they were then compared with the mortality rates of the general population in the respective divisions and worldwide. Because one year does not reveal a trend, ASTR carried out this analysis for the period from 1995 through 2010.
We discovered that the global Adventist mortality rate was always well below the general global mortality rate, and that it especially dipped as the 2000s progressed (see Figure 1). In many divisions, moreover, Adventist mortality rates were significantly lower than general mortality rates in their respective territories.
Seventh-day Adventists have divine principles for healthful living given to us through the Spirit of Prophecy, but the difference between the Adventist and whole-population global mortality rates is so great that healthy living alone cannot explain it.
In the first decade of the twenty-first century there were 3.39 Adventist deaths per 1,000 church members worldwide, in contrast to 8.55 deaths per 1,000 people in the population at large: that is, our average mortality was only 39.65 percent of general mortality. Scientific studies indicate that the effect of following an Adventist diet and lifestyle on mortality rates would make them, at best, around two thirds of the general population’s. Our global mortality rate was thus about half of what it should be even after taking the Adventist health advantage into account.
In eight divisions (including four of the six with more than 1 million members), Adventist mortality was less than 40 percent of general mortality, and in five divisions it was less than 20 percent. Membership in all these divisions was literally larger than life.
This matters for three reasons; planning, stewardship, and pastoral care. All are important considerations, but the last is perhaps most important. Church leaders need accurate membership records: first, to plan strategically and effectively; second, to be good stewards, since otherwise resources could be misallocated. Above all, however, if membership figures are inaccurate, it makes it very difficult to care for church members, since as the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:4-7) tells us that knowing how many sheep are in the fold is foundational for the Divine Shepherd, whose example we seek to follow.
The world church has instituted a series of remedial measures, with the aim of achieving accurate membership statistics. Regular attendance counts were added to the statistics that all local churches and administrative units are asked to report annually. In 2012 the Office of Seventh-day Adventist Membership Software was created at General Conference. Today two entire divisions, and unions in five others, have adopted, or are beginning to adopt, approved membership software.
The measure that has had the most impact, however, has been the extensive membership audits. Every division has carried out audits in at least part of its territory, and most of the 132 unions have likewise undertaken at least partial audits. Worldwide, however, the audit process is incomplete. So this report is, in a sense, preliminary.
In 2014 a total of 55,320 deaths were reported, or three deaths per 1,000 Seventh-day Adventists worldwide, up from 2.67 early in the past quinquennium, which was exactly one third of the general global mortality rate, the lowest such percentage in our statistical history. The three deaths per 1,000 in 2014 equated to 39 percent of the net global mortality of 7.84 deaths per 1,000 that year. We still have some way to go, then, before deaths are reported accurately, but the accuracy is improving.
What is striking, however, is that the audits revealed major losses. Not only had deaths been underreported; so, too, had the number of those who left the church (currently described in official statistical reports under the title “dropped” rather than the older term “apostasies”), and the number of “missing”: i.e., people who simply cannot be found when an audit is carried out.
The result of widespread audits over the past five years was that a total of 2,983,905 members were dropped or registered as missing; 261,888 deaths were recorded; and a total of 5,563,377 were added by baptism or profession of faith. The number of reported deaths rose slightly but remained relatively stable, whereas the totals of the missing and dropped increased steeply.
The sheer magnitude of the losses (dropped and missing) identified in audits undercuts the considerable numbers of accessions. The huge number of members slipping out the metaphorical back door undercuts the growth that comes in the front door (Figure 2). Improved retention is vital.
On the face of it, growth has been much slower in the past five years (see Figure 3), but in fact this is a statistical illusion. Many of those whose departure was registered did not leave our ranks during the past five years. Our long-term failure to conduct membership audits in much of the world means we have been registering losses from the past 25 years (and in a few cases probably before).
Put simply, rather than suffering a church growth crisis, we are simply feeling the effects of a statistical correction. Growth rates throughout the 1990s and early 2000s were actually lower than we thought, while our real growth rate in this quinquennium was higher than it appears. It is important, moreover, to recognize that losses were not caused by the audits; membership audits merely register the departure of those who have already separated from the Seventh-day Adventist Church. They reveal the actual magnitude of a problem that already exists and has for many years.
Ultimately we do not conduct audits to tidy up the membership books and get more precise figures. Each one of the 2,983,905 members recorded as missing or dropped from membership in the past five years (and each one of the 13,026,925 members who were “dropped” or went “missing” during the past 50 years) is precious to Jesus.
Membership audits must continue as part of a wider strategy for improving retention and discipling. We must seek to emulate the Good Shepherd, who laid aside everything to search for just 1 percent of His flock when it went missing. Accurate statistical records are not ends in themselves, but a foundation for more powerful ministry to the flock entrusted to us by the Savior.
Note: Kathleen Jones, Joshua Marcoe, Carole Proctor, and Lisa Rasmussen contributed to statistical analysis for this report.