At first retention summit, leaders look at reality of church exodus

1 in 3 members lost over past 50 years; personal support is key way to help members

Silver Spring, Maryland, United States | Ansel Oliver/ANN

The first global summit focusing on Seventh-day Adventist Church membership retention is revealing the rate and reasons members slip out the back door. It’s the first time the matter has been spotlighted in such a major way, prompting church leaders to renew their emphasis on making fruitful and growing disciples of Christ.

The Adventist world church, now with nearly 18 million members, has lost at least 1 in 3 Seventh-day Adventist members in the last 50 years, according to summit organizers. Also, in this century, the ratio of people lost versus new converts is 43 per 100.

“These figures are too high,” said David Trim, director of the Office of Archives, Statistics and Research. “There’s a theological point to this and it’s that God’s mission is to seek the lost.”

For three days this week, 100 attendees from six continents have gathered at the denomination’s world headquarters for the Summit on Nurture and Retention to examine data, which is offering a clearer picture of trends beyond long-held assumptions gained from anecdotal evidence.

Veteran Adventist Church researcher Monte Sahlin said the reasons people drop out of church often have less to do with what the church does and its doctrines than with problems people experience in their personal lives—marital conflict or unemployment, for example. What the church does that contributes to the problem, he said, is not helping people through their tough life experiences.

“The notion of people dropping out because of something the church does or a doctrinal disagreement is not apparent in the data,” Sahlin said. “It’s been shown that a member of a church board is just as likely to disagree with one of the church’s 28 Fundamental Beliefs as someone who’s been disfellowshiped.”

Several presentations showed that the Adventist Church has learned how to better conduct more realistic outreach by learning from past examples. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, many Adventist groups sponsored extravagant evangelism events—complete with mass choirs and large, multi-screen presentations. But while many sponsoring organizations were eager for the once-in-a-generation chance, many newly baptized converts joined the church thinking it was their ticket to gaining their own wealth. The church there lacked a long-term strategy and denominational infrastructure, and most of those new converts soon stopped attending church.

One presentation revealed that in South Africa, the rate of accession of new members had slowed, but membership had significantly increased due to retention. That fact prompted Harald Wollan, an associate executive secretary of the Adventist world church, to suggest to the group that future evangelism efforts should focus on nurturing members.

“What if the church used some evangelism funds for our own members’ care? We might see a similar increase in numbers,” Wollan said.

“We will have to do that,” responded Adventist world church Vice President Armando Miranda, who was chairing the afternoon session.

One delegate, Jimmy V. Adil, from the Philippines, asked why conferences feel pressure to increase membership, often from the parent unions, whom he said feel pressure from the divisions. He asked if the world headquarters was exerting pressure for growth.

Adventist Church Executive Secretary G. T. Ng replied, “There’s no pressure for growth. Do we pressure a papaya tree to produce? … If so, we may stunt its growth.”

Trim, the research director, said the problem, though, is common in some regions. On Tuesday, he revealed that 30 percent of church clerks in one particular division had been pressured to inflate baptismal numbers. “It’s a sin to lie about anything in the Adventist Church, but for some reason, too many people think it’s OK to lie about membership numbers,” Trim said.

Increasing membership audits by divisions are combating incidences of membership inflation in some regions. Trim said several regions have made the audits a priority, including South America, Southeast Asia and West Africa.

“Accurate membership records: that’s a secretary’s contribution to [the church’s current focus on] Revival and Reformation,” said Onalapo Ajibade, secretary for the West-Central Africa Division, based in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. “We must have accuracy. God cannot bless a lie.”

On the meeting sidelines, the youngest attendee, Cheryl Simpson, said she was encouraged by the summit because she said it showed church leaders wanted to encourage young adults like her.

Simpson, who is a senior psychology student at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States, said she was glad that church leaders were willing to look at reality.

“For me, this is essential because it’s showing me that theologians aren’t afraid to face the facts,” Simpson said.

—See more photos, including presentation slides and statistics, in the ANN Flickr account.