Membership, financial audits key to Adventist Church growth, leaders say

World church's secretary and treasurer stress accuracy in reports to Session

Atlanta, Georgia, United States | Elizabeth Lechleitner/ANN

God's leading and prudent handling of funds has seen the church through the recent global economic downturn, world church Treasurer Robert E. Lemon told delegates in his financial report for the past five years. [photo: Gerry Chudleigh]

God's leading and prudent handling of funds has seen the church through the recent global economic downturn, world church Treasurer Robert E. Lemon told delegates in his financial report for the past five years. [photo: Gerry Chudleigh]

Seventh-day Adventist delegates voted to accept quinquennial reports from the world church's Secretariat and Treasury departments today at the denomination's 59th General Conference Session.

The world church family, which now numbers between 25 and 30 million when unbaptized members and children are counted, would have seemed an "impossible dream" to early church founders, said world church Secretary Matthew Bediako during his report this morning.

Since the last Session in 2005, the Adventist Church has grown by more than 5 million members, with daily accessions nearing 3,000, Bediako reported.

In 2006, the church received more than 1 million new members, more than during any other year in church history, he said. Also during the quinquennium, two church regions for the first time each welcomed more than a million new Adventists into their churches.

Membership audits spark new growth

While Bediako urged delegates to praise God for recent membership growth, he also cautioned them not to get too comfortable or relax their efforts to spread the church's message of hope.

"Maybe it's not as good as we sometimes portray," Bediako said, citing the rate at which the Adventist Church is establishing a presence in unentered countries -- just two new countries in the past 20 years.

With 20 countries remaining, "at that rate, it will take 290 more years to enter every country," he said.

Many of the as-yet unentered countries lie in a region known as the 10-40 Window, which spans Northern Africa and East Asia, where proselytizing is often illegal.

Growth does not come without "growing pains," Bediako said, transitioning to an overview of recent membership audits. While slack calculations are responsible for some discrepancies, immigration and war also upset membership tallies, leaving records destroyed and people displaced, he said.

Whatever the cause of exaggerated numbers, conducting membership audits is "difficult work," Bediako said, candidly adding, "sometimes it's very embarrassing and discouraging."

But, if "prayerfully undertaken," achieving accuracy is rewarding and often leads to ultimate growth, he said. "Seeing the actual number of members in [regions] where audits have been done challenged us as a church and helped us reinforce our energy on reaching the unreached, reclaiming lost members and nurturing and discipling new members."

"Somebody asked me, 'Why are we doing [audits]? I told them, 'Christ counted His sheep almost daily, and when he found one missing, he went out looking for it,'" Bediako said, referring to a New Testament parable.

The Adventist Church now numbers 16.3 million, said Bert Haloviak, director of the world church's Office of Archives and Statistics.

Haloviak is expected to announce his retirement during Session.

Jurien Den Hollander, a delegate from the church's Trans-European region, applauded the number as a "more realistic" picture of the church, but took the audit concept even further, suggesting that the church also collect statistics on active membership.

Tithes and offerings rise despite economy

The importance of accuracy also featured prominently during the afternoon's financial report, delivered by Adventist world church Treasurer Robert E. Lemon.

God's leading, judicious handling of funds by church officials and the "faithfulness" of church members have seen the church through "one of the most tumultuous financial periods" in recent history, Lemon said.

Despite a global economic recession spanning most of the past quinquennium, annual worldwide tithe for the past five years grew more than 40 percent, increasing from US$1.3 billion in 2004 to $1.8 billion in 2009. Similarly, world mission offerings during the period grew almost 32 percent, from $50 million to $64 million per year.

Tithe from regions outside North America outpaced returns from North America for the first time in 2008, echoing recent membership growth in regions such as Africa, where about one-third of Adventists now live.

The past five years also marked a "substantial increase" in mission offerings from regions outside of North America, where offerings have remained "fairly static," Lemon said.

While he applauded a recent "major shift" in giving to specific projects, Lemon said such targeted offerings can ultimately strand regions or projects without the necessary resources to sustain outreach after donors turn their attentions to a new project.

Referring to tithe, Lemon urged delegates not to "put restrictions" on God's money.

Holding up an original check for $30 million, marked simply "tithe" in the memo section, Lemon reminded delegates of the so-called "extraordinary tithe" returned to the church in 2007 by a family selling its multinational business. More than 85 percent of the extraordinary tithe is currently allocated, Lemon said, much of it to projects in the 10-40 Window.

Lemon assured delegates that while worldwide tithe for 2009 in U.S. dollars technically dropped more than 4 percent from 2008 totals, returns in local currencies actually increased in most regions. Totals dwindled when converted to a strengthening U.S. dollar.

Nearly 40 percent of tithe and offerings in the General Conference's budget are returned in currencies other than the U.S. dollar, making the church particularly susceptible to currency fluctuations, Lemon said.