Despite reporting a significant drop in accessions and losses, and an increase in deaths across the global Seventh-day Adventist Church during 2020, Dr David Trim, director of Archives, Statistics and Research for the General Conference (GC), says we shouldn’t feel discouraged, but empowered.
“It’s almost entirely within our power to ensure that church growth doesn’t plateau, to equip church members to be witnessing and church planting, but it all depends on what we do at a local church level,” he says.
Dr Trim recently sat down with ANN to explain in more detail his analysis of the Statistical Report 2021 he presented at the Annual Council Meetings in October.
COVID-19—a primary factor
“Overwhelmingly, the reason is COVID,” he explained, referring to the negative trends in the data. “Every year for sixteen years in a row we had seen more than a million accessions to the global church, but this fell last year to only 800,000. COVID restrictions meant that local churches found it difficult to conduct outreach and couldn’t baptize people, so the pandemic is probably the major contributing factor.”
Looking forward, Dr Trim notes that there had been a surge in accessions during the first two quarters of 2021. “It’s likely that people who had Bible studies last year were able to get baptized this year once restrictions lifted and evangelism is again being undertaken. Although in some countries, COVID has been worse this year, so we will have to wait and see whether we break the one million mark again.”
Poor data reporting—a persistent problem
Aside from COVID, another factor contributing to the drop in numbers for 2020 could be the originally scheduled GC Session, although Dr Trim estimates the effect of this to be relatively minor since it was postponed early.
However, he commented: “The data consistently shows that during GC Session years, fewer people join the church and fewer people leave. This is because church leaders don't put the same effort into evangelism or membership audits—they’re focused on something else.”
This reduction during GC Session years reflects a broader trend of inaccurate reporting that has been occurring globally for decades, which can impact both local and global evangelism strategies, as well as public perceptions about the relevance or effectiveness of the Church.
“We’ve been recording accessions, losses and deaths for 56 years now—starting in 1965,” says Dr Trim. “I could easily send you an excel spreadsheet with a graph showing accessions and losses for the past 56 years, but the problem is that it would show a huge spike in losses over the past 15 years because we’re now tracking them much more accurately.”
He continues, “The difficulty is that for a lot of that period, there was limited interest in recording losses,” he explains. “This is partly to do with representation—if you reduce your membership, you have lower representation at a Union or GC Session—but it’s also to do with prestige. People like to have it said, ‘This is the biggest Conference, Union or Division’.”
For Dr Trim, membership auditing is a big priority—as it was for former GC Executive Secretary G.T. Ng—not only because it helps the world Church more accurately identify strengths and weaknesses and develop evangelism strategies, but also to encourage local churches to prioritize retention, discipleship and member care.
“Anecdotally, I can tell you of people who moved churches and decided to change their membership, only to find that their membership was still at a church that they haven’t attended for over 20 years! And no one picked up on that!
“Any pastor can review and audit their membership records, and they absolutely should!” he encourages. “If I were a pastor, I’d be wanting to do it every year. Otherwise, how do you know if people have stopped attending? The real reason for auditing is not to take someone off the church roll, but to contact them and ask them, ‘How have we let you down?’ or ‘What can we do for you?’ so that they feel loved and valued as the body of Christ.”
The simple act of reviewing membership records can make a huge difference at both a local and global level, but Dr Trim emphasizes that it can be a complicated process unless all levels of the Church work together.
“The tricky thing is that solving this issue has to be both a top-down and bottom-up process,” explains Dr Trim.
While it is essential for local churches to engage in this process, if Conferences, Unions and Divisions don’t also see it as being a priority, then pastors may either remain unaware of its importance or put their efforts elsewhere.
Growth as a hindrance—a lack of personal responsibility
Notwithstanding the drop in accessions for 2020, another concerning trend in the data prior to the COVID-19 pandemic is that accessions were leveling-off at about 1.2–1.3 million per year, despite overall membership continuing to increase.
“If membership is growing, then the question is, why aren’t accessions increasing too?” asks Dr Trim. “If the current trend were maintained, then the church will continue to grow but not grow as fast as it had been.”
Dr Trim suggests that the reason for this slowed growth could be two-fold: firstly, because Adventists are planting fewer churches, and secondly due to the “bystander effect”.
In sociology, the bystander effect or “bystander apathy” states that the larger a group becomes, the less responsible each person feels for its success.
“Maybe we are seeing that,” says Dr Trim. “When you read in the Church’s media that we are continuing to grow, and that our membership is hitting 21 million, then the danger is that the church member thinks, ‘I am very busy, I don’t have the skills, someone else will do it if I don’t.”
This effect can express itself at both a Division or local church level.
“The South American Division has taken 2 million members off its books in the past 15 years, yet their membership has continued to grow,” explains Dr Trim. “This is because they have done well to train their members to take responsibility. And the members they have they know are actually there.”
In comparison, at a local church level, planting a new church can prevent apathy as membership increases, and encourage continued responsibility and total member involvement (TMI).
“Planting churches is the way forward. We know that when church planting is flourishing, the wider church grows,” he says. “It is almost entirely in our power to improve current trends by prioritizing church planting more and equipping church members to be witnessing.”
In concluding, Dr Trim emphasized that being involved doesn’t have to be preaching or “handing out literature on the street”. “It may be that I run the sound board, or I’m the greeter at the front door, or I help prepare the fellowship meal,” he says. “Everyone has a different spiritual gift and talent. The best thing we can do it to recognize and act on that. That is total member involvement.”
To watch Dr Trim’s recent 2021 Statistical Report, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=akwVBD8XXbk