Saturday, December 09, 2006

Is North American Adventist church growth treading water?

First, the mediocre news (from a news email I received this week):
At the NAD year-end meetings, executive secretary Roscoe Howard reported that church membership in North America has reached 1,030,361, which means that one out of every 322 North Americans is a Seventh-day Adventist. The challenge to our membership numbers is retention. While more than 37,000 people became members, 27,000 have either died, been dropped from membership, or are MIA, making our net increase in membership only 9,829 in 2005. By the way, 62% of our members are female.

It's taken the Adventist church in North America 140 years to grow from a few thousand members to a million. At the current rate of about 10,000 net growth a year, it'll taken another 100 years to reach 2 million. While numbers aren't everything, those certainly aren't the most encouraging numbers. For too long since the days when door-to-door book salesmen and evangelistic campaigns in open-air tents were effective ways of reaching people, the church has slid along without verve or vision. Today we're most effective at reaching recently arrived immigrants, but finding it harder to reach people long-entrenched in American life (though the most "secular" areas tend to be among the most receptive). So what's the good news? In no particular order, and with no claim to authority:

1. We're putting out some excellent literature--now if the church just knew how to market it to the masses.
2. The church is, in the words of a good friend who grew up Adventist but never joined, "not as lame as it used to be." We're much less focused on legalistic trivialities and much more in tune with the idea, if not yet the implementation, that relationships with Christ lived out through how we treat others must be at the core of our every doctrine. Fifteen years ago a book like "Adventist Hot Potatoes" was hot stuff. Today most of its issues would barely elicit a yawn.
3. Individual members are living out missions. We're donating and going on short-term mission trips by the thousands, plugging in ourselves to the church's worldwide mission. The biggest groups are young people who need to experience the church for themselves, and old people who need a broader view of the church. Ellen White wrote that churches that give to missions elsewhere will be accordingly blessed at home. As you give, so shall you receive.
4. Mission offerings directly to the church (not counting all the donations directly to projects or indendent organizations like Maranatha) are up for the first time after years--decades--of decline. This is one area where the proof's in the pudding.
5. Church leadership is increasingly diverse.
6. More people are attending the seminary, with its eye-opening and mind-expanding curriculum. Nothing encouraged me more about North American Adventism than my three years at the seminary (which has doubled in enrollment since I attended).
7. The church is more open. As evidenced by church public relations at last year's GC session, the church is less concerned about covering its back and more about informing and involving its people.
7. We're communicating like never before. Thanks to the internet free-for-all, people can see what's going on in the big wide church world and see what other people have to say beyond the pew and potluck table.
8. College enrollments are up.

With everything above there's an easy "Yes, but . . ." one could attach. That's where the need for vision and action comes in. Do we have it? What should it be? How much is the Holy Spirit dependent on our efforts? And what's keeping us from truly reaching the average North American?

1 comment:

  1. What would happen if we gave some attention to the nurture of membership in addtion to evangelism?