The most extensive research ever conducted on the attitudes, beliefs, experiences and spiritual practices of Seventh-day Adventists reinforced some long-held assumptions about worshippers’ positive affirmation of the denomination, yet revealed an emerging trend toward secularization that is worrisome for some church leaders.
Among the most significant findings, based on tens of thousands of surveys from around the world:
- Sabbath School teachers were ranked higher than pastors and elders when church members were asked to state who was friendlier, warmer, more caring and had a positive effect on their spiritual lives.
- About three-fourths of Adventists strongly embrace the prophetic ministry of church co-founder Ellen G. White.
- Only about one in three families conduct daily worship.
- Almost half of college students and recent college graduates said they would accept practicing homosexuals as church members in good and regular standing.
- About 9 in 10 people who left the Adventist church were never contacted by their pastor after they stopped attending.
The findings, released this week to delegates at the 2013 General Conference Annual Council at church headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, were commissioned by the Office of Archives, Statistics and Research two and a half years ago.
The research was based on five separate projects. It consisted of 41,000 interviews or questionnaires around the world; involved 4,260 pastors; nearly 26,000 church members; 1,200 college students and recent graduates; and 900 former Adventists. Research teams from Adventist universities on several contents were involved in the unprecedented effort.
“In terms of both the breadth and depth,” said David Trim, director of the church’s research office, “this is the best snapshot we’ve ever had of the worldwide church.”
Before presenting the findings to hundreds of church administrators, Trim warned the audience to not be quick to judge. “Data is what it is,” Trim said. “What it means, is something else.”
The findings debunked longheld assumptions about the denomination’s gender makeup: The church is 57 percent female, and 43 percent male – quite a ways off from the belief that 65 percent of worshipers were female and 35 percent were male.
The findings also showed a church that is young – 54 percent of the members worldwide are between the ages of 16 and 40 – which has two disadvantages, according to Trim. For one, young members may be called too quickly into denominational administrative leadership positions without the proper experience. In addition, older leaders may need training to learn how to understand and work effectively with the younger generation.
Only 10 percent of church members globally are older than 60, and the largest proportion of aging congregants are in North America, Europe and Japan. In contrast, Trim said, “Our church in Latin America and Africa in particular is an extremely youthful church.”
The findings contained several bright spots, Trim said, including a statistic that shows that 53 percent of respondents stated that the Sabbath School adult Bible study guide helped “very much” to develop their religious life.
The study guide, perhaps not surprisingly, is least popular with worshipers is in North America, parts of Europe, and in and around Australia. “As someone who is both from Australia and Europe, and married to an American,” Trim said jokingly, “I will accept the blame for all those things. We are very cynical people in America, Australia and Europe.”
Another “success story,” Trim said, was that 92 percent of Adventists have an overwhelming conviction that the Seventh-day Sabbath is the true Sabbath, and only 3 percent disagree (that particular survey’s margin of error was 3 percent, which could perhaps mean zero disagreement).
The findings also pointed to several areas deemed problematic, such as people leaving the church unnoticed, and the seeping influence of secular values, Trim said.
Interestingly, the vast majority of inactive and former members are not rejecting the message and mission of the church.
“They are moving with the strong dynamics of contemporary society away from established forms of religious activity,” Trim said. “The fabric of most Adventist local churches is not sufficient to stem this tide.” He then told the delegates, “Brothers and sisters, I think this is a real challenge to us.”
While only 9 percent of Adventists were contacted by their pastor after they stopped attending church, a larger number of former members said they had been visited by elders or other church members. However, the findings show that 4 out of 10 Adventists slipped out of the church without ever being contacted by anyone.
The fact that members lapse unnoticed is a “tragedy,” Trim said.
From 2000 to 2012, more than 13.6 million people joined the church, mostly through baptism. But during the same time, 5.9 million Adventists were lost (and that doesn’t include those who died). That’s a loss rate of nearly 43.4 per 100 new converts. “That is too high,” Trim said.
Approximately 90 percent of respondents strongly agreed that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is God’s true last-day church with a message to prepare the world for the Second Coming of Christ. When asked if they expect the world to end within the next 20 years, just 22 percent of respondents strongly agreed, and 45 percent strongly disagreed, Trim said. “It’s not that people don’t believe that Jesus is coming, but there does seem to be some kind of skepticism about him coming soon.”
The research concluded that secularization is no longer limited to America, Europe and Australia. “It’s a globalized society,” Trim said. “People are watching the same television programs, reading the same apps and websites on their phones and computers, and secularization is a problem.”
Following the presentation, Vice President Benjamin Schoun acknowledged that challenges indeed lie ahead.
“We have much to learn and we probably need to incorporate these results into our strategic planning,” he stated, “because it is a very sobering picture in some cases, even though we have our strengths as well.”