This morning I drove very early from Newbold College, in the direction of Harwich, where I took the ferry to Hook of Holland. When I spend a week or so in the UK, I prefer to bring my car so that I can leave the college campus from time to time. The summer session of the Master in Leadership course, that is offered by Andrews University, has come to a close. In my role, as one of the coaches of a group of students, I have been quite busy, among other things with reading papers and as a member of the examination panel.
A group that started in 2016 has now in principle completed their study, but quite a few will actually need an extension. One of the persons who this week successfully finished her course comes from Finland, She wrote a thesis about the question how Finnish Adventist congregations deal with the large percentage of church members whose names are still on the books but who no longer attend church. This concerns about sixty (!) percent of the membership. I know that in most places a considerable number of the members are never seen in church. However, I was quite surprised to hear from the author of this thesis about this extremely high percentage. And I was also taken aback by the rapid decrease in total memberschip in het country. In 1984 the church still had over 6400 members, in 2001 almost 5600 and in 2017 it had gone down to just over 4700.
I am sure that the membership records in the Finnish Adventist church are handled with care and integrity. However, in many countries this is not the case. A few years ago the total membership in South America had to be adjusted downward by over one million. Just weeks ago the church had to admit that the membership statistics in India left much to be desired and the leadership was forced to take about half a million members off the books, since they simply were no longer there. It brought the membership down from about 1.6 million to about 1.1 million. It is hardly a secret that the membership statistics in Africa are also highly inflated.
When I served as the executive secretary of the Trans-European Division (TED), I was responsible for the membership statistics in our territory. At the time Pakistan was also a part of ‘our’ division. I was well aware of the fact that there were serious problems with the membership records. Judging by the statistics, Pakistan was the healthiest country in the world, for no one ever seemed to die (at least no Adventists). I told the leaders in Pakistan that they should clean up their records. I suggested two basic principles: no name should appear twice on the list and those who are on the list should still be alive. Applying those two minimal rules, the membership figure dropped from about 11,000 to about 6,000.
Gradually the church is beginning to place a greater emphasis on the necessity to be correct and honest in the reporting of membership gains and losses. Fortunately, the church worldwide continues to grow—in some areas even exponentially. However, it is morally wrong to inflate the statistics or to leave those inflated statistics uncorrected.
When we take a honest look at our membership statistics , we realize we should not just tell hallelujah-stories about all the continuous progress. We must look at the facts and worry about the greying of the church in some western countries—especially in those countries where few Adventist immigrants help to boost the numbers (as e.g. in the UK, France and the Netherlands). The all-important question is: How can we present our message in such a way that people will have a greater interest in what we have to say? Can things be turned around in countries where Adventism is slowly disappearing? How can the church become a church where people cannot only find ‘the Truth’, but also find a warm spiritual home, where they want to be and want to stay? Listening to the Finnish statistics I realized once again how pressing these questions are.