Last week the Dutch media reported that in the Netherlands every day 267 persons terminate their membership of the church to which they belonged. In other words, in the period of a year one hundred thousand Dutch men and women leave their church. Unfortunately, this is only part of the sad picture, for there are also many who do not formally give up their membership, but have not been to church in years, or who gradually feel less and less connected with their faith community and are moving ever closer to the back door of the church. And this is not a trend that begun in 2018, but has been going on for years.
What about the Adventist Church? Well, it continues to grow. Per day, worldwide, some 3,500 people are baptized. In some countries in the South, in particular, we see a very substantial growth. However, this growth is not as phenomenal as was predicted some twenty years ago. At that time the prognosis was that around 2020 the number of Adventists would have risen to over thirty million. In reality, the total church membership is presently just under twenty million. For sure, still a respectable number, but quite a bit less than was predicted. Stagnation in the membership increase in the Western world is not the only challenge. The church is confronted with the worrisome fact that it proves very difficult to retain a large percentage of those who are baptized. Last week someone who is well-informed about such matters, told me that the leaders in the African country of Rwanda, where a few years ago over 110.000 people were baptized in a nationwide evangelistic campaign, expect that eventually 93 percent of these new members will disappear.
Nonetheless, the news is not only negative. There are plenty of developments in the Adventist Church that give rise to great concerns, but also many good things are happening, in the Netherlands as well as elsewhere. And while in 2018 once again one hundred thousand Dutch men and women left their church, here and there new faith communities were born and many churches that had suffered a sharp loss of members emerged from this painful process with renewed strength. Leaders of many local churches will tell you that their church can hardly survive, but other churches assert that they may be smaller than before but have a greater vitality and a clearer sense of mission. And in many places the arrival of large groups of immigrants has brought a new sense of purpose to many Christian communties in the Netherlands. It is good to realize that the story of the Dutch church is not only negative.
As, at the end of the year, we take stock of the state of the Christian church, it is important to keep an eye on the broader picture. Through the ages the church has experience good times and periods of decline. It cannot be denied that Christianity is facing many difficulties in this increasingly secular, postmodern period of history. But the Christian church is not about to disappear! We may take courage from the biblical promise that eventually there will be a. “great multitude” before the throne of God, that is so vast that no one can determine its size.
The Bible tells us that there will remain a “remnant”, a “rest” of believers who treasures their relationship with God and are determined to hold on to their faith in Jesus. I believe this “remnant” consists of a multicolored, multicultural, multitude of faithful and committed Lutherans, Roman-Catholics, Calvinists, Baptists, Pentecostals, and a richly diverse collection of other Christians. Adventists are called to be an important part of that “remnant”. With their specific emphases they can make a major contribution to the proclamation of the gospel of Christ in our present world.
Let us in 2019 focus less on numbers than we often do, but decide in full confidence to fulfill our mission to spread the gospel in word and action, making Christ known, with the special accents that enable Adventism also to enrich the faith experience of other Christians.