From the beginning numbers have been very important to Adventism. And they still are. Ever since reading an interesting book that described American as ‘a calculating people’[i] I have often wondered whether the excessive emphasis on numbers is a specifically American trait. If so, it not only chacterized American Adventism, but soon also became an aspect of international Adventism. Ad Adventists we have tended to define our success in terms of membership growth, dollars and numbers of institutions. Of course, we expected the figures always to go up. We either tend to downplay any decreases or, at times, even speak euphemistically about ‘negative growth’! For growth there must be.
Only a few decades ago in Europe the status of a pastor was mainly determined by the number of persons he had been able to baptize. No wonder the strong emphasis on this aspect of numerical growth could easily lead to pulling people in the baptismal font who were not quite ready for that important step. One cannot escape the impression that in some parts of the world this continues to be rather common praxis. When, for instance—as happens in some territories—a pastor is supposed to qualify as a ‘centurion’ by baptizing at least one hundred people per annum, or when pastors are given special awards for success in ‘soul winning’ , one must not be amazed if subsequently membership retention will be a problem.
During the Annual Council of the worldwide Adventist Church which just ended in Silver Spring, the issue of bringing ‘rebellious’ unions into line with denominational policy was not the only important issue. The executive secretary of the General Conference reported an alarming trend in the (non-)retention of new members. While in recent decades 42 percent of new members left the church again after a relatively short time, this number has risen to 49 percent in the last five years. So, yes, the church is still growing numerically, but maybe the time has come not to brag about numbers any longer, but to look at what kind of church we are and what kind of spiritual community we should be, if it is to be a place where newly recruited members will want to stay.
A recent example of the way we play with numbers was the evangelistic campaign that was held in September in the city of London. Early in the year the independent Adventist media organization 3ABN announced it would be the backbone of a major evangelistic thrust in the city of London. In greater London the Adventist Church has, in the past few decades, seen a strong growth, although almost exclusively among the non-indigenous segment of the population. It was hoped (and expected) that with the support of 3ABN the church in London would receive a major boost in terms of membership gains. The campaign was held at 11 different sites and was life streamed from there, enabling people to also watch the presentations in their homes. As a result a total of 87 people were baptized. Some denominational media spoke in glowing terms about this success, but even in the most glorious accounts in between the lines one could pick up signs of disappointment. Danny Shelton, the president of 3ABN, commented that the results would have been much better if the campaign had been held elsewhere, rather than in the extremely secular environment of Britain’s capital city. Hosever, I challenge Shelton to tell us what place in the secularized Western world would be more receptive to the type of evangelistic campaign his independent ministry promotes.
When it comes to the numerical growth of the church we will have to accept that in today’s secular environment traditional evangelism no longer works—not even with strong media support, and not even among the non-indigenous population segments. That realization should help us to accept that we must experiment more creatively with other forms of church growth, and that we must be willing to define ‘success’ primarily in terms of individuals who, often after a long pilgrimage, come to Christ and decide to be his disciple. And, secondly, it means that we must do all we can to create a climate in which those people who have decided to make the Adventist Church their spiritual home will want to stay there, enjoying their new found freedom in Christ as they mature in their spiritual life.
The sooner we stop playing the numbers game the better it is. It will help us not to be despondent when the numbers aren’t so great, and to focus on what really counts: growth in terms of our relationship with the Lord.
[i] Patricia Clone Cohen, A Calculating People – The Spread of Numeracy in Early America (London and New York: Routledge, 1999).