This past week the executive committee of the Seventh-day Adventist Church met in Silver Spring for its second most important annual session: the Spring Meetings. This two-day meeting was also attended by the presidents of the world divisions. (Most other committee members who live outside the USA, as e.g. the union presidents, only attend the autumn meetings in October.) These Spring Meetings were sandwiched between two special conventions. On Wednesday afternoon a conference started about the traditional Adventist view that those who enter military service should, if at all possible, opt for a non-combatant status. It is gratifying to see that this theme is once again put on the agenda.
The Spring Meetings were preceded by a study conference on the issue of membership losses as a result of people leaving the church (the Nurture and Retention Summit). This concerns a very serious problem as the statistics underscore. Dr. David Trim, the official in the church’s head office who is (among other duties) responsible for the compilation of the denominational statistics, reported that since 1965 no fewer than 15.132.555 persons left the church—often within a short time after their baptism. This is a huge number and explains to a major degree why the church has not grown as exponentially as was predicted a few decades ago.
Membership of the Adventist Church now stands at about 21 million. This means that the denomination is a religious organization of considerable substance. There are more Adventists then Jews in the world, and we have now almost surpassed the number of Sikhs. Both groups are normally categorized as world religions! Also, there are now considerably more Adventists than either Jehovah Witnesses or Mormons. And while most Protestant churches continue to decrease in membership, Adventism still shows significant growth. These positive indicators should not, however, blind us to the fact that official church statistics show that within a few years after their entrance into the church around forty percent have again disappeared.
And, unfortunately, this is not the whole story. In many countries membership statistics are extremely unreliable. The church books list millions of names of people who are no longer actively involved with the church, and many of them are even no longer alive! And being an official member does not guarantee regular church attendance. Worldwide the percentage of registered members that attend church services on a regular basis is about 60 percent. Moreover, there is a large group (worldwide no doubt several million) of people who grew up in the church but never actually joined.
Clearly, it is a good thing that the church studies this issue and wants to come up with ways of halting this continuous hemorrhage. At the end of the discussions of just a few days ago the president of the General Conference spoke. As we have come to expect, he focused on a number of quotations from the writings of Ellen White—this time from the book Christian Service. These statements were put forward as the remedy of the problem. They emphasize that people must be put to work. When people become active, they will not leave the church.
It is certainly true that being actively engaged in the promotion of an ideal and to be active in an organization are important in giving a sense of involvement. However, I do not believe that this is the key issue. When working on my book Facing Doubt: A Book for Adventists ‘on the Margins’I saw how complex the problem of church leaving is. I saw ever more clearly that many, either slowly or more suddenly, move towards the back door, because they feel that their church is no longer sufficiently relevant for their everyday life, and because they do not experience in the church the space they need in order to be who they are, with all their questions and doubts.
I would like to suggest to brother Wilson that he should talk more with the people who have left the church, and to read more about this topic and consult more intensely with experts in or outside our denomination. Perhaps this will convince him that the massive exodus from the church has many causes and that people will only respond to his call to become active if they feel truly ‘happy’ in their church. This is, I believe, the question that must be addressed: How can we become a church that the people will experience as a warm spiritual home, where everyone is welcome and where we can all have the space to translate the Christian values and Adventist principles to fit our own situation, in an atmosphere of freedom and respect? Those who become part of such a community will not want to leave and will become active and will, with the support of others, keep growing in their faith.