Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Reviewing Reflections on the future of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America: Trends and challenges (part 1 of 2)

By David Beckworth and S. Joseph Kidder
University, San Marcos, Texas, United States.
S. Joseph Kidder, DMin, is associate professor of Christian ministry, Andrews University Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs,Michigan, United States.
David Beckworth, PhD, is assistant professor of economics at Texas State

D E C E M B E R 2 0 1 0

The information in this article describes the symptoms of a failed theology. No amount of evangelistic fervor or multimedia exposure, no calls for revival and reformation, no Daniel and Revelation bestiary, no fear of "The Mark of the Beast", and no insistence that “we are living in the last days of earth’s history” can stem the tide of educated, thoughtful young people and adults streaming out of the Adventist Church in North America.

“Present Truth”, the foundational cornerstone Adventist theology, requires a commitment to an informed, progressive approach to discovering Truth, i.e., “the way things really are”. Once the idea of “Present Truth” is abandoned, education and educational institutions undermine rather than support traditional, and in the present case, regressive religious dogma.

The most egregious assault on Adventist doctrinal credibility is the insistence of the leadership that the first eleven chapters of the Bible are literally true. A close second is the resurgence of the idea that Seventh-day Adventists along with “other sheep who come out of Babylon” are the “Eschatological Remnant”, i.e., the “saved”. Authority for this assertion is Angel Rodriguez, former Director of the SDA Biblical Research Institute who provided the article and illustration that appeared in the Adventist Review of December 10, 2009.*

The Ministry article validates two of my earlier observations. (1) The officially blessed evangelistic efforts of the Adventist Church in North America are spectacularly ineffective. Their primary purpose is to persuade the membership that the Church is not moribund. (2) NAD functions primarily as an Adventist employer.

My abridgment of the Ministry article begins with the Editor’s Note. What follows are the words of the authors.

Editors Note

This article focuses on the church in North America. We suggest that other parts of the world may want to do a similar analysis and determine how the church is doing in that area. How is the Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) Church doing in terms of growth, finances, and Christian education? We will examine important long-term trends in these areas in the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America (NAD). The research presented here covers the period between 1913 and 2005.

The conclusions, however, have far-reaching consequences. These trends affect the fulfillment of the mission and vision of the church, its growth, structure, polity, and the finances worldwide. We find a significant departure in most trends beginning in the mid to late 1970s in both absolute and relative terms. The causes of these trend changes and their implications for the future of the Seventh-day Adventist Church will be explored in detail.

Church growth: The big picture
In 2007 the Adventist Church in North America baptized 37,359 people. Yet, as we examine the numbers in context, we find this reality: even as we added members, we shrank.

Membership growth rate

The membership growth rate (membership growth = [previous year’s membership – apostasy and death + converts] / previous year’s membership) in the NAD since the mid-1980s has been hovering around 2 percent or less. In order to exceed the population growth rate and thus experience meaningful growth relative to the population, the church must grow beyond the 2 percent level. In the last hundred years we have exceeded the 5 percent growth level only twice.

The first time was during the First World War in 1917, the second time was during the Depression of 1935. How do we know what is a healthy and meaningful growth rate for the church? It is possible to have a positive rate of growth (any percentage over zero) but still not grow at least as fast as the population is growing. In such a case we will find ourselves adding more members and yet still shrinking relative to the population.

Ethnic composition of the Seventh-day Adventist Church

Not only is the church not keeping up with the general population growth in the NAD, but the membership growth does not match the ethnic makeup of the population.

The graying of Adventism

Another important trend is reflected in what is being called the “graying of Adventism.” In 2008 the median age of Adventists in the NAD was 51 years while the median age in the population was 36. These numbers mean the church is not doing well in keeping or attracting young believers. The church seems to be surviving by the energy and resources of previous generations. But if this graying trend continues, what is going to happen to the church when these supportive generations fade into the sunset?

The ratio of Seventh-day Adventist churches to the population of the North American Division

The NAD had 3,000 more Adventist churches in 2005 than in 1913. The ratio of the general population to the number of Adventist churches has also risen. In 1913, there were approximately 52,000 people in the population per church, but in 2005 there were 65,000 people for each Adventist church. This indicates that there is an urgent need to plant churches if the NAD churches are to maintain their current presence in North American communities.

Church and membership productivity

The landscape of church productivity is changing, mostly for the worse. (In this context, productivity is a snapshot of resources put into baptisms.) Member productivity has declined since 1980. It now takes about 27 members to produce one baptism, whereas from 1913 to 1980 it took only about 15 members. The figure indicates this number is on the rise, heading quickly toward 30.

Pastoral productivity

If pastoral productivity is defined as the number of converts per pastor, then pastoral productivity is on the rise…The ratio of members to pastors has risen from less than 86 in 1913 to about 250 in 2005. This trend became particularly pronounced in the mid to late 1960s. The number of ordained and licensed ministers in the church rose to about 3,500 in the early 1980s and has essentially stayed the same since that time…However, the number of Bible workers and literature evangelists in the NAD is dropping. This trend reveals a potential loss of frontline, congregational workers.

Economic productivity: Total dollars spent per convert

In terms of economic productivity, the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the NAD was spending about $41,000 in 2005 per convert while in 1913 it took about $5,500 (2005 US$) to do the same. This indicates inefficiency in resource management, with much of the donated money to the denomination being spent to support the structural system of the church in its various levels and organizations, nurture members, and sustain our educational system. Should we not be investing more of our resources directly in the evangelistic mission of the church and less in the administration of the church?


Our research shows major disturbing trends in Adventism in the North American Division in the area of church growth. While the church experiences a decline in the rate of church growth as compared to membership and the rate of growth in the population, the church also takes more and more financial resources to produce one convert.

Busting these disturbing trends in the North American Adventist Church will take much more than a few small changes of technique; it will require a reconsideration of our values and methods. In the February 2011 issue we will deal with plausible explanations of the current trends and some suggestions to reverse the trend.

* GOD’S END-TIME REMNANT: WHAT ARE THE PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS OF THIS THEOLOGICAL CONCEPT? Angel Manuel Rodriguez provided a chart that answered that question clearly and definitely. He also provided the following commentary.

“God has a people in figurative Babylon, and it is our mission to call them out to be part of God’s end-time eschatological remnant (Rev.18:4). These are sincere Christians who serve the Lord in different Christian denominations and even among world religions. They are part of the church of Christ. At the present time they are not a visible group; that is to say, they do not possess the characteristics of the remnant, but it is God’s plan to bring them out of their invisibility through the mission of His remnant people. We can, then, suggest that the fullness of the church of Christ is constituted by a visible, historical remnant people who have specific characteristics, and also by loyal believers who are still in Babylon, in exile. They need to hear the message of the remnant in order to reaffirm their commitment to biblical truth and not be deceived by the dragon and its allies.”

According to Rodriguez, while today “there is salvation outside the remnant”, the final remnant will all be Seventh-day Adventists.

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