The Seventh-day Adventist Church - A vital or vapid future?
Based on last month's newsletter summary of a Lutheran report on congregational vitality, the Seventh-day Adventist Church appeared quite vital and full of life.
"All of the denominations compared declined in worship attendance from 2009 to 2014, except for the Seventh Day Adventist Church which increased nearly 10% in that time period." View the summary report.
In this newsletter, Petr Cincala, Assistant Professor of World Mission at the
Seventh-day Adventist Seminary and
Director of the Institute of Church Ministry writes in greater depth about recent trends in the Seventh-day Adventist Church....
To explore these issues, the Institute of Church Ministry (ICM) team at Andrews University looked into the findings of a Faith Communities Today oversample report among Seventh-day Adventist congregations. This survey of 324 churches was conducted in 2015, as well as in previous years, and included a comparison with the general national sample. The ICM team also looked into one of the largest survey databases in the United States on quality of church life (Natural Church Development survey) that contains 347,849 surveys collected between 2008 and 2016 among active church members across various denominations - including the Seventh-day Adventist church (28,811 surveys).
One of the most evident indicators of a church's vitality is church membership and attendance. In that area, the Seventh-day Adventist church showed encouraging growth! Between 2009 and the end of 2014, office SDA membership grew nearly 9%. Additionally, the average weekly attendance of SDA churches has gone up 22% between 2009 and 2015.
Although it is exciting to see these growth statistics, it is important to look closer to see the context of such growth. The Seventh-day Adventist church is a growing, worldwide movement. It has grown from 2 million members in 1970 to 18.5 million in 2015. However, church membership in North America has shrunk from 21% in 1970 to just 7% in 2015. Moreover, the growth in North America is predominantly through multi-ethnic groups, immigrants, and refugees. Recent figures show that that 52% of those baptized into the North American Seventh-day Adventist church in 2015 were from ethnic minorities. If the trend continues, the rate of adding Caucasian members to the church will actually decrease.
Researchers involved in congregational study agree there are three types of relationships central to church vitality:
- Relationship with God
- Relationship with others in the church
- Relationship with the world
Relationship with God
One of the Seventh-day Adventist church's biggest strengths is that of strong denomination and congregational loyalty. One of the key Adventist doctrines is that of the Sabbath; over two-thirds of congregations indicated that "a lot" or "quite a bit" of emphasis is put on keeping the Sabbath, showing that it is a priority in many congregations. Additionally, on average Sabbath School attendance is higher in Adventist churches (average of 50 attendees per week) when compared with other denomination's Sunday School attendance (average of 40 attendees per week).
Seventh-day Adventists also place a large value in spending time in the Word. Over four out of five (86%) of congregations reported that they view the Bible as a powerful guide in the decisions of everyday life; for those outside of the Adventist faith, only 77% of congregations placed the same value on the Bible as a guide. Also, nearly 80% of Adventist respondents indicated that they greatly enjoy spending time reading the Bible on their own. Only two-thirds (66%) of respondents of other faiths indicated that they enjoy reading the Bible on their own.
However, not all of the news is good when it comes to practices that build one's relationship with God. Eleven percent of Adventist respondents actively involved in church indicated that they are bored during the worship service, compared with only 7% of respondents of other Christians. Adventists also were less joyful, felt less of a divine presence, and found services less though-provoking than their non-Adventist counterparts.
Relationship with others in the church
Unfortunately, interpersonal relationships are a challenging area for many Seventh-day Adventist churches. When compared to other denominations, Adventists ranked lower in all relational areas than did their counterparts.
- 66% of Adventists indicated they felt there is a lot of joy and laughter in their church, while 77% of other denominations felt the same.
- 53% of Adventist respondents indicated the atmosphere of their church is strongly influences by praise and compliments, while 59% of non-Adventist respondents indicated the same.
- 41% of Adventists indicated that they are members of a group in their church were it is possible to talk about personal problems, while 53% of other denominations reported the same.
- The only area in which Adventist respondents ranked their relational experiences close to that of non-Adventists is in the area of new Christians quickly finding friends in their church.
However, there is some good news in this area! The surveys of active Adventists collected in 1995-2008 ranked all areas lower than the surveys collected 2008-2016. While there is still much room for improvement in interpersonal relationships within the church, it appears that churches are making positive changes in the right direction.
Relationship with the world
A cornerstone of the Adventist faith revolves around the importance of evangelism and reaching out to those who do not yet know Jesus. When Adventists were asked if they pray for friends, relatives, and colleagues who do not yet know Jesus - specifically praying that they will come to faith - almost three-fourths (73%) indicated that they do; this is compared to less than two-thirds (64%) of respondents of other denominations. Similarly, over half (51%) of Adventist respondents indicated that they try to deepen their relationship with people who do not yet know Jesus, while only 39% of non-Adventist respondents indicated the same.
A vital or vapid future?
As the Seventh-day Adventist church looks toward the future, one would hope that the church becomes more vital, more alive rather than becoming more vapid. In order for vitality to increase, there are clearly changes that need to occur. However, many churches in the North American Division show quite a few barriers to change, including lack of energy and finances (85%), strong resistance from some members to change (84%), and a lack of unifying, energizing vision (82%). The data shows that congregations of other faiths do not face quite the same level of resistance or barriers.
The major question, then, is this: what would help the congregations make the necessary changes?According to the majority (59%) of respondents, leaders who are trained to manage change would be the most helpful of all the listed items. Nearly half (49%) indicated that the use of assessments of the congregation and the community where it is located would help compel change. Forty five percent indicated that advice and funding from the denomination would help their local church deal with necessary change, while 41% gave the same responses to familiarity with concrete models or stories of churches that successfully dealt with change or demonstrate the usefulness of making changes.
There's an old adage that says, "You're either moving forwards or backwards, but staying in place is impossible." So it is for the Church. The church must either decide to move forward, making necessary changes in order to become more vital, or it is certain to begin to move backwards towards lifelessness. It is time that the Church commits to becoming the vibrant, growing Church that many have only dreamt of so far!