The third day of the 2017 Annual Council began rather anticlimactically. There were looks of joy and looks of sorrow, looks of defeat and looks of gloating. All in all, however, the atmosphere was one of peace.
The morning’s business session focused around nurture & retention of members within the Adventist church. Dr. David Trim, with his dry sense of humor, asked the attendees if they were ready for more statistics. Sadly, the statistics he shared were not humorous at all. Instead, they were both sobering and thought-provoking.
Trim equated the growth of the church to a bucket with many holes in it. While it is true that there is an increase in church growth, there is also a massive leak in the metaphorical bucket. As Trim put it, the growth is only “masking the hemorrhaging” as people are leaking out through the holes in the lower portions of the bucket.
To put this into prospective, if the loss of members was stopped, church membership would rocket from approximately 20 million to 30 million people. Another way to illustrate this would be take the total number of people who voted during Monday afternoon’s business session and remove 4 out of every 10 people (the same ratio as church loss), which would remove 116 out of 300 people. This is an utterly unacceptable situation.
The question must be asked: why are people leaving the Seventh-day Adventist church in such large numbers? The answers are as sobering as the statistics. Here are the top four cited reasons:
- The perception of hypocrisy from Christians
- Marital issues
- The lack of friends within the church
- Difficulties within the church
Trim’s statistics were a chiding rebuke to church leaders for not being aware of what was going on within their local churches, and for not knowing that they had people falling through the cracks. While 40% of those who leave the church are contacted by a church member, the sad fact is that 91% of those who leave the church are never contacted by the pastor of their local church.
Elder Mark Finley broke down the trends surrounding people who leave the church. He noted that a simple misunderstanding with a pastor or elder could be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back, leading to discouragement and a pattern of non-church-going that often leads to a permanent departure from the local church.
Another trend that Finley pointed out is the vital need for the development of friends. Statistically speaking, when someone joins the church and makes 7 friends, they will stay. If they make 5 friends, they are likely to stay. However, if they make only 2 or 3 friends, the chances are high that they will not remain in the church.
Finley also noted that it is vital for churches to find a way to account for the attendance of new members. If someone does not attend, they should immediately be contacted (that afternoon, if possible) to ensure they are okay, and to let them know they are cared for. Do we (as a church) know who our members are, and do we even notice when they stop attending? Or are we so consumed with ourselves and our families that we don’t have time for anyone else? Do we know the condition of the flock that we (the church) have been given?
Jim Howard, the incoming associate director of the GC Sabbath School/Personal Ministries department, commented that churches should not seek to merely maintain complacent, pew-warming members. Rather, we should seek to develop active soul winners. Unfortunately, in many cases, the pew-warmers are the ones with the deeper pockets, and thus there has, in the past, been a tendency to do what makes them happy in order to keep the money flowing into the church. If soul-winning and outreach activities are not part of the life of the church, the church will cease to thrive.
All of this information was brought home during the afternoon session as we heard two stories of people who walked away from church—for two different reasons. We were told a powerful story of hurt, and an attempt to bring about closure to a young man who witnessed his father’s murder 17 years ago. We were also told of a brother and sister who prayed for 15 years for their mother to return to the church. Both stories were powerful reminders that we must continue to pray for those who, for whatever reason, have ceased coming to church.
As Elder Wilson put it, we live in a throwaway society. When people don’t fit into our plans, we just get rid of them. However, this is not Christ’s method of ministry. We must follow Christ and His plan for ministry.
I left the General Conference today with a feeling of hope for the future. Yes, we have issues that still need to be worked out, and we need to engage with these issues instead of brushing them under the carpet. However, there is hope. The church has an amazing opportunity to reach out and draw the eyes of others to Jesus. It is up to us to decide whether or not we are willing to step out of our comfort zones to do so.
My prayer today is for God to work in the lives of each and every leader and member within the global Seventh-day Adventist church, and that each and every one of us might be willing to follow His leading in our lives.