Profile of a changing church

You cannot step twice into the same river, for other waters are continually flowing on. --Heraclitus (c. 540-c. 480 B.C.)

Change, someone has said, is the only constant. It takes place in every organization. Some changes happen quickly and are readily visible, while others occur slowly over time and often escape notice. Members of an organization can cause change, but they are also caught by changes over which they have little or no control. Such is the case in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. This article traces some of the changes that have taken place over the past 50 to 70 years and identifies three specific changes that church members can effect in the years ahead.

Membership growth and demographics

The two charts to the right compare the total Seventh-day Adventist membership and the geographic distribution of that membership in 1960 and 2001. During this period of time, the membership has grown by 1000 percent. An equally dramatic change is the shift in geographic distribution. In 1960, 43 percent of world membership was found in North America and Europe. At the close of 2001 that figure is reduced to 11 percent. This does not mean that membership in North America and Europe is declining. The reality is that growth rates in these areas significantly lag the growth rates in other areas of the world.

Today more than one-third of the entire church membership resides on the continent of Africa. Another third is found in Inter and South America.

Seventh-day Adventist Church membership is increasing at the rate of 2,600 new members per day. The accelerated growth rate of recent years results in 25 percent of the world membership having been members for less than five years. In some areas of the world that experience the highest rate of growth, more than 40 percent of the membership will have been members for less than five years. This means that a significant portion of the total membership is still getting oriented to Seventh-day Adventist history, values, lifestyle, and organizational processes.

Although there is no definitive picture concerning the age distribution of Seventh-day Adventist members, anecdotal information suggests that there is a much younger membership in those geographic areas where church membership has been growing most rapidly. A recent survey (2002) by USA Today projects the age demographics in the U.S.A. as compared to five countries in Africa by the year 2010. (See figure 3.)

Resource distribution and support patterns

Figures 4 and 5 present a comparison of the resource and membership distribution. These charts do not reflect comparative faithfulness in stewardship. Such information could only be presented fairly within the context of local economies and currencies. However, in terms of total world tithe the North American Division, despite its reduced proportion of membership as compared to 1960, still provides well over half of the total tithe. The two charts indicate a concentration of the resource base. Eight percent of membership providing 60 percent of total tithe (2001) is a higher concentration than 27 percent of members providing 76 percent of tithe (1960).

Figure 6 reveals that there has been a dramatic change in the way members support the church. In 1930 Sabbath school mission offerings were equal to 65 percent of tithe. By 2001, this had decreased to 5 percent of tithe. One cannot conclude from this chart alone that members are giving less, since actual currency amounts have increased. Rather, members are giving differently. The rapid increase of special-purpose entities (i.e. Adventist Development and Relief Agency, Adventist World Radio, and other media services) and independent ministries gives members a wide array of opportunities to support the mission of the church.

Church member donations to special purpose entities and to independent ministries are not reflected in the financial reports of the church since these funds do not flow through normal church channels. Instead, the funds are generally sent directly to the organization concerned.

Special-purpose entities and independent ministries have had a major impact on the worldwide activity of the church. At the same time the shift in giving patterns by members, as compared with several decades earlier, presents formidable challenges to carry on the established work of the church. It is relatively easier to find donors for highly visible and successful evangelism projects than to obtain systematic support for the training of pastors and local church leaders needed to serve the newly baptized members. The infrastructure necessary to nurture the spiritual life of new believers, such as church buildings, Bible study guides, educational programs, and training materials, etc. is heavily dependent on the Sabbath school mission offerings of the worldwide membership. If the historical trend in such offerings continues, there is likely to be an increasing strain on the ability of the church to care adequately for new growth.

Members with Seventh-day Adventist education

In 1950, for every 100 members, there were 26 students in Seventh-day Adventist schools. It is assumed that most were from Seventh-day Adventist families. By 2000, althought the total number of students in Adventist schools had surpassed the one million mark, the ratio had declined to less than 10 students for every 100 members. It is estimated that perhaps five of the 10 were from Seventh-day Adventist families. Figure 7 shows the changing relationship between church membership and enrollment in Seventh-day Adventist schools. One must be cautious about expecting a direct correlation between church membership and Seventh-day Adventist school enrollment. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that a decreasing percentage of Seventh-day Adventist members are enrolled in denominational educational programs.

Students graduating (or having received a significant portion of their education) from Seventh-day Adventist schools have formed the primary pool of candidates from which the church has obtained its employees and future leaders. Such employees are generally well-grounded in an understanding of church structure and operations and are familiar with and committed to its teachings, values, and lifestyle. This is not to imply that persons without a Seventh-day Adventist education are inferior employees or leaders. They simply need a longer time to become oriented to the organizational life and practices of the church. The relatively smaller pool of potential leaders with Seventh-day Adventist education will become increasingly important as the church seeks to address the leadership needs of a rapidly growing membership.

Increasing diversity and cultural awareness

The Seventh-day Adventist Church is present in 203 of the world's 228 countries and carries on its ministry in many different languages. International meetings of the church, especially General Conference sessions, present a tapestry of cultures, languages, customs, and dress. If today's world population were represented in a village of 100 persons, the village would be comprised of:

61 persons from Asia

13 persons from Africa

12 persons from Europe

8 persons from Inter/South America

5 persons from North America

1 person from Oceania

A village of 100 persons representing Seventh-day Adventist membership would have similar diversity but in different proportions. (See Figure 2 above.) The gospel has spread among cultures primarily through cross-cultural missionary endeavor. However, as the gospel takes root in any given culture, it finds expression in ways unique to the local setting. This should be expected--but when the reality is encountered, many questions can arise as to which culture's practice is most in harmony with the gospel.

From everywhere to everywhere

Over the years, there has been a changing awareness of what constitutes the "mission field". Missionaries, now called interdivision employees, were sent primarily from North America and Europe, the so-called homeland divisions, to the far-flung corners of the globe. The mission fields were seen as any place that was far away, relatively unknown, and comparatively less advanced economically. Persons returning to their homeland after a period in mission service shared stories of strange cultures, economic hardship, and primitive communication systems.

This, too, has changed. While remote villages and economic disparities remain among the world's nations and in some regions the Seventh-day Adventist presence is minimal, there is a sizeable membership on every continent. A wide array of educational institutions has been established, church leadership positions are largely in the hands of nationals, and local resources are increasing. Former mission fields now provide as well as receive interdivision employees.

In 2000, there were 169 new appointments to interdivision/intradivision service. A further 339 employees returned to interdivision/intradivision service following furloughs. Only one of the church's 12 world divisions was not a "sending" division in the year 2000. All divisions were "receiving" divisions of employees from other divisions.

There has also been a growing involvement of Seventh-day Adventists as volunteers in international projects. During 2000, more than 1,500 persons left their homelands as volunteers to serve in other areas of the world; only two of the world divisions were not represented in the list of "sending" divisions. In addition, several independent supporting ministries also provide opportunities for international service on a voluntary basis.

Church members can create change

In the midst of such macro-level changes over which they have little or no control, Seventh-day Adventist Church members can be intentional about change. Positive change is the result of deliberate action towards widely understood goals and objectives. Three strategic issues have been identified for the attention of the worldwide membership. Regardless of where one lives, what language one speaks, or how long one has been a member of the church, he or she can make a positive impact in the following three areas of emphasis:

1. Quality of local church life: The essence of Seventh-day Adventism is seen most clearly in the life of the Seventh-day Adventist family at the congregational level. It is here that church teaching and lifestyle find their expression in attitudes, behavior, and relationships. It is from the dynamics of the local church that individual members make their impact on the local community. Every member can make a deliberate and positive contribution to the quality of life in the local congregation and its area of ministry.

The leadership team of every local church should review such questions as: How do the services of this church promote spiritual growth among the members? What provisions are made for the nurture of new members? Are the members being taught a deeper understanding of Scripture? Are they being trained in all areas of discipleship? Is the atmosphere of fellowship in this church conducive to the development of a growing membership?

2. Enrichment of worldwide church unity: Both the local congregation and the worldwide family are expressions of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The needs and interest of one end of this spectrum must not lead to a disregard of the other. Seventh-day Adventists see themselves as charged with the proclamation and illustration of a global end-of-time message concerning the kingdom of God. Inherent in the life of an organization with a rapidly growing membership are the tendencies to fragmentation and preoccupation with matters of immediate or local concern. There can be a corresponding loss of awareness and sensitivity to the collective identity of the world family. Church structure alone is insufficient to maintain worldwide unity. It is message and mission that hold the church together.

3. Focus on unfinished mission: The gospel commission constitutes the central task of the church. The life that is lived in God becomes a living witness to the world for the purpose of extending His kingdom. Seventh-day Adventists must always be challenged by the awareness of an unfinished task. Our collective vision must be focused on bringing a Seventh-day Adventist witness to the gospel in every community on earth. The church cannot afford to become self-satisfied with its accomplishments of the past nor consume all its energies in the maintenance of its present infrastructure.

New horizons, new opportunities for witness, new ways of proclamation, new locations for establishing communities of believers--these are the realities that compel the life of those who serve as the followers of Jesus Christ. Seventh-day Adventists are not to withdraw from the world but to infiltrate the world. Every member is valued. Every member is needed. Every member can make a difference in the strategic issues, for the glory of God.

Lowell C. Cooper is a vice-president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, in Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A. E-mail: