The Adventist Church today
A story of undimmed vision, generous giving, and steady growth.
One of the recognized phenomena of the religious world of the last half century is the remarkable global growth of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Once considered North American, 90 percent of the church membership today resides outside of North America, and its fastest growth is in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The church began the past half-century with 972,000 members in 1954 and at the end of 2004 the total adult membership has leaped to a staggering 13,936,932.
Back in 1954 Pastor William Henry Branson, then president of the Adventist Church, notified the 47th session of the General Conference assembled in San Francisco, California that the denomination had failed to achieve the goal set at the previous session to “double our membership.” That goal was something Branson spontaneously called for upon his election at the 1950 session and was a very unlikely statistical possibility. However, he told the 1954 assembly: “We have been richly blessed of God in seeking to accomplish this mighty task. The entire world field accepted the challenge, and in every division our workers and laymen alike put forth their best efforts to reach the goal.”
The annual accession rate for those Branson years (6.3 percent) had never been surpassed and remained a record until the 1985-1989 quinquennium when the growth rate jumped to a 7.2 percent yearly average. So, Branson, despite his sense of failure, started our half-century of mission advance with an astounding success. Such themes as “Double the Membership,” “Revival, Reform, Evangelism,” “One-Thousand-Days of Reaping,” “Harvest ‘90,” and “Global Strategy/Mission” outline a history of 50 years that began with a daily average of 213 baptisms until that average exceeded 2,900 baptisms daily during 2004. (Average daily accessions from1954 to 2004 are presented in Chart 1.)
Where our members live
Chart 2 informs us about the current membership of our church, division by division. We readily notice that 35 percent of our members live in Latin America, and 33 percent dwell in Africa. While some 19 percent live in Asia, North America and Europe have about 9 percent of the church’s membership. We also notice from this chart that six of the current world divisions surpass the one-million-member mark and of those, three have more than two million members.
During this past five years, the North American Division attained one-million-member status. The Southern Asia Division is poised to reach that status in the coming quinquennium. The East-Central Africa, Inter-American, and South American divisions all surpassed the two-million-member total this past quinquennium, and the Southern Africa-Indian Ocean Division is on the horizon to do so by the next General Conference session. At the end of 2004, our three two-million-member divisions had a membership greater than the entire church in 1991, only 14 years ago. Today it is not just divisions that are reaching the one-million-member mark. Countries are doing so as well. Brazil passed the one-million membership mark in the past quinquennium and India, the Philippines, and the United States are poised to do so within the next five years.
Where our newest members live
“I know where you live,” said Jesus to the Pergamum church through John the Revelator (Revelation 2:13, NIV). Jesus addressed the fact that the Pergamum believers faced difficult circumstances when they accepted the gospel. It is so even today, and Jesus still knows where the newest believers live.
Because of the commitment of those who preceded us, we are able today to rejoice in more than five million accessions during the past quinquennium. That calculates to an average of 2,765 each day of the five-year period. The daily average of accessions for 2004 was 2,933, and most recently 2,991 for the first quarter of 2005, perhaps indicating a strong trend for the future. A new kind of million-member-club was established this quinquennium when one division, the South American Division, celebrated more than one million new members entering its membership rolls.
Chart 3 lists the accessions by division for the quinquennium and also for 2004, while Chart 4 notes the base divisions where those newest Seventh-day Adventists live. Expressed on a scale of 100, we can see that 38 of our newest members live in Latin America and 34 live within the African divisions. Twelve live in Southern Asia, six in Southern Asia-Pacific, about four in North America, and the remainder live in the Euro-Africa, Euro-Asia, Northern Asia-Pacific, South Pacific, and Trans-European divisions. The location of our newest members surely emphasizes the worldwide nature of the gospel we proclaim.
World population to member ratios
Charts 5 and 6 illustrate Seventh-day Adventist members as a proportion of the population within each division and also selected countries. We notice that the Southern Africa-Indian Ocean Division maintains an amazing ratio of one Seventh-day Adventist to 79 in the population, while a much more challenging ratio of 1:5,922 confronts the Trans-European Division. At the end of 2004, there was one Seventh-day Adventist worldwide for every 459 persons dwelling on our planet. Projections suggest that by 2114 there could be one Seventh-day Adventist for every 300 on our planet and that the church could have a baptized membership of almost 24 million.
Jamaica, Rwanda, Zambia, Papua New Guinea, and Haiti have the highest ratios for countries having more than 100,000 Adventist members. A 1 to 13 ratio for Jamaica sets the pace while such countries as Ethiopia, Nigeria, Indonesia, India, and China exhibit more challenging ratios. The 1 to 4,027 ratio for China suggests an almost overwhelming challenge to Seventh-day Adventist mission.
The quinquennium of five million gains and 1.4 million losses
Although more than five million new believers joined our community during the past quinquennium, more than 1.4 million left our church family.
The bottom line for the world church this quinquennium is that for every 100 accessions, more than 35 decided to leave. That is considerably more than the 24 who left for every 100 added during the previous quinquennium. It means that our net growth (when deaths are also taken into account) was only 1,641 daily with a resultant average annual growth rate of 4.9 percent, the lowest since the 1960 to 1964 period. Mitigating circumstances are relevant, however.
A subtitle to this quinquennium might be “The quinquennium of church membership audits.” During the past five years, a majority of the world divisions have undertaken the painful responsibility of church membership audits. The resulting careful look at local church membership records has shown a decrease in the verifiable baptized church membership of more than 800,000 during the past five years. An average annual growth rate of 4.9 percent during this quinquennium, despite the audits, suggests that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is poised for a period of major growth in the near future now that our membership rolls are more accurately reflected.
New categories in tithes and offerings
At the 1958 Cleveland General Conference session, statistical secretary Henry Klaser rejoiced that Seventh-day Adventists had finally entered the billion-dollar category. By totaling the tithes, foreign mission offerings, Sabbath school offerings, Ingathering, home mission offerings, offerings for Faith for Today and Voice of Prophecy, and all local church funds and expense offerings from 1863 to 1957 (94 years), he reported an amount of $1,075,095,762 dollars. Compare that to the most recent reporting year of this quinquennium. The North American Division alone surpassed Klaser’s 94-year total by receiving in 2004 tithes and offerings of $1,192,300,000. Indeed, during this past quinquennium the worldwide receipt of tithes and offerings amounted to $9,023,988,491. That means that on the average, every day during this quinquennium, Adventist members contributed $4,941,267 to spread the gospel message. In any one day of this last quinquennium, on the average, our members contributed more than that received by the church in its initial 34 years (from 1863 to 1896).
As we contemplate our mission heritage for the past half-century, what is striking is not only the membership and financial growth. We have also advanced in other areas: in churches built, in health and educational ministry, in community advances, in developmental and relief work. We have opened up new avenues of witness: various forms of television ministry beginning with Faith for Today, airplane evangelism, Five-Day Plan evangelism, open-heart team evangelism, medical mission launches, orphanages, HIV/AIDS prevention, and other innovative means of alleviating the suffering of the world while pointing toward a perfect kingdom of the future. And as we develop the forward-moving tools of the future, we recognize that we are the inheritors of the blessings that God has poured upon our predecessors and continues to give for the advancement of His kingdom.
Bert Haloviak is Director of the Office of Archives and Statistics at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A.