April 28, 2008

It's All in the Numbers

“And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8, NLT).*
2008 1512 page6 capn February the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released a landmark study on the religious identity of the United States. The study identified more than 200 churches and religious traditions ranging from Protestants and Catholics to Buddhists and Muslims to atheists, agnostics, and those with no spiritual affiliation.
The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey studied 35,000 adults over the age of 18, examining major denominational groupings, retention rates, and demographic data (such as age, income, and education levels).
The 148-page report is crammed with informative, little-known facts. For example, 37 percent of married couples have separate religious traditions. Muslims and Mormons have larger families.
One of the study’s key findings is that the U.S. has an extremely diverse religious identity that is very fluid. Though Christians comprise about 78 percent of the survey, Protestant churches are fast becoming a minority group at 51 percent, a decline of more than 10 percent since the 1970s.† In the near future it is expected that the nation’s Christian sector will be truly pluralistic, with no majority.
2008 1512 page6The study also revealed a vast array of denominations within the Protestant family. More than 100 denominations classified were identified as either evangelical, mainline, or historically Black churches. And while Protestant churches are declining as a whole, many evangelical groups, including Seventh-day Adventists, are growing.
More than Protestants, Catholics have lost the largest share of membership. The research showed that of the 31 percent of Americans who come from Catholic homes, only 24 percent consider themselves Catholic today. Protestants outnumber Catholics by nearly two to one.
Twenty-eight percent of respondents left the church of their childhood “for another religion—or no religion at all.” In spite of major membership losses, researchers are quick to point out that Catholics and Protestants are constantly getting an influx of new members, even though their numbers are declining.
Groups with no religious affiliation experience the greatest growth.
The survey revealed some interesting facts about Adventists. According to the study, Adventists had a larger percentage of women than the Protestant average. We are also younger and have a lower average income than the total sample.
However, the most compelling fact for me was that of 
all Protestant churches, Adventists, Lutherans, and Baptists retained the highest proportion of members from childhood to adult. The 59 percent retention rate occurs despite the fact that nearly half of the adults in the sample had changed from the church of their childhood.
While the rate is nowhere near what I, or many church leaders, would like to see, it is gratifying to know that Seventh-day Adventists are doing better than most churches.
In the past several years, church leaders have been concerned about apostasies and missing members. As a church, we should be proactive in holding and nurturing our members. However, even though the numbers are disappointing, the Adventist Church is doing very well comparatively.
Another key point for the Adventist Church is the widespread fluidity of religious communities. With nearly half of the American adults migrating from the religious traditions of their childhood, I believe there’s strong evidence that people are searching for spiritual fellowship and community.
Today’s postmodern society is one of constant change. People are constantly relocating for education, marriage, and jobs. As individuals navigate through these stages of life, they long for something more.
Here is a great opportunity for our church to offer the gospel of Christ to America’s postmodern society. With innovative ministries, we should offer hope and encouragement to our neighbors.
We can be Christ’s witnesses, sharing His love and understanding with those who are weary and stressed, to those who are burdened with the cares of life, to those who are searching for something more.
*Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved.

†General Social Survey (1972-2006), National Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago.

Carlos Medley is online editor for the Adventist Review.