A few years ago I called a friend (one to whom I talk seldom, but always happily) who’d moved to a small Midwestern city. Among other topics we discussed, I asked him, “How’s the church there?”
“We don’t attend the Adventist church here anymore,” he said. He then told me of several months of trying to be accepted at the small local church—of feeling spiritually empty after worship services; of pointed and unkind remarks; of frequent critical appraisals; and of power fights and deep splits between factions.
“I feel terrible doing this,” he said. “I always wanted to make my church better, not just bail out. You just reach a point where it isn’t worth it. I’m still an Adventist in my heart, but we now worship in a Sunday church.”
I don’t write people off when they leave our church, nor do I assume they’ve lost their salvation. But I love this church, and I want those I love to love it too. So it makes me sad when Adventist congregations can’t keep the respect of thoughtful, dedicated people.
I hear similar stories during meetings of the conference personnel committee of which I’m a member—of churches that have lost all their young people, of pastors seeking calls to escape unending criticism, of soul-numbing conflicts about worship styles and theology. Laypeople tend to blame congregational difficulties on poor pastoring. But when you see one pastor after another exit the same congregation under a cloud, you begin to realize that the problem isn’t just the quality of ministerial leadership.
Small churches, it seems to me, are especially in trouble. The majority of North American Division (NAD) churches—actually, nearly two thirds of them—have fewer than 100 members, according to research done by Ohio Conference research and special projects director Monte Sahlin on behalf of the NAD. In a congregation of so few attendees, a single troublesome individual casts a long shadow. There are fewer people to soften the impact of even the smallest crisis. Small churches lack resources—both human and financial—so many things are more difficult to accomplish and less likely to please.
I like to visit churches when I travel. Being a lifelong Adventist, I don’t let unfriendliness, or embarrassing things said by a preacher or Sabbath school teacher, or the shabbiness of the building, or the absence of anyone between the ages of 12 and 35, push me away. Still, I can’t help asking myself: “If I were a stranger with no background in our faith who’d come here today, would I join this congregation?”
I don’t know exactly why we’re in this situation. Perhaps it’s because we’ve attended more to beliefs than relationships, have more concern for dogma than people. Perhaps we’re self-focused, more concerned with our own orthodoxy than we are about serving others. Maybe we’ve grown organizationally old and therefore not as flexible to adjust to changing times.
While most Adventist churches in North America are small, the largest percentage of our membership worships in large churches.1 Many church leaders live among large, well-resourced congregations and may not be aware of the crisis further afield. Those who teach ministerial students attend large, talented college churches, so they may not know how to prepare their students for the small under-resourced congregations where they’ll be placed when they join a conference’s payroll.
We may protest, “Yes, but people should come to our churches no matter what they’re like.” They should—but they might not. The Adventist presence is static or declining in many towns and cities, and even in some major metropolitan areas. Too many of our young adults aren’t staying: the average age of church members in all but a few areas of Adventist concentration is about 50.2
I wonder what kind of church we’ll be when only a handful of larger congregations in North America can keep the loyalty of thoughtful young Seventh-day Adventists?
1Based on research by Ohio Conference research and special projects director Monte Sahlin.
Loren Seibold is senior pastor of the Worthington, Ohio, Adventist church, and editor of Best Practices for Adventist Ministry, an NAD newsletter for pastors.