March 3, 2011

Church Trends

There has been considerable discussion among conservative Protestants about the “confession” of Willow Creek Community Church that it found that significant numbers of the people attending had not attained as much spiritual growth as the leaders of the congregation had hoped. Willow Creek was launched as a nondenominational congregation with the goal of reaching unchurched people in the suburbs of Chicago. It has become a prototypical “megachurch” of the kind that seems to appeal to the baby boomer generation because of its nontraditional music and practices.
How do Adventist churches measure up in terms of their spiritual impact on the people who attend? This has been a focus of my research during recent years, and in this past year I decided to specifically test the same questions used in the Willow Creek surveys.
2011 1507 page29How much have you grown in your faith in the past year? About three in five attenders at Adventist churches across the United States (59 percent) report that they have had “much” growth, while a third (37 percent) indicate only “some” growth, and 4 percent say they have had no real growth. This general item is positive, but what does it mean?
Specific wording of the questions and the data for eight items from the Willow Creek survey have been released. I replicated these questions with a sample of Adventist congregations in the Midwest. On all eight items the Adventist response was significantly more positive than the results found by Willow Creek.
A total of 91 percent of the people attending Adventist churches said their local church “helps me develop a personal relationship with Christ,” as compared to 65 percent of the Willow Creek attenders. Ninety percent in the Adventist churches report that their local church helps them “understand the Bible in depth,” helps them “feel like I belong,” and “provides compelling worship services,” as compared to 62 percent, 53 percent, and 72 percent, respectively, in the Willow Creek survey.
About four out of five Adventist Church attenders indicate that their local church “challenges me to grow and take next steps,” provides “opportunities to serve those in need,” and “helps me in my time of emotional need.” This compares to a little less than two thirds of the respondents in the Willow Creek survey for the first two, and only 47 percent for the third item.
The lowest response among attenders at Adventist churches was the 73 percent who say the local church they attend “helps me develop relationships for accountability.” Just two in five respondents in the Willow Creek survey said the same.
What Does This Mean for Your Church?
Most Adventist churches do well at bringing people to Christ and helping them to learn the Bible and become part of the body of Christ. Is your church up to the average on this score? Does your church board have a goal to move from good to great? What would a remarkable, truly great environment for spiritual growth look like?
Do your Sabbath school classes focus more on group life and sharing, or on individual study and learning? Do you develop plenty of small group ministries for new people, or do only a small percentage of persistent people keep one or two groups alive?
Tools and Resources

• ?If you would like to conduct a similar survey in your congregation, contact me at [email protected]?, and I will send you the Adventist questionnaire and related information.
• ?For a serious focus on spiritual growth in your small group or class, consider the Coming Together series, published by AdventSource: or 800-328-0525.
• ?To strengthen the emphasis on spiritual growth in your local church, check out the new iFollow discipleship resources published by the North American Division Church Resource Center. 


Monte Sahlin is director of research and special projects for the Ohio Conference and a senior consultant at the Center for Creative Ministry. questions and suggestions can be sent to him at [email protected]. This article was published March 10, 2011.