What comes to your mind when you think about the Seventh-day Adventist Church? Cutting-edge universities; amazing church growth; large church buildings with dynamic pastors live-streaming powerful sermons; young adults knocking on doors during a GYC meeting; a tantalizing worship experience with 70,000 other Adventists in the Georgia Dome during the fifty-ninth General Conference session; a sharp-looking office building where administrators plan strategically—or do you think Rawlins, Wyoming?
Some months ago my wife and I traveled to Rawlins, Wyoming, for a weekend of preachíng and seminars. lt was our first time in Wyoming, and we loved every minute of it. I learned a lot about geography and culture, but even more about Adventism. Did you know there are only four Adventist pastors in Wyoming? Each of them cares for a significant number of churches separated from each other by many miles. Most of these churches are small churches with few young people, located in very small communities (Rawlins has a population of about 9,000 people).
The people we met in Rawlins (who had gathered from the entire district) were wonderful Adventists: warm and friendly, supportive and informal. They are few and do not see their pastor every week. Their music often comes from a CD, and their sermon is frequently streamed from a different location.
Most of the news and features you find in this magazine will not talk about small towns like Rawlins. We tend to talk about the increasing student numbers at one of our premier universities and the addition of a wonderful new building to the campus. We rejoice when we hear about the construction of a well-designed church building serving a 1,500-plus congregation. We praise God for thousands of new members joining the church every day worldwide. We highlight the important work of our hospitals investing hundreds of millions of dollars to serve their communities (mostly located in major urban centers) better. We applaud ADRA’s untiring effort to bring relief and hope to thousands and (even) millions of the displaced and downtrodden. We deal in big numbers and celebrate God’s triumphs—or so we like to think.
However, there is another face to Adventism.1 It involves small churches in rural areas or small towns. Data show that 45 percent of Adventists in North America live in rural areas or small towns.2 Strikingly, less than 20 percent of the general population live where 45 percent of the Adventists live! These small congregations have generally fewer than 100 members, with an average attendance of 50 members. Three quarters of these members are more than 50 years of age. The growth rate of these churches is close to the North American Division average, which is modest within the global context. These church members often have to travel a long way, which means that community involvement is limited.
I have to confess that I have been the product of this “other face of Adventism” and feel a tug at my heart when I spend time with these sisters and brothers. Most of my formative teenage years were spent in a church with fewer than 30 members and lots of gray hair. That’s where I preached my first sermon. That’s where I was encouraged to use my musical gifts and heard a hearty “Amen” after a not-so-perfect rendition. That’s where I first felt part of this worldwide community of believers waiting anxiously for the return of our Savior. They cheered for me when I answered God’s call to the ministry. They held up my arms when I left to study abroad.
These personal small-church activities may not make news headlines on Adventist media outlets, but they have made all the difference to me. Small rural churches are still a vital part of this church and close to the heart of Jesus.
1 I am grateful for the research results that Monte Sahlin, director of research and special projects for the Ohio Conference (and a regular contributor to Adventist Review), shared with me so generously. They are based on the following sources: the Faith Communities Today (FACT) interfaith research project (undertaken between 2000-2010), Adventist samples from the U.S. Congregational Life Surveys (USCL) done in 2001 and 2008, as well as personal research and research done by more than 400 D.Min. students over the past five years.
2 The U.S. Census Bureau defines a small town as located outside a metropolitan area with a population of fewer than 50,000 people.
Gerald Klingbeil is an associate editor of the Adventist Review. This article was published September 15, 2011.