October 10, 2011

Church Trends

Some basic questions about the numbers in local congregations come to me every week from pastors, church members, and others. It’s probably past time that I publish the standard answers to make them more easily available.
How many active members?
The number of names on the church rolls who actually go to church in North America varies from local church to local church, but it generally runs about 65 to 75 percent of the official membership number. We measure this by the number of members who attend at least once a month for nine or more months out of the year. That may not be your idea of an “active” member, but for statistical purposes we have to draw the line somewhere, and that is the general measure used across all denominations in the United States by the people who, like me, conduct research about congregations. It’s a discipline called “congregational studies.”
I have heard it said (and seen in writing) that “only half the members attend church.” That is a false statement evidently resulting from a misunderstanding of the numbers. If an attendance count is taken on any given Sabbath, typically the head count will be equal to about half the official membership. But on any given Sabbath there will be a number of members who usually attend who are away because of illness, travel, etc. That average attendance figure is not the same thing as the percentage of members who regularly attend.
2011 1528 page30What is the average age?
Demographers actually don’t use the average when considering age. The median age is the halfway point in a population; half the people are younger and half the people are older. The median age for Seventh-day Adventists in North America is 51, as compared to 36 for the entire population of the United States and 35 in Canada. The median age of 51 was calculated using a sample of entire households, so it includes children from birth up—and no, it is not skewed by including only baptized members or only adults.
Is the Adventist Church growing?
The Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America is growing at approximately 2 percent a year. USA Today earlier this year reported it as “the fastest-growing Christian denomination in North America.”* I meet with a multifaith group of religion researchers each year, and I can tell you that other denominations would love to have our growth rate!
Some hold the idea that the church is in decline, so where did that idea come from? Two things can give that impression: (1) the rate (speed) at which the Adventist Church is growing has slowed down and (2) some demographic groups are growing faster than others. Growth among immigrants, for example, is faster than growth among the native-born.
Numbers are useful only as they help us understand what God is doing among His people. And if you have the wrong numbers, then they are no guide at all.
* www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2011-03-18-Adventists_17_ST_N.htm
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 October 13, 2011.