September 11, 2012

Church Trends

The most recent United States Religion Census was released recently. It combined data from the 236 largest denominations and faith groups in the country and found that there is a total of 344,894 local congregations with about 150 million adherents. The study counts “adherents” rather than “members,” because each religion has a different definition of membership, making it impossible to put together overall statistics. In the Seventh-day Adventist Church, “adherents” include all members (regardless of status), meaning the unbaptized children of members and nonmembers who attend regularly.

At 150 million, the total number of persons connected to organized religion of any kind is fewer than half of Americans. Many research projects have shown that one third to one half of these are inactive, meaning they never attend the activities of the congregation they belong to. Religion is something that relatively few Americans actually participate in despite the fact that strong majorities tell survey interviewers they “prefer” one faith or another.

The 2010 U.S. Religion Census lists 5,665 Adventist local churches across the country, with 1,194,996 adherents. There is at least one Adventist church located in each of 1,827 of the 3,100 counties in the nation. The counties with no local church are largely rural with very small populations.

There are large concentrations of Adventist churches in California, Oregon, Washington, Florida, Michigan, and the northeast urban corridor—which runs north from Washington, D.C., to Boston. There are also significant clusters in east Texas, north Georgia, Alabama, middle Tennessee, and around Chicago, Minneapolis, and Denver. Adventists tend to be more widely spread both geographically and in terms of socioeconomic and ethnic diversity than are most religions in America.

2012 1525 page30The most surprising thing in these new data is the degree to which Adventists have moved into the metropolitan areas. It has been more than 25 years since we have had data on this item. At that time the majority of Adventists were living in areas outside metropolitan America, in which only one in five of the general public resides. The 2010 U.S. Religion Census shows that 88 percent of Adventists belong to a church located in a metropolitan area. Other research suggests that as many as one fifth of these may actually live outside the boundaries of the metro area and commute to church, but that would still mean that 70 percent of Adventists live in metro areas and that fewer than one third live in small towns and rural areas. This is a very significant shift over the past quarter century.

What Do These Data Mean?
Many Adventists still hold on to the idea that Ellen White advocated that all sincere believers move to rural locations. In fact, she advocated that people move into cities for missionary purposes far more often than she pointed out the benefits of raising children on a farm. Much of what she wrote on this topic is actually about where to locate boarding schools and sanitariums that include farms as a key part of their operations.

The Adventist faith in America and in a number of other countries has become an urban and suburban religion. This is reflected in the demographic shift within the Adventist membership, which now has a majority of ethnic minority groups.

Adventist mission is positioned on the edge of the demographic changes under way in America. In fact, Adventists are ahead of the curve! That is right where God has called His people “for such a time as this.” 

What are the new opportunities for outreach and ministry in your area? Where do you see God working? 

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].