Anecdotes can touch us deeply, but it’s data that ought to inform the decisions that lead to transformation. This article by the Adventist Church’s leading statistician reviews significant data about member losses, and urges us to think creatively about helping youth and young adults engage with their church.—Editors.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church is losing its young people. This is true virtually everywhere, though it’s particularly true in the “Global North” of economically advanced, secular countries with postmodern or post-religious cultures. But it’s a fact everywhere: our children are leaving our faith..
First, the data. Everywhere, the Seventh-day Adventist Church experiences high loss rates. We have more than 50 years of detailed data on those who join the church (by baptism and profession of faith); on deaths; and on those who leave the church, whether by being dropped from membership or who, when membership records are reviewed, are “missing.” During that half-century and more, our loss rate is 41 percent, not including deaths. It’s living members who leave our church family—which is always to some extent volitional, even where departure is involuntary (through disfellowshipping), for the member chose to act in ways that brought about separation. In other cases (where members ask to be dropped from membership or we don’t know what happened to them), the literal disconnect is quite obviously voluntary.
Looking at the Data
We know that two out of five church members choose to leave the Adventist Church. But when do they leave—at what point in their lifetime?
Here we don’t have such good data, because until the very recent adoption of digitized membership record systems, we didn’t track the age of church members, only whether they were members or simply attendees. By the end of this decade, as membership systems are widely adopted, we will have a clearer picture about ages of members who staying and leaving. However, we have some indications of what proportion of the 41 percent who depart do so as young people.
First, we have information from careful research done among former church members. This kind of research is difficult to do because there is no database of addresses for ex-Adventists. Caution must be exercised, therefore, in assessing the results. Nevertheless, it’s striking that 62.5 percent stated that they were young adults when they ceased being a church member. It’s worth noting, too, that this study reported global data.
Second, if we look at those parts of the world church that have already moved to keeping membership records digitally, we have some data on ages. While much of the Church still keeps records on paper or older systems, and only counts membership, not tracking other information, enough of the Church’s organizational units have adopted membership systems that can be used as a representative global sample. We know that young people (those aged 35 or under) make up 51 percent of Church members; and those aged 18 and under make up 14 percent. But these are those who are already members, so the percentage of youth and young adults in Adventist local churches will be higher (in some places, much higher) because the statistics don’t include children and teenagers who haven’t been baptized. What we don’t know is how many children and teenagers choose not to become baptized. Where membership audits haven’t occurred, we don’t know how many in their teens and 20s, counted in the system, have already, in their own minds, departed the Church and not yet been registered so in our systems.
Still, we know that the median age of the several million members in the various databases around the world is 38 years and 2 months. In contrast, in a survey, commissioned by the North American Division (NAD), of Church members in North America in 2008, their median age was 51! That study concluded that, compared to the US and Canadian populations, “Adventists are overrepresented among those 55 years of age and older,” generally “underrepresented among those under 45 years of age,” and particularly underrepresented among so-called Millennials (people born from 1977 to 1994—today in their late 20s to early 40s). Recent evidence strongly suggests that the situation hasn’t improved since 2008: in the 2018 global Church Member Survey, 58 percent of respondents in the NAD were aged over 55, and the average age of respondents was 57 years.
Between Records and Reality
Now, it’s true that the eAdventist membership system, which is used by the NAD, shows larger numbers of teenagers and twenty-somethings than surveys do. However, while baptisms are regularly added to eAdventist, in many cases the data hasn’t been audited since. Many of the young people who were baptized and are recorded as being members no longer attend and, in their own minds, are no longer Seventh-day Adventists. Our official records haven’t caught up with the reality. The database records the theory; the surveys the actuality. In other words, it’s evident that the Church in North America has a major problem keeping young people in the Church.
We know that this phenomenon is far from unique. Because the North American Division has long commissioned research and was an early adopter of digital membership systems, we can give more granular detail.
And third, we turn to the Church’s existing and longstanding membership statistics. We know from statistics collected by the Church starting in 1965 that the mortality rate (i.e., the number of deaths per thousand in a population) of the Church in the Euro-Asia Division, Inter-European Division, and Trans-European Division, for each division as a whole, exceeds the mortality rate for the population at large in that division. What does this apparently abstruse fact indicate? It means that the Church is elderly. In theory, the Adventist health advantage means that Adventist mortality rates should be lower than the general population—indeed, perhaps 75 percent of the general population. If it’s greater, it must be because the Church is elderly. Thus, even though membership software is still being adopted for membership records in these three divisions, the statistics we have are telling us that the Church in Europe is an aging church—a graying Church. Our baptized youth are leaving, or our Adventist children are not being baptized—or both.
If we look at one union in the Northern-Asia Pacific Division, the Japan Union Conference, we find the same situation: the Adventist mortality rate is higher than the national mortality rate. Yet Japan stands out as having the oldest population in the world, with 28 percent of Japanese aged 65 or above. While we don’t yet have detailed age statistics for Japan, we know that the membership is older than this, the world’s most elderly country.
North America, Europe, and Japan—three regions where an aging Church faces an uncertain future, and needs the injection of youth vitality if the future is to be bright.
The Search for the Reasons
All the evidence we have, then, from older, general membership statistics, from new and detailed membership statistics, and from surveys of Church members and former members, is telling us that we as Seventh-day Adventists have a problem keeping our youth. We are losing our children. And that’s true everywhere.
To be sure, in some regions the Church is very youthful—particularly in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and parts of Southeast Asia. But that’s mostly because of evangelistic success. There’s probably no region of the world church that doesn’t suffer significant loss of young church members.
What are the reasons? If the data are telling us we have a problem, what’s the cause? Here we don’t have a surefire answer, but evidence from the global surveys of Church members in 2013 and 2018 is helpful.
In the 2018 survey, 7 out of 10 respondents (n = 55,554) agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that “I was able to talk to one or both of my parents about religious issues.” This suggests that there is reasonably good intergenerational communication about beliefs, though, of course, those who are no longer Church members and who might have been unable to talk to their parents if they had doubts wouldn’t have taken the survey. But still, this result suggests we need to look elsewhere for a cause.
One of the more striking findings of both the 2013 and the 2018 global Church Member Surveys was the very low incidence of family worship.
In 2013 only 36 percent of respondents had family worship daily, and even those who experienced it more than once a week were below 60 percent of the total. Moreover, one in six respondents reported that they had never had family worship. In two divisions, those who had never had family worship exceeded 20 percent.
Recognizing the essential nature of family worship on a regular basis, the world Church’s Reach the World strategic plan set as its second key performance indicator a “significant increase in the numbers of church members regularly engaging in Bible study in family worship.” But while the five years between 2013 and 2018 saw an increase in the number of church members engaging in regular, frequent, personal Bible study, what was the result for family worship?
Figure 2. Frequency of Family Worship, 2018 Global Church Member Survey (n = 56,850)
The proportion who reported daily worship did increase, but only by one percentage point. But the proportion that answered “never” rose to 21 percent. The 2013 survey was half the size of the 2018 survey and had a margin of error of +/- 3 percent, whereas the 2018 survey’s margin was +/- 1 percent. Thus, statistically, the 2013 result could have been 19 percent and the 2018 result 20 percent, an increase of 1 percentage point rather than 5. Regardless of the statistical nuances, the figure undeniably increased. Meanwhile, the proportion who reported family worship several times a week decreased. In sum, setting an increase in regular family worship as a strategic goal of the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church failed to have any effect. In fact, it feels as if we moved backwards.
The answer to a new question in the 2018 church member survey (not asked in 2013) was also notable. This asked whether, during childhood, “having morning or evening worship with one or more parents was a habitual practice in my family” (n = 55,687). The percentage who disagreed or strongly disagreed was 21 percent, slightly more than the proportion who strongly agreed, which was only 20 percent. “Agreed” and “strongly agreed” together made up less than half the total. Another 20 percent chose “not applicable,” almost certainly because they had been raised outside the church. But the other responses to this question suggest not only that regular family worship isn’t a common spiritual life practice today, but that it hasn’t been for some considerable time.
Coming back to our earlier question, these findings about family worship prompt the question: Has research found the smoking gun? Have we identified the reason we fail to retain many young people? A degree of caution is warranted. We see evidence of a declining trend in family worship, and another trend of membership attrition, especially among young people. But we can’t say definitively that one causes the other: more evidence would be needed to reach that conclusion. It’s notable that those surveyed in 2013 and 2018 were overwhelmingly members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church (97.25 percent, with a few non-members surveyed because they were attending Sabbath School or divine service when questionnaires were distributed). What might the equivalent figures for family worship be among former Adventists? If they were even worse, then we would have firmer evidence of a causal relationship. This would be a good research project for future Adventist researchers.
But there’s one final point I’d like to make: our systemic failure to worship together as families can’t be helping with the problem of youth attrition. If more families start having devotionals together, regularly, it would surely do great good. Ellen White testified to the power of family worship as something separate to one’s individual, personal Bible study. She wrote: “Family associations should have an uplifting, sanctifying power; then will the religion of Christ acquire its proper character in the home; then will the privileges of family worship exert its upbuilding, divine influence, instead of standing solitary, as one act performed at certain times.” How often do parents or even children think of family worship as a duty? Ellen White tells us it is a privilege—and as we think about the appalling hemorrhage of young Adventists from this church, we surely need more of “its upbuilding, divine influence”?
We can’t be complacent as we consider the eternal implications of conducting family worship. We must do everything we can to help Adventist young people remain with the Adventist Church family—to be blessed by being a part of it, even as they are a blessing to it with their vigor and their passion. There must be--no doubt—an administrative response to youth attrition, but the best place to start, I believe, is with each of us caring for children or grandchildren by spending time worshipping with them.
When we pray together, study God’s Word together, and sing together, and when we do it enthusiastically, we will become role models who offer an inspiring alternative to a hurting and hurtful world that has lost sight of hope. The family that worships together might well stay together—for eternity.
David Trim, Ph.D., is director of the Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research at the General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Numbers can have a numbing effect on us. Putting faces to numbers, however, transforms important research data into relatable stories that affect us personally. We all remember a teenager or young adult who has stopped coming to church. Have you found creative ways to reach out to those leaving the church and minister to their needs? Please share your stories with us at [email protected]—Editors.
 David Trim, “Foundational Research”, presentation at the Trans-European Division Nurture and Retention Summit (2018), https://www.adventistresearch.info/wp-content/uploads/NR2017TED_2.pdf, slide 13.
 Monte Sahlin and Paul Richardson, Seventh-day Adventists in North America: A Demographic Profile (North American Division, 2008), http://circle.adventist.org/files/icm/nadresearch/NADDemographic.pdf, pp. 5, 6 (quotation at p. 5).
 Petr Činčala et al., North American Division Report: Global Church Member Survey 2017-2018 (2018) www.adventistresearch.info/wp-content/uploads/2017-2018-GCMS-NAD-final-public-report-pages.pdf, p. 19, cf. Karl G. D. Bailey et al., 2017-2018 Global Church Member Survey: Meta-Analysis Final Report (2019), http://documents.adventistarchives.org/Resources/Global%20Church%20Membership%20Survey%20Meta-Analysis%20Report/GCMSMetaAnalysis%20Report_2019-08-19.pdf, p. 19.
 Bailey et al., p. 25.
 David Trim, “Seventh-day Adventist Global Data Picture: Report on Global Research 2011-2013,” presentation to 2013 Annual Council, https://www.adventistresearch.info/wp-content/uploads/AC-2013-Statistical-Report-revised-1.pdf, slide 27.
 Ibid., slide 28.
 Bailey et al. pp. 36, 37.
 Letter 145, 1893 (March 8, 1893). (Italics supplied.)