May 6, 2022

A New Yet Old Way to Do Church

If we knew how to make churches grow quickly and stay healthy, wouldn’t we want to engage in that kind of ministry?

Russell Burrill

Have you ever wondered why the Adventist conference pays your pastor instead of the role being funded by the local church? Why do we send all our tithe to the conference? No other denomination, to my knowledge, does this. We offer many excuses, such as equal pay and sharing with those who couldn’t afford it, but none of those are the reason for doing so. A study of early Adventist history reveals some interesting observations as to how the local church operated in its earliest form.

Anti-organizational Roots

Seventh-day Adventism arose as an anti-organizational movement. Many early believers opposed any kind of organization. Today, Adventists are one of the most highly organized denominations, yet the beginnings are understood only through the lens of this anti-organizational movement. In the 1860s, it was becoming very apparent that some kind of organization was necessary to facilitate the advancement of the movement.

As a result, a group was selected to do a biblical study on organization and to come up with a plan. John N. Loughborough was part of this group and later published a book on the results of this study. In the book, Loughborough declared that the Bible allows for two kinds of church officers: first, those called of God (the apostles and the evangelists); and second, those appointed by the church who were local and lay (the elders, bishops, pastors, and deacons).

Two things stand out in this description. Under those called by God, they listed not pastors but evangelists. The most shocking fact is that these early Adventists listed “pastor” as a local lay office and not a clergy role. In the aftermath of the organizational efforts of the 1860s, the apostle somehow turned into president or administrator, with the evangelist defined as “a preacher of the gospel, not fixed in one place, but traveling as a missionary to preach the gospel and establish churches.” These early Adventists saw the need for administrators and evangelists and not much else. They were emboldened by their keen sense of mission and desire to reach the world for Jesus.

The change in pastoral role permanently altered the growth rate of the Adventist Church in North America.

As a result of input from the Loughborough study group, the church developed a unique plan of organization. Conferences were organized, and presidents and administrators elected. Their job was to oversee the evangelists in their territory who were church planters. The plan involved an annual conference meeting, where evangelists were exposed to the different places needing a church, then told to go to their room and pray until God told them where to go. Then they would tell “the brethren” where God was leading. It was then their responsibility to raise up a church in that place during the next year and to train the new members to care for themselves.  The evangelist was then free to establish other churches. Adventism was basically a church-planting movement. 

This was seen in the 1880s when D. M. Canright left the Adventist Church and made a claim that he was a prominent leader in the church because he pastored 20 churches. In response, the church attempted to answer him through George I. Butler by stating that Adventists do not have pastors, as do other denominations. Butler explained that no Adventist church has a pastor; that all the clergy are evangelists. Once a year the clergy were assigned churches to visit to see how they were doing and to conduct a few meetings at each one.

While Butler’s statement gives clarity to the organizational structure of the nineteenth century, others were much more emphatic in their description. For example, James White declared the best way for a young man to prove he is called to preach is for him to go out and raise up new churches, and further elaborates: “If they cannot raise up churches and friends to sustain them, then certainly the cause of truth has no need of them, and they have the best reasons for concluding that they made a sad mistake when they thought that God had called them to teach the third angel’s message.” 

Seventh-day Baptists recognized this organizational system as the leading cause of the numerical growth of Seventh-day Adventists. Both internal and external commentators regarded this unique organizational structure as one of the main reasons for the rapid growth of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the nineteenth century. In the 1870s, Adventists averaged 8.69 net member increase per pastor. By the 1880s the average was 6.93, and in the 1890s, the average zoomed to a 13.0 increase in membership per pastor. These statistics are the average per year for each year of the decades. Then we began changing the model from a non-pastor-dependent model focused on mission to a pastor-dependent model. 

The next decade’s number is shocking. The movement averaged for the 1900–1909 decade only 2.75 increase per pastor in net church growth.

Growth Decline

Other factors may have been involved in this dramatic decline, but this appears to be the main one. This dramatic decrease never saw a recovery. Even today we are still at the net increases seen in the early 1900s. The change in pastoral role permanently altered the growth rate of the Adventist Church in North America.

What happened? By 1900 we had reached more than 70,000 members and felt we were now a more mature denomination and no longer faced the challenge of growth. We had become a respected denomination, but we were different from other churches because we didn’t have a pastor over each church. So clamors arose among many to change the structure of the church to accommodate, in particular, large churches in having a stationary pastor over them to supervise the work in the congregation.

During the next 10 years we slowly began to place stationary pastors over our large congregations. Their role was not primarily to care for that congregation, however, but to direct all the ministries happening in the congregation. Someone needed to coordinate all the work being done, so a pastor was placed in the church to do that.

Can we once again become a vibrant, healthy, non-pastor-dependent church?

J. O. Corliss, pastor of the San Francisco church, was typical. He pastored a large church and responded when Ellen White began to call for pastors not to hover over churches. 

“A man can hover over and simply preach to a church until it depends entirely upon his preaching, but our church does not do that,” he said. “Our church is at work. We try to get every member of the church at work.”

Corliss goes on to describe all the work his congregation is doing, and it is extensive— much more than what churches of similar size do today. At the same time, A. G. Daniells and Ellen White were both reacting to the move toward stationary pastors in very strong ways. Daniells, in a sermon at the 1912 Ministerial Institute, declared that if we continued to follow this path of pastoral dependency our churches would “weaken and lose their life and spirit and become paralyzed and fossilized and our work will be on a retreat.”

Calls to Return to Former Model

During this time Ellen White also vehemently called for a return to the non-pastor-dependent model. She called the churches to not devote so much time to those who know the truth. Her boldest assertion was in 1902, when she declared to the church that “there should not be a call to have settled pastors over our churches.” At another time, Ellen White forcibly counseled church members that “unless they can stand alone, without a minister, they need to be converted anew, and baptized anew. They need to be born again.” Many other statements from Ellen White could be cited along this line.

Studies have shown that for an equipping model of ministry, you need one hired staff member for every 150 attending members—but these clergy are hired to equip.

We began by asking the question, ‘Have you ever wondered why the Adventist conference pays your pastor instead of the role being funded by the local church?’ The answer should now be obvious. The early Adventist Church didn’t have settled pastors, so there was no need for the local church to pay them. All Adventist clergy, instead, were administrators or evangelists. Since no Adventist clergy were local, the tithe was sent to the conference to pay the evangelists and administrators. The Adventist Church was organized as a church-planting movement. That was abandoned in the early twentieth century, and Adventists began adding pastors over churches and abandoning its church-planting and non-pastor-dependent model in favor of being like other churches and being pastor-dependent. The tithe that was supposed to support church planters was directed to local church pastors, and the growth of the Adventist Church in North America slowed dramatically.

What Can Be Done?

A total return to nineteenth-century Adventism would be very difficult. Times have changed. To do so would create rebellion among the faithful. No one even remembers what church was like more than 100 years ago. We need, however, to be faithful to the biblical and Ellen White counsels as well as to our heritage. It should inform us on church structure as we move forward in the twenty-first century.

The nineteenth-century model was primarily for small congregations of fewer than 100 people. In experiments tried in North America today, lay churches have been planted with this model. These experiments have revealed, however, that the new churches only rarely grow to more than 100. But many churches can become non-pastor-dependent utilizing this small-church model.

Early Adventists saw the need for administrators and evangelists and not much else. They were emboldened by their keen sense of mission and desire to reach the world for Jesus.

Larger churches (more than 100 members) need pastors who are trained to put the church to work. They operate in the equipper/trainer model of ministry. Rather than doing ministry, they train and equip the members to do the ministry. They serve more like J. O. Corliss of San Francisco, equipping for ministry. In order for this to happen, however, these churches need to be staffed for training. Studies have shown that for an equipping model of ministry, you need one hired staff member for every 150 attending members—but these clergy are hired to equip. That doesn’t mean that every large church is so staffed. The church must move to the equipping model to get the right staffing in place, and then be monitored to make sure it is happening.

Can we advance in the twenty-first century and once again become a vibrant, healthy, non-pastor-dependent church? I believe it is possible. The reasons Ellen White felt so strongly about non-dependency are based on three principles she espoused: (1) She believed that non-pastor-dependency must be enshrined because dependency creates weak Christians; (2) She believed that the health of the church was at stake by creating pastor-dependent churches; and (3) She was concerned about fulfilling the mission of the church if only pastors engaged in ministry. 

Every-member ministry is thus a foundation stone for Ellen White’s understanding of the church. The mission focus would be on church planting. Is it not time to create a new kind of church in the twenty-first century that has its roots in our history?

Russell Burrill is professor emeritus at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

  1. J. N. Loughborough, The Church: Its Organization, Order and Discipline (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1907). Loughborough also claims that this document was the working document for the organization of the General Conference in the 1860s. It also appeared in the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald of October 15, 1861.
  2. Loughborough, p. 127.
  3. Ibid., p. 128.
  4. Besides the biblical study, these early leaders felt that the Methodist organization came nearest to the biblical view, so it appears that Methodism became suggestive for Adventist organization. Ellen White, who had been a Methodist, may have been influential in this direction.
  5. George I. Butler, “Assumption of Facts,” Replies to Elder Canright’s Attacks on Seventh-day Adventists (Battle Creek, Mich.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1888, 1895), p. 24.
  6. James White, “‘Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel,’” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Apr. 15, 1862; see also James White, conference address reported in Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, June 9, 1859, p. 21.
  7. Seventh-day Baptist Sabbath Recorder, Dec. 28, 1908, reprinted in Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Jan. 14, 1909.
  8. The statistics are based on the annual increase in number of members divided by the number of persons with ministerial credentials, which creates a net increase number. The fact that early Adventists never tracked baptisms made it difficult to compare early Adventism’s growth on baptismal count. Thus the statistics for all years are based on net church growth using this formula.
  9. Russell Burrill, Recovering an Adventist Approach to Life and Mission in the Local Church (Pasadena, Calif.: Fuller Theological Seminary, 1997), Appendix.
  10. The statistics used here are North American statistics.
  11. General Conference Bulletin, Apr. 21, 1901, Extra No. 16, p. 371.
  12. A. G. Daniells, Ministerial Institute address, Los Angeles, California, March 1912.
  13. Ellen G. White, “‘Go Ye Into All the World,’” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, June 11, 1895.
  14. Ellen G. White, “The Work in Greater New York,” Atlantic Union Gleaner, Jan. 8, 1902.
  15. Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1946), p. 381.
  16. For a deeper understanding of Ellen White and the pastoral role, see Russell Burrill, Revolution in the Church; Russell Burrill, Rekindling the Lost Passion, and the doctoral dissertation, Recovering an Adventist Approach to Life and Mission in the Local Church.
  17. Between 1900 and 1925 the move toward pastor-dependent churches was primarily in large churches. The small churches continued in their non-dependent mode. By 1925, A. G. Daniells was no longer president of the General Conference, and Ellen White was dead. With these two advocates of non-dependency gone from the scene, nothing could stem the tide. Pastor dependency quickly began spreading, even among the small churches, until most Adventist churches had moved to the dependency model.