A new study into community perceptions of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Australia and New Zealand reveals the church has a significant identity issue and needs to seek opportunities to help people understand its relevance.
Around one-third of survey participants said they didn’t know anything about the Adventist Church. Just one in seven strongly or somewhat agreed that the church is relevant in the 21st century.
The Church Perception Study, commissioned by the South Pacific Division (SPD) Communication department, is the most significant study into community awareness of the Adventist Church that’s been conducted in more than a decade. It was designed to understand individuals’ sentiment toward the Adventist Church in Australia and New Zealand, with participants drawn from both urban and rural locations.
The study clearly shows that despite all the good things Adventists are doing in areas such as education, health, and service activities—the Adventist Church still struggles with awareness in the community.
When asked what three words come to mind when thinking about the Seventh-day Adventist Church, most participants were baffled.
“In fact, the most common response was ‘none,’ and was closely followed by ‘unfamiliar’ and ‘different,’” according to the study, which was conducted by McCrindle, a Sydney-based research company.
“This highlights a general lack of understanding among Australians and New Zealanders toward the core beliefs and principles of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination.”
In Australia, 23 percent of participants said they knew of a Seventh-day Adventist church in their local suburb or town. Awareness was slightly better in New Zealand, where the response was 31 percent. For those who are aware of a church in their local community, almost half believe it has neither a positive nor negative influence on their perception of the Adventist denomination.
“While Australians and New Zealanders see a key role of the church is to help people in need, just one in 10 believe this to be a key characteristic of the Seventh-day Adventist Church,” the study revealed.
“Similarly, while Australians and New Zealanders see a key role of the church as being a place of social connection, individuals are unlikely to believe the Seventh-day Adventist Church is involved in local community life or events.
“It is also noteworthy that the highest proportion of Australians and New Zealanders do not know what the key characteristics of the Seventh-day Adventist Church are, reinforcing the overarching unfamiliarity of many Australians and New Zealanders with this denomination.”
Encouragingly, 73 percent of Australians and 72 percent of New Zealanders agree (either strongly, somewhat, or slightly) that the Adventist Church is a Bible-believing denomination; 63 percent of Australians and 64 percent of New Zealanders view the church as family friendly; while 59 percent of people from both countries believe the church emphasizes a healthy lifestyle.
On the flip side, 70 percent of New Zealanders and 66 percent of Australians believe that the Adventist Church emphasizes doctrine more than relationships, leading to the conclusion that, “In a world that is shifting away from tradition and becoming relationship centric, this perhaps explains why individuals are unlikely to agree that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is relevant today.”
Australians and New Zealanders are more likely to attend a community service activity, health and wellness program, or family social event rather than a Bible seminar or online church service.
“Overall, younger generations are more likely to believe that an openness to learn about people’s beliefs different from their own is important and are more willing to attend Seventh-day Adventist activities when asked by a friend or family member,” the report concluded.
The study comes at a time when society is seemingly becoming increasingly disconnected from religion, as indicated by the 2021 Australian Census where for the first time, fewer than half of Australians identified as Christian. But where there are challenges, there are also opportunities, and Adventist leaders will use the data to help shape the church’s future direction, church leaders said.
“Seventh-day Adventists do not have to be known to fulfill their mission, but our God and His message does need to connect with people,” SPD president Glenn Townend said. “I think when we connect people with our God and His message a spin-off will be greater recognition. There are three major things that resonate with Australians and New Zealanders about our church—we are Bible-believing, family friendly, and health-focused people. These should be the major focus of our communication to our communities.
“I would challenge Adventist disciples of Jesus to think of creative and meaningful ways to live and communicate the themes of grace in Jesus, Sabbath rest, hope despite evil and death, positive family relationships, and health in all its aspects,” he said.
The study has four recommendations: to clearly communicate the core beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church; seek opportunities to make the local church a hub of connection; invest in social media presence; and help people understand the relevance of the church.
Australian Union Conference (AUC) president Terry Johnson said the AUC is investing in social media through the employment of key staff. He said the Union was currently focusing on communicating Adventist core beliefs in the education and aged care sectors.
“Media and communication, along with mission and discipleship, are our four strategic focus areas,” he said. “The Church Perception Study is helping us focus our small resources in developing initiatives that will help us connect positively with our communities.”
New Zealand Pacific Union Conference president Eddie Tupa’i sees the report as a source of hope and opportunity. Firstly, he believes it reflects the need for Adventists to be known primarily as loving disciples of Jesus—this will help people to feel positively toward Adventists and the church.
“Secondly, how we relate to people is the better avenue to introducing what we believe,” he said. “Thirdly, living the ethic of the gospel (faith, hope and love) is always going to be relevant, particularly across the diversity of multicultural Aotearoa New Zealand. Fourthly, the health focus of the church being translated across emotional, mental, relational, vocational, social, financial platforms is an advantage the church still is yet to fully realize,” he said.