“Despite the pandemic, our church has carried out its mission with resilience; our members have been faithful to their mission … during the past 20 months,” Kyoshin Ahn, secretary of the North American Division (NAD), said. Ahn’s words marked the beginning of the secretary’s report at the NAD Year-End Meeting (YEM) in Columbia, Maryland, United States, on October 31, 2021.
The goal of his report this year was “to have a better understanding about where we are as a church,” Ahn said.
Ahn acknowledged the impact of COVID-19 on Adventist membership across the NAD and shared that the pandemic slowed down the net increase of members in 2020. As of December 31, 2020, the Adventist Church in the division had 1,265,754 baptized members, who worship in 5,639 churches and 894 companies. There was a net increase of 2,827 members in 2020, a figure that included a total of 17,392 accessions (a decrease of about 55 percent compared with the previous year).
“We are inspired by many of our churches that, despite the pandemic, engaged in evangelistic efforts,” Ahn said, adding that the numbers are expected to be similar in 2021, because the pandemic was still in full swing in the first two quarters of the year.
The number of members’ deaths topped 8,897 in 2020 (670 more than in 2019). Ahn explained that the trend continued in the first two quarters of 2021 when compared to 2020. According to Ahn, 4,247 members died in the first six months of 2020. In the first half of 2021, 4,655 members had passed to their rest. “Many of these deaths are related to COVID-19 or complications from COVID-19,” he acknowledged.
Regarding the composition of membership, Ahn shared that 32 percent of baptized members in the NAD are more than 60 years old. Another 47 percent are between 30 and 59. Only 20 percent are 13 to 29, and 1 percent are 0 to 12 (statistics do not take into account members not yet baptized).
The median age of Adventist members in the NAD is 48 years old (in contrast with the median age of the general population, which is 40.9 in Canada and 38.4 in the U.S.).
NAD church members comprise just 5.83 percent of the worldwide Adventist membership.
Brian Ford, director of eAdventist Membership Services, reported on how the eAdventist tool for churches has been helping church leaders, pastors, and clerks to keep up-to-date membership records while providing other services. It includes a virtual way of handling bulletins and making announcements, Ford said, and has more recently added email and text messaging. “We have a growing number of churches taking advantage of this tool,” Ford reported. “Each year, we’ve been able to operate eAdventist a little more efficiently, so we are reinvesting those savings into new tools.”
In July, eAdventist released an initial version of the new myEADVENTIST mobile-friendly app. “It will provide an online church directory with phone numbers, and options for texts, emails, and maps,” Ford said. In the near future, the team is planning to add tools for pastors (including messaging, notes, and contacts), ministry leaders (e.g., elders, deacons), and messaging for small groups.
eAdventist Data on Membership
Ford shared some data on NAD membership growth. He said that, understandably, the number fell in 2020, but since then it has almost been equaled in the first three quarters of 2021. This year, net growth is already in the black, he said.
The mean size (or mathematical average) of churches and companies in the NAD is 187 members per congregation; their median size (the middle value among all churches) is 106 members. This means that “half of our congregations are larger than 106, and half are smaller, including all companies,” Ford said. Most churches have between 1 and 199 baptized members, he reported.
He also shared that “while small churches make up half of the churches, they are only one- tenth of the members.” This means that nine out of ten members belong to one of the largest churches.
Beginning in 2022, eAdventist will be the one and only membership statistic system for the NAD, Ford said.
The Importance of Volunteer Work
Ernest Hernandez, director of the Office of Volunteer Ministries (OVM), reminded virtual attendees to the year-end meeting that their goal is “to provide domestic and foreign mission opportunities for willing church members.” His team discussed the benefits of using Mission Trip Connector, a tool for mission trip organizers.
Secretariat/OVM administrative assistant Natalie Kavistan explained that the site provides the ability to organize a mission trip and to scout mission sites. It also allows for generating reports on participants, planning, accomplishments, and travel safety, she reported. Finally, it facilitates a possible collaboration and sharing between organizers, Kavistan said, “for the purpose of conducting joint projects to major cities in the U.S. and anywhere in the world.” It is something that can multiply the impact groups can have, she said.
Despite restrictions and lockdowns, OVM was able to gain access to 50 countries in 2020, and 173 long-time volunteers answered the call to serve since April 2021. OVM is also offering non-travel opportunities, including digital volunteers, those “who can help an organization with, for instance, graphic design, social media, and any type of computer-aided service.”
In the last section of the secretary’s report, Ahn discussed some of the missional challenges the division is having, including data on attrition and loss. He acknowledged that the growth rate has been plateauing for some time, “a trend that, if continued, may have troubling implications,” he said.
Regarding the accession rate (how many members are added per every 100 members), Ahn shared that in 2010 it was 3.63 percent. In 2019, it went down to 2.73 percent, and in 2020, only reached 1.44 percent.
Another metric is member losses, Ahn said. In the last decade, losses — those members who are dropped or are missing — have averaged 12,000 members a year, or about 1 percent. In 2018 they reached 14,622 but were just 11,572 in 2019. In 2020, only 5,896 losses were recorded (0.47 percent). Overall, since 2010, the NAD has lost 500,704 members and gained 698,610. Missional losses and gains — those that resulted from evangelistic endeavors — totaled 122,021 and 327,241, respectively (losses amounted to 36.7 percent of new members).
“It’s a great challenge for all of us, reducing the losses,” Ahn acknowledged. “We must ask ourselves, ‘Are we effectively nurturing our members to retain them to become full-fledged disciples?’ ”
Finally, Ahn discussed the accession rate per congregation. In 2011, every congregation added, on average, more than six new members. That figure has decreased to a little more than four people per congregation, Ahn said. It is something that begs the question, “How can we re-energize those congregations that seem to be having a hard time bearing fruit? How can we create an atmosphere to better reach out to their communities?” Ahn asked rhetorically.
How Are We Seen?
In addition to his report, Ahn spent several minutes sharing that the division connected with Gallup Research to conduct a national survey on how Americans see the Adventist Church in terms of brand awareness, religion, interest, and values, as, Ahn said, “we attempt to expand the public’s awareness of the Seventh-day Adventist Church here in our territory.” He explained that through partnership with — and major funding assistance from — AdventHealth, Gallup conducted a survey of a group of Americans about their awareness of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and their thoughts about the denomination.
Ahn said that more than 4,000 adults in the U.S. participated in the survey conducted in September from a wide variety of walks of life, races, ages, ethnicities, and religiosity. In the survey, 49 percent said that religion was either extremely important or very important to them.
Gallup was able to pull together a brief summary for year-end meeting; a full report will be presented to Adventist leaders in December. During his report, Ahn shared just a few of the survey’s findings. He said that approximately one out of five Americans personally know someone who is a member of the Adventist Church. When its favorability was ranked with other faiths and denominations, however, the church was listed largely as unfavorable, with a ranking of 13 out of 17 — with 17 the most unfavorable.
“What this survey shows us is this that we have work to do in terms of our brand awareness,” Ahn said. “But this survey also shows that we are on the right track in terms of our mission statement,” he added, citing survey responses that “our mission statement, emphasizing hope and wholeness, struck a chord among Americans.”
“We need to find better ways to maximize our strengths — thereby bringing our message of hope and wholeness closer to millions of people here in North America,” he said.
God Surrounds His People
Ahn concluded his report by emphasizing how thankful he is to God for how He has guided the Adventist Church in the division since the pandemic hit in early 2020. He used an analogy from hiking along switchback trails. On those trails, hikers can’t see very far ahead, he explained. Something similar happened to the church, he said. “It was not possible to have a clear idea where this pandemic was leading us,” he said. “To make matters worse, we didn’t have a guiding map in our hands. Yet, we have our God with us.”
Ahn quoted the words of Psalm 125, explaining that just like in ancient Israel, God surrounds His people with His guidance and protection. “No matter what trail we are on, God knows every step we take … God knows every trail we have to climb. And we are absolutely confident that God has walked with us on the pandemic trail, and He will continue to do so beyond the pandemic,” Ahn said. “He is the One who has given us strength to come this far, and He will continue to energize us. He will give us an enduring fortitude that [will help] us reach the top.”