April 11, 2019

How to Stop the Adventist Church Membership Bleeding

Marcos Paseggi, Adventist Review

“Do you think you’ll still be an Adventist by age 40?” asked Scottish Mission president Paul Tompkins to an 18-year-old a few years ago. “I hope I’ll still be an Adventist by age 40,” she answered, “but I’m not so sure about next year.”

Tompkins, a presenter at the 2019 Nurture and Retention Summit at the Adventist Church headquarters on April 7, 2019, used this exchange to illustrate how young people often relate to time. “Turning 40 seems far off,” he said. “They are more worried about the here and now.”

Tompkins said that an evaluation of risks in the region he serves has identified their number-one risk: Children and young adults not buying into Adventism.

“Why are they leaving?” Tompkins asked. Answering his own question, he said that even though some reasons are difficult to articulate, there are some things any church and church region can do to slow down and even prevent this disengagement process. And scores of other church leaders, who met in Silver Spring, Maryland, United States, for the three-day event, also shared what they are doing to reverse the trend.

Meaningful Relationships and Discipleship

Several presenters emphasized that staying in church often has more to do with the positive experiences in the local church than with specific church doctrines. “When it comes to remaining an Adventist, the experience in the local church is much more significant,” Tompkins said. “They need a spiritual home to which they feel they belong.” The question, then, is, How can we help our church become a spiritual home for young people?

Tompkins and others believe an intentional discipleship program can help. “Every person should have an age-specific Bible study by age 14,” he said. “We also need key programs targeting 14-17 year-olds, and discipleship groups for 18-25’s.”

The Trans-European Division, a church region that encompasses 22 European countries, is working to create safe spaces where children and youth can interact with leaders, according to its executive secretary, Audrey Andersson. “And we are creating resources for discipleship, mentoring, and conflict resolution,” she said.

The idea behind some of the latest efforts is to make of the local church a place of refuge, encouragement, and growth. Part of it is based on iCOR, a concept developed at the Center for Youth Evangelism at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States. According to its website, its key idea is “the church as a safe haven that provides protection, mediation, justice, and long-term nurturing care.” At the same time, the initiative seeks to include “all generations, all cultures, and all social classes.”

Adventist Church associate youth director Pako Mokgwane presented on the importance of iCOR for young member retention. “In most local churches, participation is skewed towards adults, but the participation of young people in decision-making processes, in leadership, mission and worship heightens the feeling of belonging,” he said. “ICOR offers ten values that foster healthy relationships, and healthy relationships beget healthy churches that keep members and attract more people.”

Pooling Resources

Church leaders also reported that they are pooling resources from various church ministries to support efforts to keep members — especially young people — engaged and involved in church life.

“Several church departments — Sabbath School and Personal Ministries, Ministerial, Women Ministries — are working together with a discipleship emphasis,” said Inter-American Division (IAD) executive secretary Leonard Johnson. Northern Asia-Pacific Division (NSD) Personal Ministries and Sabbath School director Richard Sabuin had a similar comment. “We are combining the assistance of the Children, Family, and Education departments,” he said of the church union region based in Korea. “In that way we cover all areas — school, home, and church,” he emphasized.

For Adventist Church education director Lisa Beardsley-Hardy, it makes sense to call on education, since Christian education has shown itself to be a strong predictor of young people staying in church beyond their teenage years. In a joint presentation with education associate director John Wesley Taylor V, Beardsley-Hardy explained that research demonstrates that students who attend an Adventist school are much more likely to be baptized and to remain a Seventh-day Adventist.

“They are also more likely to marry a Seventh-day Adventist and to financially support the church through tithes,” she said. “Primary education has the greatest positive impact, followed by secondary and then tertiary education. The longer the years in Adventist education, the greater the likelihood of becoming and remaining a Seventh-day Adventist with a mature faith.”

Church Members’ Auditing

On a more technical note, most church leaders believe a thorough auditing process of members — going over rolls to certify active, missing, or dead members — can have a positive effect on retaining members. “The more information about the members pastors have, the better pastoral care they can provide,” said South Brazilian Union Conference executive secretary Charles Rampanelli. In a breakout session on April 7, Rampanelli shared the system Adventist leaders have implemented in his region and the results they are getting.

Rampanelli shared that a specially appointed committee in local churches is dividing members in five categories, from those who regularly attend church to those who stopped attending. It is something, he said, that allows pastors and local leaders to define what type of service and care should be provided to each. “It can also help to see trends,” he added, “and make necessary adjustments.”

Involved in Mission

Beyond specific tools, most leaders agree that an antidote against member losses is finding a place where every member can serve. It is a strong component, for instance, of the NSD SEEK 2020 initiative that looks to Search, Encourage, Empower, and Keep members. Sabouin explained, “When you empower members for service, it’s easier they decide to stay.”

Adventist Church president Ted Wilson agreed. “The greatest vaccination against people leaving the church is getting people involved in what the mission of the church is about,” he said in the event closing remarks on April 7.

It is something that demands not only vision but also willingness to accommodate, Tompkins said, especially when members return to church. “People often come back with tangled lives,” he said as he share the story of Becky, an Adventist-born troubled teenager who, after years away from church, decided to return.

“She was embraced and rebaptized, and now has a ministry to help other troubled teenagers,” he said.