February 22, 2020

Why Are so Many Leaving the Church?

His name was Mark — a young Austrian in his early twenties. I met him as I was leaving the Hare Krishna temple in New Delhi, India. I had been traveling to India to find out what attracts Western youth to Eastern mysticism. 

I boarded a bus back to the city center, and Mark, who had also been at the temple, came on board and sat next to me. He fingered a string of Buddhist prayer beads in his left hand, while he flipped through some flashcards with Hindu sayings in his right.

In our conversation, he asked me what I did. “I’m a Christian minister,” I said. 

His eyes lit up and his voice brightened as he said, “I read the Bible and loved Jesus.” 

I was intrigued. “How come you’re into Eastern meditation?” I asked. “Is that compatible with the teachings of Jesus?” 

His reply threw me. He said, “I started to go to church and lost Jesus.”

He lost Jesus in church! How could that be? If Mark had gone to an Adventist church, would his new-found love for Jesus have been nurtured, or would he have become a statistic of the more than 42 percent who have left the Adventist Church in the past 50 years or more?

Jeff Parker, Adventist youth director for Australia, revealed at the 2018 Youth Engagement Summit that “around 62 percent of young people who attend a church in Australia leave before they’re 30.”1

Adventist Church researcher Monte Sahlin said survey findings show that the cause of members leaving the Adventist Church has less to do with doctrinal disagreements “than with problems people experience in their personal lives.”2 Church historian David Trim also said the “creeping secularization” of our world is a factor.3

This begs the question: If knowing our doctrines does not sustain members during personal crises or fortify them against secularism, is there something missing from our teaching?

When Lee Venden conducted revival programs among Adventists in North America for members who already attend church, he found that less than 25 percent spend any personal time in daily Bible study and prayer. He also found that the majority lack assurance of salvation and openly admit that they don’t have a daily walk with Christ. His research also showed that even though those joining the church see our doctrines as biblical, they don’t see Jesus as the center of each of them. Too many come to church but don’t come to Jesus.4

Many members are struggling spiritually. We’ve taught them our doctrines but somehow haven’t introduced them to Jesus.

One study of Adventist millennials (born between 1980 and 2000) who still attend church revealed that they have a more negative view of the Adventist Church than U.S. millennials in general have about their churches.5 That being the case, we can see why the 2013 Summit on Nurture and Retention recommended “that building loving and Christlike relationships within the local church must be an urgent necessity.”6

Another survey of 18- to 35-year-olds who have stayed with the church revealed that less than one in four engage in Bible study daily, and nearly three-quarters (73.5 percent) had no assurance of salvation.7 If this is true of a majority of young adults who remain in the church, what could this indicate about those who have left the church?

A Secular Society

What Trim stated about the “creeping secularization” of our society and its effects, particularly via entertainment media, is true. Today, in the West, we live in a post-Christian society characterized by a lack of meaning and purpose. For this generation, truth is relative. In deciding what’s right or wrong, the individual becomes his or her own subjective authority. People live comfortably with contradictions; profession and practice don’t have to match.

Research organization Barna Group’s 2018 Gen Z report agrees: “Moral relativism is taking deeper root in America. One-quarter of Gen Z [born between 1999 and 2015] strongly agrees that what is morally right and wrong changes over time based on society . . . [and] each individual is his or her moral arbiter. Only 34 percent of Gen Z agree that ‘lying is morally wrong.’”8

To illustrate, post-truth”was named the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year in 2016. The word denotes an appeal to emotion and personal beliefs in shaping public opinion, more than objective facts. The prefix “post” has usually meant “after,” as in “post-war.” In post-truth, it means truth “has become unimportant or irrelevant.” Oxford Dictionaries product director Casper Grathwohl considers that post-truth could become “one of the defining words of our time.”9

This is the era of “fake news,” “alternative facts,” “conflicting narratives,” and when “truth isn’t truth.”

Fake news, defined as “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting,” was named the Collins Dictionary Word of the Year in 2017.10

In its report, “Trends Shaping a Post-Truth Era” (January 9, 2018), Barna Group found that “truth is increasingly regarded as something felt rather than something known.”11 Since the 1960s, Western society has become progressively more subjective.

On the effects of this “creeping secularization,” Trim concluded that “the fabric of most Adventist local churches is not sufficient to stem this tide.”12 Can people have a life-changing experience that can fortify them against secularism and personal crises, without coming to Jesus?

Not Just in the West

It’s not just in the West where members have joined the church but not “come to Jesus.” Rwanda was a nation where 95 percent of the population claimed to be Christian, including more than 275,000 Adventists, or about 10 percent of the population at the time. Church leaders described Rwanda as the most Adventist country in the world. That is, until 1994, when the genocide took place, as the Hutu majority slaughtered more than 800,000 minority Tutsis. The dead included more than 12,000 Adventists.13 

The terrible truth is that many Adventist church members and pastors were involved in the genocide and, it is reported, they maintained their Adventism by scrupulously resting from killing on the Saturday Sabbath.14 

What Robert Folkenberg, then president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, saw when he visited Rwanda moved him more than anything he had ever seen. What happened in Rwanda,” he declared, islargely the result of unconverted people who carried the name of Christ.”

After spending time on his knees, Folkenberg came to one conclusion: “The gospel did not fail. The cross of Christ did not fail, the Holy Spirit did not fail.… We, as pastors, failed.… As religious leaders we let down God, Christ, and the people of Rwanda.… We must, I believe, confess our sins before God.

“What is required,” declared Folkenberg, is for “spiritual leaders … to call for conversion and transformation.”15 Have we taken the implications of what happened in Rwanda, and Folkenberg’s words in response, seriously?

People can be quite religious and be sincere about it, without being Christians.

What’s the Answer?

Baptism does not equate to conversion. Should we have more emphasis on conversion to Jesus, rather than on baptism? Could it be that we spend more time talking about the Beast, creating righteousness by fear, than talking about the Lamb, who credits us with righteousness by faith?

Carlyle B. Haynes was a
n Adventist evangelist, bringing people into the church, when the realization came to him that he “had been preaching for fifteen years and yet was an unconverted man.”

“I had neglected the first simple childlike step of coming to Jesus Christ for myself and, by faith in Him, receiving pardon for my sins,” he wrote. “God brought me back, after fifteen years of preaching this message, to the foot of the cross.”

When we turn away from our “own works and look alone to Christ for salvation,” Haynes shared, “God declares that [person] just. This declaration of God is grounded on the finished work of our Lord.”16

This is the good news of the gospel.


1.Jarrod Stackelroth, “Church Resolves to Grow Young, Engage Youth,” Adventist Record, June 1, 2018.

2. Ansel Oliver, “At First Retention Summit, Leaders Look at Reality of Church Exodus,” Adventist News Network, November 19, 2013.

3. Edwin Manuel Garcia, “Landmark Survey Reveals In-depth Beliefs, Perceptions of Adventist Members,” Adventist News Network, October 17, 2013.

4. Clint Jenkins, A. Allan Martin, “Engaging Adventist Millennials: A Church that Embraces Relationships,” Ministry, May 2014. https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/2014/05/engaging-adventist-millennials.

5. General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Summit on Nurture and Retention 2013 statement, “Recommitting, Reconnecting and Reconciling: Reviving Discipleship, Nurturing Believers, and Reuniting with the Missing,” https://www.adventistarchives.org/nurture-and-retention-summit-statement.pdf.

6. Kumar Dixit, Kyle Stiemsma, and Rajinie Sigamoney Dixit, “Why Young People Are Sticking with Church,” Ministry, March 2016, https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/2016/03/Why-young-people-are-sticking-with-church.

7. Derek Morris, “A Passion for Revival: An Interview with Lee Venden,” Ministry, February 2012, https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/2012/02/a-passion-for-revival:-an-interview-with-lee-venden.

8.Barna Group, Gen Z, report (2018), 55, 99, 65.

9. Amy B. Wang, “‘Post-truth’ Named 2016 Word of the Year by Oxford Dictionaries,” The Washington Post, November 16, 2016.

10. Collins Dictionary, “Collins 2017 Word of the Year Shortlist,” Word Lover’s blog, https://www.collinsdictionary.com/word-lovers-blog/new/collins-2017-word-of-the-year-shortlist,396,HCB.html.

11. Barna Group, “The Trends Shaping a Post-Truth Society,” January 9, 2018, https://www.barna.com/research/truth-post-truth-society.

12. David Trim, Seventh-day Adventist Global Data Picture, report, February 2014, http://dmadventists.org/leaddavao2014/GlobalDataPicture.pdf.

13. Ronald Osborn, “No Sanctuary in Mugonero: Notes on Rwanda, Revival, and Reform,” Spectrum, October 16, 2010, https://spectrummagazine.org/node/2716.

14. Osborn, “No Sanctuary in Mugonero.”

15. “GC President Speaks Out About Rwandan Atrocities,” sermon excerpt, Adventist Review, NAD Edition, (March 1996), 6.

16. Carlyle B. Haynes, “Righteousness in Christ — My Experience,” a sermon delivered at the 1926 General Conference Ministerial Association meeting. Reprinted in Ministry, May 1986.

The original version of this commentary was posted by Adventist Record.