On Friday morning at General Conference Session in San Antonio, David Trim, Director of the General Conference Office of Archives and Statistics, delivered a brief statistical report on the membership of the Seventh-day Adventist church.
He started by explaining that membership was, and continues to be, overstated and exaggerated. Membership stats are inflated because of systemic failure to accurately report losses, which includes deaths and loss of living members.
Mortality (the number of deaths per thousand members) is a key statistic for Adventists to analyze, said Trim. Adventist mortality rates for each division were calculated and compared for the years 1995 through 2010. This analysis revealed that the global Adventist mortality rate is well below the global mortality rate. This rate especially dipped as the 2000s progressed. In many divisions, the Adventist mortality rate is significantly lower than overall rates in their respective territories.
We have often said that this speaks to the healthful living of Adventists and the fact that we live longer than the average person. But, Trim explained, the statistical difference is so great that healthful living alone cannot fully explain it. When the numbers are crunched, the Adventist mortality rate is under 40% of the general population’s mortality rate. Additionally, in the United States, the Adventist mortality rate is 66% and 88% of the general mortality rate for female and male members, respectively.
At best, our healthful living would come to 2/3 the global mortality rate, but our rate is 33.9%. The “logical conclusion is that our reported membership was and is overstated,” Trim said.
At the last General Conference Session in 2010, the GC put measures in place to help stop over-reporting. The measure with the most impact has been extensive membership audits. These audits were uncommon before 2010, especially in some parts of the world and can seem “strange and alienating” but “are actually very Adventist,” explained Trim.
Expounding on that statement, Trim went on to say that membership audits have been happening in one way or another since the beginning of the church. Audits are historically Adventist, with the first audits on record dating from the 1863 Battle Creek Report. Trim stated, “Membership audits are as old as our church, and are actually older than the General Conference.”
Unfortunately, as Trim explained, the audit process is not yet complete worldwide and there is still much to do, so our membership numbers continue to be inaccurate to some extent.
In 2015, 55,320 membership deaths were reported. This was up 2.67% from early in the last quinquennium. It also indicates a rate that is at 39% of the net global mortality rate (up from 33%).
“Accuracy of our audits is improving” says Trim. But it’s not just deaths that have been underreported. So too have the numbers of those who have left the church. There are the “dropped” (a term that replaced the outdated term “apostasies”), and there are also the “missing.”
Whereas the number of our deaths increased but remained relatively stable, the dropped and missing numbers have increased steeply in the past five years.
Growth rates in the late 1990s and early 2000s look spectacular but then seem to collapse. But this is a “statistical illusion,” Trim explained. What is really happening with the data is that our long-term failure to register losses in our audits mean that many who left before the past five years are only just now being reported.
Delegates should take note, Trim said, that “we are not suffering a church growth crises. We’re simply feeling the effects of a statistical correction.” Our growth rate in this quinquennium is probably higher than it appears.
The final implication of these membership audits is that it has revealed the actual scale of losses, not just in the last quinquennium or the last decade, but over the past 50 years.
Over 33 million people have been members of the SDA church over the past 50 years, but over 13 million of those individuals left the church. Our net loss rate is 39.25%, which means 4/10 church members have slipped away over the past half century.
Trim said the GC’s analysis of mortality rates indicates membership rates are still overstated in some regions. So audits are crucial and must continue.
“Don’t think of this as a threat or a burden but as an opportunity,” Trim asked of delegates. “As church members, we aim for transparency and accuracy. When we know deep down these numbers are wrong, we are bearing false witness.”
Trim related the necessity of membership audits to the parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15. “Knowing how many sheep are in the fold is foundational for the divine shepherd.”
Every one of the members who has left the church over the last 50 years was “a soul precious to Jesus Christ,” Trim reminded. “Local churches need to rally together to nurture, disciple, and retain each other. This can’t just be left to the pastor.” This statement was met with enthusiastic applause from the delegates.
Adventists must emulate that good shepherd who went searching for that one sheep when it went missing.
After Trim concluded his report, several delegates took to the mics to ask questions. One female delegate asked that the report be released and a more complete breakdown on the demographics of those leaving the church be provided. “I think it is very crucial info and if we could get ahold of it we will go very far in evangelism,” she said.
David Trim replied by stating that more detailed information, including demographic breakdowns of the membership audits, is available on the Adventist Archives website. David Trim's full report can be found here.
Alisa Williams is Spirituality Editor for SpectrumMagazine.org, and a member of the General Conference reporting team in San Antonio, Texas.