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At the Church’s Dying Edge


If you’d asked me a few years ago to make an off-the-cuff analysis of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, I’d have said something like this: “We exist on a polarity of moderately progressive to nearly-cultic conservative, with most of us bell-curved somewhere in the evangelical-fundamentalist middle.” All our disagreements seem to stretch to either side of that line: women’s ordination, homosexuality, food and drink, Ellen White, Biblical interpretation, eschatology, the gospel.

It’s interesting how one’s view changes under different circumstances. I went, a few years ago, from a big church with two institutions and solid growth during my tenure, including a successful church plant, new school and new church buildings, to a back-to-basics pastorate in an economically depressed corner of the Ohio Conference. I realized then that I’d been looking at the church in only one dimension—and not necessarily it’s most important one.

I now supplement the obvious observation that the NAD church is divided by theology, with another: that it is even more deeply divided by opportunity and resources.[1] There are two churches along a have-have not continuum: the dynamic church, and the dying church. One represents the majority of members; the other the majority of congregations. These are very different kinds of Seventh-day Adventist communities in quite different spaces and situations—and they don’t know one another very well.

The dynamic church happens where there’s a concentration of us, with a good number of professionals mixed in. Mostly it’s in the environs of an institution: a hospital, a college, or a denominational office. (We Adventists seem to do best at growing strong congregations where we hire our church members.) These communities have resources. There are at least a few congregations with multi-pastor staffs and lots of money, but even small congregations benefit from their proximity to the mother ship. It’s not unusual for neighboring congregations to dislike one another for all kinds of reasons, but all share in the blessings conferred by a strong Adventist presence. In the Dayton area of Ohio Conference, for example, we have two of our strongest congregations: Kettering and Centerville. They differ theologically, but both suckle at the teat of Kettering Medical Center, which means (among other things) a shared, well-funded academy for all the members in the area.

The other kind of Adventist community is removed from these hot spots, like embers thrown out on the hearth. This is the world of congregations with only a few dozen in attendance, the world of shared pastors, no schools, money-gobbling old buildings, elderly leaders, fixed incomes, lay preachers, amateur music or none at all. Here, if you get disgusted with the pastor or have a spat with other members, you can’t just go down the road to another congregation: there isn’t one. Young people who don’t move away drop out because it’s dull, the old people die, and a few others dim out because they’re worked to death.

The dynamic church community may lose some members to affluence or education, but there are fewer reasons to leave. These churches have the best preachers (in some, like Kettering, paid a premium above the pastoral wage scale by the hospital system). They have beautiful buildings, choirs, ensembles, organs, community service centers, recreational activities, concerts and specialized ministries. And should you tire of that, there are congregations with other personalities nearby.

The dynamic church knows that there are small congregations out there, but that doesn’t necessarily please them. In my conference, three churches in the Kettering area (out of around 90 in the conference) supply a third of the conference tithe. Take our ten largest churches, and you have half of our tithe. The Kettering church could easily afford a staff three or four times as large as it is, while many districts couldn’t afford even one pastor were it not for Kettering’s big purse. I understand why affluent churches might feel shortchanged.

The dying church looks at the rest with awe and suspicion. Suspicion that places with lots of Adventists are “liberal” (it is conventional wisdom that Southern California Adventists aren’t really Adventists anymore). At the same time, the dying church has faith that there’s something big going on elsewhere. They know their congregation is fading, the building falling apart, people moving away—but out there, there’s that mythical world of Silver Spring, our leaders camping out in the offices of DC politicians protecting religious liberty, the unbelievable church growth in Africa and Latin America, and our world-famous hospital and medical school in Loma Linda. Those of us who know the astonishing expense of their travel and the mundanity of most of their meetings might resent the quarter of our income spent on denominational leadership; but people in little churches may take pride in it.

Yet the strongest influence on the dying church is the independent Adventist media. Ask a Loma Linda congregation who among them listens to 3ABN regularly, and you’ll see a few hands. Ask any of a thousand small churches, and the entire congregation will respond. It’s likely that when the pastor is preaching at one of his other churches, they watch Doug Batchelor videos. It surprises no small church pastor when a member says that she sends her tithe to 3ABN.

Most NAD Seventh-day Adventists are in the dynamic church. Six out of ten Seventh-day Adventists are in the largest tenth of the congregations.[2] That means that there are vastly more small congregations than there are large ones, and more pastors serve small churches in multi-point districts than any other kind of assignment.

I once suggested that one of the NAD ministerial conferences be devoted to small church ministry, given that that’s where most pastors work. One of the people I spoke to sounded interested, but another told me that no one was interested in studying small churches, because they’re failing churches. People want to study success.

I suspect he’s right. Church leaders, from the conference on up, identify with the dynamic church. That’s perfectly understandable. Many live in Adventist hotspots like the DC-Baltimore area or Southern California. Even leaders in less prosperous conferences naturally identify with the successful parts of the organization. Every conference president spends a lot of time in the union conference office, as every union president does in Silver Spring. They rub shoulders with the leaders of whatever Adventist health care system is in their territory. So even in a conference where most churches are small, the temptation is to think of under-resourced congregations as problems rather than assets.

I can understand these weak congregations being overlooked: they’re not interesting, they don’t supply much income, nor have their pastors much influence. It may not seem all that consequential, then, should these small congregations fold, except for this: often they’re the last outpost for Seventh-day Adventism in their town, village, or an entire region. My district covers over 5000 square miles. Should my small congregations close their doors, there wouldn’t be a Seventh-day Adventist congregation between central Ohio and West Virginia.

And yet its hard to see how they can survive over the long term. For the past quarter century the population in my district has diminished by about a percent a year. Once bustling river towns with massive steel mills are transformed into blocks of condemned buildings and rusting warehouses. Even in parts of the NAD where the economic devastation hasn’t been as severe, there are vast areas of rural, village and small city North America that aren’t what they were 75 years ago when a local Seventh-day Adventist church was established.

Mostly, in forums like Spectrum and Adventist Today, we talk about pivotal denominational issues like women’s ordination, homosexuality and evolution. Those are important things. But so is the dying edge of the church. It involves the bulk of our congregations. Unlike those other topics, this one shouldn’t be controversial. But neither is it interesting enough to capture our collective attention.

I’ve made this prophecy before, but I feel safe saying it again: within a decade as many as a quarter of our NAD congregations will fold. Many are a death or two away from it right now. Perhaps they’ll be replaced by new ethnic congregations in our strong Adventist communities. But in many small cities and rural areas, people will forget that we ever existed. And I don’t think any of us know quite what we can do to arrest it.

[1] Please understand that my commentary here is about the church of North America, because that’s where I grew up and have served. I hear often that the church in other parts of the world is fruiting like a tomato vine in August, and I trust it’s true.

[2] Someone will correctly observe that there are healthy small churches, struggling large churches, and medium-sized churches that don’t fit perfectly in either category. Yet should you graph out all the congregations in the NAD by either attendance or money, you’ll be astonished at how steeply the line drops from a spike of congregations strong in those metrics, down to a nearly flat line.

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