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Shutting The Back Door


With one third of baptized Seventh-day Adventist church members slipping out the back door, officials at the General Conference have decided it is time to address the issue in a major way. To do so, academic researchers and church administrators are meeting this week in Silver Spring to discuss the data and suggest a strategy to reverse the trend during the “Summit on Nurture and Retention, 2013: Discipling, Retaining, and Reclaiming”.

If numbers were needed to explain why the group was gathered, David Trim, director of Archives, Statistics, and Research, provided them plainly in his program welcome:

“The starkest answer comes from denominational statistics: from 1965, when apostasies and “missing” members were first reported in official Adventist statistics, through the end of 2012, a total of 10,527,042 baptized SDAs separated from the denomination. In these past 48 years, there have been a total of 30,657,430 baptized church members—so that those who left our ranks were 34.34% of all church members in this period.”

General Conference Vice President Artur Stele introduced the proceedings by saying that “The only mission statement of heaven is to find and save not to find and punish. Our Father loves his children. Nurture and retention are more important than anything else. We must develop a new culture to put discipleship as agenda item number one.”

For those who still remember hearing the oft-quoted comment from a General Conference official that “nurture is a four letter word,” Stele’s statement was a breath of fresh air.

Kwabena Donkor, associate director of the Biblical Research Institute, focused on the importance of discipleship in his theological presentation. He turned to John 14 and 15 where Judas asks why Jesus addresses himself to his disciples rather than to the world. Because the world does not love him, but his disciples do was the answer. Donkor noted studies of mainline denominations that lost one-third of their membership from 1965-90, and the Adventist studies showing our losses. In looking for an answer to why, he quoted first John Stott, the Evangelical leader and Anglican clergyman, who said the reason is because of superficial disciples. Then he referenced Tokunboh Adeyemo, the African evangelical scholar who famously said that “the African church is a mile long, but an inch deep.” The marketing of Christianity is killing it, Donkor suggested. “True discipleship will address retention,” he said. Discipleship is a project. It includes both teaching and life transformation.

Andrews University Professor David Sedlacek provided the literature review of why Christians leave the Church, particularly young people. The church seems overprotective to young people, he said. They want adventuresome religion that takes them some place. They don’t want fear-based religion. They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity. Most want to find common ground. They feel they are being forced to choose between church and friends. They see the church as unfriendly to those who doubt and have personal struggles. There is no place for them to talk about questions.

Young people are deeply spiritual, he said. God seems missing from the experience of church. Talking about God is different than experiencing God. They think the church is antagonistic to science, and they are turned off by the science creation debate. They want to know how to integrate faith and science.

In response to these findings, he suggested cultivating intergenerational relationships. “Be authentic. All of us struggle with our addictions. We all have them.

Know and listen to young people. Teach them how to love and do not assume that they learn that in their families. We are all broken wounded healers.”

Monte Sahlin from the Center for Creative Ministry, began researching the “drop-out” problem in 1980. He presented his most recent data from an international study done in 2012 and 2013. He listed the reasons people gave for why they stopped attending church:

28% said there were no big issues, they just drifted away,
25% cited a lack of compassion in the church for the hurting,
19% admitted it was because of a moral failure on their part,
18% said they did not fit in,
14% said there was too much focus on small issues,
11% called out the moral failure on the part of leaders.

Life events in the year leading up to their departure were significant. Nearly three-quarters mentioned one stressful life event as a trigger. Such events are both why they join and why they drop out, Sahlin said. What happened after they left was also significant. Forty percent said no one contacted them. They perceived that their leaving made no difference.

All of these presentations were made on the first morning of the conference.

Additional reports will follow.

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