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On the Threshold

Monte Sahlin recently conducted a major survey on Adventist demographics within the North American Division. Though diverse in its scope, the survey revealed some interesting new data about racial diversity in the NAD, which Monte presented during Oakwood University’s Pastoral and Evangelism Council late last year. Monte serves as the volunteer research director for the Bradford-Cleveland-Brooks Leadership Center, which organizes the annual council.
Question: Who commissioned the demographics survey and why?

Answer: The study was commissioned by the Secretariat of the North American Division of the General Conference. Roscoe Howard was the general secretary of the NAD at that time. During the time we were implementing the survey he was elected president of the Mid-America Union Conference and we completed the project under the auspices of G. Alexander Bryant, the new general secretary that was elected last fall at the 2008 annual meeting of the NAD executive committee. The study was implemented by the Center for Creative Ministry with myself as the primary investigator and Paul Richardson as project director.
Question: What did the survey reveal about racial diversity in the North American Adventist church?
Answer: In 2008 the Adventist Church in North America stepped onto a threshold. The white membership is now down to just half of the total membership, while the other half is made up of ethnic minorities—African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and immigrants from Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, etc. This is a new reality for Adventists. Up to this point there has always been an ethnic majority of whites and several minority groups. In 2009, as the trend continues, whites become just another minority group in the multicultural mix.
Question: Why is the white church shrinking while the minority church is growing in North America?
Answer: In fact, the “minority” church is not growing as much as the immigrant church is growing. The growth rate among native-born African Americans is not much greater than the general membership. The white church is shrinking for two key reasons: (1) White membership is aging—half of whites in Adventist families are over 55 years of age. (2) The white membership has a much lower birth rate than is average for the general population in the U.S. and Canada. In other words, among whites we are losing young people and those who stay do not have the expected number of babies.
I hear many comments that the white church is not doing as well at evangelism, but the facts simply do not support this. The immigrant churches have much higher per capita baptisms, but two-thirds or more of the people they baptize were already Adventists in some other part of the world. So, in fact, the growth of the immigrant churches is largely from migration and not from more effective evangelism.
Question: What minority groups are growing, specifically?
Answer: Multicultural congregations where there is no dominant ethnic identity, no ethnic majority in the local church, are some of the fasted growing in the U.S. and Canada. There is strong growth among immigrants from the Caribbean basin, from Africa, and from Asia. These also tend to be the places in the world where there is a much larger percentage of Adventists in the national population. For example, in Belize ten percent of the population is Adventist, while in the U.S. it is only four-tenths of one percent. In other words, the Adventist population in Belize is proportionately 25 times greater than the Adventist population in the U.S. The fastest-growing segments of the membership in the U.S. are from those nations where there is a much larger share of Adventists and especially those who are geographically near U.S. borders.
Question: What unique challenges and opportunities are arising as a result of this demographic swing?
Answer: The opportunities and challenges are largely two sides of the same coin. The Adventist Church is ahead of the curve in an America becoming much more ethnically diverse. It is a challenge because we run the risk that white Americans may take the attitude that has been taken by whites in other parts of the world when there has been a large influx of immigrants—that they don’t want to be part of a denomination that is not dominantly white, or that this becomes the reason why “evangelism won’t work” or “we cannot get new members to join.” We have the opportunity to uphold a unique and powerful witness as a community that exhibits a unique emphasis on social justice and equality. Our life together as a diverse people can become a living testimony to the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the power of the Advent hope.
Question: How does diversity in the Adventist Church compare with diversity in our region at large?
Answer: In the U.S. about 41 percent of the population is from an ethnic minority group and 59 percent are white. In about 15 or 20 years, at the current rate of change, the entire U.S. will arrive at the 50/50 point where the Adventist Church is right now. So we are about 15 to 20 years ahead of the curve. The statistics are about the same in Canada.
Question: How does diversity in the Adventist Church compare with diversity among other Christian groups in North America?
Answer: We are by far and away the most diverse of denominations with more than 100,000 members. (For the smaller groups, there is little reliable data.) We are absolutely the most diverse among denominations with one million members or more.
I meet twice a year with a group of religion researchers from more than 40 faiths across the country called the Cooperative Congregational Studies Partnership. We compare notes regularly. A couple of years ago one of my colleagues from another Protestant denomination was describing a survey of multicultural congregations. Their definition of a multicultural congregation was any local church that had a 15 percent or more ethnic minority membership. I told her that we define a multicultural congregation as one where there is no majority—all ethnic segments are less than 51 percent. She told me they did not have any congregations that met that definition. About one in five of our congregations meet that definition. Nearly half meet their definition.
Question: Black membership in the Adventist Church right now is at 31%. What impact does the existence of Regional Conferences have on this percentage?
Answer: The Regional Conferences are one of the great untold success stories of the church in America. The percentage of Adventists among the black population in the U.S. is three times that of the percentage of Adventists among whites. In other words, the Regional Conferences have been significantly more successful at penetrating the black culture in America than the denomination has been with the white culture. More than that, the Regional Conferences have moved 150,000 to 200,000 people from poverty into the middle class. That is no small achievement beyond any religious impact.
It has become fashionable in some circles to say that the Regional Conferences are a relic of segregation, but this is really an uninformed and overly-simplistic view. The Regional Conferences have become more diverse while they have been very successful at focusing on a defined segment of the American population. At least two of the Regional Conferences now have a majority immigrant membership and are no longer predominantly made up of native-born African Americans. There are significant numbers of Hispanics, Koreans and other ethnic groups in the Regional Conferences.
Question: Given the current racial demographics, what sorts of activities should we be focusing our evangelistic efforts on in North America?
Answer: If we are to use the success of the Regional Conferences as a model, then we need to balance community service with direct methods of communicating the Adventist message. Most of the historically African American congregations in the Adventist denomination have had much larger community involvement and more focus on social justice than the white churches. Other research has shown that even among the white churches, the best growth rates are among those Adventist churches where there is a strong element of community involvement, especially when non-traditional programs are conducted.
I think we also need to build into all of our evangelism activities a strong advocacy for multicultural community. Revelation 7:9 gives us a good key text. We need to teach about the many different cultures and ethnic groups that make up the Adventist family. We need to teach cross-cultural skills and expose prospective members to multiple cultures. Otherwise, we are not adequately preparing them to be part of the reality of the Adventist fellowship. I think we are already experiencing some dropouts among people who are shocked when they discover just how multicultural Adventism is. The only way we will be able to prevent this from continuing into the future will be if can “take the bull by the horns” and teach multiculturalism as a “testing truth,” an essential part of what it means to be in the Remnant Church.
Question: How has church theology and policy been affected by its changing racial demographics?
Answer: The denomination has an official affirmative action policy while many organizations in America have abandoned affirmative action. The first African American president of the church in North America was elected in 1979, three decades before the first African American president of the U.S. My guess is that the next General Conference president will not be white.
In North America, as the percentage of ethnic minority church members has increased, so has our interest in the needs of the poor, the disabled, prisoners, etc. Although many among the clergy (of all ethnic groups) don’t “get it,” the average Adventist no longer sees a disconnect between our theological message and the imperative to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, provide health care, and lift up those oppressed in the world around us. Non-white North American Adventists generally know that it is a myth that Ellen White said we are not to do this kind of work; she strongly endorsed and urged it! They read books like The Ministry of Healing through different eyes than white Adventists have traditionally read those same books, and for younger generations of white Adventists this non-traditional reading has become the norm.
When famous black Adventist evangelist E. E. Cleveland conducted evangelistic campaigns, his first call for decisions was focused around barrels he had set up in the lobby of the auditorium or at the edges of the tent. He challenged the crowd to bring donations of food to distribute among the community’s poor when they came back on future nights. Later he invited them to join in teams to deliver emergency food to families that needed it. I have never seen anything equivalent in the history of 20th century white evangelists, but this kind of practical expression of religion has become the norm for new generations of Adventists of all races.
Ethnic minorities tend to appreciate a more wholistic religious experience. The message is about their struggles, not just doctrinal constructs and prophetic calculations. Poor people and immigrants have no problem with miracles, with a God who demonstrates his power in concrete ways. They have no time for dissecting the word of God; it is a word of hope to them, breaking through into hopeless lives and depressed communities. In other words, they are more accepting of traditional religion. While middle class whites may need a lot of detailed evidence to maintain the certainty of Christ’s return, these people find the promised Second Advent a plausible hope all by itself, without any detailed analysis.
Immigrants and poor people generally want an all-day experience on Sabbath, not just a one hour worship service. They want a stronger sense of fellowship within the congregation and are far less concerned with individualistic values. In the four decades that I have been an Adventist minister, I have seen the church move toward a more scholastic theology and then back away from that toward something more like “that old-time religion,” but with marimbas and drums. These trends are more about nuances and experiential elements at the grass roots than they are about official documents prepared by the Biblical Research Institute or the seminary and debated in the high councils of the denomination. Real theology happens where the rubber meets the road.
Question: You presented information from your survey at Oakwood’s Pastoral and Evangelism Council last year. You also chaired a panel discussion called “Growing Ethnic Diversity in the NAD.” Who were the voices on that panel, and what did they contribute?
Answer: Dr. Ciro Sepulveda is Hispanic, a historian and an ordained minister. Dr. Pedrito Maynard-Reid is a theologian, pastor and social analyst from the Caribbean now teaching at Walla Walla University. Dr. Leslie Pollard is an African American who was a pastor for a number of years and is now one of the administrators at Loma Linda University. I am white and have served as a pastor, community organizer, church administrator, and specialist in research and development for the denomination. We had planned to have a female voice in the mix, but at the last minute she had unexpected problems that kept her from being at Oakwood. So we represented the diversity of immigrants and native-born church members, a range of ethnic groups, etc. Each voice is well educated in these issues. Each is unafraid to speak truth to power. Each has an appreciation for the complexity of the issues as they are experienced at the level of real life in local churches, families and communities. Each of us tends to interpret certain data and experience in somewhat different ways, although I can’t think of any major differences in terms of policy or approach.
Perhaps the hardest question addressed by the panel asked how we can bring these issues into fruitful dialogue in local churches. Most people want to hide out from uncomfortable topics. I know the question was asked more than once, “Why don’t our leaders lead on this topic?” I may have been more protective of denominational leaders than some of the others, since I have sat with presidents at the highest levels in the denomination and know the kinds of dilemmas they face.
Question: How engaged is the white community in issues of race relations and diversity? How have you seen this change over the years, and why?
Answer: I have to confess that there is good news and bad news on this front. Certainly things have changed dramatically since I was a child in the 1950s. At that time many of the boarding academies and church schools in the U.S. would not permit children from black Adventist families to attend. Some of our hospitals would not admit non-whites as patients. In the early 1960s, the General Conference president published an article in the Adventist Review telling church members not to get involved in the civil rights movement. This attitude has changed significantly, I think. The Adventist Review today is likely to laud members involved in human rights or antipoverty activities. Adventist schools and institutions are not permitted to practice segregation, and we have an official affirmative action policy. So, I have seen significant change.
Today, I think white Adventists fall into two categories. One category is made up of those who embrace multiculturalism. A survey that I directed a couple years ago shows that the majority of white Adventists would prefer to be in a congregation that is multiethnic rather than one that is dominantly white. Also, white Adventists are much more likely than the general white population in the U.S. to be in inter-racial marriages. The globalization of Adventism has really come home for the people in this first category. Many of them work for international agencies or multinational corporations. But although their perspective is multicultural, it is not necessarily informed by the specific social justice issues of specific ethnic groups. There is a way in which higher education and professional occupation tends to move people of all ethnic backgrounds into a multicultural middle class. This takes the edge off the injustices of institutionalized poverty, exclusionary immigration policies, etc.
The second category is made up of those who just want to avoid the issue. They often honestly feel that no matter what they say, it will not be “correct.” They will find themselves set up for chastisement in any conversation on the topic. It is also true, I think, that they know that some of the things they feel, some of the opinions they hold, are not right. They feel guilty. Whites really don’t know how to be a minority; they grow up with a sense of entitlement that is associated with being the dominate majority culture. They really cannot define “white culture” in a narrow sense as minorities have learned to define their cultures. They wonder where whiteness ends and generic reality begins. They wonder how being “white” is different from being “American.”
In fact, one of the hot areas in cultural studies these days is “white studies,” so Adventists are not alone in this quandary. But it is so complex and frightening to so many of our church members, that they conclude it is best left alone. Religion for many is a place to hide out from social change. They want to define church as a free zone where disturbing topics from the real world are not mentioned, as if God does not care about social justice or poverty. Some see any discussion of inter-ethnic issues as “political” and declare that it “has no place in the church.” They tend to want to define the mission of the church as very narrow, just teaching a limited number of doctrines and recruiting new converts, but not including the work of ADRA, for example, or Adventist hospitals.
Question: Ethnically, what do you think the Adventist Church in North America will look like in another fifty years? Are we prepared structurally and ideologically as a church to embrace these changes?
Answer: There are at least two possible futures, depending on what is done in the near term. If we continue to drift along as we are, then in 50 years the white membership will be down to a third or even a quarter of the total. Many of our schools will have shut down. Most of the Regional Conferences will have only a small minority of native-born African Americans. Most of the U.S. will face a situation such as exists in some countries in Europe where the Adventist membership is largely made up of immigrants and the church has essentially withdrawn from the larger society. You can see an early version of this outcome in New York City where there are 75,000 Adventists and 250 local churches, with almost no presence from among the 15 million native-born Americans in the general New York City population. More than 90 percent of Adventist church members are immigrants, while immigrants make up only 25 percent of the general population. In fifty years we could face a situation where half of North America (the white half) has no Adventist presence of any consequence, where white America is an untouched nation.
The other possible future is one in which we embrace our multicultural character and make a hallmark of it. We could brand ourselves as the multicultural denomination and teach social justice as a testing truth alongside the Sabbath doctrine, etc. We could develop deliberate strategies to reach each of the cultural groups in North America and generate the resources necessary to be truly effective in each of these segments. If we do that, then fifty years from now the percentages will not have changed much, but the numbers will have increased significantly. There will be three million Adventists in the U.S. and Canada, and we will be much more visible and involved in the public issues and causes of the day.
These two possible futures are the difference between a marginalized, defensive Adventism withdrawn into small, ethnic enclaves, largely invisible and inconsequential in America, and an expansive, aggressive Adventism that is a leader in a changing America. It is really up to the new generations to make the choice between these two futures. The Baby Boomers really need to step aside—we long ago dropped the ball—and dedicate ourselves to empowering and supporting today’s young adults. That is the only way we can influence this choice.
Question: Where can people go to read the results of your demographics study?
Answer: You can get a copy from the Center for Creative Ministry at the web address below. Their web site also has most of the earlier studies that I alluded to.
Paul Richardson and I are also available to do Webinar presentations on this research for groups that request it, and the cost is minimal because it does not involve travel expense. Interested persons can reach us at (800) 272-4664.
Monte Sahlin is a man of many hats. He has been a pastor, community organizer, church administrator, and author. Currently he serves as director of research and special projects for the Ohio Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. He is also an adjunct professor at Andrews University and the Campolo School for Social Change, Eastern University. In 1994 Monte was awarded the Outstanding Public Service Award by the United States government.

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