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The Ungathered Church


•A young academic moves to another city for a position in a major state university. “Do you attend a church there?” I ask. “There’s a church not far from me, but it reminded me too much of the small depressing churches I’ve previously survived,” he replies. “I’ve never gone back.”

•A retired pastor and wife live in Loma Linda, where there are dozens of congregations. “We go to church twice every Sabbath,” they tell me. “We watch two church services on TV, and we don’t even have to get dressed.”

•I ask a church school teacher couple in an elementary school supported by mine and a half-dozen or so other metro area churches, “Where do you attend church?” They name some congregations they’ve tried, but admit that they spend most Sabbaths hiking in the mountains or taking bike rides. I ask them if they think it might be important for the children they teach Bible to during the week, not to mention the congregants that sacrifice for the school, to see them in church. “Yes,” they say. “But there’s not a lot of pressure. There are so many churches here, that everyone assumes we’re in one of the others.”

•“Maranatha is our church,” the retiree and his wife tell me. “We don’t like getting involved in a congregation ourselves—too many conflicts. But we like to build churches for others.”

•“All the Adventist congregations around here are apostate,” a woman tells me. “I would rather stay home than go to a church that teaches spiritual formation and contemplative prayer.” “My church doesn’t teach those things,” I say. “I’m heeding the General Conference president’s warning,” she says. “I’m safer at home.”

•I visit some elderly members only a few minutes from the church, urging them to attend. It’s not a matter of mobility: they still drive. “We attend church all week long,” they tell me. “3ABN is on from morning until night in our home.” (I have to turn down the volume myself just so I can visit with them.) “But I’m the flesh-and-blood pastor who comes to see you,” I tell them. “What you do isn’t as important as 3ABN,” the man says. “They’re reaching the whole world.” They send all their tithes and offerings to 3ABN.

•A retirement-aged woman asks to meet me at a cafe to talk about spiritual questions. She grew up in the church, never eats pork or shellfish, and engages me in a lively discussion about Pope Francis and the papacy’s role in end-time events. But she hasn’t been in a church for 30 years. “There’s a marvelous church not far from your home,” I tell her. “Wonderful pastor, great music. Why don’t you try it?” “I should,” she says. But she never does.

•“I’d love to see you more often,” I tell a young family. “Oh, we’re sorry, but this is sports season, and Tyler has games every Saturday. We come when we can,” they tell me, “but not when Tyler has sports.” Tyler plays all the sports, so we’re happy if we see them once a month.

•A young college professor at a Seventh-day Adventist college tells me in a chat, “I know I should go to church. But church services here seem to be for families or students, and as a middle-aged single woman, I just don’t feel comfortable.”

•I’m visiting with a church leader who works in the General Conference building. “I usually don’t attend church unless I’m invited to speak,” he admits. “The average pastor rarely says anything that does much for me spiritually.”

All of these people would tell you they they are Seventh-day Adventists. Some even work for the church. But the thing that used to define a Seventh-day Adventist—being part of corporate worship on the Saturday Sabbath—isn’t central to them. One of the ironies of being a pastor in North America nowadays is a continuing interest in things spiritual and theological, over against the decline of the gathered church.[1] What has made the church at worship lose its importance for so many people?

There were flaws in the Seventh-day Adventism of my childhood, but I do appreciate that church attendance was a family discipline. It took a severe illness—not a mere cold or headache or a restless night of sleep—to keep us home from church. We drove 10 miles to church through North Dakota blizzards so bad that you could barely see the road. (Yes, I know how “old coot” that sounds!) The times we stayed home on Sabbath are so few that I remember them all.

I’ve heard all the reasons people don’t attend, and I sympathize with many of them. I’ve been in many small churches (most Adventist churches are small) and I can tell you that even with a well-intentioned pastor and friendly members, they’re not exciting. In all congregations there are misunderstandings, and in some there’s bickering and fighting. Leaders are worn out on routine activities, and much effort and money flushed away in maintaining old buildings. Sabbath School classes rehearse the same cliches they’ve repeated for decades. You can find deficiencies in every church: too few activities for youth, not enough community outreach, poor music, mediocre preaching, a pastor shared with two other churches, members who seem to disapprove of nearly everything.

We pastors try to enrich the congregational experience. I’ve used different kinds of music, from classical to praise to traditional hymns and choirs. Breakfast and hot drinks and donuts. Lots of home visitation with personal invitations to church. I do my best to keep my congregations peaceful—every pastor’s biggest challenge—though some defy one’s best efforts. I’ve tried a youth pastor and an outreach pastor and once even a chaplain for a secular college campus near the church. I don’t claim to be an unusually charismatic orator, but I think I can say honestly that I’m always articulate and clear, and present messages of hope rather than fear and scolding.

But every small church I know, and some of the bigger ones, too, recall years ago when the sanctuary was packed with people—and it’s not anymore.

Set aside for the moment the question of how we keep the Sabbath, whether we go out to eat or take Erin to her dance recital and Kevin to his Little League game. Consider just this: one of the two main identities captured in our church name has to do with choosing the right day to worship God together. It was a central reason for our founding, it separates us from other Christians, and according to our eschatology, it plays a major part in end time events. Yet at this moment, at least in North America, Sabbath church attendance lags far behind the number of people who identify as Seventh-day Adventists. Stand in the back of the sanctuary in most of our congregations, and where you don’t see empty pews, you’ll see gray heads.

This is professionally challenging for us pastors, because what happens on Sabbath morning is a metric of success. Church membership is one, income is another and, of course, souls won. But what we really notice Sabbath to Sabbath is people in the pews. We measure our congregations’ appeal by that. Full churches are more enjoyable and attractive. Singing is better, preaching has more resonance, more friendships develop, giving is more robust, and it’s easier to bring new members to full churches.

Is there such a thing as an ungathered church, a church that doesn’t require people sitting together singing and praying in a building anymore? That day may be coming whether we like it or not. The little churches in the Ohio conference, the ones in small cities, are disappearing. And our conference isn’t alone. I’ll go out on a limb here and make a prophecy: within ten years a fourth or more of the NAD congregations will have melted away. I see the signs of our reaching a tipping point, where the church-supporting, church-attending generation dies and there are too few young people left to create a new generation to keep small congregations going. It could happen quickly. We’ll need another model if Seventh-day Adventist congregations are going to survive in places where there’s no Adventist hospital or college.[2]

I’m not sure what that new model will be. Loosely organized only-vaguely-churchy groups, like Peter Roennfeldt describes? House churches, like Simple Church? Perhaps we could just watch Doug Batchelor and chat on line, but abandon the expectation that we are physically in one place?

We who love the Seventh-day Adventist church are searching for answers.

[1] Monte Sahlin says that there’s little reliable data on SDA church attendance in the NAD. “Only half the local churches report attendance despite the fact that it became NAD policy in 1988 and has been requested on the church clerks’ reports ever since.” But there’s a pretty clear downward trend in church attendance generally, as tracked by the American Church Research Project. While 3/4 of Americans claim a religious affiliation, and 40-45% say they attend church, actual head count shows closer to 20%. “Everyone agrees that attendance figures are down across the board,” says Monte.

[2] For this reason, I would counsel young people not to prepare for the traditional Adventist pastoral ministry without a backup plan. While it’s true that there will be a big retirement of pastors in the next ten years, there will also be less money and fewer openings.


Loren Seibold is a pastor in the Ohio Conference, and co-contributor (with Monte Sahlin) to Faith in Context, a blog about the intersection of religion and culture.

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