Seventh-day Adventism is probably the most upwardly mobile church in Christendom, thanks in large part to its policy of starting schools wherever new churches are “planted.” Adventists in the United States are illustrative of this trajectory. The data in its current form, though more anecdotal than robust, suggest that when new members join the church their socio-economic statuses increase over a much shorter time than the norm. The catalyst for this upward movement, it seems, is the church’s philosophy of emphasis on education. This is not a Western-world-only Adventist phenomenon. The pattern is replicated even more strikingly in developing countries where new church membership, education and upward mobility all seem to track. Countries like Ghana, Kenya and Jamaica confirm the trend.
Inherent in the notion of social ascent is the fact that beginners or initiates start from a lower point in society. Because we are a proselytizing church, so much of our growth comes from evangelizing other Christian denominations. This, in the overall scheme of the gospel commission, is akin to cannibalizing from within. But that’s our main focus in increasing membership and we use public campaigns – tent meetings (popular in developing countries) or Daniel/Revelation seminars (preferred in the West) – to draw new followers. These two mediums, though they attract the curious, do not generally bring highly educated people. Consequently, when converts from these campaigns commit to the church and embrace its educational philosophy, they begin climbing the social rungs.
The moral of this story is that, though the Adventist message and its appeal are primarily spiritual and otherworldly, adherents enjoy significant socio-economic benefits of membership in this world. So it might seem counterintuitive that highly educated Adventists, the key demographic beneficiaries of these advantages, would leave the church at all. But they do. And I suspect in much higher proportion than Adventists with comparably lower education. I can only speculate, because to my knowledge the church has not attempted any longitudinal studies dedicated to capturing why educated Adventists, who gain the most from church affiliation, later leave the church. The closest attempt of a snapshot/longitudinal pre-college research of its members, outside of healthcare, is the Valuegenesis studies, whose attention is mainly on faith and doctrine. Since our movement days are long behind us, and we are now in an establishment-church phase, we should begin to pay attention to attrition. That is, why members leave.
The Adventist church as a whole has an attrition problem and this has been known by administrators for some 55 years, ever since we began collecting formalized data. At the October 2020 Annual Council meetings, David Trim of the General Conference Office of Archives, Statistics and Research, drew attention to this looming crisis. He reported that the worldwide church loses 40% of all new memberships each year. This translates into an erosion of 16.4 million of the 40 million members gained over the past 55 years. The problem is compounded, he warned, by a leveling off of membership gain (accessions) over the same time period, foreshadowing an inevitable decline in church growth unless we take timely measures to mitigate these twin adverse conditions.
Of the two, I would conjecture that attrition should be easier to correct. In an increasingly connected world, where information is easily accessible on one’s phone, it’s becoming more challenging to add new members through formal campaigns or weeks-long Bible studies. Which is a completely different problem from attempting to understand why those who used to be members opt to leave. If we can start gathering the stories of these disaffected members it is conceivable that the church could learn from their “unhappy” experiences and hopefully address them in a way that provides better community and stops the hemorrhage.
How do we begin to do this in the absence of quantitative Valuegenesis-type data to start the conversation? I suggest we devote significant resources to designing just such studies, using the Valuegenesis template and tweaking it for different needs. But there are other, equally information-rich qualitative designs that could be utilized to mine dormant data. Many of our tertiary universities teach these and other design methodologies and I have no doubt that, rightly incentivized, whole departments and many graduate students could be “commissioned” to facilitate this. For a long time our church has tied its eschatological projections to how well we do in evangelizing the world – a useful euphemism for church growth. Our leaders know that they can connect evangelism and the Advent only if we show church growth. So David Trim’s statistics, though sobering and at first blush alarming, are also a wakeup call to act, since doing nothing in the face of a declining accession and increasing attrition rate, makes the work ahead increasingly daunting.
But my more narrow concern here is attrition in the ranks of highly-educated Adventists. Members of this group, especially if they are products, in part or whole, of the Adventist education system, bear the brunt of ambivalence. On one hand there is gratitude for unforgettable, shared experiences and friendship associations they would not trade for anything. And for many educated Adventists it is this camaraderie, often developed over a lifetime, more than any sense of the church’s specialness or prophetic calling, that still keep them connected. But on the other hand they also share a profound sense that the education they received, though well-intended and meant to shelter, was skewed in ways that left lasting harm. And this damage has, in no small way, contributed to the reasons why many have “fallen away” from the church.
Ironically, the beginnings of this alienation could be traced to our broad commitment to liberal arts education in elementary and high school curriculums. By the time students entered our colleges the internal war – of ideas and belief sets – had already been intense. The liberal arts – intellectual underpinning of Western humanistic inquiry – are the exploratory bedrock of ideas and methods spanning the natural and social sciences, as well as the humanities and arts. Any educational framework based on these ideals tends to value critical thinking, open mindedness and independent expression. In fact, the “liberal,” in “liberal arts” has its roots in “liberty,” as in freedom, and not “more” or “generous,” which it now more typically connotes. In this sense, a liberal arts culture attempts to free a person via education. And my anecdotal observation is that the students most likely to carry seeds of their own future discombobulation about what to believe, are those that pursue further studies in the humanities – literature, philosophy, history etc. and the natural/social sciences – biology, ecology/psychology, sociology etc. Thus we should immediately start understanding why they become disaffected and leave.
I think it begins in middle school. The anti-evolutionary biases in our junior-high classrooms face a sharp reckoning in high school. Then, by necessity, the same students who a year before were told by their teachers and church-issued textbooks that the earth is roughly six thousand years old, now read for themselves, in their non-church produced texts, that the earth is verifiably much older than they were previously told. And it isn’t because their teachers suddenly went rogue against church teaching. Many “heroically” act as live editors of the texts they teach from, deprecating perceived misinformation in the new textbooks. They go out of their way to dutifully insert our creationist theological dogma in the science classroom even as fossilized nature silently sabotages their efforts. But as these students take advanced science courses, they notice the steadiness with which their teachers’ arrows miss the mark. And at which point they start accepting and finally frequently adopt the data verified via the scientific method.
The situation is not qualitatively different in the humanities. I offer examples from the literary arts where my training provides a perspective. For many Adventists the subject of literature conjures unresolved antipathies to something they might enjoy but have been warned against. Then throw in “fiction,” – a word too often considered extremely dangerous, with hardly any redeeming qualities when used in Adventist elementary classrooms (and some conservative pulpits), and thus the stage is set for uneasiness. Dr John Waller, the late eminent Professor of English at Andrews University used to tell stories of growing up in a predominantly Adventist community and having to shoulder the heavy burden of his secret love affair with a genre his church community portrayed as the devil’s ruinous instrument.
His stories recalled incidents in junior high and high school when he was repeatedly caught reading Sir Walter Scott, Jane Austen, a Bronte sister, Joseph Conrad or even Charles Dickens, and being “shewed” to the front to face his classmates. Then going through what devolved into a pointless routine of penance for the sin of reading Shelley or Keats. Even Shakespeare was a dirty word. Once a traveling Shakespeare troupe came to his town for a week’s performance and their presence was deemed sufficiently threatening by his school authorities to devote an assembly for the sole purpose of warning students of the peril in their midst. But young Waller appeared beyond salvation in such situations. The next week he took a bus to the adjacent town where the same troupe was now performing, in hopes of observing Hamlet’s love affair with indecision, away from the prying eyes of his school’s literature police. Only to spot a badly disguised co-conspirator in an over-sized baseball cap – a much-loved high school English teacher – in the audience too. Instead of enjoying Hamlet, Waller spent the evening vacillating between the apprehension of being “caught” and the exhilaration of knowing he was not alone.
I listened to these stories in grad school from this revered professor as he described an era in Adventist school experience two generations removed from mine. And I was saddened that this happened at all but also relieved and grateful that we’ve moved on. Or so I thought.
In 1997, the children’s reading world was set on fire with the publication of J. K. Rowling's first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. My oldest son was in second grade, not old enough to handle that level of reading by himself, but the buzz about the book had penetrated his circle and there was nothing he wanted more. I read the reviews and bought one, having decided to read along in hopes of discovering why the book was such a hit with grade schoolers. It turned out to be an incredible experience reading all seven books in the series, the first two with my son and the subsequent ones independently. It is easy to understand why adolescents and even children were enthralled. The characters are exquisite and devoid of gratuitous, exploitative displays of inappropriate affection, a wholesomeness that warmed my heart. The heroes and the world they inhabit are relatable, with plot lines detailed and nuanced. But most importantly, the themes: good vs. bad, light vs. darkness, honor, commitment and the ultimate triumph of goodness, bear much resemblance to our own church’s Great Controversy construct. I couldn’t think of what not to like about the books.
But I was wrong. And my error was assertively explained during a Parent/Teacher meeting when my Harry Potter-loving son was in junior high. Unbeknownst to me, he had reviewed one of the Potter novels for a book report. An act his teacher considered unpardonable. The offending paper, with a neatly scribbled 0/20 in red ink on top and no other notation, was placed in front of me. And after allowing an appropriate interval of suffocating silence to cloak my awkwardness, his teacher cleared her throat and declared her disappointment. That I allowed my son to read “such books” in a Christian home. When I momentarily overcame my confusion and understood what was going on, I asked if she had read any of the Harry Potter books? “No,” she retorted. “I don’t have to. I have read enough reviews by competent Christians to know that a book that advocates sorcery has no place on a Christian bookshelf, let alone read for a book review in a Christian school.”
I opened my mouth to contradict her then realized it would do no good, so I mechanically clammed up. But as I recollected my son’s face – what was I seeing? The warring ferocity of shame? Disappointment? Confusion? Or a yearning for understanding? And his soft, muffled, non-directed statement as we left the office: “She didn’t even read my report but gave me a zero?” I wonder whether I should not have pushed back a little. And offered Coleridge on the “willing suspension of disbelief” as a buffer to “believe” fictitious stories for the sake of enjoyment. For children my son’s age, it seems that such experiences can easily precipitate a divorce from Adventism when they come of age and can act for themselves.
Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home.
Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found at: http://spectrummagazine.org/author/matthew-quartey.
Image Credit: Unsplash.com
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