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Adventism at 160: A Look Behind the Numbers


Growing up, I recall watching my mother slaughtering a chicken for dinner. After I assisted her in a frantic effort to catch it, she would open its wings wide, tie its feet with a string, and pin the poor, restless bird to the ground. With one foot, she would step on the wings, while with the other, she would step on the tied-up feet to prevent movement. She would grab the chicken’s head with one hand while with a knife in the other, she would slaughter the bird. After cutting off the head, she would spend a couple of minutes holding down the rest of the chicken’s body until it was confirmed lifeless. The reason was that if she let her grip go prematurely, the hysterical chicken—despite being headless—would run wildly and become difficult to catch again. A headless chicken was more worrisome than one with a head, given its hyperactive energy and no sense of direction.

Why do I think of this story now? On May 21, 2023, the Seventh-day Adventist Church celebrated its 160th anniversary. Aptly themed “Chosen for Mission,” the celebration was an invitation for all members of the world church to pledge commitment to mission and also a call for renewed dedication to discipleship. From beginning with 3,500 members and 6 conferences, over the past 160 years, the church has grown to 22.2 million members, 97,811 churches, 753 conferences, 139 unions, 230 hospitals, and 9,589 schools and universities with over 2 million students—among other notable achievements. Undoubtedly, any Seventh-day Adventist would be proud of such achievements, which are the product of prayer, hard work, and a commitment to mission by members across the world. But are we doing enough—and in the right way?

Measuring Performance or Performing?

Aptly themed “Chosen for Mission,” the 160 years celebration was an invitation for all church members to again pledge commitment to mission through an initiative called Mission Refocus. Clearly, the current church leadership has been consistent with its focus on mission as a priority, given the various similar initiatives that we have seen over the years. These have included Total Member Involvement, Mission to the Cities, the Great Controversy Project, and strategic initiatives such as Reach the World and the recent I Will Go. The only limitation here is that none of these initiatives, projects, and strategies have undergone enough evaluation. All we see is one initiative replacing the other, without informing members of the impact, effectiveness, lessons learned, or emerging issues. It appears to me that the key performance indicators are not adequately measured, which in my line of work raises questions. Put simply, resources being expended to plan and implement these initiatives need to be accounted for. We need to tell a strong story of the impact of our plans and work. Otherwise, such initiatives look good on paper but become mere sloganeering aimed at promoting the individuals behind them and not God.

Headless Chickens?

Looked at closely, these initiatives represent not the collective vision of the church but that of elected church leaders. They are a plan derived from what the leadership, not the broad membership, sees as priorities. The problem is that changes in leadership mean new initiatives and the wasting of resources. Why can’t our constituency meetings at conference and union levels begin with strategic discussions about the vision and priority of the church, a review of progress, and a discussion of emerging issues and opportunities, with the goal being to produce a strategic document? The challenge would be for whoever is elected to translate that document into strategic objectives and actions. They would derive their marching orders from what the church constituency meeting agreed to and defined as a priority. At the end of each period, these would be measured and evaluated objectively. The current setup means that a leader is evaluated by terms they set, which limits objectivity and balance.

The problem is our key performance indicators (KPIs) in these mission strategies have no clear baseline or starting point, making our reports end up being about counting the things we are doing rather than demonstrating impact. For example, if you say that you established two schools, what was the baseline and what was your target? Is the establishment of a school the end goal or is the actual impact you want to see in a community? All these questions will enable us to tell the Adventist story more meaningfully. If we define a KPI as “frontline missionaries speak at major camp meetings and other large church gatherings,” we are simply using activities to define our success, rather than the impact of those activities. In other words, we are underselling ourselves and measuring our progress at a lower level. I commend the church leadership for developing strategic plans for mission, but these ought to have KPIs that are more effectively translated into action at lower levels.

The other question is whether the church has the tools to monitor these KPIs. How do delegates at a constituency business meeting or GC Session ascertain value for money or actual impact? Reports shared at many of these meetings are stories that cannot be verified because no evidence is made available. I believe dashboards can be developed to assist church leaders at all levels track progress and report on it. The next strategic plan on mission should ensure a relevant framework is put in place for the church’s progress.

Digital Highways and Byways

COVID-19 disrupted and transformed us in many ways. We quickly embraced online platforms as tools to share our content and mission. This is positive, as it allows us to reach many across borders with innovative programs. While in many places, we continue to simply point a camera at a preacher and call it evangelism, the effort to embrace digital technology is appreciated. Yet very few of our churches have evaluated viewership statistics related to their platforms. We continue to invest in fancy equipment aimed at simply broadcasting ourselves to an audience whose habits are different from the congregation in our buildings. We often don’t put effort into interacting with the people visiting our platforms or following our pages. I am using this example to highlight that our approach to mission needs to be informed by evidence and data. To continue doing something because it looks good or makes us look good is not mission. Decisions might need to be made about how we can optimize our online presence, integrate our efforts, and build synergies that allow us to be efficient.

Understanding People

That we now have over 22 million members globally is worth celebrating. But at the moment, we are still relying on traditional approaches to mission, sometimes known as the “tent and tract method.” This is characterized by a wholesale and indiscriminate distribution of pamphlets and reading material, bringing people to a public venue for a series of doctrinal sermons culminating in baptism. We expend resources on this approach, but have we checked the return on our efforts? What are the reasons behind low attendance by our members and target communities? A better demographic and geographic breakdown will help us frame our methods and messages. More than ever, the Adventist Church needs to understand its membership and the wider community before rolling out programs for them.

My Appeal

I don’t want to downplay our achievements as a church over the past 160 years. We have done so much, and we thank God for it. But are we being smart in our way of doing business? In a world of smartphones, smart homes, smartwatches, and smart lights, we risk being left behind because of our love affair with a bygone era. But I believe God wants to do new things, right here and right now, where his children are standing.

The current church leadership has done a good job of focusing us on mission, but I believe we now need leadership that focuses on sharpening us for that mission. Slogans that numb or divert us from systemic and structural issues are disingenuous. We need a smarter and more agile church born out of a collective visioning process.

The Adventist story needs to be elevated beyond baptismal numbers to the quality of our relationships and impact. Doing so does not take away from the good work we have done but offers the chance for candid self-critique in a world that is asking a different set of questions. I just hope the statement by R. T. Kendall will not find fulfillment: “Sometimes the greatest opposition to what God wants to do next comes from those who were on the cutting edge of what God did last.” 


Admiral Ncube is an Adventist Zimbabwean writing from Gaborone, Botswana, where he is a humanitarian and development professional.

Title image: source logo by General Conference Communication / AME (CC BY 4.0).

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