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Adventist Church Grows by A Full Percent in Just Two Weeks

PNG for Christ Mass Baptisms

Over the past two weeks, General Conference President Ted Wilson’s globetrotting mass baptismal campaign was hard to miss. There were updates all over Facebook—from Wilson himself (or someone posting on his behalf), and from others who were also part of the “PNG for Christ” evangelistic endeavor. One Facebook post said that on Saturday, May 4, as many as 89,000 people in Papua New Guinea were baptized during events Adventists held throughout the country. I was flabbergasted when I read that number. Eighty-nine thousand men and women added to the Seventh-day Adventist Church in one single day, in one country! (Read Spectrum‘s report on this “PNG For Christ” phenomenon.)

Reading this news prompted me to make a comment that perhaps I should not have made. I asked, “Have all these people been instructed in all 28 Fundamental Beliefs?”I did not have to wait long to receive replies: “Why could I not rejoice in what God was doing in PNG?” “Did I not realize how much preparatory work had gone into this nationwide evangelistic event, with meetings taking place at some 2,000 sites all over the country.” Well, to be honest, no, I had not been aware of the scope of the campaign. Had I been, I might have framed my Facebook question differently. However, this does not mean that I have no questions about this immense crusade, in which—if later reports are accurate—over 260,000 people have now been baptized and joined the Adventist Church.

Church Number Four

I have never visited PNG. Most readers will know the country is half of a Pacific island—a little bigger than Germany—just under the equator “close” to Australia. The country was colonized by Germany, Britain, and Australia and declared its independence in 1975. (The other part of the island was colonized by the Dutch and is now part of Indonesia.) In 1526, Portuguese explorer Jorge de Meneses arrived on the coast called it “papua,” a Malay word for the frizzled quality of the hair of the people. Around 20 years later, Ynigo Ortiz de Retes, another Portuguese explorer, thought that the people he saw looked very much like the men and women he had seen on the Guinea coast of West-Africa, and he called the country with these “papua” people New Guinea.

PNG self-identifies as a Christian country. This is even inscribed in the preamble to their constitution. In 1847, the first Catholic missionary arrived, followed soon after by others. In 1871 the Catholics were joined by Protestant missionaries from Britain, followed by Lutherans in 1886. The first Seventh-day Adventist missionaries arrived in 1908. Today 98 percent of the country’s almost 12 million inhabitants consider themselves Christians with varying degrees of fealty to the faith communities to which they officially belong. The Catholic church is the largest denomination with 1.4 million members. Lutherans follow with about 1 million. Third place by membership is the United Protestant Church with almost 600,000 members. According to the official government statistics, Seventh-day Adventists number 522,000 members. It is, however, notoriously difficult to compare membership statistics, as denominations use different criteria for membership. For instance, in government figures for the Adventist Church, Sabbath school attendees are included. Recently, Adventist leaders in PNG announced that the church had officially topped 400,000 baptized members. 

A Membership Explosion

We may have to wait a while before we hear the official statistics for the “PNG for Christ” initiative. But let’s consider the ramifications. Over the past few weeks, the daily pictures and Facebook reports featuring Ted Wilson told an almost unbelievable story of huge gatherings and daily mass baptisms. It was a truly colossal undertaking. Local pastors and volunteers were supported by 180 foreign speakers, with Wilson himself playing an intentionally prominent role. The January 18, 2024, issue of the Adventist Record (the journal of the South Pacific Division to which PNG belongs) gives a good overview of the excitement that has been building in these past few months.

The hard work achieved its results. But let’s think this through a little further. These over 260,000 new members equals roughly one percent of global Adventist membership. Some might say, “Well, that is what the reality of the latter rain looks like. We had better be prepared because this is just the beginning.” I find it difficult to comment on such statements. (I, for one, will be more fully convinced of the reality of the start of the “latter rain” if a few drops also begin to fall in the western world.)

Compare this number of new members with the total number of Adventists in Europe. The Trans-European Division now has just under 90,000 members, and the Inter-European Division has a membership of about 180,000. And remember, church growth in Europe is primarily the result of migration, not evangelistic endeavors. 

One thing is sure: the kind of public evangelism conducted in PNG does not work in the western world. Even Ted Wilson has experienced this. When he led out in an evangelistic initiative in Prague last September, the audience was extremely small and at the end only two people were baptized. So while the church happily touts the “harvest” in PNG, the church must not forget that in spite of its constant work, other parts of the world only experience occasional small bumps in growth, rather than mass baptisms.

There is another fact that should be mentioned. Mass influxes like the one in PNG will continue to upend the balance between the church in the global north and south. This will inevitably have implications for the church’s governance, particularly at its quinquennial sessions. At the next General Conference session, the two European divisions with about 300,000 combined members will send more delegates to Indianapolis than Papua New Guinea, which now has twice as many members. How long will the leaders in PNG be satisfied with this (and how fair is this)?

As Wilson’s daily Facebook posts flooded my feed, as I saw the literal red carpet rolled out for him wherever he visited, and as I noticed the way people lined the road as he departed, I wondered whether his prominent participation in this event might indicate his willingness (or eagerness?) to seek another term as General Conference president in St. Louis, July 3-13, 2025. He will then be 75, but perhaps with the main two elderly presidential candidates in the United States as examples, this may not be a major issue.

Making Members

The results of the “PNG for Christ” initiative are impressive, and credit must be given where credit is due. But the question I posed when I read about the 89,000 remains for me. How in the world can the baptismal preparation of so many be as thorough as our church (at least officially) requires. How much knowledge does the majority of these 260,000-plus new members have of the 28 fundamental beliefs of the Adventist church? I have tried to gather some information on Adventism in PNG. The church is strongest by far in the highlands, where many live on subsistence farming. Facebook posts note that in some cases, people walked a few days to attend the evangelistic meetings. The literacy rate for all citizens in the country above the age of ten is 71% for males and 64 % for females. It does not seem (at least to me) that this is the kind of environment where doctrinal information is easily disseminated to a large number of people.

Some might argue that detailed doctrinal information is not crucial for Adventist membership—that people can be baptized and join the church when they have accepted Jesus Christ as their savior and want to become his followers as members of the Adventist church. Many are probably converts from other Christian churches and may know basic Christian doctrines and values. Familiarity with the most distinctive elements of Adventism may be enough to set them on their way toward discipleship in an Adventist environment. I tend to agree with that approach. But if that is OK—even, apparently, in the mind of the General Conference president—I would follow up with another question: why, in the western world, is full assent to all details of all “fundamentals” a requirement for anyone who wants to be considered a “genuine” Adventist? And why does the same leader, who so energetically assists in baptizing so many people in the South, tell people in other parts of the world to leave their church if they cannot emphatically say “yes” to all “28”?  Am I the only one who thinks that this point needs some serious discussion? 

Keeping Members

At major church administrative meetings, David Trim, the director of the General Conference Office for Archives, Statistics and Research, has repeatedly shown that the church is not good at retaining its members. Out of every ten new members, at least four slip away within a few years. These findings apply world-wide. The South American region of the Adventist Church is regarded as very successful, but tatistics show that in recent years more people under age 30 left the church than joined it. In 2016, about 110,000 were baptized in the Central African country of Rwanda in a similar multisite evangelistic campaign. From the very beginning, local leaders were concerned about the number of people who would still be in the church after a few years. Leaders in PNG should probably have the same concern—perhaps more so.

In a carefully researched paper, Ronald Lawson, professor emeritus of sociology at CUNY, analyzes the reasons why the church in PNG could see such remarkable growth. But he also looks critically at the quality of that growth. He mentions that traditional religious ideas (such as spirit worship, mediums, magic, witchcraft) are not easily abandoned. There is also a considerable amount of “blacksliding” among PNG Adventists, resulting in a sizable category of people who are popularly referred to in Pidgin-English as “skin7-days”. 

There is no reason to point an accusing finger at church leaders in PNG for deficiencies in new member nurture and retention. But there is every reason to encourage them to leave no stone unturned to keep the new members in the church. These new members must be integrated in existing churches and groups, and, undoubtedly, new groups will have to be formed. Training local leaders will have to be a priority, especially considering that many members who were already there before this campaign started, are themselves also relatively new members. The membership explosion will put a tremendous strain on the church’s infrastructure and financial resources. Let’s hope and pray that there will be continuing assistance in the new phase of this tremendous church growth.

The worldwide church has reason to be thankful when encouraging news comes in from certain regions of the world. The church must carefully analyze what has been accomplished, and whether this is the kind of approach that can also be used in other regions of the global south—in this same format or with adaptations. However, at the same time, the denomination must also focus on the western world. The crucial question is not, “how can we win a million people in Africa?” That will not be so difficult. The most urgent questions is, “how can we translate our Adventist message in such a way that it can also attract people in the ever more secularized western world?”

For more, read Spectrum‘s report on “PNG For Christ.”

Image: Screen Capture from video via Ted Wilson on Facebook

About the author

A native of the Netherlands, Reinder Bruinsma retired in 2007 after a long career in pastoral, editorial, teaching, and church leadership assignments in Europe, the United States, and West Africa. After receiving a BA from Newbold College and an MA from Andrews University, he earned a BDiv with honors and a doctorate in church history from the University of London. Before retiring, he was president of the Netherlands Union. More from Reinder Bruinsma.
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