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Only Survivors Run the Church

Back in the early 1990s, my tech career focus overlapped the toddlerhood phase of what was then called the World Wide Web. I was briefly on the bleeding edge of internet literacy, creating browser-based interfaces for work projects. That proficiency faded within a few years as HTML evolved and my job moved in a different direction. But during this time I also volunteered to build a website for the Pacific Union Conference, and followed through to create one of the earlier web presences in Adventism. Within a few years it was (unsurprisingly) superseded by a site that was deeper in content and visually more advanced. But while my project was under development, the Pacific Union president invited me to give a presentation about the internet to the Union Executive Committee.

So I did, focusing less on the underlying technology and more on what the internet could offer the church. One of my points was how a web presence can explain what Adventism is about—beliefs, culture, etc.—so a random visitor might “try us on” to see whether they were interested in more information. I explained it as something like a filtering mechanism, where the person browsing would consider whether Adventism was worth a deeper look.

After my presentation, one of the Union Vice Presidents approached me to quizzically challenge my supposition that Adventism would benefit from a qualification process, one that could result in people who might then decline further interest. Wasn’t Adventism universal? After all, the “gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world” (Matt. 24:14 NIV), and we’re tasked with giving the final “loud cry” to everyone in this wide world. So, wasn’t it inconsistent with these premises if I thought there might be lots of people who wouldn’t investigate further if a website provided an accurate explanation of Adventism? That is, people who would decline, not because they rejected the gospel, but because the church might seem ill-suited to their social or philosophical comfort zones? That would mean there was a difference between Adventism—the “remnant church”—and Adventism as it actually functions. And this VP struggled to believe that such separation would or should take place. Now, we had a very cordial conversation, but he was genuinely perplexed.

Survivorship Bias

Social psychology has long investigated a fairly intuitive concept called Survivorship Bias. It is the mistake of only considering something from the perspective of those people or entities that have survived. The bias then is failure to factor in the rest of the data; that is, the ones who were not selected, who didn’t “survive.” This can lead to faulty judgments because the unselected ones have an important perspective, too.

A very clear illustration comes from World War II. The American military wanted to determine how to improve their bombers, specifically where should they add additional armor when building new and improved planes. So, they looked at the aircraft that returned from combat. Where were the bullet holes? Here’s an illustration of the general pattern found:

Image Credit: Wikipedia

The military brass concluded that they ought to reinforce those parts of the plane where the bullet holes were. But a statistician consultant disagreed, and offered the superficially counter-intuitive opinion that they should instead reinforce those parts that had not taken bullet holes. The reasoning, in hindsight, is obviously sensible. The only planes being examined were those that survived. This inferred that the bullet holes they exhibited were not fatal. What was more important was to consider the planes that didn’t survive. They weren’t available to examine, but one could infer that they more likely crashed because they were hit in critical locations. The returnees made it back precisely because they didn’t get hit in those spots.

Where’s the connection?

So, what has the above story of my website conversation have to do with Survivorship Bias? The VP and I could be considered “survivors” of some Adventism gateway filter. Whether born in or converted later, we somehow had arrived at our conversation as insiders.  And, unless we explicitly recognized the danger of extrapolating from the inside back to a world at-large, we might think the process of entering Adventism was a choice made equally by everyone on the planet. This, of course, would fit with Adventism’s self-perception that it is a universal option God has created for the Last Days.

But members (and especially administrators) often disproportionately interact with other insiders. Thus, our perspective can be skewed and we might not adequately recognize why some people wouldn’t seriously consider joining the church. And, by under-appreciating that perspective, we could perpetuate evangelistic approaches based only on what was “successful.” Like only examining planes that didn’t get shot down. The hard reality here is that Adventism, like any human organization, has both cultural and ideological limitations that filter people both in and out.

Subset after subset

But there are further selection processes that occur from within Adventism. I will (loosely and somewhat arbitrarily) suggest five transitions, beginning on the outside, with each one starting from the previous population and producing new “survivors.”

1. Entrance into Adventism. You get here in basically two ways—birth or conversion. But as the ostensible goal is to evangelize the world, let’s consider the conversion process. We have historically used quite specific approaches to persuade the public. They typically involved explanations of eschatology, referencing Daniel and Revelation. The core gospel message would follow, mixed in with the unique Adventist doctrines, and implications of what lifestyle norms would be expected (e.g. no tobacco and alcohol, Sabbath observance guidelines). Lots of people have “flunked” this “entrance exam.” But those who entered church membership were “survivors” (no pejorative meaning intended) of the appeal they experienced.

2. Assimilation into the local church. It is well recognized, especially by those whose Adventist experience included traditional evangelism, that not everyone who gets baptized then successfully transitions into “long haul” membership. There has always been a substantial dropout rate among new believers. Notably this is because the new adherent’s experience and expectations during evangelization are frequently quite different from their weekly, normative experience, when attending services in the subcultural community. So, new believers too-often struggle to make this transition, then fail to be assimilated into the church.

3. The call to pastoral ministry. People who decide to enter the ministry will normally be drawn from the set of church members at-large. There are lots of factors in such a decision, but the candidate will almost surely be an already-convinced and acculturated Adventist. Further, they likely have specific priorities and personality traits, when compared with the full population of members.

4. From pastor to administrator. An administrator, typically at the local Conference level, usually gets recruited (“called”) from the pastoral ranks. Those who move into Conference administration could be viewed as the “survivor” group who, based on some selection criteria, left the pastor category and transitioned into the smaller populace of church administrators.

5. Moving to the “upper” ranks. We know that administrators don’t like to consider (let alone describe) transitioning through the administrative ranks as promotions. But human nature usually operates otherwise. In any event, the transition path moves from first-line administration, usually in a local Conference, through the Union level, the Division, and finally (for a few) to the General Conference. There are many often ill-defined criteria for these transitions. But the set of “higher level” administrators are mostly drawn from the broader administrative population. Those who cross this job “barrier” have more responsibilities and prestige. But they also likely bring with them a set of assumptions, and a world-view that is more uniform than the population they came from.

My article’s title – and the implications

 Only Survivors Run the Church. While the above transition descriptions are obviously simplified, each one involves a selection process, with the initial populations being separated (to use my nomenclature) into survivors and non-survivors. You have: 1) from everyone to those choosing Adventism; 2) from newbie Adventists into acculturated church members; 3) from member to pastor; 4) from pastor to administrator; finally, 5) transitioning “up” the administrative levels.

At each transition there is a winnowing of the original population. And there is also a corresponding risk of Survivorship Bias with each passage. The further “inside” the church an individual moves, the more they spend their time (and lives) interacting with an increasingly specialized and likely homogenized population, one with a narrower and narrower world view. There is then an associated risk that decisions made, and thus the steering of global Adventism, will not adequately take into account the perspective of those who have been “left behind.”

Like any disposition we humans have, Survivorship Bias can be mitigated first by recognition, next by personal introspection, and finally with deliberate attempts to counter it by trying to better understand the perspectives of non-survivors. This prescription isn’t just for General Conference officers, although there is a strong potential for the bias to be present there, since multiple transitions have occurred. But, most of us in the church are laity. We can easily turn inward and thus become insensitive to the perspectives and priorities of those outside the church. We can shrink into a little “club” that speaks in jargon and has a confounding culture when viewed from a non-Adventist mindset. Such insularity hurts the church’s witness generally, skews our personal perspective, and limits our empathy and accessibility to those who didn’t, and perhaps wouldn’t, choose Adventism.

Photo by Joel Fulgencio on Unsplash

About the author

Rich Hannon, a retired software engineer, is columns editor for SpectrumMagazine.org. His long-standing avocations include philosophy, geology, and medieval history. More from Rich Hannon.
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