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The Shaking: How Should Adventism Solve its White Flight Problem?

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Seventh-day Adventists have long preached about “The Shaking.” This teaching, traced back to Ellen G. White in the late 1850’s, has provided fodder for Adventist end-time preaching. Sometimes called “the sifting,” The Shaking portends a mass exodus from the Remnant Church because of external pressures and a crisis within the ranks. 

Adventists still fervently preach that The Shaking will divide Adventists into two groups: the wheat and the tares. The event, they say, will take place immediately before the Second Coming, following widespread persecution, false teachings, satanic deceptions, and spiritual indifference. The Shaking foretells an end-time crisis marked by a great falling away within Adventism—a final “winnowing” that will differentiate between true and false believers. 

I would like to focus on another shaking, however—far less noticeable, but no less apocalyptic and consequential. Though I have never heard a sermon preached about it, there is a demographic shaking underway in North-Atlantic Adventism. First, the familiar story of British Adventism.

Demographic Shaking in British Adventism

British Adventism began in the 1880’s and steadily grew over the next several decades. Patrick Boyle, wrote in the Journal of Adventist Mission Studies that by the 1950’s the roughly 7,500 members of the British Union were nearly exclusively white and worshipped in culturally homogenous congregations. In his article, Immigration and Evangelization in the British Union of Seventh-day Adventists, Boyle noted that the British Union of the 1950’s was a microcosm of the larger worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church: mostly white, predominately residing in the United States. 

Caribbean Adventism, similarly established in the 1880’s by American Adventist missionaries, saw consistent growth during the same period. Since many Caribbean islands were part of the vast British Empire, when Great Britain called upon its colonies to help rebuild after World War II, throngs of Caribbean immigrants answered the call for various reasons.

The Black/white divide in British Adventism began there. The former, with its vibrant evangelistic fervor imported from the Caribbean, grew quickly in the motherland. In time, amidst increasing racial tension between the two groups, this growing demographic demanded more representation in church leadership. The “Pierson Package” was the solution. 

In 1978, General Conference President Robert H. Pierson proposed an integrated model of Black and white leadership at both the union and conference levels. While this model encouraged evangelism and church growth, it also accelerated demographic shifts in the British Union. Over the next forty years, the British Union of Seventh-day Adventists went from an exclusively white union to a church predominantly comprised of non-white largely Caribbean immigrants. The decline of the white Adventist majority in the United Kingdom caused white Adventists a lasting feeling of disenfranchisement. 

The irony is that the generation of white British Adventists who once warned of the final shaking in the face of persecution and external pressures are now gone; shaken out of the Remnant, prematurely, it seems. And today the voices of their descendants can scarcely be heard within the Church’s ranks in the United Kingdom. Adventist preaching about the end-time shaking does not envision immigration as one of the culprits.

The case of the British Union portends a larger trend which has characterized the growth of Adventism worldwide. It is worth noting that when the Adventist Church reached its one million benchmark in the 1950’s, it was mainly comprised of white members. Most lived in the Global North, specifically the United States. Today, the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church is mostly non-white, and the vast majority of its membership lives in the Global South.

The Canadian Union’s Demographic Shift

Though hard statistics lack, a clear majority of Canadian Adventists are non-white. The Center for Creative Ministry’s 2011 Survey of Church Members (its most recent, though incomplete survey) indicated that non-white groups (of which Afro-Caribbean and African Blacks account for about 40 percent) make up some 65 percent of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Canada.

In the Canadian Union where I worked for several years, the demographic “shaking” has gone on for decades. The tipping point from whites-as-majority to whites-as-minority came and went without much notice. Or consider the French-speaking Quebec Conference, once almost entirely white but now primarily populated by Haitian immigrants, and struggling to attract white Quebecois, who perceive the Adventist Church as Black and therefore “foreign.”

The demographics also have clearly shifted at Burman University in Alberta, where I taught until 2022. The student body today has a markedly non-white majority. It seems to me that the Canadian Adventist Church is on a similar trajectory to that of the British Union. 

White Flight in Adventism’s Global North?

Racial diversity holds both promises and perils for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Northern Adventism celebrates it. The oft-cited Pew Research Center’s 2015 study found that compared to 27 other religious groups in North America, Seventh-day Adventism is the most racially diverse. But could that celebrated diversity simply be the long shadow of demographic shifts denomination-wide? The Global Seventh-day Adventist Church may be a transitional movement. There is a clear inverse relationship between racial diversity and the longevity of the “host” population in Global-North Adventism: as diversity increases, the white population leaves.

White membership in Global-North Adventism is declining fast. Diversity presents an uncomfortable growth-recession paradox: increases in one demographic has led to declines in the other. The topic of immigration raises questions: Why have white Adventists failed to connect the Three Angels’ Messages (to every nation, kindred, and tongue) with the increase in immigrants among them? Why has the Adventist Church failed to leverage its vaunted diversity as a tool for sustainable, holistic growth? Why has our message not resulted in a thriving, integrated church, with unity among the many cultural and ethnic identities comprising the Remnant? 

Regional Conferences” the Solution?

In his book “How Mono-Chromatic Is Church Membership? Racial-Ethnic Diversity in Religious Communities?”, Sociology of Religion professor Kevin Dougherty questions whether diversity should even be a desired goal of religious communities. He asks, “If religious communities that have high participation and growing memberships are those that best address the culturally embedded preferences of a specific market niche then successful congregations and parishes will continue to be homogeneous” (page 82). 

Former General Conference Vice President Calvin B. Rock shares Dougherty’s view. In his 2018 book Protest and Progress: Black Seventh-day Adventist Leadership and the Push for Parity, Rock detailed the “glowing achievements” of Adventism’s Regional Conferences: exponential growth in membership, unmatched growth in financial giving per capita, self-determination and autonomy, empowerment of Black leaders, effective evangelism, a robust healthcare plan and retirement benefits for clergy, among others” (pages 173-174). 

Is cultural homogeneity axiomatic for religious vitality? The case of Adventism in the UK following the Pierson integration seems affirm this pragmatic conclusion.

Could Canadian Adventism solve its white flight problem by advancing its own ethnically-distinct conferences? Should Adventism do the same wherever demographic fault lines exists? Are these the only alternatives: to separate church structures along ethnic and cultural lines or continue witnessing the decline of the “host” population in a futile attempt to integrate? 

More importantly, what does the Gospel suggest concerning Adventism’s racial discord? Where does the efficacy of the Gospel meet the reality of racial, ethnic, and cultural divides? The power of the Gospel that Adventists preach with world-reaching evangelistic zeal seems to bear little weight when it comes to the perennial struggle with racial politics. 

When will Adventist preachers and evangelists begin to shift their focus from an apocalyptic, end-time, spiritual winnowing of the ranks to the more immediate and exigent demographic thinning that threatens to sift out the white representation from God’s end time people?

It is always easier to anticipate future events, to see trouble at a distance than to tackle problems right in front of our eyes. It seems far easier to prognosticate about an indeterminate, distant crisis than to admit the concrete and present demographic plight in our ranks. At the rate of current demographic transformation, by the time the long-anticipated shaking materializes Adventists may end up with a Remnant of quite a different making. 

Title Image by Naassom Azevedo on Unsplash


About the author

Kevin Burrell, PhD, is Associate Professor of Religion and Culture at Wilfrid Laurier University, Ontario Canada. Before moving to Laurier he taught Religious Studies at Burman University from 2015-2022 and served as Special Assistant to the President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

More from Kevin Burrell.
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