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Why So Few Large Congregations?


It was a question I heard asked in a Sabbath School class—rhetorically, it turned out, for the questioner also had the answer. He opined that we don’t have many big churches because our faith is too rigorous for most people. There’s too much to give up: alcohol, tobacco, meat, a tenth of your income, and Saturday football. “People won’t make the sacrifices,” he said. In his opinion, the Seventh-day Adventist Church isn’t for everyone. Like the Marines, we’ll settle for a few good men. As for the unreached, well, “strait is the gate and narrow is the way… and few there be that find it.”

It seemed to me a facile answer, and a bit too self-important. In fact many churches demand service and sacrifice. As for our unconventional doctrines, I’ve seen people flock to religious groups with much weirder demands than going to worship a day early and leaving the ham out of your split-pea soup.

I’d suggest another reason: as a denomination we’ve not made developing congregations our priority. Rather than making the local congregation the center of our life together, we’ve moved our members’ focus up the church ladder in the direction of the ministries we share collectively. We’ve worked hard on schools, colleges, hospitals, publishing houses, media ministries, administrative offices, missions and soul-winning events, but creating strong, healthy congregations hasn’t seemed like the most important thing that we do—even for those of us in congregations.

A number of factors, beginning with our development as a new religious movement in 19th century America, have made us more denominationally-centered than other Protestant churches. Perhaps the most significant is our unique message. We grew out of conservative Protestantism, but like several other American-born sects (Christian Science, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses) with some unconventional features. The Saturday Sabbath set us apart, as did our dietary restrictions and our belief in the imminent arrival of Jesus.

Yet the key feature of our sociological development, it seems to me, was neither the Sabbath nor the Second Advent, but our fear of Roman Catholicism. By extending that antipathy to all the other Protestant churches that followed the Catholic church’s lead in worshiping on Sunday, we effectively segregated ourselves from other Christians. As a result we came to identify more with the denomination than with a congregation: we were Seventh-day Adventists first, and then members of a particular Seventh-day Adventist congregation.

While a congregation may put up with some heterodoxy, the lineaments of what a Seventh-day Adventist should look like aren’t drawn locally, but centrally. We all, throughout the world, study the same Sabbath School lesson. We receive the same magazines. We officially meet to shape doctrine together every five years (although our cultural differences and the monumental size of these gatherings means that the democratic process is clumsy and easily manipulated). Public evangelism is the systematic theology of our denomination, and here, too, there is remarkable uniformity in presenting what makes one a Seventh-day Adventist.

So the sense of ourselves as a movement that is preparing for Jesus’ soon return has made congregations seem temporary and unimportant in comparison with the big tasks we have to do, the world we have to win.

Second, most of our resources, financial and human, are controlled by the denomination. Tithe, our biggest offering, is roughly double what local congregations raise for their own use, and all of it goes to the conference for distribution. Church members may believe that the tithe all comes back to them in pastoral salaries, but in fact the policies for distribution are mind-bogglingly complex[1], and in most NAD conferences leave about a third of the contributed tithe available to pay local pastoral salaries[2].

While our Fundamental Beliefs mention tithe and offerings, I’ve frequently found that church members think of the local church budget as something you give to if you have money left over, meaning that pastors have to promote local giving with a level of nagging that isn’t required to get tithe.

Pastors are trained, selected, hired (or fired), paid, credentialed and supervised by denominational entities. Though pastorates last longer than they did when I began ministry, traces remain of a philosophy I heard back then: that no pastor should stay in a church beyond 3 or 4 years lest loyalties grow within the congregation that detract from loyalty to the denomination.

A pastor of another Protestant denomination told me, “In our tradition, the pastors of big, successful, growing churches are the superstars. All of us know who they are, and aspire to be them.” For a pastor in the Seventh-day Adventist church, however, once you’ve been ordained, you’ve gone about as far as you can go in parish ministry: in compensation and privilege there’s no difference whether you’re a high school educated pastor in a 4 church district, or a doctorate in a 1000 member church. There’s an appealing egalitarianism about this. But as I mentioned last month, it also means that the best way for a pastor to earn recognition (and a bit more money) is to go to work at one of many levels of church headquarters.

Third, we Seventh-day Adventists have put much effort and money into developing effective schools, colleges, and denominational offices, and most of those institutions have direct relationships with church members. Several times I’ve been present at constituency discussions about closing academies or merging conference or union offices, where I’ve been surprised at how protective people are of institutions that really don’t affect them very much, and that they may not personally use. Yet we feel strong ties to these institutions—at least as strong, sometimes stronger, than to the congregations that serve us weekly. It shouldn’t be entirely surprising, then, that our most successful congregations—really, the only places where genuinely large Seventh-day Adventist congregations can be found—are around our institutions.

Fourth, Adventist media bypass the local congregation, and do it very effectively. This was true of the Adventist press (the institution most responsible for propagating our teachings in the beginning), and now our electronic ministries are having great success in reaching out directly to Seventh-day Adventist church members. This isn’t new, although I’d guess it’s more pronounced than it was back when my grandmother tuned in to The Voice of Prophecy and The Quiet Hour and sent them small gifts. These new networks provide continuous, high-quality programing, though with a troublesome trend of gearing their message to church members (and members responding by supporting these ministries with their tithe) rather than to winning “outsiders” like those earlier ministries.

It would be shallow of us to think that having megachurches is the measure of success, any more than supposing that our faith succeeds (as the man in that Sabbath School class thought) by the number of things we give up. Our denominational focus has helped us build world-class institutions—hospitals, universities and media ministries—of which we are justifiably proud. Though our theological unity is becoming frayed in North America, we’re still holding together. We have a capable and generally well-educated ministry, and our people are still among the most generous givers in Christendom. And we have some remarkably dedicated congregations. Even while directing energy and resources toward the denomination and its institutions, they perform community services, hold evangelistic meetings, and run church schools.

Yet the small size of most congregations raises questions about our future. In the NAD about 60% of our members are in the largest 10% of our congregations, meaning that the largest proportion of congregations are struggling to stay alive. Major metro areas like Cleveland and Pittsburgh don’t have a big flagship church, because there’s no Adventist hospital or college there. Many of our NAD congregations are within a death or two of closing the doors permanently, and I predict that by ten years from now a fourth of NAD congregations will have folded. Whether they will be replaced by new congregations remains to be seen.

At times I detect a condescending attitude on the part of church leaders toward local congregations. Their greediness in pulling the best resources ever upward into the organization minimizes the importance of local work. Though we say church administration exists to serve congregations, the way we deploy resources places congregations in the rôle of franchises for the support of denominational institutions. Church members may think that way, too, believing that their responsibility is to sustain the greater work elsewhere. “True, there’s not much going on in our little church here, but you should see our denominational headquarters in Silver Spring! You should see our university in Loma Linda! You should hear David Assherick preach on TV! That’s what I’m part of!”

There’s no way to know for certain whether the centralized structure we now have has been the best one for our unusual message and mission, or if we’d have been better off had we been less frightened of strong congregations, and more invested in building them up than in creating institutions of other sorts.

Yet it does help to explain, perhaps, why there isn’t a Seventh-day Adventist equivalent to Willow Creek or Saddleback. That’s not the business we’ve been in.

[1] Distributing tithe within the guidelines takes a determinedly bureaucratic mind. One process is called “tithe exchange,” which by sending checks back and forth between denominational entities transforms tithe money into ordinary income that can then be spent for buildings or other expenses.

[2] Some of the rest benefits the conference, such as retirement funding (about 12%) and church schools (20%). The remainder is used in church administration and elsewhere.


Loren Seibold is a pastor in the Ohio Conference, and the recently-appointed Executive Editor of Adventist Today.


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