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Adventists and Church Growth

As a church, we pride ourselves on being focused on evangelism and reaching out to people with the Gospel. Many Adventist churches engage in public evangelism on a yearly/bi-yearly basis in their efforts to spread the message and grow their churches. But, I've started to wonder if we are actually anti-Church Growth (I'm not referring to any specific model of church growth theory but simply the addition of new church members).

Outreach Magazine just published their report on the 100 Fastest Growing Churches in America. I don't think it would really come as a surprise that there are no Adventist churches on that list. My question is: Why Not? Let me state right now that I am no major fan of the megachurch movement and don't think huge growth in one church is necessarily a positive thing. However, I do wonder why there seem to be no Adventist Churches in America that are growing by leaps and bounds and on the radar of the larger Christian community.

Two easy and often repeated excuses include:

1. We worship on Saturday and when people plan on going to church they plan for Sunday.
2. The megachurches offer "Christianity-lite" while we demand much more of people in their faith commitment which they don't want to give.

I don't want to spend time proving those statements wrong because they really are weak excuses. Again, I'm not advocating for a bunch of megachurches but I think most Adventist churches would love to grow and be as big as the megachurch down the street.

If we truly are the "Remnant Church," the apple of God's eye, the people who care about the Bible the most, the people who still obey all 10 Commandments, shouldn't we be growing faster than any other church? Shouldn't we be receiving God's power and blessing more than anyone else? Shouldn't the Holy Spirit work powerfully to convict people about the message?

These questions really haunt me on a deep level. Maybe part of the problem is the word "remnant." Are we hindering what God wants to do through us because of our mindset? I think deep down we might care more about being the remnant, than spreading the Gospel and growing in numbers and influence in the world. We might actually not want to grow for fear that we might no longer be able to feel confident in our remnant status. I fear that we think that only a select few are going to be saved while the vast majority of the world is going to reject God. We have a "remnant-complex" which believes that we will always be small, always persecuted, always on the edges of society.

I honestly don't have the answer to this dillemma, just questions and sketchy theories. Basically, the major questions for discussion are:

1. Why aren't Adventist churches in America Growing?
2. Should we expect an extra blessing from God since we uplift the Bible, 10 Commandments, etc or have we overstated our claims?
3. What does it mean to be the remnant? Can you be large and influential and still be the remnant? Do we have to be the remnant?
4. Do Adventists have a "remnant complex?"


dpm said…
1. Because we're stuck in our ways.
2. We've overstated our claim and missed the whole purpose of ministry. We have too much pride in being right.
3. Hopefully, being the remnant doesn't mean that you're the ones that get left behind when Jesus comes. Sometimes I wonder. Adventists feel like if you're popular and people like your church, then you must be doing something wrong. We love to be the underdog and undermine everything so it'll fail. At least in the US, that's the case. We love to talk about the 1000s that get baptized overseas with the pure 3 Angels Message.
4. We have a complex. Our Adventism keeps us from being true effective Christians to the world around us.

Can't we start a new and improved brand of Adventism?
Nice post. Do you find it interesting that although Adventism has not been able to put together consistent church growth anywhere in North America, it is still the basis of our reward system? Where does that kind of logic lead?
Anonymous said…
Good questions, T.

It's important to note that there is no Mormon church on that list either. Like them and unlike the mega-churches of the past 30 years, we are structured differently. The megachurch movement gives people community. They are not afraid to really embrace hanging out, and along the way they provide metaphysical meaning/truth. Like the Mormon church we grew out of the mid-19th century's mix of rationalistic biblicalism. For us, commitment to truth trumps community. It's how we pulled folks out of Babylon (their churches) and what makes us poor conversation partners with our own members--there is always the danger that a liberal might water down the truth and if ideas are all that's keeping a person around then we're talking the stripping of ultimate meaning (Tillich's Theology of Culture).

I colporteured for six summers in California and Las Vegas and worked in evangelistic series in WA state, Niles, MI and the Philippines. Sometimes we use our beliefs, our truth as a test of faith. Saying: "you can't join us unless you're willing to believe these things." Beliefs are great but we deploy them as tests. "Will they make it through the beast lecture," we wonder. Are they committed to MI leadership enough to not wear a ring? It's no wonder that for small churches, it's usually the really poor, sometimes mentally disabled, and the children of members who make up the fruits of the usual evangelistic work. We cloak our community behind truth; on the other hand, the megachurch offers community and the folks who get involved find the truth/meaning in it. Although I'm simplifying, the point is that we make community contingent on belief. The problem is that the contexts for those beliefs change. Then they become meaningless, or gain new meaning as tests of commitment. Does the Heavenly Sanctuary offer hope in disappointment or a post-1981 test of commitment to the institution? Then belief become a tool for control. Kids check out because the community is what they know and yet that value of the attachment is downplayed by our leaders. At the back of so many of even good committed Sevies is the sense that they don't really belong. It might be nice for academy and college kids to not have to give their heart to Jesus every week of prayer. Maybe they could be called to commitment to their friends and family and church members? There's some personal relationships that Jesus can be revealed within.

Plus, the majority of pastors are not very good at cultivating an inviting culture. I can't tell you how many of these SEEDs (wannabe) European cafe churches I've dropped by, lead out by socially awkward seminarians. Who wouldn't rather hang out with Rick Warren, who reads several books (and the NYTimes) a week. But the most significant problem keeping us from growing has been the tendency since the 80s wherein conference presidents started hiring brand-new dudes straight from places like Black Hills. Many of these guys aren't really educated, and pastoring is their fall back. We don't have enough sharp, normal pastors. Many have little respect for the Adventist community--some having been involved in it only via its strongest critics for a few years. They are propelled by the truth that they found--often due to personal problems--and they don't have the cultural understanding and kindness that it takes to create community.

And "continuous dialogue" raises an significant issue about what we reward. While we have to grow, the instant gratification of baptisms keeps sharp pastors from actually growing the community. What we need are new matrices of growth that provide the foundation for actual growth without driving pastors to squeeze under another confused person who's really just there for the potluck.

Anonymous said…
Questions have been asked about why there aren't long waiting lists to attend Adventist K-12 schools similar to what other private Christian schools enjoy. If we have such a great educational system, why don't more people want to take advantage of what we offer?

My analysis of this question which is similar to what you ask about the lack of mega churches is that in many Protestant circles we're still seen as a cult. We have some very peculiar beliefs including the idea that we are God's organizational remnant church. To some, our beliefs are very strange including our interpretation of eschatology. In additon, some of our lifestyle beliefs such as vegetarianism, dancing, jewelry, and the way we keep the Sabbath are somewhat anachronistic although more widely accepted now than in earlier years.

More than all of these elements may be our attitude and relationships with others. When you feel you are the remnant, you can take on an attitude that, "I'm better than you." Non-church members look at the fights we engage in over what some would consider to be trivial issues and don't want to be part of a school or church engaged in such clashes.

Even our support of the seventh day as Sabbath may be seen by many Protestants as a rejection of Christ's resurrection which they see as celebrated in Sunday worship although its pagan origins are more historically accurate.

After hearing George Knight give the keynote at the NAD K-12 Teachers' Convention focusing on the apocalyptic emphasis of Adventism this week, we enjoyed two hours with a close friend who is Roman Catholic. We asked what he thought of the message. I'm not sure he was picking up on the internal nuances but he said he was challenged by what he heard.

One problem is that in trying to be more respectable and accepted by the broader world of Christianity, we may so dilute our message that there's no reason for our existence. Yet we don't want to hold on to certain ideas just to be different. It's a hard balancing act.

Dick Osborn
Anonymous said…
I appreciate Mr. Osborn's words (those O's, perhaps most dominant Adventist family in the www?) and I agree with the argument about our remnant solipsism.

The debate often gets to the usual question about what beliefs and compromise - an all to familiar and troubling place for the loyal. But most emerging multi-generational Adventists stay in the church less for the Heavenly Sanctuary and more for the culture--which now is a compromise between traditional boomer Adventism concerns over justification by faith and evangelical modes of worship. Perhaps I've read too much Richard Rorty, but I would suggest that Truth is what we stamp upon our cultural codes to justify their meaning to us.

What I mean is that the future of a vibrant American Adventism lies in employing our beliefs - i.e., Sabbath, Judgment - as cultural translators so that Sabbath means community, not just duty, and Judgment means more than get ready for the end, but perhaps means working to model divine justice on earth.

Thus we keep the belief, but update the meaning so that it actually might just give us the doctrinal and cultural growth and continuity that makes a church strong.
trevan said…
This has been a good discussion. To answer Delina's question, yes, we can form a new and meaningful brand of Adventism. However, what Alexander said is very important. The church is more worried about doctrine and ideas than community and loving our neighbor. So, any new way of doing things, any new twist on a doctrine will create a lot of controversy. The navigation will be extremely delicate but must be attempted.

What I want those who violently oppose new and fresh ways of doing things to understand is that we are not out to destroy Adventism. We love Adventism and want to stay. We want to change it because if we can't, there is no other option but for us to leave the church. We love the church so much that we want to make sure it is meaningful and can be a source of growth, worship, and love for the community.
Anonymous said…
In fact, there are Adventist megachurches. If you go to the data base of megachurches maintained by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, you will see six or seven Adventist churches in the list. They recently released the first real research on the megachurch phenomena and found that it knocked down a lot of widely-accepted myths. For example, most megachurches are affiliated with a denomination. The nondenominational megachurch is relatively rare.

The Adventist megachurches are all either campus churches or historically African American city churches, with one exception: Arlington Church in Dallas area. This underlines two of the things that have been related to Adventist church growth: schools and ethnicity. But there is good evidence that things are shifting and the two major factors that correlate to emerging Adventist church growth are immigration and community involvement. (See "Adventist Congregations Today," chapter 2.)
trevan said…
You know you've arrived when our Adventist statistical/church growth/sociologist/creative guru writes a comment on your blog. I tread lightly in my response. . .

I am well aware of the Adventist megachurches that you refer to. Although they are megachurches by numbers definition, I don't really consider them megachurches for the reason they are megachurches which, as you note, is because most are campus churches. I consider these to be megachurches by default and not because of a great system of outreach. I know that is definitely the case for one church on the list which I'm familiar with. However, I'm glad that we are beginning to experience growth through not only immigration but community involvement. This is definitely encouraging news.

The interesting thing about the fastest growing churches is that 73 of the 100 were predominantly white which you wouldn't necessarily expect. This is surprising especially since our growth is coming from the Hispanic community and Black churches. Any insights as to why this is?

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