Surprises in the Numbers: The Adventist Church in Review

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Surprises in the Numbers: The Adventist Church in Review

When church administrators gathered in 2013 to review the results of the first Global Church Member Survey, they expected to find some areas of concern, particularly in regard to doctrine. They weren’t surprised to find a subset of Adventists, especially in Western countries, expressing doubts about a recent six-day creation, Ellen White’s prophetic gift, or the investigative judgment.

 

But some of the findings caught them off guard. For instance, they learned that 13% of Adventists disagreed with the church’s teaching on what happens after death.[1] “Everyone assumed, ‘This is a given,’ but it wasn’t,” recalled David Trim, who oversaw the survey as director of the Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research (ASTR) at the General Conference.

 

RELATED ARTICLE: What Do Adventists Believe Now?

 

There were other unexpected results. Some 60% of members thought Jesus wouldn’t return for at least another 20 years. And it wasn’t just secular Westerners questioning a literal creation week—double-digit percentages in Central America and parts of Africa did the same.

 

“Whenever there’s bad news, some people won’t want to believe it’s true,” Trim observed. But with troubling statistics staring them in the face, church leaders could see emerging problems that thus far had escaped their notice. The surprises in the data convinced church leaders to address issues that they would not have prioritized otherwise, Trim said.

 

Discovering Global Attitudes

 

Last year ASTR conducted a second Global Church Member Survey to assess trends and explore the 2013 findings in more detail. The 2018 survey was more than twice as large, garnering responses from 63,756 Adventists in all 13 world divisions.

 

The large sample size enabled analysts to draw statistically significant conclusions on a wide range of topics, from personal devotional practices to theological beliefs to patterns of church attendance. The Meta-Analysis Final Report on the 2018 survey, authored by a team of six researchers from Andrews University, is now available online.

 

Besides informing leaders at the General Conference level, ASTR prepared reports for each of the world divisions. In addition, they provided meaningful data for many individual unions, enabling leaders at several levels of administration to address problems specific to their area.

 

Trim said the in-depth research is part of a shift in how the church does its work. His office has led the way in helping administrators to place a greater value on research and to make more use of data as they plan for mission and ministry.

“Our decision-making in the past was often based largely on hunches, on guesswork, on who made the best speech in an executive committee,” Trim said,

 

But now I think church leaders are getting used to hearing data to underpin discussions and decision-making. There is a broad consensus that we need to do this kind of research.

 

Data from the Global Church Member Surveys has played a key role in shaping the Adventist Church’s five-year strategic plan, currently known as “Reach the World.” Trim is secretary of the committee that is drafting the next strategic plan, which he expects to be voted at Annual Council in October. Because the goals in this plan are designed to be measurable, Trim expects that another survey will be conducted in five years to assess progress.

 

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The volume of responses from around the world provides a vast treasure trove of data for scholars. Envisioning plenty of material for multiple Ph.D. dissertations in the most recent survey alone, Trim is eager to see academics and graduate students dig into the results. (The complete data set has not been made public but can be released to researchers.) Such research projects “could be an astonishing blessing to the church,” he said.

 

Academics outside the church have an interest in the data as well. Trim and the authors of the Meta-Analysis will present a panel on their research at the upcoming annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.

 

“The data from the Global Church Member Survey is unique” because of its global scope, Trim said. “No other church has done this.”

 

A Counter-Cultural Church

 

What can we learn about the state of global Adventism from this massive survey? Key takeaways are summarized in the Meta-Analysis and in Trim’s report at last year’s Annual Council (video and pdf).

 

On the positive side, the survey indicates a broad acceptance of core doctrines among Adventists. More than 90% “agree” or “strongly agree” with distinctive beliefs such as the seventh-day Sabbath, the nearness of Jesus’ coming, and Ellen White’s prophetic ministry. Despite a few vocal critics, 95% of Adventists say they believe in the Trinity. Church members worldwide spend significant time in Bible study, prayer, worship, and outreach, and 93% of them expect to continue attending an Adventist church for the rest of their lives.

The Meta-Analysis authors note:

Relative to their surrounding cultures, members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church can be described as a counter-cultural, very Christ-focused community.

 

Even in secular, polytheistic, or overtly hostile environments, “members have successfully integrated the core and unique contributions of the Seventh-day Adventist Church into their daily lives and their worldview.”

 

One striking example of this counter-cultural tendency is in the area of alcohol consumption. Though we might rightly be concerned that nearly one in 10 Adventists has used alcohol in the past year (perhaps more, assuming some survey respondents were reluctant to admit that they “broke the rules”), the fact that 91 of 100 abstained is remarkable considering that many church members live in cultures where almost everybody imbibes a glass of wine or champagne from time to time.

Country data from Our World in Data

Spiritualistic Adventists

 

One of the areas where agreement is not as strong is on the aforementioned topic of life after death. The 2018 survey asked several questions about this topic to probe deeper into the concerns raised by the 2013 survey.

 

The results were startling. One in three Adventists agreed that “the soul is a separate, spiritual part of a person and lives on after death.” In some regions of the world, that number was as high as two out of three. Significant minorities in some divisions believed that the dead can communicate with the living or thought it was fine for Christians to go to witch doctors for protection and healing.

Though church leaders found the numbers hard to believe at first, according to Trim, “when we thought about it, the data made sense.” These beliefs are most prevalent in Africa, Asia, the South Pacific, and Latin America, which is where the church is growing fastest. People are rapidly converting from religions that place heavy emphasis on some type of consciousness after death. In these cultures, Trim observed, “the relationship with the dead is an integral part of life,” making it hard for people to leave behind the assumption of an immortal soul.

 

Now that this second survey has confirmed the problem, Trim said, church leaders are highly motivated to make changes to ensure that this pillar of Adventist belief is well taught. Potential solutions include creating more thorough Bible studies for new converts and devoting an entire Sabbath school quarterly to the topic.

 

North America vs. the Rest of the World

 

How did the North American Division (NAD) fare in comparison with the rest of the world? Given the recent debates in the church that have pitted “liberal” Western countries against “conservative” nations in the developing world, one might expect to see that North American and European Adventists are losing their fervor for the church’s distinctive message and lifestyle. Or, on the flip side, perhaps Adventists in the cradle of the movement are continuing to champion unique beliefs such as the ministry of Ellen White and the 2300-day prophetic timeline that could seem less relevant in non-Western cultures.

 

The North American Division does have several traits that set it apart. North American Adventists are by far the oldest (81% of the respondents were over 40) and are the most likely to have grown up in the church. They are the most educated group, with 73% holding a college degree, and had the highest rate of Adventist school attendance.

 

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Surprisingly, Adventists in the NAD did not appear notably unorthodox in most areas of doctrine. Though they were the most likely to say they had questions or major doubts about Ellen White’s prophetic role and the church’s interpretation of end-time prophecy, they fell in the middle of the pack on hot-button topics such as a recent creation week and the 1844 date for the beginning of the investigative judgment. Compared with Adventists in the developing world, they were less prone to advocate spiritualist views of life after death and to express legalistic perspectives on obedience.

 

Perhaps North American church members are too well versed in our beliefs to give the “wrong answer” regarding individual doctrines. But when questioned about the Fundamental Beliefs as a whole, their support was less robust. Statements such as “The Seventh-day Adventist Fundamental Beliefs are the teaching of Holy Scripture” and “The Seventh-day Adventist Fundamental Beliefs as a whole reflect the loving and gracious character of God” found a significant number of detractors. NAD Adventists were also less prone to simply acquiesce to official church positions. When asked about a specific doctrine and given options such as “I embrace it wholeheartedly,” “I have some questions about it,” and “I accept it because the church teaches it,” members in the NAD rarely chose the latter, preferring to acknowledge their doubts. Whether these tendencies reflect headstrong American individualism or a healthy willingness to seek truth for oneself may be a matter of perspective.

 

The Puzzling Case of the SUD

 

If you are seeking a doctrinally unorthodox division, it’s not the NAD. You’ll need to look on the other side of the globe at the Southern Asia Division (SUD), which consists almost entirely of one country: India.

 

On virtually every doctrinal question, Adventists in this region scored far below other divisions. Even on almost universally accepted truths such as the Sabbath and the Trinity, less than half of people in the SUD strongly agreed.

 

Oddly, at the same time, Adventists in the SUD outdid everyone else in religious practices such as helping with ministry at church, meeting the needs of the community, and witnessing to non-Adventists. In one particularly striking paradox, SUD Adventists were the least likely to believe that Ellen White was a prophet but the most likely to read her writings frequently!

 

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Trim said more research is needed to understand this conundrum. One possible explanation relates to the status of the church in India, where Christians are a small and often despised minority. Adventists are “a minority of a minority,” Trim said, and they are further marginalized because many members come from the untouchable caste. Largely ostracized from society, they find solace in coming together to worship, to read the Bible and Ellen White’s writings, or to hear the Bible and Spirit of Prophecy read to them—even if they have not been well instructed in the tenets of the Adventist faith. As Trim put it, members in this region may need to “move beyond a spirituality that is a collective expression of an imperiled identity to internalizing the values we want to teach.”

 

Spiritual Slackers?

 

While NAD Adventists rated relatively well in doctrinal understanding and acceptance, their commitment to many areas of practical Christianity appears a bit lackluster. Although most reported regular Bible reading and prayer, they lagged behind other parts of the world in practices such as attending Sabbath school and church, having family worship, and participating in ministry and outreach.

 

One area where North Americans fell short was in their personal study of Ellen White’s writings. In many parts of the world, lack of access to White’s writings limits use by church members. For instance, up to half of members in Africa say her writings are not available in their language. Although most NAD Adventists have ready access to the entire corpus of her work in their native tongue,[2] the NAD ranked fourth in reading her writings at least once a week.

 

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To address these challenges, Trim indicated that the church plans to put significant resources into providing additional translations and expanding access to White’s works on mobile platforms, especially social media. With mobile phones becoming omnipresent in both Western and non-Western societies, church leaders hope better mobile access will encourage members around the globe to increase their utilization of this inspired resource.

 

Another notable slump for the NAD appears in Sabbath school attendance. Only 45% of North American Adventists attend Sabbath school every week, compared with 65-70% in most other parts of the world. The percentage who never attend is twice as high in the NAD as in any other division. Even Europe and Australia outdo the NAD in faithful Sabbath school attendance.

 

Trim noted that many Westerners don’t like the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide and that some churches in North America don’t even have Sabbath school. That’s unfortunate, he said, because Sabbath school “is an unsung success story of the Seventh-day Adventist Church globally. That kind of collective Bible study is tremendously empowering.” Trim said he hopes church leaders in North America will find ways to emphasize it again, perhaps by reinventing Sabbath school as a small-group ministry.

 

But at Least We Have Veja-Links…

 

If there’s one area of Adventist lifestyle where North American Adventists are far ahead of everyone else, it’s vegetarianism. In the Global Church Member Survey, 51% of respondents in the NAD described themselves as vegetarian or vegan. (The ongoing Adventist Health Study-2, with more stringent criteria based on reported food consumption, puts that number at 36%.) Only the East-Central Africa Division came close, with about 40% saying they didn’t eat meat.

 

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Worldwide, the percentage of Adventist vegetarians/vegans is 19%—still a sizeable minority compared with the general population. South Americans emerged as the least likely to go meatless, with about 60% saying they ate meat multiple times per week.

 

While vegetarianism has been a hallmark of North American Adventism for decades, that’s less true in the church as a whole, even in wealthier countries where access to a quality vegetarian diet is probably not a major barrier. But it’s important to note that vegetarianism has never been a test of membership. Members worldwide express strong support for Adventism’s holistic view that physical, mental, and emotional health are important components of spiritual growth, and the vast majority honor their baptismal vows to avoid alcohol and tobacco.

 

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The red flag in the section on health came in response to the statement, “Following the health message ensures my salvation.” There was no clear consensus on this statement. Nearly half of respondents agreed, and in some divisions as many as 75% concurred. Yet in the NAD, where members might seem most entitled to view their healthy diet as a ticket to heaven, Adventists overwhelmingly rejected the idea that their soymilk-drinking, veggie-meat-eating habits could guarantee them a place in the kingdom.

Other parts of the survey revealed similar confusion over the role of obedience in salvation. Two-thirds of Adventists affirmed that “I will not get to heaven unless I obey God’s law perfectly,” while at the same time about 95 percent of the respondents agreed that salvation is only through Jesus Christ. Despite our official statements to the contrary, critics of Adventism seem to have a point when they accuse us of believing that we are saved by works. Many Adventists apparently do believe that to some extent, especially in certain parts of the world. The church needs to give significant attention to clarifying its teaching on the relationship of faith and works and communicating that message in meaningful ways that can be internalized in every culture. This is an area that is ripe for investigation in a future survey.

 

A Call to Humility

 

The Global Church Member Surveys are eye-opening, not only because they alert us to gaps and inconsistencies in the way we put our faith into practice but because they correct some of the misconceptions and stereotypes we have about our diverse, worldwide body of believers. David Trim described the data as “humbling.”

 

“Every division has some strong points and some weak points,” he said. “No division, looking at the data, can say, ‘Well, we’ve got things all sorted out; the problem is you people over there.’”

 

Surveys won’t fix the challenges we face as a church, but at least they can identify and quantify areas that need to be strengthened. A massive undertaking such as the Global Church Member Survey undoubtedly has substantial costs in time and money, but the fact that church leaders are using the information to set priorities and take action is heartening.

 

Because the wheels of church government grind slowly, Trim said, it may take several years to see movement in the numbers as a result of the actions taken in response to the first two surveys. But he is encouraged to see the impact these surveys are making.

 

“I hope church leaders look at the data seriously and prayerfully and see ways to move the church members toward the ground where we want them to be,” he said.

 

______

Notes.

[1] Unless otherwise noted, statistics are from the Meta-Analysis Final Report or David Trim’s Annual Council Report, and graphs are from the ASTR blog.

[2] Admittedly, Ellen White’s writings are not an easy read even for a native English-speaker. In addition, a fraction of North American Adventists do not speak English as their primary language. I was not able to find statistics on this, but it is presumably less than the 15% of U.S. Adventists who are Hispanic.

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Rachel Cabose is the consulting editor of The Compass Magazine and a freelance writer. She previously worked as associate editor of Guide magazine at the Review and Herald Publishing Association. Rachel and her husband, Greg, live in Michigan.