Adventist Media Response and Conversation

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Transitioning out part 1

An article in the Adventist Review on Mike Jones ministry to former Adventists contains the following excerpts:

As much as Mike Jones enjoys a solitary Sabbath afternoon hike in the mountains surrounding his Portland, Oregon home, he'll be the first to tell you a life without relationships is pointless, a series of meaningless motions.

The same goes for church attendance. If Seventh-day Adventists don't maintain solid, nurturing friendships with fellow members, Jones knows firsthand that leaving the church is far easier.

A 2006 study by the
Adventist Church's Council on Evangelism and Witness gives good reason for Jones' emphasis on church community. It reports that former Adventists often cite a lack of friends among their top reasons for leaving the church…

He thinks his job is far from over, estimating at least 1 million former Adventists live in North America. Adventist pastor Lonnie Melashenko agrees.

Look at that last paragraph…they are estimating at least 1 million former Adventists in North America, some estimate 1.5-2 million. That means there is at least 1 former Adventist for every member still on the rolls of the Adventist church in North America; possibly as many as 2 former for every member. That tells us immediately that transitioning out of Adventism (a phrase we probably owe to Dale Ratzlaff) is extremely common for Adventists to do.

Mike Jones undoubtedly has pinpointed the problem as relationship and friends. Because there is certainly an atmosphere in the local church that points people toward the door. The Adventist church likes to say that the people who leave aren’t leaving because of doctrines but it is likely in fact the root cause. Here is a recent quote from the Spectrum blog posted by Clifford Goldstein an author, Sabbath School Quarterly editor and apologist for Adventism. He writes:

Hanson's comment about Daniel being a "historical novel" is typically indicative of just how out of touch most of the folks here are with the vast, vast bulk of the SDA church. (Daniel . . . a "historical novel"? And I suppose Hansen actually views himself as an SDA? Amazing!)

I had no idea what was going on here when I first started reading the blog, but it's painfuly obvious to me, and others whom I have talked to, that the Spectrum blog represents an irrelevant and extreme fringe with minimal influence in the denomination (no matter how much they delude themselves into thinking otherwise). I am, though, glad it's here, because now everyone can see just how totally out of touch with our mission, our message, our purpose it really is.

I could actually cite several other examples from Clifford Goldstein since he has been more vocal then most Adventist leaders on discussion boards and blogs. Now for illustration purposes take those comments and put them into a local church setting. What will they do to the relationships in the church? Traditional Adventists like Cliff have a very black and white world view. If one doesn’t agree with their way of looking at doctrines than that person is not really Adventist. How would someone who was subjected to such insinuations feel functioning in the local church? Will the Traditional Adventist reach out to that person to be their friend? Will that person be included in activities in the church? Probably not, for example in my experience since I stated I did not hold Ellen White to be a prophet in the Old Testament mode of thought current in most Christianity I was asked not to help lead out in my daughters Early teen class.

Who knows what other rumors spread about someone who questions certain doctrines or who does not meet the standards of the Traditional Adventist leadership of the local church. My daughter does not feel comfortable in the Early Teen Class and I am pretty much ignored by those who were involved with me in the short time I was helping out the class. Relationships strained for no other reason then doctrines.

There is a large element of former Adventists who seek to minister to Adventists leaving Adventism. You can ask them or read their material and you can clearly see that they stress doctrinal issues as the reason they left the Adventist church.

Glen Davidson in the same blog mentioned above states the case well saying:

I believe that exchanges such as we've seen on this thread ought to bring into question the idea that people leave the church (most, if not all, churches) for social reasons, and not for doctrinal reasons. Not that it isn't true at all, but the fact is that those whose minds are closed on doctrine also tend to make the social situation within the church problematic.

IOW, the people who are hostile to new or different ideas are typically hostile to the people who might not be quite as hidebound. I mean, how does the SDA church prevent "heretical" ideas from being considered and discussed? Not by meeting the intellectual challenge, rather by denying the right of any member, or ex-member, to bring up what is outside of the "mainstream" of SDA belief. You've noticed the broad spectrum of discussion in the quarterlies, have you not?

The idea that someone as hostile to different ideas as Goldstein or Diehl is could be warm and welcoming to anyone who does not quickly agree with them within their holy citadels is absurd. So while I don't doubt that it is more the social aspects that directly cause people to leave a church, I hardly think that the social environment is not deeply affected by the all-too-frequent sense in SDAism that discussion of many ideas is not to be tolerated.

So we should be clear that those transitioning out of Adventism are doing so because of the climate in the local church. Hopefully there are several Adventist churches in an area so that if one church becomes intolerant and hence damages the personal relationships there could be another local church which does not have the same problems. Usually this is only a delaying tactic in transitioning out of Adventism. As the structure of local churches tends to place in leadership Traditional Adventists, there were after all some major purges in the early 1980’s after Desmond Ford’s Glacier View Conference. When tradition wins over logic and facts as happened there it puts tradition in the forefront and those traditionalists gained ascendancy.

True now the median age of Adventist’s in North America is 58 so in another generation the church may start to look a lot different as traditionalist die off. But few folks in the transitioning out process are looking ahead 20 years or so. Who can blame them, church is meant to be a social organization who wants to be a social pariah for the next 20 years in hopes that a new generation will change the church.

It seems to me that Adventists are actively driving Adventists out of their churches. The numbers certainly suggest this is true. Adventists are not just driving out Adventists adults who may questions certain doctrines but we are driving out our young people, the ones we need to continue the church as our old people, who make up the majority of the North American church retire or expire. To the Traditionalist Adventist maybe this is all the supposed shaking of the Adventist church. No doubt they will still keep a few young people convinced of their traditions so that as the church shrinks to nearly nothing it won’t quite disappear. Maybe even make it down to that magic number, 144,000 North American Adventists. Will the hope for the church growth be the uneducated third world? But what if they become educated will they follow the same pattern of questioning and social rejection as occurs today in North America?

Before I end this part let me just say a little about statistics. Here is a quote from the final draft of the article Conserving Membership Gains - an Appeal

Seventh-day Adventists around the world rejoice in the rapid membership growth of recent years. The Church views this as evidence of Holy Spirit-led movements and a fulfillment of Bible prophecy. (Matthew 24:14, Revelation 14:6, 7) Although the Seventh-day Adventist Church baptized over 5 million people from 2000 - 2005, membership losses during that time equaled nearly 1.4 million. Current indications are that annual membership losses, for reasons other than death, equal approximately 28% of membership accessions. Some membership loss occurs among recent converts, however, this tragic outcome is not limited to new members.

Did you ever wonder why they just don’t say how many people leave the Adventist church per year, maybe by area? Rather they skew the numbers. 5 million baptized and we lose 1.4 million. We know very well that 5 million were not from North America so what do those numbers mean? Where are the most losses occurring? One website offers the following statement:

In 2005, the SDA Church reported alarming membership losses. Despite adding 5 million new believers during the 5-year period of 2000-2004, over 1.4 million members left the church during that same period.2

SDA minister Vance Ferrell describes the problem in his newsletter:

"That is a very high loss. According to the official report, 'for every 100 accessions, more than 35 others decided to leave.' This was a significant increase over the 24 per 100 which left in the preceding five year period (1995-1999). The drop rate has increased by almost one-half.

"A sheet distributed at one of the booths said that '70 percent of young people in developing nations drop out of the church.'

"One missionary declared that, in his field, 'a third are dropped from the membership rolls; another third are on the rolls but no longer attend; and only a third are active members.' That one-third which remains on the rolls but no longer attends is significant. It is clear that membership totals are not a true indicator of the actual number of members in the world church.

"The statistical report, presented at the Session, lists the Southern-Asia Pacific Division (SSD) as having the highest drop rate in the world. It is 104.75%. This means that 104.75% of the number of membership increase in the SSD between spring 2000 and spring 2004 have left the church. That is more than 100%! ... In that time period, the SSD lost more members than it brought into the church."2

1. Vance Ferrell, More WAYMARKS - from PILGRIMS REST, "The 2005 St. Louis Session: Items of Interest General Conference Sessions: WM1305, "2005 ST. LOUIS SESSION: ITEMS OF INTEREST Nov 05 Index: General Conference Sessions / St. Louis".

2. Ibid

This all leads me to ask a few questions, I will try to circulate these to the local pastors here but it would be interesting for others to ask their pastors to answer these questions in an email form and we could post the answers in a later article or simply submit them as comments here and I can put them in an article.

1. Which is most important doctrines or relationships?

2. Is it possible to accept people in your church who disagree with some of your doctrines?

3. Can a person hold a leadership position (other than an adult Sabbath School Teacher) if they do not accept all traditional Adventist doctrines (such as the 28 fundamental beliefs)

4. Do you feel your church does well in establishing relationships?

5. What do you do to try and facilitate relationships between people attending your church?

6. When did you last give a sermon on creating friends either with people inside or outside the church?

7. Many SDA churches have a stand and greet other people before the service, have you ever had a meaningful conversation during this time period (not counting someone asking for a prayer request)?

8. Aside from music how are young people encouraged to participate in your church?

9. Does your church offer an accepting environment should a young person bring in a non-Adventist or non-Christian friend? How comfortable do you think they would feel?

10. Are you afraid of pluralism or encouraged by it as a way to build relationships and encourage thinking?

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