Storms in the Adventist Church
“A low pressure system has moved in across the borders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Everywhere on the leading edge, and in the wake of this frontal system, storms of mixed intensity are raging. Huge trees that have stood the tempests of time for a hundred and fifty years or more are being shaken to their roots and being bent into contours and shapes that could never be imagined. Historic landmarks are being defaced or pushed into the mud. In some cases churches (congregations) are splitting down the middle. In others, doctrinal controversies have erupted and church leadership is called in to try resolve the issues – or at least to prevent the flames of dissent from spreading to neighboring communities. Many valiant guardsmen, overcome by poisonous “fumes of heresy,” have fled to “cities of refuge” (such as the welcoming arms of atheism, Buddhism or any of another number of “isms”). Some have discovered safety and security in traditionalist mainline churches. Still others have, in the process of switching loyalties, become vocal and active critics of the Church.
From metaphor to reality: Why people leave Adventism
There are many doctrinal storms raging in the Adventist church today. The following are possibly the most significant:
- Disagreement with regards to women’s ordination
- Lack of clarity relating to the nature of biblical inspiration as well as the inspiration of the writings of Ellen G. White.
- Renewed challenges around the Trinity and the deity of Jesus Christ
- Longstanding conflict around the Church’s view of eschatology – specifically the 2300 day prophecy and interpretation of the book of Revelation.
- Questions around a recent 7 day creation week
- Reaction against the Church’s dealings with sexuality and GLBT issues.
- Consistently high rates of “de-conversion”- the large number of Adventists who leave the Church for various reasons.
In the rest of this article we will focus on only one of the contemporary “storms”in Adventism and what the Church is doing, or should be doing, to deal with it: The “de-conversion” issue. However, none of the “storms” in the Adventist church today exist in isolation of one another. More often than not aspects of one issue are also interrelated to aspects of some of the other issues.
The scope of the problem
During the 2016 Annual Council the General Conference Secretariat reported that the Adventist world church, now with nearly 18 million members, has lost at least 1 in 3 Seventh-day Adventist members in the last 50 years. Also, in this century, the ratio of people lost versus new converts is 43 per 100.
These statistics are alarming and call for deep introspection, to determine why people leave Adventism, and to implement bold strategies to reverse this trend.
Reasons why people leave Adventism
There was never a time in the history of the Adventist Church that converts and believers did not for one or other reason decide to leave the Church. This phenomenon has always been a matter of concern and of study to Adventist leadership. The precise causes and exact nature of why people leave Adventism have been debated for generations. Let us note the input of three different voices on this issue:
The first voice: Fritz Guy
Fritz Guy1, respected Adventist scholar, thirty years ago already, shared the following insights regarding the “de-conversion” issue. He compares his observation of why people leave Adventism in the 1980’s with why they left the church in earlier decades: He states:
- In previous generations those who left the Adventist Church tended to be careless, rebellious, or embittered. Now they are often serious and thoughtful women and men whose personal pilgrimage leads them away from Adventism.
- Previously, when people gave up Adventism they usually gave up Christianity along with it. Now, however, more and more young people give up only their Adventism, and remain seriously Christian—as Baptists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Catholics.
Guy’s investigation on why people leave Adventism also brought out the following factors:
- They think that Adventism is not entirely believable. For one thing, Adventism has been talking about the soon coming of Jesus for more than 160 years. After all this time, it is not clear what soon means. The prophetic time periods and “signs” plausible in the mid-1800s don’t seem to matter much to them in the late 1900’s (or in 2017, for that matter – Editor).
- For another thing, some people who leave the church are convinced that literalistic interpretations of the Bible are no longer viable. Such interpretations, they believe, are contradicted by an overwhelming weight of scientific evidence. Adventism has always understood itself as being committed to the truth, but some of our sons and daughters think that is no longer the case. For them Adventism is not credible.
- They think that Adventism is not relevant to today’s world. On the one hand, it seems stuck in the past, trying to preserve the culture of another century and perpetuate the thinking of an earlier generation. On the other hand, Adventism doesn’t seem to have anything to say or do about the current problems of the world. . . .
According to Fritz Guy, therefore, people were leaving the church, in the 1980’s, mostly for doctrinal, or other intellectual type reasons. Our “intuitive” observation is that this has not changed significantly in today’s world , thirty plus years later.
The second voice: Br. Anderson2, one of many critics of the Adventist Church
Critics of the Church are generally less tactful when they point out their understanding of the causes of the high de-conversion rate in the Adventist Church. Brother Anderson, creator of the anti-Adventist website nonsda.org seems to come to similar conclusions as Guy when he writes:
“There are a myriad of reasons why people leave Adventism, but in recent years, one reason has begun to stand out above all others: Knowledge. With easy access to the Internet, Adventist members have at their fingertips a wealth of knowledge about the teachings of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Thanks to former SDA ministers such as Elder Dale Ratzlaff, Elder Sydney Cleveland, Elder Walter Rea, Dr. Desmond Ford, and many others, a wealth of knowledge regarding the fallacies of Seventh-day Adventism is now available to anyone willing to take the time and effort to study their religion.
Adventists are often sucked into the SDA Church through cleverly disguised and advertised evangelistic campaigns held in a public location with no mention that the meetings are organized by Seventh-day Adventists. The multimedia presentations are designed to appeal to the senses and the emotions. End-time prophecies are presented in such a way as to arouse alarm and fear. Participants are bombarded with proof texts and one-sided arguments until they are convinced of the necessity of joining God’s “one and only true remnant” church: Seventh-day Adventism.
Later, after the rush of excitement fades, these new Adventists start asking questions. It is not long before it dawns on many of these new arrivals that all may not be exactly as they had been told. Cracks begin to appear in the once-thought-to-be ironclad presentations of SDA Bible prophecy. They start asking questions, and instead of getting answers, they find that their questions are getting dodged. They soon discover there is a large and growing segment of Adventists who do not believe in Ellen White, or the peculiar SDA views of Bible prophecy. And yet, these are often the very reason the new arrivals joined the SDA Church! It is not long before they discover there are different factions in the SDA Church, each with their own idea of “truth”. As they begin examining the SDA doctrines more closely, they soon discover that there is a BIG difference between Bible Truth and SDA truth.
He concludes:More and more, Adventists are now studying their way out of Adventism. Click To Tweet
In this connection the reader is referred to 2 recent blogs on this website:
In a recent study (2013) conducted by the Center for Creative Ministry, former and inactive Seventh-day Adventists were asked what contributed to leaving the church the most. The top three reasons cited for dropping out of the Adventist Church were:
- No big issue—just drifted away (28%)
- Lack of compassion for the hurting (25%)
- Moral failure on my part (19%)
A study conducted by the Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research (2014) asked what event triggered former members’ decision to leave the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The most significant reasons respondents gave for leaving were:
- Perceived hypocrisy in other church members
- Marital difficulties
- Lack of friends in the church
- High level of conflict in local congregation
- Family conflicts other than within marriages
- Personal conflict with local church members
Veteran Adventist Church researcher Monte Sahlin summarizes the conclusions of the various studies that were commissioned by the Church by concluding that the reasons people leave Adventism often have less to do with what the church does and its doctrines than with problems people experience in their personal lives—marital conflict or unemployment, for example. What the church does that contributes to the problem, he said, is not helping people through their tough life experiences.The Church's answer to growing membership may not be in adding new faces, but taking care of… Click To Tweet
From Sahlin’s interpretation of the results of the official studies it seems evident that the Church’s research does not quite support the conclusions of both Fritz Guy and the critics of the Church who see unhappiness with the doctrines and the teachings of the Church as the main reason why people leave Adventism.
So, why then do people leave Adventism in large numbers?
Probably the true answer to the reason for the large number of de-conversions in the Adventist church lies somewhere in between the points of view of Fritz Guy and the critics of the Church on the one hand and the findings of various surveys and Church commissioned research projects, on the other hand.
We suspect, furthermore, that there are complex cultural factors, both in our broader society, and in the church at large that also impact on the reasons why people leave Adventism. Many church denominations are experiencing similar difficulties in retaining members and presenting an authentic voice in the common culture.
Within the church at large – both Adventism and other main line churches – there also seems to be increasing fragmentation of views on doctrine, church tradition, and church authority. Often these perspectives actively vie against each other. Daniel Duda, field secretary for evangelism in the Trans European Division, states that groups in the church quite possibly spend more money and energy trying to convert members in the church to their own perspective of truth, than they do to convert people from outside the church.
We think that one factor that deserves more study is that the methods that we use to bring people into the church often rely on simplistic and sensationalist interpretations of Scripture, while the factors that keep people in the church require a greater focus on nuance, and faith maturity. Are these two approaches incompatible? Do new converts to Adventism need to undergo a second conversion to a more nuanced perspective on history and doctrine. Is this even possible?
What is the way forward?
We think that proposed solutions to the complex problems of the church should be aimed at dealing with some of the underlying interpretive difficulties that affect how we present our doctrines. But there should also be a concerted focus on discipleship and spiritual growth.
When we reflect on the personal stories related in this blog, along with the theological debates that we find ourselves engaged in, we think the following interventions could be helpful.
- The Church should do more to disseminate “accurate” knowledge and information about the nature of prophetic inspiration coupled with a correct understanding of the role and function of the Spirit of Prophecy in the Adventist church.
We do recognize that the Church has already made a huge investment of time and talent in the establishing of various Ellen G. White information centers around the world. The contribution of these centers has been significant in making information on Ellen G. White available. But in a sense these centers have also contributed to the present controversy around E.G. White in that they have, by and large, perpetuated a view of an “inerrant prophetess”, rather than to educate the Church regarding the true nature of Ellen G. White’s inspiration – “thought” -inspiration rather than “verbal” inspiration – which has been, and still is, the dominant understanding of the Church at large.
During the 1919 Bible and History Teachers Conference A.G. Daniels asked the following rhetorical question:
Is it well to let our people in general go on holding to the verbal inspiration of the testimonies? When we do that, aren’t we preparing for a crisis that will be very serious some day?“ If we had always taught the truth on this question, we would not have any trouble or shock in the denomination now. But the shock is because we have not taught the truth, and have put the testimonies on a plane where she says they do not stand. We have claimed more for them than she did.4
What we therefore propose is that the Church embark on a purposeful and concerted effort to implement Daniels’ suggestion. It may be a hundred years late in coming, but if we fail to do this, the de-conversion rate, because of a wrong understanding of Ellen White’s inspiration, will escalate exponentially as people are able to freely access criticisms on this point
2. Devise strategies to support and establish new converts.
In this connection, we support the recommendations that the General Conference’s Anthony Kent, makes in his report to the 2016 Annual Council:
- Implementing comprehensive, widespread, practical and effective training in conflict resolution and reconciliation throughout the Seventh-day Adventist Church
- Incorporating discipleship mentoring into the DNA of the Seventh-day Adventist Church
- Initiate: ‘Operation Reconnect”
There is of course, a very real danger that these recommendations will go the same way as the Daniels’ recommendation in 1919.
Let us pray that this will not be the case!
How do you view the changing Adventist landscape of the 21st century? Can the Church stem the exodus of Adventist believers? Please share your thoughts in the comments box below or join the discussion on Facebook. Please remember to “like” our page and to share it with your friends. If you subscribe, you will automatically receive all new posts in your inbox.
- Fritz Guy, “We’re Majoring in Minors” Adventist Review, June 19, 1986, p. 9.
- Brother Anderson. Founder of nonsda.org, one of many websites created by ex-Adventists to warn people against the Adventist Church or to attempt to destroy the Adventist Church. Some of these websites are vitriolic in their attacks on the Church, others are more reasonable and professional in their approach
- In 2011, Seventh-day Adventist church leaders, concerned about evidence that large numbers of members were leaving the church, decided – under the leadership of the General Conference Nurture and Retention Committee – to conduct a world-wide study of the factors that may be involved. The hope was to identify areas on which to focus the church’s nurture initiatives. A detailed survey was developed by the Nurture and Retention Committee (Adults) and Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research (ASTR) with the purpose of it being administered to members who were no longer attending worship services (“left”), along with a companion (and parallel) survey to be administered to members who had previously left the church for a period of time, but had “returned” to active church membership. These studies were conducted in 2013 and 2014 and were reported to the 2016 Annual Council
- Quoted in: G.Bradford: “More than a Prophet”, p.154