Church Membership Reaches 18.1 Million
But executive secretary G.T. Ng would rather talk about the “serious loss” of members.
Membership in the Seventh-day Adventist Church has topped 18 million for the first time, but G.T. Ng, executive secretary of the Adventist world church, isn’t celebrating.
Ng expressed dismay about large losses.
“It’s easy to baptize them, but it’s much harder to retain them,” Ng said in an interview.
“Retention and nurture should be on the same side of the coin, but apparently baptism brings more glamour: ‘Look at how many I have baptized!’” he said. “’Nurture? Who cares? There’s no glory for me.’ So we have an inherent problem: losses, serious losses. But not many people talk about it.”
Ng, however, made a point about talking about it on Sunday when he delivered a yearly membership report to the Annual Council, a major business meeting of world church leaders at the Adventist Church’s headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Church membership has swelled by 1.5 percent to reach 18,143,745 million from 17,881,491 a year earlier, according to data that he presented. For the 10th year in a row, more than 1 million people joined the church — 1,091,222 to be exact — but at the same time a decade-high 828,968 people were removed from the books after dying, leaving the church, or disappearing.
Some of the losses reflect an ongoing drive by local churches to audit their books to remove the names of unreachable members who have not attended worship services for some time, said David Trim, the world church’s chief archivist who compiles the data.
Without the audit, church membership would stand at 25 million today, Ng said.
Offering another difficult statistic, Ng said 31.8 million people have been baptized over the past 40 years, while 11.4 million have dropped their membership or gone missing. The figure does not include those who died.
Many of those people left because the church didn’t nurture them properly, Ng said in the interview.
In a recent example, the last Adventists who were baptized after an evangelistic series in a small village in northern India in 2005 reconverted to Hinduism in late August. The incident, which made headlines in the Indian media, raised fears among Christians that the reconversions were forced, which is illegal in the country.
But an Adventist task force sent to the village, Asroi, found that the 33 former Adventists had received little support from church leadership since their baptisms in 2005 and at the same time had been eagerly courted by Hindu activists. Only about six people remained on the membership books when the reconversions took place.
Leaders with the church’s Southern Asia Division, which includes India, have engaged in soul-searching after the loss.
“We have to carefully nurture the newcomers and help them to be rooted in the word,” T.P. Kurian, communication director for the Southern Asia Division, said in a recent e-mail.
Also Sunday, Ng defended the practice of counting members and said it could not be compared to an Old Testament census by Israeli King David that resulted in punishment from God. Ng said David’s actions were a display of arrogance and pride.
“When we count in the church, we have to count with humility,” he said.
The tally, he said, is simply “a report on what the Master has done."
Ng elaborated in the interview by pointing to three of Jesus’ parables in Luke 15.
“There’s nothing wrong with counting itself,” he said. “After all, Jesus counted in the three parables, right? The woman counted her 10 coins and found one was lost. The shepherd counted only 99 sheep. The father lost a son. So there’s nothing wrong.”
Among the other statistics, Ng noted that growth was stagnating in the countries of the northern hemisphere and Australia but exploding in the southern hemisphere, especially in Central and South America, Africa, and Southern Asia. Furthermore, he said, the modest growth taking place in North America and Europe was largely coming from immigrants from the southern hemisphere.
Europe is even more challenging, he said. The church has three divisions in Europe, a legacy of its long presence on continent, but membership is small. The Trans-European Division, which includes Britain, is the smallest of all of the church’s 13 divisions with 84,428 people.
“So the divisions wonder, ‘Where we are going?'” Ng said. “It’s so tough.”
The British Union Conference, for example, has 34,512 members, a net increase of 464 people from 34,048 a year earlier. Most of the new members were immigrants.
“What about the indigenous British?” Ng said. “I mean, they were born there. They were from there. What about them? Are we doing something for them? Those are hard questions.”
Ng said mission stories usually end on a high note and leave the impression that the work was successful. But he said the statistics present another side of the picture: much of the world hasn’t had a chance to hear about the first coming of Jesus, let alone the second coming.
He said the church has a presence in about 230 countries, but another 22 countries recognized by the United Nations remain unentered. Furthermore, a country might have a large population of Adventists but still contain major people groups without a single Adventist. In Kenya, many of the 800,000 church members primarily come from two language groups, while the other 40 language groups are largely unreached. The same is true of Thailand, where most members come from minority people groups.
“So it does not mean that once you have entered a country the work is done,” Ng said. “Far from it!”
Contact news editor Andrew McChesney at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @ARMcChesney