People leave the Adventist Church only because they’ve had a bad experience, right? Not anymore. A new study indicates that more and more church members are leaving because they’ve changed their beliefs.
Picture a Seventh-day Adventist church somewhere with 200 members attending. Over time, 100 of these members will leave the church and in a sense be replaced by 100 new members—and then some. (The Adventist Church is one of the fastest-growing denominations in the world, and the fastest in the United States.1)
But the 100 church members who leave—the ones who used to worship and fellowship, eat haystacks, and sing “Side by Side” with us: Why do they leave?
Past studies indicated that if someone left the Adventist Church, it was almost always because of bad experiences or relationships, not because they changed their beliefs.
In a 1998 report, “Why Do Adventists Quit Coming to Church?” prepared by the Center for Creative Ministry, Ad-ventist researcher Monte Sahlin wrote: “Three out of four leave for reasons having to do with their relationships with people and groups, while less than one in five leave because they no longer believe in some teaching of the church.”
Sahlin cited the work of other Advent-ist researchers, including Roger Dudley, director of the Andrews University Institute of Church Ministry. “Generally speaking,” said Dudley, “poor interpersonal relationships in the church” were the primary reason members left.
“Very few people,” added Gottfried Oosterwal, then-director of the Institute of World Mission at Andrews University, “indicated that they had left because of a disagreement over doctrine. Many had questions and doubts, but no basic disagreements with the main tenets of the Adventist faith.”
Even more emphatic was Harold K. West, Florida Conference ministerial director, based on his 1975 study of departing church members “There was absolutely no proof,” said West, “that anybody left the church because they no longer believed in the doctrines.”
Interviews with former Adventists supplemented the center’s 1998 report.
“After my baptism,” said one former member, “I would wait each week in the foyer. No one would talk to me, no one spoke.”
“The church I attended,” said another, “was so cold I could ice-skate down the aisles.”
“It’s the Theology, Not the People”
While relationships will always factor into any church member’s experience, a new study suggests a shifting landscape in which more and more people are leaving the Adventist Church primarily because they’ve changed their beliefs.
The study, “Former Seventh-day Adventist Perceptions of the Seventh-day Adventist Church,” was conducted in 2011 by Southern Adventist University’s School of Business under the direction of marketing professor Lisa Goolsby. Goolsby was approached by Pastor Jerry Arnold and member Ken DeFoor of the Collegedale, Tennessee, Community church about exploring the reasons members are leaving the church. More than 600 former Advent-ists from throughout the U.S. were invited to answer questions online; 190 participated.
When asked why they quit attending the Adventist Church, 49 percent of respondents cited disagreement or disenchantment with Adventist doctrine, while another 10 percent cited their own lifestyle choices being out of harmony with church teachings. Only 38 percent of responses cited a bad personal experience or “other” reason for leaving. (The respondents were able to cite more than one reason.)
When respondents were invited to give open-ended feedback about their departure from the Adventist Church, 68 percent of the comments concerned Adventist doctrine, 47 percent concerned judgmental attitudes or other problems within the church, 31 percent concerned cofounder Ellen G. White, and 15 percent concerned legalism. (The respondents were able to submit multiple comments, which were then categorized.)
“I could no longer stay within a system,” wrote one respondent, “that I knew to be unbiblical and with which I disagreed. . . . The ‘tipping point’ came when I realized we couldn’t expect our sons to tell us the truth if we were modeling a lack of integrity by being active members of a church they knew we no longer believed. . . . We did not leave because we were in any way hurt, angry, bitter, or disgruntled. We left with great grief and great loss, and we left because the Lord Jesus revealed Himself to us so compellingly that we knew we could not dishonor Him by remaining in a system that does not know who He really is or what He really did.”
“There are many SDA churches,” wrote another former member, “that are open, loving, and focused only on Christ, but this is not the problem. The problem is with the doctrine of the SDA Church. The doctrinal beliefs of the SDA Church are completely unbiblical; this is the reason I will never attend an SDA church again.”
We left with great grief and great loss.
“If Adventism,” said another, “would catch hold of the truth of grace and ‘It is finished,’ it would be a great package.
I . . . cherish my memories of growing up in a warm, family-based, healthy, safe environment. Independent Bible study led me down a different path.”
Another respondent encouraged “much more investigation into the fact that many have left because of doctrinal [reasons] and often, no other reasons. There is too much focus on people being hurt. . . . Doctrinal issues are ignored.”
Doctrinal differences weren’t the only reason cited; the experiential element was still very much present. A divorced single mom with special-needs children described feeling ostracized by church members who were “snobbish.” She said that members with money seemed more accepted.
Another former member described the church as failing to reach out to his family “in their time of greatest need.”
An inactive church member wrote, “Although I consider myself an Advent-ist, I do not currently attend the local church due to the judgmental, resistant attitudes that prevail in my area.”
Still, compared to previous studies, the shift toward beliefs as the leading reason for leaving was striking. One former member wrote: “It’s the theology, not the people.”
Pastor Arnold, who helped initiate the study, said the data align with what he’s seeing up close and personally. “I have had conversations with many young adults who do not embrace every teaching of the Adventist Church,” Arnold said. “Some have perspectives that are not reflective of the official teaching of the Adventist Church. Some understand the official teaching and disagree with it on some points.”
Arnold said the two subjects that he gets asked about most are the doctrine of Christ’s ministry in the heavenly sanctuary and the proper use of Ellen White’s writings.
“People still leave the church over their feelings being hurt,” Arnold said. “But one of the main underlying factors is the mistreatment they got because they were questioning. If we can keep a positive relationship with them while they are processing things, it communicates that they are welcome and wanted in our fellowship.”
DeFoor, who left the Adventist Church and later returned, said he represents a boomer generation that had difficulty separating salvation in Christ from personal behavior such as Sabbathkeeping. “I know we say that the church doesn’t teach this,” DeFoor said, “but certain people give the strong impression that it does teach this.”
Based on his outreach to other former Adventists, DeFoor said that the Adventist Church needs more emphasis on the teaching and preaching of the Gospels. “We need to understand that it must be Jesus first,” DeFoor said. “That will lead us to a better understanding of our heavenly Father.”
Goolsby said the Adventist Church isn’t the only faith community seeing a transient membership. She cites a 2008 Boston Globe article, stating that “44 percent of Americans have left the religion traditions in which they grew up.”2
“Social media has connected our lives,” Goolsby said. “We are now more aware of what our friends, family, and contemporaries are doing, thinking, and feeling. If those friends have issues or questions about their church or their belief system, they are generally speaking out through social media. This causes people who might not otherwise have questions or issues to suddenly start asking some of the hard questions.”
Goolsby said a fundamental question to consider is whether the Adventist Church is a “one-size-fits-all” religion. “Does the member,” she asked, “have to take it all or take nothing? And how does that fit with the plan of salvation?”
Sahlin, who wrote the 1998 report, said that his current research also reflects changing perspectives among former Adventists. “The relational issues are not as acute as they were in the seventies, eighties, and nineties,” Sahlin said. “They are still there, but there is this newer issue of how people experience Christian faith.”
Sahlin said that newer faith issues among Adventists are “largely driven by the evangelical critique of Adventism—that it’s based on salvation by works because of its insistence on the Jewish Sabbath and because of an extrabiblical prophet from which they get their doctrines.”
“I had to study my way out of the Adventist Church before I could study my way back into it.”
Many Adventists today, Sahlin said, aren’t prepared to handle this critique. “The fallout of our own theological debates of the 1980s and 1990s,” he said, “was a new generation that is uncertain about its faith and not well equipped to respond to the evangelical critique.”
Sahlin said that Adventists have quit making their own biblical critique of the evangelical faith, such as that found in The Great Controversy, Ellen White’s 1911 work.“We have tried not to be different,” said Sahlin, noting that in the more recent church-published Great Hope, critiques of other denominations are largely absent.
A New Challenge
The reality of members leaving because of doctrine poses a new—yet old—challenge for the Adventist Church. How should we respond? Here are five suggestions:
1. We should reembrace conversations about doctrine. The Adventist Church was founded on doctrine, even at the expense of relationships. In the mid-1800s, members of other Christian churches (including Ellen White, a Methodist) spent entire nights comparing the teachings of Scripture with the teachings of their own churches—including eternal torment in hell, Sunday sacredness, and a new teaching, the secret rapture. When these members left their home churches to become Seventh-day Adventists, their existing relationships were often strained.
Ironically, some of their spiritual ancestors are now leaving the Adventist Church to return to these same teachings—and experiencing the same relational strain. Rather than feel defensive or judgmental, we should welcome respectful dialogue about Scripture with others. It will benefit everyone.
2. We must provide the best possible scriptural answers to honest inquiries. Former Adventists tend to be a sharp-minded group that demands solid exegesis, not pat answers. It isn’t enough to say “the pope changed Sabbath.” We must first show from Scripture alone how Sabbath rest and salvation rest continue to coexist in the New Testament, just as they did in the Old Testament.3
We must also be willing to explain the uncomfortable but historical truth that the early Christian church began to distance itself from the Sabbath largely for the purpose of distancing itself from the Jews.4 At a time when both Christians and Jews are asking questions, sincere questions, about each other’s faith,5 the Adventist Church is perfectly positioned to teach and model the Judeo-Christian faith of Jesus Christ: one that celebrates “new treasures as well as old” (Matt. 13:52).
3. We should clear up false understandings. For a myriad of reasons, many former Adventists seem to have serious misunderstandings of Adventist beliefs. One survey respondent wrote: “Keeping the Sabbath does not save anyone.” Another respondent wrote that she believed Ellen White was inspired by God—but that she is not our way to salvation. “I don’t think you have to believe in her to be saved,” she wrote.
It’s truly sad that these former members were taught so erroneously; that they attended our churches and never learned of the all-sufficient grace of Jesus Christ. We must all bear responsibility for this and think about the messages we’re sending to our children and our members. Consider, for example, how often we pray “Thank you for the Sabbath” compared to how often we pray “Thank you for Jesus.”
Many survey comments falsely reflected an impression that Ellen White dreamed up Adventist beliefs—when in reality her own study and writing complemented, and often trailed, that of other Adventists. Former members, to be fair, have to recognize that it’s human nature for gifted spiritual leaders to end up becoming too important to their most ardent supporters.
Recently an evangelical congregation decided that a certain woman’s teachings had become too influential—so they banned all classes using her materials. The woman? Beth Moore, a leading Christian writer and teacher. The church’s problem wasn’t Beth Moore; the church’s problem was finding a sense of balance. The same is true for us.
4. We must recognize that sometimes the enemy is us. We can all think of toxic Adventist congregations or ministries that we frankly wouldn’t recommend to anyone. Rather than urge members (or former members) to endlessly “stick it out” in bad-apple Ad-ventist churches, we should encourage them to find a healthier Adventist church—or plant a new one full of grace and truth in fresh airspace. New orga-nisms grow faster anyway.
We must also recognize—and so must former Adventists—that every faith community has toxic elements that poorly represent the wider group. The Baptist Church deals with deluded members who scream “God hates you” at soldiers and gays. Even when functioning normally, every faith community has its strengths and weaknesses. One former Adventist described her children’s experience in their new denomination: “I found the strict rules, severe guilt, and the concept of burning forever in hell a terrifying concept to foist upon children.” Truly every church, like every church member, at some point cries out: “Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:24, 25).
5. We should at least honor the integrity of those who have left. Right or wrong, it takes courage to leave what you’ve always known. Even as we grieve the departure of those who used to worship with us, we should honor their integrity—especially when compared to Adventist thought leaders and members who reject the authority of Scripture, stay in the church, and try to force it into their own image. This type of member does much greater damage to the kingdom of heaven than former Advent-ists who retain a high view of Scripture and are seekers for truth.
In the Adventist Church’s earliest days, there was no creed but Scripture; the only litmus test was the final authority of the Word of God. It should be no different today—as long as someone continues to prayerfully plumb the depths of Scripture, there should be room for them in this church. As one returned Adventist put it: “I had to study my way out of the Adventist Church before I could study my way back into it.” We should not feel threatened by such journeys.
Perhaps the former members who pose the most confusion are those who now seem to find their identity in being “former Adventists”—not unlike divorced persons forever identifying themselves as someone’s former spouse. Ironically, publications and
Web sites centered on being “former Adventists” have grown wearisome even to other former Adventists. “It’s like they’ve just moved their chairs to the other side of the table,” said a former member.
The message that seems to emanate from these groups is that Adventists can’t possibly know the assurance in Christ that they do. This is a bold assertion to make about anyone. Even as Adventists have been guilty of misjudging others, former Adventists should be careful about doing the same toward the people they used to worship with. Members who have left would do much better to keep their focus on Christ and their new Christian communities and avoid the inherently negative spirit of former Adventist groups.
Is It Join Hands or Sing Songs?
At the close of the survey, respondents were asked: “Would you try the Adventist Church again?” Forty-six percent said they would.
These 46 percent are more than a figure. They’re moms and dads who squeezed into tiny cradle rolls chairs next to us. They’re old roommates who still show up at alumni weekend. They’re boomer men and women who battle lingering frustration about the way they were raised and still aren’t sure who the “real” Adventists are. They’re good, sensitive people who hated worrying about the time of trouble but who aren’t too wild about eternal hellfire, either.
They’re Christians who, deep in their hearts, are fine with most Adventist doctrine, with most Adventist culture, with most Adventist people—but who simply wish for an Adventist Church in which Scripture is authoritative and Jesus Christ reigns above all.
They’re also the people who can help get us there. We would be blessed to have them back.
- G. Jeffrey MacDonald, “Adventists’ Back-to-Basics Faith Is Fastest-Growing U.S. Church,” USA Today, Mar. 17, 2011.
- Ellen Goodman, “Shopping for Religion,” Boston Globe, Feb. 29, 2008, p. A15.
- For a more in-depth discussion of New Testament Sabbath references, see Andy Nash, “Unrest Over a Rest Day,” Adventist Review, Feb. 9, 2012.
- “Christians must not judaize by resting on the Sabbath, but must work on that day, rather honouring the Lord’s Day; and, if they can, resting then as Christians. But if any shall be found to be judaizers, let them be anathema from Christ” (Canon XXIX, Council of Laodicea, A.D. 364).
- In Why the Jews Rejected Jesus (New York: Random House, 2005) Jewish author David Klinghoffer writes: “No authentic Messiah would inspire a religion that ended up calling upon the Jews to reject the manifest meaning of Sinai” (p. 215).