At the Church’s Dying Edge

If you’d asked me a few years ago to make an off-the-cuff analysis of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, I’d have said something like this: “We exist on a polarity of moderately progressive to nearly-cultic conservative, with most of us bell-curved somewhere in the evangelical-fundamentalist middle.” All our disagreements seem to stretch to either side of that line: women’s ordination, homosexuality, food and drink, Ellen White, Biblical interpretation, eschatology, the gospel.

It’s interesting how one’s view changes under different circumstances. I went, a few years ago, from a big church with two institutions and solid growth during my tenure, including a successful church plant, new school and new church buildings, to a back-to-basics pastorate in an economically depressed corner of the Ohio Conference. I realized then that I’d been looking at the church in only one dimension—and not necessarily it’s most important one.

I now supplement the obvious observation that the NAD church is divided by theology, with another: that it is even more deeply divided by opportunity and resources.[1] There are two churches along a have-have not continuum: the dynamic church, and the dying church. One represents the majority of members; the other the majority of congregations. These are very different kinds of Seventh-day Adventist communities in quite different spaces and situations—and they don’t know one another very well.

The dynamic church happens where there’s a concentration of us, with a good number of professionals mixed in. Mostly it’s in the environs of an institution: a hospital, a college, or a denominational office. (We Adventists seem to do best at growing strong congregations where we hire our church members.) These communities have resources. There are at least a few congregations with multi-pastor staffs and lots of money, but even small congregations benefit from their proximity to the mother ship. It’s not unusual for neighboring congregations to dislike one another for all kinds of reasons, but all share in the blessings conferred by a strong Adventist presence. In the Dayton area of Ohio Conference, for example, we have two of our strongest congregations: Kettering and Centerville. They differ theologically, but both suckle at the teat of Kettering Medical Center, which means (among other things) a shared, well-funded academy for all the members in the area.

The other kind of Adventist community is removed from these hot spots, like embers thrown out on the hearth. This is the world of congregations with only a few dozen in attendance, the world of shared pastors, no schools, money-gobbling old buildings, elderly leaders, fixed incomes, lay preachers, amateur music or none at all. Here, if you get disgusted with the pastor or have a spat with other members, you can’t just go down the road to another congregation: there isn’t one. Young people who don’t move away drop out because it’s dull, the old people die, and a few others dim out because they’re worked to death.

The dynamic church community may lose some members to affluence or education, but there are fewer reasons to leave. These churches have the best preachers (in some, like Kettering, paid a premium above the pastoral wage scale by the hospital system). They have beautiful buildings, choirs, ensembles, organs, community service centers, recreational activities, concerts and specialized ministries. And should you tire of that, there are congregations with other personalities nearby.

The dynamic church knows that there are small congregations out there, but that doesn’t necessarily please them. In my conference, three churches in the Kettering area (out of around 90 in the conference) supply a third of the conference tithe. Take our ten largest churches, and you have half of our tithe. The Kettering church could easily afford a staff three or four times as large as it is, while many districts couldn’t afford even one pastor were it not for Kettering’s big purse. I understand why affluent churches might feel shortchanged.

The dying church looks at the rest with awe and suspicion. Suspicion that places with lots of Adventists are “liberal” (it is conventional wisdom that Southern California Adventists aren’t really Adventists anymore). At the same time, the dying church has faith that there’s something big going on elsewhere. They know their congregation is fading, the building falling apart, people moving away—but out there, there’s that mythical world of Silver Spring, our leaders camping out in the offices of DC politicians protecting religious liberty, the unbelievable church growth in Africa and Latin America, and our world-famous hospital and medical school in Loma Linda. Those of us who know the astonishing expense of their travel and the mundanity of most of their meetings might resent the quarter of our income spent on denominational leadership; but people in little churches may take pride in it.

Yet the strongest influence on the dying church is the independent Adventist media. Ask a Loma Linda congregation who among them listens to 3ABN regularly, and you’ll see a few hands. Ask any of a thousand small churches, and the entire congregation will respond. It’s likely that when the pastor is preaching at one of his other churches, they watch Doug Batchelor videos. It surprises no small church pastor when a member says that she sends her tithe to 3ABN.

Most NAD Seventh-day Adventists are in the dynamic church. Six out of ten Seventh-day Adventists are in the largest tenth of the congregations.[2] That means that there are vastly more small congregations than there are large ones, and more pastors serve small churches in multi-point districts than any other kind of assignment.

I once suggested that one of the NAD ministerial conferences be devoted to small church ministry, given that that’s where most pastors work. One of the people I spoke to sounded interested, but another told me that no one was interested in studying small churches, because they’re failing churches. People want to study success.

I suspect he’s right. Church leaders, from the conference on up, identify with the dynamic church. That’s perfectly understandable. Many live in Adventist hotspots like the DC-Baltimore area or Southern California. Even leaders in less prosperous conferences naturally identify with the successful parts of the organization. Every conference president spends a lot of time in the union conference office, as every union president does in Silver Spring. They rub shoulders with the leaders of whatever Adventist health care system is in their territory. So even in a conference where most churches are small, the temptation is to think of under-resourced congregations as problems rather than assets.

I can understand these weak congregations being overlooked: they’re not interesting, they don’t supply much income, nor have their pastors much influence. It may not seem all that consequential, then, should these small congregations fold, except for this: often they’re the last outpost for Seventh-day Adventism in their town, village, or an entire region. My district covers over 5000 square miles. Should my small congregations close their doors, there wouldn’t be a Seventh-day Adventist congregation between central Ohio and West Virginia.

And yet its hard to see how they can survive over the long term. For the past quarter century the population in my district has diminished by about a percent a year. Once bustling river towns with massive steel mills are transformed into blocks of condemned buildings and rusting warehouses. Even in parts of the NAD where the economic devastation hasn’t been as severe, there are vast areas of rural, village and small city North America that aren’t what they were 75 years ago when a local Seventh-day Adventist church was established.

Mostly, in forums like Spectrum and Adventist Today, we talk about pivotal denominational issues like women’s ordination, homosexuality and evolution. Those are important things. But so is the dying edge of the church. It involves the bulk of our congregations. Unlike those other topics, this one shouldn’t be controversial. But neither is it interesting enough to capture our collective attention.

I’ve made this prophecy before, but I feel safe saying it again: within a decade as many as a quarter of our NAD congregations will fold. Many are a death or two away from it right now. Perhaps they’ll be replaced by new ethnic congregations in our strong Adventist communities. But in many small cities and rural areas, people will forget that we ever existed. And I don’t think any of us know quite what we can do to arrest it.

[1] Please understand that my commentary here is about the church of North America, because that’s where I grew up and have served. I hear often that the church in other parts of the world is fruiting like a tomato vine in August, and I trust it’s true.

[2] Someone will correctly observe that there are healthy small churches, struggling large churches, and medium-sized churches that don’t fit perfectly in either category. Yet should you graph out all the congregations in the NAD by either attendance or money, you’ll be astonished at how steeply the line drops from a spike of congregations strong in those metrics, down to a nearly flat line.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

very perceptive and candid. it describes Augusta, Ga, its strength is in the influx of a broad spectrum of ethnic members once shunned as recently as the 70’s now the backbone of the church. once a month the ABC truck brings in veggies and veggie books. Many members drive away with a trunk full of Gluten and Pacific Press. the health message at its worst. The last time I attended with a retired Union Conference president. The pastor gave the closing prayer with his hands in his pockets jangling his keys and coins, highly amplified. we drove home in silence. The sad part is the retired officer hadn’t been our house guest since. He lives in Oregon and winters at times in Florida. Augusta is a side trip. Tom Z


“I’ve made this prophecy before, but I feel safe saying it again: within a decade as many as a quarter of our NAD congregations will fold. Many are a death or two away from it right now. Perhaps they’ll be replaced by new ethnic congregations in our strong Adventist communities. But in many small cities and rural areas, people will forget that we ever existed. And I don’t think any of us know quite what we can do to arrest it.”

To be frank, I don’t think the Denomination cares enough to try to do anything to arrest it.

But (and?) thank you for tackling a complex subject. Few writers seem to want to take up the sociology of the church outside of the growing population from emerging or developing nations. This essay skates on the role that class plays and has played in the Denomination—not just the issue of material resources, which, as you point out, are figuring significantly, here, but also the cultural assumptions and needs of those small congregations, their response to what amounts to itinerant pastors, and the limitations to community outreach that comes from all this—they are removed from energetic communities of all stripes. Of course . . . . here is another opportunity to wonder about the availability of more pastors, and whether or not a cadre of women pastors could help revive the Denomination outside of the monied, semi-urban areas.


Forty five years ago I spent two years plus in Southeastern Ohio, attending one of your current district churches it sounds like. The church was already pretty much on its own, with infrequent visits from its assigned pastor who lived in the Ohio River town, rather than the Hocking River community where I was living.

The church had pews for several times its attendees. It was and is still in a university town.

The head elder, a plumber by trade, did not have flushable toilets in his home. Primitive, comes to mind. And primitive means enduring. So perhaps in an unexpected way, your article confirms the enduring value of primitiveness.

So in the words of 1 Corinthians 13, we are all prophesying in part.

In practical terms, focusing on more primitive godliness may actually be the solution for not just endurance, but for growing the church. There is an old saying, ‘Ride the horse in the direction it is going.’

How primitive can we get with a church that differentiates the Gospel with 28 independent expressions of bible-anchored belief? Maybe the One Project offers help.

Maybe your congregations don’t need a pastor. At all.

Or maybe they will do better with a big-screen video filled by distant pastors, which the members of the congregations vote to associate with.

Or maybe go all the way and padlock the doors, as the conference actually owns the premises, and force the members into their homes and see what happens.

Having reflected on the article a bit, I’m thinking that one way or another you have written yourself out of a job, Loren.

Knowing you from your previous articles, I’m pretty sure you have other ideas.

Care to imagine a little here with us, rather than just report?

I’d like that.


This report and some of the comments remind me of this saying, which is ALL TOO TRUE.
“Where there is No Vision, the people perish.”

I think this goes with the “itinerant pastors” who have more then one church as well as the members, even though elderly, are not challenged to THINK, to Plan, To Create Church. Not just attend Church.
Perhaps Church needs to be on another day where Community can be invited to something on a regular basis.
Watch 3ABN or Hope Channel at home on Sabbath. Have Community Invited Activities during the week.


The SDA denomination has been so obsessed with the message to the Laodicean and rejected it, that it has theological blinders on and ignored the relevant message, the one to Sardis.

Revelation 3:1 And unto the angel of the church in Sardis write; These things saith he that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars; I know thy works, that thou hast a name (SDA or People of the Book?) that thou livest, and art dead.
Revelation 3:2 Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God. (tell me you didn’t think…LGT !!)

1 Like

Steve, I mentioned that verse and a couple more to a conference official 35 years ago.
Here is the one before yours.
1 Samuel 3:1 And the child Samuel ministered unto the LORD before Eli. And the word of the LORD was precious (scarce) in those days; there was no open vision.
The one after yours was…
Hosea 4:6 My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee, that thou shalt be no priest to me: seeing thou hast forgotten the law of thy God, I will also forget thy children.

There is so much need and so much growth opportunity out there. I think the challenge is that these small churches are still trying to be like big churches or bigger churches they once were. Perhaps the solution is that these tiny congregations in too large buildings need to look at how they can take those buildings which are a huge outreach asset and creatively use them to reach their local neighborhood.

It might mean doing things that seem unholy for a church sanctuary, but how about tutoring programs, or classes on technology, or practical classes on shopping for and preparing healthier foods. They would be great resources for AA and NA. Places for mom’s play groups . . . .

The list is endless. They should be established community programs not necessarily started by the church, but with church members there and being a part of these community serving centers, people will begin to ask . . . what makes you tick? What do you believe in?

A big part of our problem is that our eschatology tells us that in “the last days” people will leave the church. So at some level, there is a lack of concern since it is just one more sign that we are close to going home. . . . Some may even see it as a positive thing.

In the grip of grace

Steve Moran


Quoting Steve here, but others have made these kinds of suggestions, too. I am familiar w/ churches similar to the ones described by Loren, but in a different part of the country. Folks, you really haven’t a clue when you think that their members can run anything like these classes or that their facilities would be chosen by community groups.

All these suggestion imply that the members of these dying churches just aren’t trying. Nothing could be further from the truth. The gathered church is important to these people, & its social support is also. That keeps them going. But, it’s about all they can do. The towns themselves are shrinking. There’s not going to be an influx of new blood.


“The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands.” Acts 17:24

Perhaps we should redefine church. OK, so the guy up front (and slightly elevated) went to school and yes, had a group of other guys put their hands on him and called him ordained; but “a ceremony doth not a pastor make”; nor, “doth a pastor make a church”.

We seem to be cemented to the ritual of 9:30 -10:30 for SS and 11-12 someone talks at us for an hour; and then we go home for the big dinner. There are other ways of doing this - like they did long ago - a group of people sitting in a circle with their Bibles opened. It’s risky business to hold church that way. Who knows what errant teachings they might hatch out. OK, so send an enforcer around once a month to keep them on the straight and narrow; but it could be possible that there might even be some original thinking happening in groups like that; and people might get back to actually reading their Bibles with continuity, instead of in proof texts. I know this article is about funding. How much funding would it take for people to come together in alternating homes to study and pray?

Having said that, there is something about an impressive church with anthems and choral music. It has an impact even without a sermon. (That’s another story). Maybe those small companies should be paid to make a yearly pilgrimage to Silver Springs.

So it comes back to funds yet again. I do find it interesting that while the little churches are dying as well as the little schools, unions find funds to hold union-wide conferences on cruise ships, all expenses paid, including air fair to the ship. The em-PHASSES seems to be on the wrong syl-ABLE.


The size of a church, in my opinion, is only one variable contributing to its viability and it may not be even an important one. My observation is that churches that are dying have one thing in common and it is this, they lack the Gospel message. Instead of a message which lifts up Jesus the Christ sermon after sermon is littered with headlines about what the pope is up to and the importance of diet or some other call to obey the Law of God.
Why in the world would any young adult or family want to stick around and hear all the things they are doing wrong with no meaningful solution? Obviously sin is a problem. It’s a problem only God could deal with. We can only accept the redemptive work in our behalf and follow the Lamb as he leads. But no, we have to focus on behavior to the exclusion of any grain of hope.
As I have thought about it I have concluded there are three broad aspects of the Christian experience which every follower of Christ will have; they are Believing, Behaving and Belonging. We have historically emphasized either Behavior or Believing as key to the Christian experience with Behavior usually occupying pride of position. If some soul takes the bait of handbill we might, just might, let them become one of us after we have successfully waterboarded them with our multi-night extravaganza.
The Gospel presents a different order to this experience. Regarding the call of the disciples In Mark 3 we read the following:
“And He went up on the mountain and called to Him those He Himself wanted. And they came to Him. Then He appointed twelve, that they might be with Him and that He might send them out to preach, and to have power to heal sicknesses and to cast out demons:” Mark 3:13–15 (NKJV)
It’s easy to overlook the heart of this passage and focus on preaching, healing and exorcism. However, there is one very important clause in this passage which I think is the key to growth. It is this when Jesus called the disciples it was in order that they might, “be with Him.” Afterward they would be sent out. In this I read a call to fellowship with Jesus that proceeds behavior and even a clear belief structure regarding Him.
Maybe if people actually felt like we wanted them to Belong with us they might stick around long enough to Believe in Jesus and eventually Behave like Jesus. Just a thought. I could be wrong. Maybe it’s more important to make sure people dress and eat a certain way first before they can connect with Christ.


Perhaps it is time to respect the deaths of churches and to remember on Sabbath days. Why not ask church members to bring photographs to copy and put into books of remembrance, along with stories of each church at its best? Churches are organisms with births, childhoods, adolescences, adulthoods, and age. Churches have high points and low points…we can learn from the lives of each one and how it served God in its setting. Instead of foisting multiple dying churches onto one pastor, why not care for dying churches as one would care for dying people: assigning a pastor skilled in care of the dying, calling together the families, remembering with respect, and giving the death of the church a funeral and final locking of the door, with notices in local newspapers and the church paper of its territory. Perhaps the books of remembrance could be published and copies given to families of former members, the local conference, and the local public library. And resist immediate evangelistic efforts, allowing the church to die and be buried for a season. Maybe, let the dead church’s community miss it! Or, with revulsion, say, “Better off dead!”


Honestly hopeful, I am not as hopeless as you about this. I bet in just about every one of those towns, there is at least one church that is thriving and meeting the needs of the community. That being said, I think the paradigm shift is impossible without the Holy Spirit working.

It is possible to make this happen with strong leadership, but if I am honest with myself we are not a church that celebrates the kind of maverick visionary leadership it takes to make this kind of thing happen.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think everyone one could or even should be saved. And there are some communities where the whole town is dying and nothing is left. I am just convinced there is still a lot of opportunity out there.


I would also add that here in the at least most parts of the US we are not really all that interested in growth. Just one example:

I know a guy who was for years a lay youth leader in a church with an average attendance of about 125. His youth group ran to 35 students on Friday evenings and at 9 30 am his Sabbath School had more people in it than any of the adult classes.

If you were to measure the size of the youth group by percentage of the attending congregation it was by far and away the largest youth group in the conference. Yet because he was a lay leader (or maybe something else) no one ever came knocking to see why it was all working.

I suspect there was a sense that he was just lucky to be a a church where the stars aligned. Maybe a reasonable assumption except that a year or 18 months after he moved away, the youth group was back to the size of every other church . . . meaning on any given Sabbath 0-6.

We don’t really celebrate growth, we don’t learn from new methods, we honestly just don’t care that much.

In the grip of grace

Steve Moran


Steve, those are all good ideas. These little churches try so hard! They really make heroic struggles to do good things. But everything is stacked against them: low on money, talent, youth, anything that makes an organization grow. They’re in dying communities, not growing ones. In one church we tried to run an evangelistic series, and no one showed up! Discouraging.

And so often, such lovely people! So dear, so sacrificing, such effort! I was just with one group this evening, and I kept thinking how wonderful they are, how devoted!

Although the big problem in these churches is that they’re very susceptible to being destroyed by conflict. One destructive person can just tear them apart.

I wish I had answers. In this piece, though, all I can do is report. I don’t even know what the church organization can do for them. It is already redistributing tithe rather extravagantly so these churches can have even a part-time pastor, like me.

I think the future might be house churches, though no one wants to contemplate not having their own “clubhouse” to meet in.


It’s not just money, @Sirje. More than that, it’s ability and people. Just having a part-time pastor represents an attempt on the part of the church organization to redistribute means to these churches. But it takes more than money. It takes a critical mass of talented people. As I said in the piece, you have a few really energetic people, but they wear out after awhile. The elderly have been the support of the church, but they’re dying. Meetings about doctrines just don’t attract people anymore.


@PaulKevinWells, I appreciate your view, but I don’t think I totally agree with you. I’m amazed at how my little churches have embraced the gospel! They are convinced of it. (Though not all small congregations are like that.) Yes, we love the good old prophetic teachings, and talking about Ellen White and diet. But I believe we’re much more grace-filled than we once were. I’ve seen these congregations embrace people on the edge, and really lift them up. But again, ability and resources are limiting factors. And, as I mentioned to someone else, above, conflicts (usually in these churches it’s just one or two difficult people) can tear the congregation apart quickly.


Thank you, Loren, for a thoughtful, and thought provoking essay.

I worship in a church with less than 20 in attendance, where my wife (well into her 50s) is the youngest church member, with an out of tune “bar piano” nobody can play anyway… Will it survive another decade? I don’t know. What I do know is this: you will hardly find another church nearby with a Sabbath school discussion as lively, open and honest. Our church pastor (we see him about once a month) preaches exquisite, gospel oriented sermons of a quality that I rarely hear elsewhere. And as to church singing - since there is no organ, no piano being played … the church sings to saxophone accompaniment occasionally with a bass added (think of the old German hymns in sax and bass). Beautiful.

But the anticipatory pain lingers. And the pain of self-deception which seems to have become a hallmark of our church along with a megalomania that is not only lacking humility, but eye sight. Alas, like you, Loren, I don’t have any answers to the dilemma. To some extent the view of more experienced members and colleagues comfort: it is God’s church, not ours. Jesus is Lord.


It was interesting reading. I have been in a small town in Jalapa, Guatemala several times as a short term missionary. I have been impressed with the church growth and the dynamics of the “small” church that have several hundred attendees who walk for miles to attend their local churches in all types of weather… The pastor? he is a traveling evangelist traveling from church to church with 14 or 15 churches to make his rounds. It would take him some 3 to 4 months to make his rotation. The lay preachers and local elders are dynamic! I observed that the US pastors have no idea what a gravy train they have compared with the local pastors in Jalapa area! I think the local churches in the US are too pastor dependent and not enough lay person leadership dependent. I have observed that the lay people are very active in local evangelism even when their rotating pastor is not around. This is just my observation.


I do get that. I’ve been part of those little churches and seen many others. It just seems that by the time a church is filled with the elderly, there should be some depth of spiritual experience present that can exist on its own, without a guided tour of “churchiness”. Re-defining church might help.

Church means different things at different stages of our lives. At its core, it’s simply a gathering of like-minded people looking to connect with each other in an attitude of worship. Young families need a different church than do a group of the elderly. One size does not fit all in this case. Maybe our seminary should design church organizations based on need, instead of a template etched in stone.