Fourteen Million and Counting

Since 1965, over 14 million people, 14,521,088 to be exact, have left the Seventh-day Adventist Church, according to the program for the Nurture and Retention Summit held at the General Conference, April 5-7, 2019. Make that 15,132,555 people. After the program went to press, the 2018 statistics were finalized, and the number increased, Archivist David Trim told the 120 church leaders who gathered for the weekend Summit.

Well, Brian Litzenberger is one of those 15 million. The son of a pastor, he began questioning what he was hearing at church when he was 15. He left, joined the army, enjoyed the party scene, and became an alcoholic. So, when he started his personal testimony to the church leaders at the Retention Summit, it was by saying, “Hello, my name is Brian and I am an alcoholic and a sinner.”

His dramatic story of his journey out of the church and back included his analysis of the problem of why people leave. “We have this idea that we have to portray perfect Christianity.

But in the Bible, God uses broken people. This idea of perfect Christianity — that’s where it gets broken,” he said. A lay pastor in Orlando, Florida, Litzenberger operates a ministry for bikers, alcoholics, and drug addicts. He wore a leather biker vest to make his presentation. With the sobering numbers in the program, plus Litzenberger’s description of how things can go wrong even in the best of circumstances, the Summit began with a sense of reality about the significant challenge presented by those leaving the church. How should the church respond?

Discipleship was a primary answer explored throughout the weekend. In his presentation on “The Power of Discipleship,” Jim Howard, associate director of the GC Sabbath School and Personal Ministries Department, told the audience the goal needs to be more than retention.

The issue is not retention, the issue is life, he said quoting Luke 17:33, “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.” He also noted the false dichotomy that tends to be made between mission for the community in terms of evangelism, outreach, soul-winning, and numerical growth as separate from the mission for the church, the inreach, nurture, mentoring, and spiritual growth. “Jesus did not give two missions for the church — one for the community and one for the church. He gave only one mission — to go and make disciples.”

The South Pacific Division leadership is so convinced on the centrality of discipleship to how the church operates, that they are reorganizing their structure around discipleship and specifying 20 percent of their budget be spent upon it. One of the keys to their strategy is the Discovery Bible Study Program in which people read Bible stories together and then discuss five simple questions: What is new to you? What surprised you? What don’t you understand? What will you apply to your life? What will you share with someone this week? Their youth leaders have used this method with good results. They will gather people for a game of volleyball, for instance, a meal, and then a Discovery Bible Reading. Division President Glenn Townend and Leigh Rice, the Division’s Nurture and Retention Leader, described the program in one of the breakout sessions. “We’ve been doing this for three and a half years,” they said, “and anecdotally our retention rates are better.” Measuring the results comes next. “We’ve turned our leaders into disciples.”

In the South American Division, measuring — keeping track of members — has been the key to their efforts to improve retention, beginning at the local church. In a presentation titled “People Behind Numbers: A Positive Perspective of Membership Auditing,” Edward Heidinger, executive secretary of the SAD, and Charles Edson Rampanelli, executive secretary of the South Brazil Union, explained how they train church secretaries to help pastors know who is missing, who needs attention. It is empowering for the church secretaries to realize how important their work is for the retention of the members. The parable of Jesus counting the sheep is used to explain the process, that you have to count first to know that you have lost sheep.

Counting the membership losses of the worldwide church is what led to the creation of the first Nurture and Retention Summit five years ago. Archivist David Trim who oversaw the count was back to talk numbers again at this summit. After correcting the big number that had been printed in the program, he said the net loss rate is 39%, 4 out of every 10 members leave.

“Do we take it for granted? I don’t know what to say anymore. In 2013, when we ran the numbers, I didn’t expect it to be this bad. And I thought this will be greeted with sack cloth and ashes.” He said he feels people are shocked when he presents numbers at Annual Council, but the shock doesn’t seem to leave the room.

“These are not numbers. These are people. They are our families. We’re talking about our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. I don’t know what to say to motivate us.” Why did they leave? He asked. “They left because they weren’t loved.” He noted that on Twitter, where news about the event was being posted with the hashtag #NRSummit, there was a person responding with complaints about leaders getting together in a nice place. Trim apologized to the person for how he was hurt by the church.

To conclude his presentation, he said the simple answer is to make personal connections, teaching people to use a phone. If people don’t come to church, call them up. Go and visit someone. “We have to care about our brothers and sisters in Christ. They are waiting for us to reach out and love them.”

Trim was visibly shaken when he walked to the microphone for his presentation, and he apologized, explaining that his daughter had been hospitalized in Germany. He requested prayer for her, his wife, and himself as they dealt with this family emergency. And immediately a public prayer was offered for the family by Derek Morris, the president of Hope Channel.

With small breakout sessions to discuss ideas from many different sources, prayers, and testimonials, the Summit responded to the challenge of lost members creatively.

For Sabbath morning worship services, the attendees broke into six groups and attended church with some of the local SDA congregations, where the pastors shared their plans for Nurture and Retention, and the congregations provided Sabbath lunch for the visiting dignitaries. Later in the afternoon the Summit attendees shared reports of their church experiences. All spoke of how friendly the members were to them, the delicious meals provided, and the excellent sermons they had heard. Community service programs were frequently mentioned as ways of getting members involved in church life.

Saturday evening there was a musical concert at the Southern Asia SDA Church under the direction of Williams Costa, communications director for the General Conference. In addition to the attendees from the Summit, and local churches, there were people who came from New York, New Jersey, and Florida for the concert. In Brazil, similar types of concerts have proven to be an effective event to invite people back to church. This particular concert featured a baptism, too. A mother who had been praying for her son for 38 years had the pleasure of seeing her son and his wife baptized.

General Conference President Ted N.C. Wilson praised and thanked the Summit organizers in his closing remarks. “Let’s love people, let’s be proactive, let’s put people to work,” he said. Reading quotations from the book Christian Service, he said that it is important to get members involved, to put them to work, noting that work is the one genuine cure for spiritual laziness. “It’s not possible to drift into heaven,” he said “We need everyone doing something for Jesus.” He concluded, “Give people an identity of who they are — people of God’s last day movement.”

Bonnie Dwyer is editor of Spectrum.

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Editor's Note (April 9, 2019 at 7:30 p.m. EDT): The spelling of Derek Morris' first name has been corrected. We apologize for the error.

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The Zwemer tribe accounts for over 20 of those. Glacier View was the Eye opener-abetted by The White Lie, and the sponsored anaylist Of Desire of Ages. The Southern Union was a Far Cry from Maxwell, Ford, Heppenstall, Smuts, et al. I am appalled by the direction Ted Wilson is leading the Church. He’s Bound on building a theological tower of Babel. Christsinity was confirmed on Golgotha’s Hill, not on a final generation.


I wonder (not really) if the church would ever have someone speak about leaving because of doctrine? Once again, it’s not even mentioned.
There are thousands and thousands of us out here. I understand why they don’t, but it would at least be more honest if they would admit that this is the case, and that there are many, many who have done so.


It is largely a matter of culture. Those who have been in management and/or are consultants know how fiendishly difficult it is to change the culture of an organization. So when people leave a room where these numbers are presented, they go right back into the culture of Adventism. As the old saying goes, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Culture overwhelms everything else.

I believe the culture of Adventism is gnostic. One definition of gnostic is “relating to knowledge, especially esoteric mystical knowledge.” We value our “knowledge” of things prophetic and doctrinal above all else.

I recently saw a poster for an evangelistic meeting. It specifically listed 11 out of 20 subjects to be covered. Not a word about Jesus. Not a word about the Christian walk. Not a word about how Christians relate to the needs and challenges of society. It just promised to give you insights into “esoteric mystical knowledge.”

Until we change that priority within our Adventist culture, nothing else will change.


Unfortunately I am one of those who had no choice but to withdraw from the SDA. I was born in an Adventist family, and I studied in the theological seminary in South America. Every time I received a magazine from the fundamentalist Hope ministry, my spirit entered into total conflict. I could not believe that there were people who preached so much nonsense. And I had to leave.


There you go…that says it all. Great quote about “culture eating strategy for breakfast”.

Absolutely! The “mystical knowledge” is only believed by the faithful (or perhaps semi-faithful) SDA. It’s not orthodox Christianity.

I find that these meetings do reflect the SDA church and it’s lack of emphasis on Jesus, unfortunately.

The SDA church needs to buckle up (or tighten their belt), because this system can’t/won’t turn around.


People look for something in a community of believers.
A lot of times they do not know what it is, but the “hunger” is there.
What this “hunger” is is a “knowing” of God, a “relationship” with
The SDA church does NOT teach Spirituality. It teaches INFORMATION.
It does not teach 1.Reading of the Word and HOW to recognize lessons in it.
2. Meditation. “What does this text say to me, today, and to my life?” To see
myself in the text.
3. Prayer. Experiencing an intimate encounter with God that allows us to
spontaneously respond in prayer. Having met our God in His word, to speak
to Him/Her in our own words.
4. Contemplation. In contemplation we begin to understand the parts of my
life that needs to be transformed by God’s grace.
5. Action. How am I called to take this experience out into the world.

Groups hold together when there is a clear and defined “us” and “them” and when
we are the “superior ones.” Guilt-based religion, strong boundary markers, and shame
work well to keep the troops in line. Keeping people always a LITTLE insecure about
grace and mercy and forgiveness.
Perhaps THIS TENSION is too much for those nearly 15 million. Hopefully, they went
someplace where they could find a meaningful relationship with God that the H.S.
was calling them to.
Communities where they can learn Spiritual Practices they can enjoy every day
with God.


These groups hold together for a time, but as we see now, there is a breaking point. We see it in large and small groups with this kind of modus operandi.

It is too much. It is spiritually and emotionally unhealthy and abusive.


CF, et. al.
REMEMBER we DO have the “Doctrine of the Shaking”.
So when someone “leaves” it is not shocking. NOR is it a problem for us.
It just means their “baptism didn’t stick”.
If one recalls in all this talk about a schism in the church, and other
terms for the same, no body seems to blink an eye. It is predicted and
so have it come now or later and “cleanse” the church.
I can see WHY there is a “Ho Hum” through an auditorium when these
figures are presented.
It IS Cultural!
Then there is the “Not one in 20…” that can be brought up. I heard that
quoted back when I was growing up. So, AGAIN, it is EXPECTED.
FOR the person leaving, as the pastor’s son, perhaps he feels he did
the unpardonable sin. And had to quiet the Mental Noise with Alcohol. And
no one around to relieve the PAIN. And perhaps NOT introduced to AA when
he could have found his “higher power” and a loving God this time.
As an Aside – AA and NA make up the LARGEST “denomination of Higher
Power worshipers” in the world. I know of at least 4 pastor’s children who
voiced that they had to come to AA to find God. Did not find God in their
home. And that was here in Macon one evening at ONE meeting. [I sometimes take persons to AA/NA so know quite a number of members. Have also taken persons to week-end conventions out of town]


As a 4th generation Adventist who relinquished my membership in writing, I wonder how the GC identifies the reason for their retention problem. I have no doubt I would be welcomed back to my former church community; but I could no longer live with the cognitive dissonance between life and “the truth”. I am sure I am not alone in this perspective.


Courage –
I hope you had the “courage” to find God in another community of believers,
even though they may have their worship space open only on Sunday.
As Paul says in Hebrews, we maintain our relationship with God in “community”.
The Old Testament calls it “iron sharpening iron”. A “dull blade” is of no use.


Correct, Steve. I’ve seen that attitude as well. Usually in the form of “Oh well…they knew the truth”. And that’s where it ends. “Truth” of course, meaning the Sabbath. It never means Jesus.


If we really wanted to understand why people leave, we should spend dollars to hire a professional organization to do a responsible survey (a number in person not on paper, or at least on phone calls) and report back. Secondly, we need to pray and reflect on what might have been done differently to keep them, to minister to them, to help them navigate the feelings with which they suffered. We have meetings on doctrine, but few to help divorcing couples and children of divorce, few to help couples struggling with their marriage, few to help suicidal youth, alcoholics, drug addicts, singles, LGBTQ, and so on. People leave when all the reasons to stay evaporate.

Oh, and for those who no longer believe, where can they go inside the church to express their skepticism? Either they will be nurtured through it, or they will be welcomed and affirmed in it and encouraged to stay. Even the church writ large need to grow theologically and spiritually.


James –
Is the typical small [and most of them are] SDA church SAFE for persons to
share their deepest, darkest secrets of the list that you wrote?
I am not so sure it is. So persons keep quiet and let them eat away at them,
unless they can find help outside the ranks. Which is probably doubtful.
There is the SHAME that goes along with an SDA even having problems as
you listed. SHAME brings on a ton of depression. And Depression makes it
even more difficult for the person to think logically and address an issue
rationally, IF that is possible in an SDA format, SDA counselor. Most pastors
I have seen are NOT really prepared for counseling.


I prefer church-run small groups for members and non-members with challenges that are led by local professionals, not pastors or other members. They can be set up so that people who betray the confidence of the group can be sued or even prosecuted if they sign a contract. Not easy, I agree, but needed.


A shocking statistic indeed, especially considering how arduous and expensive it is to recruit new members — only to see them exit by the back door!

In our more westernized, enlightened twenty first century countries, the misogyny in our church appears archaic, anachronistic, antiquarian and antique.

Most European countries have elected women prime ministers / female presidents, as have our South Pacific lands ,Australia’s and New Zealand. While the US has yet to see a female president we have seen some high profile Secretaries of State, Hillary Clinton, Condoleeza Rice, and Madelyn Albright.

So, our young women and female teens find it quaint, and positively medieval, that our church prohibits our clergywomen from attaining higher administrative positions due to an effective “ glass ceiling “.

Why would any self respecting young lady want to affiliate with such a discriminating denomination?

While the demographic of gays / lesbians is only 4% (or about one in twenty five church members ). every extended family of twenty five members has a cousin, sibling, aunt , uncle who is gay / lesbian.

The shabby, seedy, shoddy shameful treatment of our gay / lesbian offspring leads many straight family members to question the unloving non- inclusive behavior of what should be a Christ like church.

Almost one hundred per cent of the gays / lesbians distance themselves from the denomination at the earliest opportunity, because they have been made to feel unwelcome.— shunning and shaming is not a fun experience!

Finally judgmentalism prevails, indeed it is pandemic and prevalent in our congregations, schools,and homes. Not a recipe for retaining members !


What if the millions and millions of dollars spent on old, outdated evangelism meetings, flyers, seminars, etc. were focused on funding retention? Economically, is makes no sense to allow such a huge exit by millions who were educated at great cost (many). Think private school, university, Pathfinders, music groups, trips, etc. Think hours of contact. What a pricey loss in every realm.


Life revolves around a belief in stories. Or myths. Stories about acceptable behaviour. About rights. About legal constraints. About origins. About politics. About the foods we eat and don’t eat. About the way that we organise ourselves into families, communities, nationalities.

And the Adventist church came along and created its own set of stories. Stories about God, and lifestyle, and money, and welfare. And then they endeavour to have people believe these stories, and accept that there are consequences for not believing these stories, and act all shocked that people would no longer believe the stories.

Discipleship training is the way to go, because this provides the glue to keeping people in believing the Adventist stories. But if they no longer accept these stories, so what? They were simply stories.

I left, but not because of the stories. But the stories are enough to keep me from returning.


“Why Our Teenagers Leave The Church – personal stories from a
10-year study,” by Roger L. Dudley. [Institute of church ministry,
Andrews University], printed 2000, R&H Publishing.

Has anyone heard of this study? Has anyone ACTED on the findings of
this study? I don’t believe we even KNOW this study was conducted and
hours and hours of time interviewing persons, collecting all the data, and
putting it together, and the weeks that went into writing the book, and then
the time and money to typeset it, run it through the presses on rolls of paper.

That was 19 years ago. Almost 2 decades. Most of the persons interviewed
would now be in their late 30’s to late 40’s. And their peers [ones never
interviewed] would also be the same ages.

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Stripped of all excuses, the real reason one walks out of a relationship is the loss of its value. As in couples therapy, the treatment of choice is not to change a partner to please the other partner but to enhance the value of the relationship so both partners profit from the relationship. So how do you make this happen? The Beatles said it best. “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”

And the best way to destroy a relationship? Create Compliance Committees.