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.
Image credit: secretariat.adventist.org
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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