From the Outside Looking In: Making Sense of Adventism as a "Former"


(system) #1

House-hunting can be a daunting task, even with all the tools the internet has to offer. I can set all the necessary parameters, study the photos, check the "street view," and even drive to the address, get out of the car, and (if nobody's home) go peek in the windows. But the only sure way to discover what it would be like to live in that house is to have somebody unlock the door and let me in. Churches are a bit like that. I can read the statement of beliefs, look at the smiling faces in the photos, and analyze the descriptions on the website. But the only way to discover what it would be like to worship with that congregation is to actually attend for awhile.

After you've lived in a house and moved out, though, trying to get back into that house gets complicated. It's not your home anymore. And the same is true about church. Since I'm not an Adventist anymore, it's tough to really understand what's going on with Adventism. I have a pretty good idea, since I grew up as an Adventist —I have some insights into the traditions, politics, and expectations. And I try to keep up with the denominational news. But it's still mostly a mystery to me, now, what Adventist folks are actually thinking. And because most of my family are still members, I really do want to know — without being confrontational.

I have happy memories of the house in which I grew up, as well as the church in which I grew up spiritually: memories of laughter and tears, misunderstandings and forgiveness, hopes and fears. I felt secure and valued in both places. Family and church are tied so closely together it's sometimes hard to separate them. So my decision to no longer be a member of their church makes it tough to communicate when I passionately want to continue my relationship with those I love.

My request to remove my membership was based entirely on one issue. Nobody hurt my feelings or made me mad. I didn't study with another person or group. I didn't get frustrated or lonely or simply drift away. I just kept reading my Bible — front to back — over and over. And what I read clearly did not match well with what I'd been taught in Sabbath School, heard in church, learned in 16 years of Adventist education, or read in church-related materials. Since I was unable to reconcile these differences, it became increasingly clear that I was falsely representing my beliefs. This moral dilemma required that I either change what I believed or leave the church. Since I couldn't ignore what I believe the Bible teaches, I asked for my membership to be removed.

My decision shocked and appalled a lot of people. I endured some very unpleasant confrontations, angry letters, and hushed gossip. But mostly I was ignored. Adventist "shunning" is unique: mostly unintentional, but nevertheless quite genuine.

So imagine my delight, several years later, when Facebook presented opportunities to reconnect with long-lost friends from my past. It turns out many of them shared those very same experiences of leaving Adventism. I was not alone in my decision! "Closed" groups enabled us to talk about some of the practicalities of our choice without worrying about offending, angering, or intimidating those we love.

Our online discussions included light-hearted threads such as, "What should I do with that old Pathfinder sash?" (We found some creative, but not always respectful suggestions.) We also delved into deeper topics, like, "How do I explain what I believe without offending?" or "How important is it that I think somebody is wrong — and how do I tell them without appearing arrogant?" Responses from others who understood the issues involved provided support as well as practical advice.

In the midst of those discussions, we'd share other details of our lives. Some patterns began to emerge. We were intrigued about what we had in common. Eventually we brainstormed the idea of creating a survey to help us discover what particular beliefs, lifestyles, and ideas we shared and which unique characteristics gave our postings such delightful diversity. Since I'm currently a doctoral candidate and have access to online survey software, I volunteered to assist with the actual creation of the survey document. Several individuals' comments and suggestions were incorporated into fine-tuning a rather involved survey instrument. We tried to include the areas which seemed to us, at the time, to be most widely relevant to us. One section asked participants to rate their level of agreement with each of the 28 fundamental beliefs of the SDA church. Others sections were more demographic. A comment box was included for each question.

The survey wasn't intended to push any specific theoretical perspective. We wanted it to be very open-ended, so that we could explore the results the data might provide. Perhaps the only purpose, other than curiosity, for the survey was to help us confirm what we had discovered in our group discussions: that the reason most of us had left the SDA church was about doctrinal disagreement and had nothing at all to do with relationships, hurt feelings, or other labels previously suggested by the church. With that in mind, we agreed to limit choices for that one question in order to "force a choice" to only one response. All of the other questions were multiple choice, with several responses available.

We were shocked at the response: 260 individuals participated. Their honest and detailed comments were extremely informative. We offered to share the findings with anyone interested at FormerAdventistSurvey@gmail.com and have, so far, passed along the report to 537 persons. The results report has been posted on a couple of websites, but has never been formally published. The link to that survey is still open, and occasionally interest will spur other formers to share what they think. The total number of participants is currently 336, but there have been no significant changes in the results.

More than two-thirds (68%) of those who took the survey had been members of the SDA church for over twenty years. This implies that their knowledge of the doctrines, culture, and organizational system was quite extensive. The educational level of the group of respondents was clearly above average: over 87% had attended college.

“The primary reason I left the Adventist church,” according to an overwhelming 86% of the respondents, was, “Doctrinal differences: disagreement over what the church teaches.” A smaller group (5.5%) reported leaving over “Hurt feelings/anger with another person or group.” The remaining respondents (8%) said they, “Just didn’t care anymore.”

Participants reported that 74% of them joined the church when they were 13 years old or younger. Perhaps related to that fact, 46% reported, “I was too young to really make an informed decision about church membership.” And 22% said, “At the time, I thought I understood the doctrines, but it turned out there was a lot more to it that nobody told me about until after I joined the church.”

71% of those taking the survey said their decision to leave the Adventist church was influenced by intensive Bible study. Other influencing factors included: “Online information site or blog,” (42%), “A book I read (besides the Bible),” (33%), “A conversation with a friend or family member,” (32%), and “Studying with others,” (26%).

Over half (52.5%) confirmed that their name is still included on the books as a member of the Seventh-day Adventist church. Respondents’ comments indicated frustration with trying to have their name removed and some reported great reluctance by local churches to remove names from membership lists.

The question which generated the most comments was about jewelry and adornment, though most were statements that the topic was irrelevant. The other three topics which generated a large number of comments were “Music in church”, “The role and writings of Ellen White”, and “What to consider when choosing a church.” Comments under the question about “Cultural inclusiveness in church” reflected views including apathy, general frustration with a lack of acceptance for those with differing political views or sexual orientation, and disgust over separate conferences for non-whites.

The doctrines with which former Adventists most often "strongly disagreed" were:

  • “The gift of prophecy” 80%
  • “The investigative judgment” 75%
  • “The Sabbath” 68%
  • “The remnant and its mission” 67%

We readily recognize the limitations of our informal research. Participants were self-reported former members and access to the survey was limited to available sites and groups that members of our discussion knew about. A larger and more representative sample would certainly provide a stronger claim that the results can be generalized to all former members. But we feel our efforts do provide a first step in understanding the individuals involved and their reasoning.

Our efforts to compare these findings to research about former members conducted by the Seventh-day Adventist Church have been a challenge. In the March 21, 2013 edition of the Adventist Review, Andy Nash refers to other research and provides statistics from past studies, but does not include citations for them.* While a 1975 study claimed 0% of former Adventists left over doctrinal differences, a 2011 study found 49% identified doctrine as the reason they are no longer members. So far, results from none of the church-sponsored studies have been published, as social science research is traditionally reported. In most research, methods and results are generally made available so that others can compare, debate, and attempt to replicate findings. We have speculated that perhaps studies we have seen referenced are more along the lines of market research or political polls and are only intended to inform those who sponsored the research. Whatever the reasoning, we have been unable to determine the wording of questions, selection of sample populations, or other details of the official church-sponsored research. That information seems to be shrouded in mystery and only the facts which seem most likely to maintain denominational status quo have been published or presented.

In conversations with family and friends about our differing beliefs, many of us have been told that "The Adventist church is growing and changing," or "We don't teach that at our church." And more and more frequently we hear, "Well, I don't believe all 28 of those fundamental beliefs, but it's okay. I'm content with just ignoring what I don't agree with."

Thus, we found ourselves wondering what our family and friends who are still members of the SDA church actually DO believe. Are our acquaintances unique somehow? Do other Adventists also reject some of the doctrinal core beliefs? Which ones? To what extent? Perhaps we have more in common with them than we thought!

Since we had already conducted one survey, the idea naturally occurred to us that we might offer another one. The plan was to ask the same questions (with the wording directed toward current members) so that we could compare responses. We also decided to include a few questions we wished we'd asked in the first survey. The question about "why I left" is paired with "the primary reason I am still a member," but has no "forced choice." We left that question with 10 multiple choice responses, as well as a comment box. Thus, comparing the responses here will be challenging. However, we wanted to be able to get a clearer idea from the respondents regarding just what it is that holds them to the church.

Here are some data from what we've learned about the current member respondents so far. Over 5 weeks we have had 335 participants and while the emerging data is interesting, we understand that this is hardly a representative sample.

  • 68% have been members more than 30 years.
  • 75% became members when they were 13 or younger.
  • 24 % said, " I totally understood all the doctrines of the church when I became a member and whole-heartedly agreed with them."
  • 55% "attend church regularly."
  • 40% said, "I believe the doctrines of the SDA church are Biblical and fully endorse them."
  • 68% responded to "Why I think individuals leave the Adventist church," with
  • "They disagreed with the doctrinal teachings of the church."
  • 16% responded to "My views regarding the importance of church membership," with "I believe it is vital that true believers be members of the SDA church."
  • 39% "Strongly agree" with " My current level of agreement, overall, with the fundamental beliefs of the SDA church."
  • 42% prefer the NIV; 27% prefer the KJV; 8% prefer the Clear Word.
  • Of the 28 fundamental beliefs, the one with the lowest level of agreement is the one regarding the "Investigative Judgment:" 44% "Fully agreed."
  • Close behind is the church's teaching regarding the "Spirit of Prophecy" as "an identifying mark of the remnant church and was manifested in the ministry of Ellen G. White." Only 45% of respondents "Fully agreed."

As more people take the survey, those numbers will undoubtedly change. It would be very helpful if the opportunity to participate could be more widely broadcast. For those who are interested in looking at the survey or participating, the link is here. However, as might be imagined, some are skeptical regarding the source and intended use of the survey. Since this is not a typical academic research project, and there is no supporting organization, our efforts are quite limited.

We intend to provide a report describing the findings to our survey, similar to the one we created for the Former Adventist Survey, which will be available to the public. As is true with any research, the data might be used to try to prove a point or infer personal judgments. While that is not our intent, when the data is freely distributed, others might attempt to use it to further their own agendas. However, it is our belief that if the data is available to all, a means for refuting inappropriate conclusions has been provided.

The purpose of the study can be summed up as curiosity. As individuals who have determined that our differing views of what the Bible teaches does not match those of the published beliefs of the SDA church, we would love to know whether members of the church actually agree with those doctrines, which, and to what extent. We also guess that there many others who would like to know the answers to those questions. Our hope is to provide a means for unlocking the door to Adventist beliefs so that anyone interested in discovering what members believe can step inside and look around.

* Nash, A. (March 21, 2013). Beyond Belief. Adventist Review.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5792