Our Biggest North American Division Crisis Isn’t Theological

A few years ago, I called a friend (one to whom I talk seldom, but always happily) who had moved to a small midwestern U.S. city. Among other questions, I asked, “How’s the church there?”

“We don’t attend the Adventist church here anymore,” he said.

“Why not?” I asked.

He told me of several months of trying to be accepted in the local small church. Of never-ending sermons about prophecy, and going home feeling spiritually empty. Of pointed remarks about jewelry in a Sabbath School class the day his wife wore a tiny cross pendant. Of the criticism of a young man, home from the academy, who had sung a fast-tempo praise song with his guitar, and the improbability that he’d ever volunteer again. About a faction trying to get them to take sides against the dictatorial old elder.

“I feel terrible doing this,” he said. “I always felt like I should make my church better, not just bail out. But you reach a point where it just isn’t worth it. We go to an Evangelical church down the road, and we’re much happier.”

I admit having a little stab of spiritual pain when I heard his comment. I’m not one of those Adventists who write off people when they cease to be part of this church, or who suppose they’ve lost their salvation. But I’m a pastor, and I naturally want those I love to love my church. So it makes me sad when an Adventist congregation can’t keep the respect of thoughtful, dedicated people.

I’ve heard similar stories in the conference personnel committees of which I’ve been a member: of churches who’ve alienated all of their young people, of pastors seeking calls because they’re tired of criticism, of multi-generation conflicts, and new conflicts about things like worship styles and theology.

What’s the conference to do? We’ve always managed to come up with some plan of action, but I wonder sometimes whether we’re doing such congregations a favor by giving them pastors.

Small churches, it seems to me, are most in crisis.1 In a church of thirty attendees, a single difficult church member casts a long shadow, and there are fewer people to dilute the impact of even the smallest crisis. Small churches lack resources, human and financial, so everything they do is more difficult, and less likely to please.

I like to visit churches when I travel. Being a lifelong Adventist, and knowing what to expect, I don’t let unfriendliness, or moronic things said by Sabbath School teachers or preachers, or the shabbiness of the building, or the absence of anyone between the ages of twelve and forty, push me away. Still, I can’t help but ask myself: if I were a stranger with no background in our faith who had stumbled in here today, would I join this congregation?

It has become increasingly difficult to find the best and brightest candidates for ministry, especially for these smaller churches and districts. Lay people, I think, tend to blame congregational failure on poor pastoring. But when a church goes through four or five pastors and all of them exit under a cloud, you begin to realize that the problem isn’t just the quality of leadership.

Some years ago, I wrote a piece for the Adventist Review called “How to Send Your Pastor Packing,” a list of unkind things you could do to get rid of your pastor. It was meant to be a satire—precisely what you ought not to do. I’ve not forgotten a letter to the editor from one man who didn’t get the joke: “We’ve tried all of these things,” he wrote, “and we still can’t get rid of our pastor!”

Conference officers worry about these churches. Of those church leaders farther up the hierarchy, I wonder if too many attend Spencerville (when they’re not traveling on mission trips or to camp meetings or convocations), to have a good sense of what life is like out there. (It is no accident that most of the curricula and resources produced in Silver Spring for churches assume a larger congregation.) Those who teach ministerial students have college talents and churches at their disposal, so they may not know how to prepare their students for what they’ll face the year after they leave school and join a conference’s pastoral staff—often as pastor of a small, conflicted church.

I don’t know exactly why we’re in this situation. It may have something to do with the way we build community around beliefs rather than ministries, rituals or relationships: individual beliefs are moving targets in this relativistic culture, inviting misunderstandings. It may be that we’ve simply grown organizationally old, and have become too crotchety and inflexible to adjust to the times. Some congregations are just trying to survive, and haven’t the energy to adapt and regenerate.

Still, I wonder who we’ll be when the only churches in the North American Division any thoughtful person wants to attend are a handful on college or hospital campuses.

Notes and References

1. Monte Sahlin tells me that “two-thirds of the churches in the NAD have fewer than one hundred members, though only 19 percent of the total membership. The six hundred largest churches (out of almost six thousand) contain 51 percent of the total membership.” In other words, we’re represented well only in a few places. Also, says Monte, "More than two-thirds of local churches have experienced conflict in the last five years.…Adventist congregations are more likely to experience conflict that are most other religious groups."

Loren Seibold is senior pastor of the Worthington, Ohio, Seventh-day Adventist Church. He also edits a newsletter for North American Division pastors called Best Practices for Adventist Ministry.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/799
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Cough!

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So nothing has really changed in the ensuing seven years since this article was published. That’s encouraging!

Trust God.

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has it ever been the case that smaller, rural adventist churches have thrived because adventists chose them over larger, centralized churches…i seem to recall reading egw’s constant protestations over the ghettoing of adventists in battle creek, which led to non-stop spiritual problems…her view was that families should move out into areas where the truth wasn’t known…in other words, smaller, rural adventist churches weren’t happening, much less thriving…

i don’t think our denomination has ever been a community of thriving smaller country churches…i think we’ve always had the tendency to swarm in designated areas…if smaller churches are fading into the sunset, is this a crisis, or is it a reiteration of our predilection for village living…

I m not sure if we should be taking all the blame for the lack of vitality of small churches, espacially rural churches. The demographics of such churches reflect the demographics of the population as a whole. Young people are leaving rural areas as the average age of farmers climbs like the average age increases in SDA churches. Young people are not entering agriculture and find limited job prospects in communities that are dying. A larger and larger percentage of people live in cities each year and that is where jobs are. Even if they wanted to, young families may not be able to live in rual areas as well. In my experience, having families with children in church helps maintain a more lively and vital atmosphere.

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My parents moved to a small town in northern California when they retired. There is a small SDA church there. At one time it was large enough to support the typical 1-2 teacher grade school, but I don’t believe that is the case now.

A few years ago, I asked my mother whether they went to church much, and she just shrugged and said no, it was just too conservative. This from an ordained Deaconess. My father pretty much checked out many years ago when as an English professor, he pointed out that he regularly failed students for the type of plagiarism employed in the writings of EGW, and was nearly fired for it.

I believe my parents still consider themselves to be Adventists, but through the years, they have moved past the slavish adherence to dogma and legalism that is so ingrained in conservative, fundamentalist Adventism. From my point of view, they are the better for it.

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Carolyn, I surely agree with you. Rural areas, the “rust belt”—many of these places have depopulated. I addressed this in another piece.

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