The Ungathered Church

(Spectrumbot) #1

•A young academic moves to another city for a position in a major state university. “Do you attend a church there?” I ask. “There’s a church not far from me, but it reminded me too much of the small depressing churches I've previously survived,” he replies. “I’ve never gone back.”

•A retired pastor and wife live in Loma Linda, where there are dozens of congregations. “We go to church twice every Sabbath,” they tell me. “We watch two church services on TV, and we don’t even have to get dressed.”

•I ask a church school teacher couple in an elementary school supported by mine and a half-dozen or so other metro area churches, “Where do you attend church?” They name some congregations they’ve tried, but admit that they spend most Sabbaths hiking in the mountains or taking bike rides. I ask them if they think it might be important for the children they teach Bible to during the week, not to mention the congregants that sacrifice for the school, to see them in church. “Yes,” they say. “But there’s not a lot of pressure. There are so many churches here, that everyone assumes we’re in one of the others.”

•“Maranatha is our church,” the retiree and his wife tell me. “We don’t like getting involved in a congregation ourselves—too many conflicts. But we like to build churches for others.”

•“All the Adventist congregations around here are apostate,” a woman tells me. “I would rather stay home than go to a church that teaches spiritual formation and contemplative prayer.” “My church doesn’t teach those things,” I say. “I’m heeding the General Conference president’s warning,” she says. “I’m safer at home.”

•I visit some elderly members only a few minutes from the church, urging them to attend. It’s not a matter of mobility: they still drive. “We attend church all week long,” they tell me. “3ABN is on from morning until night in our home.” (I have to turn down the volume myself just so I can visit with them.) “But I’m the flesh-and-blood pastor who comes to see you,” I tell them. “What you do isn’t as important as 3ABN,” the man says. “They’re reaching the whole world.” They send all their tithes and offerings to 3ABN.

•A retirement-aged woman asks to meet me at a cafe to talk about spiritual questions. She grew up in the church, never eats pork or shellfish, and engages me in a lively discussion about Pope Francis and the papacy’s role in end-time events. But she hasn’t been in a church for 30 years. “There’s a marvelous church not far from your home,” I tell her. “Wonderful pastor, great music. Why don’t you try it?” “I should,” she says. But she never does.

•“I’d love to see you more often,” I tell a young family. “Oh, we’re sorry, but this is sports season, and Tyler has games every Saturday. We come when we can,” they tell me, “but not when Tyler has sports.” Tyler plays all the sports, so we’re happy if we see them once a month.

•A young college professor at a Seventh-day Adventist college tells me in a chat, “I know I should go to church. But church services here seem to be for families or students, and as a middle-aged single woman, I just don’t feel comfortable.”

•I’m visiting with a church leader who works in the General Conference building. “I usually don’t attend church unless I’m invited to speak,” he admits. “The average pastor rarely says anything that does much for me spiritually.”

All of these people would tell you they they are Seventh-day Adventists. Some even work for the church. But the thing that used to define a Seventh-day Adventist—being part of corporate worship on the Saturday Sabbath—isn’t central to them. One of the ironies of being a pastor in North America nowadays is a continuing interest in things spiritual and theological, over against the decline of the gathered church.[1] What has made the church at worship lose its importance for so many people?

There were flaws in the Seventh-day Adventism of my childhood, but I do appreciate that church attendance was a family discipline. It took a severe illness—not a mere cold or headache or a restless night of sleep—to keep us home from church. We drove 10 miles to church through North Dakota blizzards so bad that you could barely see the road. (Yes, I know how “old coot” that sounds!) The times we stayed home on Sabbath are so few that I remember them all.

I’ve heard all the reasons people don’t attend, and I sympathize with many of them. I’ve been in many small churches (most Adventist churches are small) and I can tell you that even with a well-intentioned pastor and friendly members, they’re not exciting. In all congregations there are misunderstandings, and in some there’s bickering and fighting. Leaders are worn out on routine activities, and much effort and money flushed away in maintaining old buildings. Sabbath School classes rehearse the same cliches they’ve repeated for decades. You can find deficiencies in every church: too few activities for youth, not enough community outreach, poor music, mediocre preaching, a pastor shared with two other churches, members who seem to disapprove of nearly everything.

We pastors try to enrich the congregational experience. I’ve used different kinds of music, from classical to praise to traditional hymns and choirs. Breakfast and hot drinks and donuts. Lots of home visitation with personal invitations to church. I do my best to keep my congregations peaceful—every pastor’s biggest challenge—though some defy one’s best efforts. I’ve tried a youth pastor and an outreach pastor and once even a chaplain for a secular college campus near the church. I don’t claim to be an unusually charismatic orator, but I think I can say honestly that I’m always articulate and clear, and present messages of hope rather than fear and scolding.

But every small church I know, and some of the bigger ones, too, recall years ago when the sanctuary was packed with people—and it’s not anymore.

Set aside for the moment the question of how we keep the Sabbath, whether we go out to eat or take Erin to her dance recital and Kevin to his Little League game. Consider just this: one of the two main identities captured in our church name has to do with choosing the right day to worship God together. It was a central reason for our founding, it separates us from other Christians, and according to our eschatology, it plays a major part in end time events. Yet at this moment, at least in North America, Sabbath church attendance lags far behind the number of people who identify as Seventh-day Adventists. Stand in the back of the sanctuary in most of our congregations, and where you don’t see empty pews, you’ll see gray heads.

This is professionally challenging for us pastors, because what happens on Sabbath morning is a metric of success. Church membership is one, income is another and, of course, souls won. But what we really notice Sabbath to Sabbath is people in the pews. We measure our congregations’ appeal by that. Full churches are more enjoyable and attractive. Singing is better, preaching has more resonance, more friendships develop, giving is more robust, and it’s easier to bring new members to full churches.

Is there such a thing as an ungathered church, a church that doesn’t require people sitting together singing and praying in a building anymore? That day may be coming whether we like it or not. The little churches in the Ohio conference, the ones in small cities, are disappearing. And our conference isn’t alone. I’ll go out on a limb here and make a prophecy: within ten years a fourth or more of the NAD congregations will have melted away. I see the signs of our reaching a tipping point, where the church-supporting, church-attending generation dies and there are too few young people left to create a new generation to keep small congregations going. It could happen quickly. We’ll need another model if Seventh-day Adventist congregations are going to survive in places where there’s no Adventist hospital or college.[2]

I’m not sure what that new model will be. Loosely organized only-vaguely-churchy groups, like Peter Roennfeldt describes? House churches, like Simple Church? Perhaps we could just watch Doug Batchelor and chat on line, but abandon the expectation that we are physically in one place?

We who love the Seventh-day Adventist church are searching for answers.

[1] Monte Sahlin says that there’s little reliable data on SDA church attendance in the NAD. “Only half the local churches report attendance despite the fact that it became NAD policy in 1988 and has been requested on the church clerks’ reports ever since.” But there’s a pretty clear downward trend in church attendance generally, as tracked by the American Church Research Project. While 3/4 of Americans claim a religious affiliation, and 40-45% say they attend church, actual head count shows closer to 20%. “Everyone agrees that attendance figures are down across the board,” says Monte.

[2] For this reason, I would counsel young people not to prepare for the traditional Adventist pastoral ministry without a backup plan. While it’s true that there will be a big retirement of pastors in the next ten years, there will also be less money and fewer openings.

Loren Seibold is a pastor in the Ohio Conference, and co-contributor (with Monte Sahlin) to Faith in Context, a blog about the intersection of religion and culture.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(Thomas J Zwemer) #2

Chuck said it all in his rebuke of my blogs. Belief and zeal are dead from the top down. the One Project is a last attempt at revival. skeptics abound, scoffers are next. In the beginning God, in the end God We have a chance now to choose where in between we fit. Adventism is still proclaiming a 19th century end time. even Power Point can’t Revive it. There are at least 20 Gospel sermons in John alone and as many in Hebrews, and Ephesians. forget Daniel and Revelation. Tom Z


The problem is clear and has been brewing for the past several decades as the youth after they complete their education stop attending. Look around on any given Sabbath and the ask yourself where will be in 10-20 years. Last week our church of 180 “members” had 50 in attendance and no one in the congregation under 40. What evades us is the solution. What can we do to reverse this trend?. Some say the it is the shaking and “bring it on!”. But within the context of continuing to be a viable organization without compromising our core beliefs, what can we do? What is the local, regional, national and international organization doing? We have identified the problem so we are now half way to solving it. My fear is that this is the easy half.

(Loren Seibold) #4

While I admire you greatly, @tjzwemer, I think I agree with @c_scriven that you are times somewhat negative. There are many faithful Christians who love and trust Jesus in the Seventh-day Adventist church. Perhaps I don’t say that enough myself. We are not only proclaiming the old Adventist message, we are proclaiming the old Christian message of Jesus and his love—increasingly so, in the last two generations. So please give us some credit, in spite of our difficulties.

I’m still concerned about the declining attendance at church, though please note the footnote: attendance in all churches, including gospel-teaching Sunday-keeping churches, is down across the board. We’re not the only ones. What makes it significant, in my view, is that as Seventh-day Adventists we defined ourselves by Sabbath worship, and now we’re not doing that any better than anyone else.

(Loren Seibold) #5

@mdatthebay, I think you identified a crucial thing in your penultimate sentence: we have one of the oversized bureaucracies of any denomination, and yet they are painfully out of touch with all but the biggest and most successful congregations—which most congregations aren’t. Look in vain for any discussion of small churches and their problems, of churches closing, of the aging membership in the heartland. They don’t address it because they don’t see it. Much—I won’t say all—of the resourcing is designed for the kind of congregations you’d find within 50 miles of Silver Spring.

(Steve Mga) #6

For a good insight about Church Attendance Decline [apparently the SDA church is a part of this] I would suggest reading the following material on Church Attendance Decline.
Christianity After Religion ---- The End of Church And The Birth Of A New Spiritual Awakening, by Diana Butler Bass, [Harper One, 2012]. pages 15-17, 52-54, 57.
I would also recommend reading a companion book.
Christianity For The Rest Of Us — How The Neighborhood Church Is Transforming The Faith, [Harper San Francisco: 2006]. Part 1 - What Happened to the Neighborhood Church. Part 2 - 10 Signs of Renewal. Part 3 - From Tourists to Pilgrims [Transforming Lives, Transforming Congregations, Transforming the World, Home Again].
There are no easy answers. She does bring out that The Church For The Gray Hairs [no longer blue hairs anymore Ive noticed] are not the same Questions that are being asked, AND Not Answered in Church for the 18 to 45 year old. And so there tends to be a disconnect between what is promoted by the Church and what this age group is looking for.
The Tension between the Old Members and the Young Members does not allow the Church to meet the SEEKING NEEDS of the Younger Members, and consequently the church is stagnant or is in decline at the Local Level.

(George Tichy) #7

Why do people go to church?
Basically I would say that there are two factors:

  1. It’s been the routine in the person’s life…
  2. Something attracts the person to the service.

Class #1 will probably keep attending no matter what, because their motivation is just to keep up with the “routine.”

Class #2 is where the problem resides. If a preacher does not deliver substantial, good, rich messages from the pulpit people stop attending. At least I do. I refuse to spend any time listening to preachers who didn’t prepare their sermons properly and are just fooling the congregation with some vague, irrelevant, poor linguistic constructions.

The millennials will probably not attend church based on #1. And if they don’t find real substance in the services, why would they actually waste their time?

Pastors better watch out. They either provide good quality services or soon there won’t be anybody around looking for their services.
Well, … the “routinneals” will probably keep coming to take a nap during the preaching…

(Thomas J Zwemer) #8

Loren , I am sure you are. I know many in my time that were also. I haven’t heard any in the Southern Union in at least 25 years.Several years ago. Betty and I had a retired G.C. Officer, a retiredUnion Conference President and his wife for Sabbath dinner. The afternoon conversation was right out of GYC. As host, I just sat there in utter amazement. I, by inference was already cast into hell. In earlier years, I watched Neal Wilson out gun R.R. Betz for president apparent of the G.C. on the day R.R’s wife was dying 200 yards away. church political is as ugly as any Chicago ward. Tom Z

(Loren Seibold) #9

@GeorgeTichy, I agree that good preaching helps. But as one who has spent his share of time in churches of all sizes, some growing, some declining, I think you’re defining the reason too narrowly. There are congregations that ever-so-excellent preaching can’t help. And I’ve seen churches so friendly and supportive that they survive mediocre preaching.

At least half of the (completely true) stories I cited above were in locations that offer the best church services in the denomination. Why didn’t these people attend? There’s something more going on than poor preaching and ministry.

(Carolyn Parsons) #10

You forgot the 3rd factor, this is especially true for young people.

  1. Meeting friends and socializing. I am sure that the kids these days text each other and if there isn’t enough going, they don’t go unless forced to do so. Without the presence of friends they feel un-engaged.

(Loren Seibold) #11

Quite right, @bongoangola.

Could another factor be the general cynicism in popular culture about religion?

(Carolyn Parsons) #12

Yes, that has a large effect as well. I think it might be tied in to the social aspects. Social aspects might be enough to overcome general cynicism for some to keep them attending.

I have seen an entire generation of young people that I was involved with as youth back in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s disappear from the church.

I fear that too often people who look at these issues within the church fail to realize that the cynicism is not merely a result of cultural influences. In many cases the church itself is responsible for a portion of this problem. When a young person, or anyone else for that matter, sees a church claim that the gospel is love and Christ accepts all people then see it reject some and discriminate against others, they have every right to be cynical.

(George Tichy) #13

This is one of the main reasons for Rick Warren’s success at Saddleback Church. The environment is extremely friendly. Socialization is one of the most important targets in his church(es), and they developed the small group system in a way that everyone feels properly socialized and rooted into the church.

Go to some of our churches and see the faces of the greeters… when there is one…

(Steve Mga) #14

In many Local Churhes “Church” is entertainment from 9:30am to 12:30 on Sabbath. Look around at the way church buildings are designed. Pews instead of theatre seats. A stage for the entertainers. No interaction between [1] the entertainers, and [2]one’s neighbors in the pews. Notice how everyone has assigned themselves their weekly seats. At the end there is a 5 second greeting of “See you next week” or my favorite, “Happy Sabbath” which takes less than 2 seconds. Then we greet the Entertainers at the door as we leave.
No wonder persons “attend church” by way of TV, by way of Internet. there is no hassle about dressing up, we can sleep in, no traffic problems, and lunch can be cooking [or we can actually be eating] while we are sitting on the couch or in our favorite chair “watching the service and being entertained”. Entertained in “church”, Entertained at “home”. No difference.
I am one of the “entertainers” every 4th week. One can see a LOT from the Organ Bench.
My daughter worked at Loma Linda Univ for 6 months. Had a number of friends out there from academy and college.This was probably 12 years ago. All her friends would go to the mountains for the day on Sabbaths instead of “church”. [She thought she wanted to get her Masters at LLU, but enrolled at WWU instead, which was a better choice for her.]
What this article states IS NOT a new phenomenon. It is just that the kids who in college skipped church and went to the mountains, when they come back home, they still skip church and “keep” Sabbath in alternative ways.
The problem has been sitting there for a Very Long Time. We like to write about it and think we have addressed the issue, pat ourselves on the back that we HAVE addressed the issue, print it in The Review, [which is easily discarded in file 13], and continue doing what we are doing, thinking we will get different results.
Preachers go to school. Are taught what they are taught, but are not taught to address these issues head on. Low attendance makes them think they are a failure. The Issue is, their education was not complete and so they are unprepared to SEE the real issues attending low attendance.
It is not easy being an innovative Preacher. People complain. People complain to the Conference Office. The Pastor gets called to “the office”. Maybe gets blackballed for being too welcoming, for being too involved in the local community, hanging around undesirables. Wings are clipped, and they never grow back.
It isnt easy to bring change to the Local Congregation.
For something I did back in 2010, which I thought was no big deal.[The pastor was the only one who was aware of it.] I got a 5 page letter from the pastor. Which would have been OK, but he sent copies to the head elder AND the pastoral scy of the conference. In reply by mail it had to send copies of my correspondence to these persons also. Another reply by mail by the pastor. Another reply by me by mail to everyone. Another reply by mail from the pastor. [I had asked to discuss the issue face to face, said he would, but would never set a time or date]. My last reply by letter I had to just say we were not going to discuss this by mail any more.
Several years back one day the S.S. teacher did not show up. I was asked to lead the lesson. After that I was put on the schedule every 4th week to teach. At my week I would give a hand out of material to do some Sabbath Afternoon reading based on the lesson. Not always SDA author. I had no complaints from anyone. I did this till the new S.S. Leader was chosen at the new year. He said only “members” could do S.S. stuff. My membership was in TN, so I was no longer eligable, and I understood that.
TWO YEARS later, I was early as I usually am and meditate before things start. He sat down where I was and told me the reason I wasnt asked to continue teaching was that I was handing out thought materials from non-SDAs to the class. So one NEVER knows WHO one will offend by trying to Bless the masses.

(Thomas J Zwemer) #15

I strongly suggest that each go to Amazon and search for the book The Glory of the Cross by Samuel Zwemer. buy it and read it by all means. DrZwemer was a missionary for over 30 years to Islam, and then Professor of Missions At Princeton. That is the theme of Dr Edward Heppenstall. M Lloyd-Jones, John R. W. Stott, F.F. Bruce. There God won His Case, He invites us to join in that victory. But what do we hear “You better be good, you better not cry Santa Claus is coming to town!” Tom Z

(Cherilyn Clough) #16

Noooo! Please don’t just watch Doug B.! I fear 3ABN (as much of a blessing it is to the housebound) has contributed to a spectator society. I know I need to go to church more–not to please any one, but because that’s where we find (hopefully) like minded community and God designed us for community. I believe small groups enhance the church experience.


Loren, I’ve admired your posts in the past from afar. Quick note of affirmation.

Also, as I read about church attendance (I grew up in a small church my parents helped start that still only averages about 30 people each week) I couldn’t help but think of this video from one of my favorite writers, Ian Morgan Cron. As I hear him talk about liturgy, I can softly substitute “church participation” and come to many of the same conclusions. Blessings as you continue to nurture community in a world that wants to isolate and wait.

(efcee) #18

I followed the link to Peter Roennfeldt and wondered if it was his church that Loren describes as “only vaguely churchy” or if that title was in reference to an article discussing such churches perhaps written by Roennfeldt to be navigated to somewhere on that site? From a perusal of the pages on that website, I didn’t see that Roennfeldt’s church had done anything to warrant the description of “only vaguely churchy”.

As for the age of our congregations, my observation is that the composite age of the pastor/church board consistently mirrors the composite age of the congregation. If I were to give an empty building to a 32 year old pastor, I think he/she would build a congregation of something other than “gray heads”.

From my visits to the young, vibrant congregations of other denominations (or maybe it’s more accurate to describe them as non-denominations as most seem to want to distance themselves from denominationalism - even if they have strong ties), I can’t really fault the standard church model (a weekly service in a rented or owned structure large enough to accommodate the entire congregation scheduling no more than two services). There is a dynamic in these churches that I can say I’ve never seen in an SDA church: The gray-haired, moneyed people in these young congregations (yes, they are there) have deliberately elected to take a back seat to the younger members.

(Loren Seibold) #19

@efcee, I fear I may have wrongly linked you. I was basing that observation on a presentation I heard Roennfeldt make a few years ago, where he was describing something far less church-like than most SDAs would be comfortable with, a combination of fellowship and Bible study and community service on a Sabbath. Not sure where to find that now. I apologize for that misdirection.

PS: if you follow links to some of the other pages, where he talks about emerging stories, for example, you’ll get a sense of what I heard in the presentation.

(Cassandra) #20

Shall we talk about Rick Warren and gays? And what “properly socialized” means?

Seventh-Gay Adventists

It’s a very powerful film. Gentle in its way. Only tree stumps could get through the film without tears or sobs; yet it ends with joy.
– Dr. Charles Scriven, president of Kettering College of Medical Arts and chair of the board of Adventist Forum

Since @c_scriven was brought into the discussion in the very first response, might we discuss specifically Adventist cynicism in relation to his recent article?

What Shall We Do With Ellen White?

“Very simply—I want honesty.”
—Søren Kierkegaard

Biff Loman, the elder son in Death of a Salesman, bursts out angrily, “We haven’t told the truth for ten minutes in this house!” The Loman house was dysfunctional, and dysfunction threatens ours.

We cannot fool our way—or lie our way—into faithfulness and flourishing. We have to tell the truth.

Dan Jackson, the North American Division president, ended a sermon at the Division’s 2014 year-end meetings by saying emphatically: “I love the Seventh-day Adventist movement. It. Will. Not. Fail.”

But it will fail—unless we tell the truth. He and his fellow leaders, and all those, like you and me, whose sway is some smaller corner of the church’s life, have an ever-more urgent responsibility, and it is this:

We. Must. Tell. The. Truth.

Are there any “faithfulness-and-flourishing” dots to connect in the present context, do you think?

What does Charles Scriven mean by “ever more urgent responsibility?”