15 Million Adventists, Who's Counting?

Bert Haloviak directs the church's Office of Archives and Statistics, which estimates world church membership is some 15 million. [Photo: Richard Dower/ANN]Source: Adventist News Network

[June 25, 2007] Church membership records at the Phoenix Camelback Seventh-day Adventist Church in Phoenix, Arizona, United States, top out at a weighty 1,000. But weekly head counts in the pews reveal an average Sabbath worship service draws only between 350 and 400 members.

The church's senior pastor, Charles White, admits the church's membership roster hasn't been updated for 15 years. "There's a lot of dead wood in the books," he says.

Church officials say it's common for only 30 to 50 percent of a church's membership to regularly attend services.

Last October, the church's Office of Archives and Statistics (AST) reported there were nearly 14.4 million baptized members of the Adventist world church. The church estimates that number reached 15 million early this year, a figure AST director Bert Haloviak says is "fairly accurate."

Not so in 2000, when, despite glowing reports of church growth worldwide, church officials suspected the books might be padding the truth.

"We had relaxed on membership audits for many, many years," says Matthew A. Bediako, world church secretary. "You expect that the secretaries' reports are accurate, but when we looked closer we found unreasonable statistics."

G.T. Ng, associate secretary of the world church, believes the church is morally obligated to accurately report membership. "If membership is bloated, who are we fooling? Ourselves?"

Back in 2000, Ng worked as secretary for the church's Southern Asia-Pacific region, an area at the time fraught with sketchy statistics gathering. He welcomed a call from world church headquarters to conduct comprehensive membership audits of the church's 13 world regions -- a "painful, painstaking process," Haloviak remembers.

Ng recalls the church asking regional secretaries, "Please don't give us any more lies; give us honest, realistic figures."

Hendrik Sumendap, secretary for the church's Southern Asia-Pacific region, says audits there resulted in a "very discouraging" loss of 300,000 people.

In 2002, Haloviak says such results began showing up in the church's statistical reports, steadily chipping away at the church's annual growth rate, which dropped from 5.42 percent in 2001 to last year's 3.32 percent. Early reports for 2007, however, indicate a climb to a 4.98 percent growth rate.

Seven years after the major membership audit push, Haloviak says some regions still haven't cooperated, tempering the recent rallying of church growth rates.

"If you look at their statistics, it's beyond obvious their numbers are way out of line," Haloviak says. "It's clear that when the secretaries of some of these regions are told to do audits, it just doesn't register."

Separate from 2000's sweeping membership audits, each of the church's regional secretaries is supposed to submit quarterly membership updates to church headquarters. These reports keep track of baptisms, membership transfers, deaths, missing members and losses.

Kathleen Jones, who handles general statistics for the world church, says figures aren't always accurate.

"Sometimes the columns don't even add up," Jones says. In other cases, entire conferences fail to report anything for an entire quarter, sometimes due to staff shortages. Jones says she wishes the church offered more incentives to get people to cooperate.

Church statisticians estimate at least 10 people die per group of 1,000 every year. When one regional secretary reported 0.6 deaths some years ago, Haloviak remembers the excuse the secretary gave for such a "preposterous" statistic: "'He didn't die; he just had a really bad headache.'"

Ng believes individual churches should be "cleaning the books" on a yearly basis, as recommended by the Church Manual. But deciding when to remove an inactive member from the records is agonizing, he admits. "The purpose of audits is to redeem, not to cut people off."

Harold Wollan, secretary for the church's Trans-European region, agrees. "We do not encourage just dropping members for not showing up [Sabbath morning]."

Ng worries that some churches, hoping to accelerate the audit process, will in one fell swoop remove all missing or inactive members from the record. "There are no shortcuts to a proper audit," he says.

In North America, 53 of the region's 58 conferences use eAdventist, a secure computer software program implemented in 2003 to streamline accurate record keeping. Church clerks can enter membership votes electronically, replacing traditional paper records, says Nancy Lamoreaux, the church's North American director of Information Technology Services.

Sherri Ingram-Hudgins, eAdventist programmer analyst, says eAdventist's role is limited to recording votes taken at the local church level. "There's no giant behemoth out there going around arbitrarily wiping people off the records."

What Ng calls the "sacred job" of accurately managing membership is ultimately up to local churches.

White, the Phoenix Camelback church pastor, says inaccurate membership records are inevitable. Without an associate pastor or membership committee, he says tracking every lapsed member is simply out of the question.

"I've become more diligent in keeping up with members over the seven years I've been here, but there are a lot of people who have been absent for 10, 15 years," White says.

Church secretary Cheryl Oberlick says when elders visit such members, positive reception is rare.

"We've found people as a rule prefer not to be contacted," Oberlick says. "If there is any contact, they want to initiate it."

White agrees efforts to keep current with church membership are important, but far from top priority. "It's a matter of time management; we would rather get our active, current members involved in ministry and small groups," he says.

Sometimes, however, Ng says inaccurate records are deliberate. "I can think of instances when local administration told a church, 'Don't you dare do a membership audit.'"

Ng says he can understand the motivation: when membership drops the pastor can look bad. And, he adds, because representation in elected church positions is based on membership, no pastor or conference worker wants to stymie his chances of election.

Ng and other church officials have observed that when leaders take an honest look at membership, they help ensure the church's credibility.

Regional secretaries such as Barry Oliver, who works in the church's South Pacific region, also report audits result in a dramatic shift in church focus: from ratcheting up baptism rates to nurturing and retaining active members.

Ng agrees. "Baptism is important, but when you look at the [Bible], you see the goal is not only to baptize, but to make disciples." If the church more diligently practices "responsible evangelism," he says, the need for membership audits will decrease significantly.