The 3 Bottom Line Reasons Why Local Adventist Churches are Dead
Last week I had the privilege of talking with a pastor from the US. We chatted about secular outreach, missional culture and the challenges faced by Western Adventism. At one point in our conversation, the pastor dropped a massive bomb. “There are close to 60 SDA churches in the region I work,” he said. “Only two of them are healthy.”
I was bummed out by the news, but not surprised. In my experience, most local SDA churches are dying churches. The membership is ageing, the mission is nonexistent and the youth are fading. Adventist Record editor Jarrod Stackelroth described tackling this crisis as dealing with “the very survival of the Adventist Church.”
In the midst of these dying churches there are a few that tend to stay afloat. They do so by putting as much energy as possible into survival. They work hard to retain their youth. They put on lots of programs to keep them connected. And they change a few things here and there to meet the needs of emerging generations. However, after all is said and done, these churches are not living, they are merely staying alive. And we all know that staying alive is not the same as living. The tragedy of this is best captured in the words of Bill Henard who wrote, “When a church decides to become a survivor, it unfortunately sets the stage for death.”
And of course, within this decaying church environment, there are still the odd churches that are thriving. But these are about as mythological as a unicorn. Okay, not really but you get the point. They are rare and super hard to to find.
Why are stagnation and death our norm?
I believe there are many answers to that question and if you step into a room full of pastors and mission minded folk, you would probably get 100 different answers to this question. But in this article I want to offer the 3 bottom line reasons are churches are dead. These are based on my personal observations so I don’t claim infallibility here, but I think you will find that they make a lot of sense. I’ll also end with some practical steps on what we can do to turn things around.
So here we go! The 3 Bottom Line Reasons Why Local Adventist Churches are Dead:
We have convinced too many people.
Suppose you write a book. The purpose of the book is to convince everyone that New York Pizza is the best pizza in the world. You do this in a very simple format. You state your case in the introduction and then, for the next 12 chapters, you argue one point after another. Chapter 1, the cheese is richer. Chapter 2, the base is thinner. Chapter 3, the sauce is more authentic. And so on and so forth.
By the time you get to the end of the book, you have argued 12 reasons why New York Pizza is the best pizza in the world. Along the way, you have demonstrated how Boston and Chicago just don’t compare and, of course, how Atlanta and Los Angeles never stood a chance. Your book is published and becomes a huge hit. After a year, a massive convention gathers in Manhattan to celebrate your best seller. Thousands of people who agree with you attend to celebrate with you. You now have a “NYP-Only” cult following that sweeps across the globe. Congratulations.
Okay, back to reality. The point I am getting at is this: the above scenario is pretty much how Adventist evangelism has historically worked. Adventists have historically approached the great commission as a great debate in which we argue for our theological brand. “Here is why Adventism is the best denomination in the world!” we cry. Chapter 1 - We go to church on the right day. Chapter 2 - We alone can explain what really happens when you die. Chapter 3 - We have got end time events figured out way better than everyone else. Then, sprinkled in each of our presentations are passive and active arguments about how the Pentecostals and Methodists are so wrong. And those non-denominational Christians? Stay away from them. But of course, nothing gets our blood boiling more than that Roman Catholic Church! Now that’s just straight up Satan!
If you are a conservative Adventist (like me btw) you might be appalled right now. Am I making fun of our message? Not at all. What I am doing is pointing out how so much of our SDA churches are like conventions filled with people who are convinced by our arguments. And they join our movement because they think we are right and everyone else is wrong. They are not necessarily converted (will come back to this) but boy, are they convinced we’ve got the truth! And what do you get when you have reached people by arguing them into the church? You get a church culture more interested in arguing than in serving.
I’m not impressed by gigantic post-evangelistic baptism numbers. What I’m interested in is, how many of them where won with love and to love? Because so long as we keep winning people with arguments we will win them to arguing. And this, I believe, is one of the main reasons why so many of our local churches are dead. Everyone just wants to keep arguing. No one wants to serve.
We have freaked out too many people.
Let’s use our imagination again. Suppose you decide to start a business selling insurance but no one sees the need. Eventually, you discover a marketing trick that works like a charm and with it you are able to scale your business and put food on your table. The trick? Sell to peoples fears. If you market how good your product is, no one cares. But if you market how urgent it is “or else”… well now you have the phone ringing off the hook!
In his article “Why Fear Sells: The Business of Panic & Paranoia,” Martin Lindstrom stated clearly that “fear is a powerful persuader…. [w]hich is why the marketing world uses scare tactics to sell us everything from antidepressants to condoms, dental floss to laundry detergent, burglar alarms to cell phones, bottled water to pizza dough, as well as countless other brands and products.” Using this handy information you switch up your marketing campaigns and sell to your prospects fear of death, disease and financial ruin. And caching! You are rich.
But what does this have to do with why so many local Adventist churches are dead? Because this method of selling to fear is precisely what many ministries use in order to get you to buy their products. Add to this the difficulty of a small Adventist market and a ton of competing ministries, and you end up with new start ups having to develop unique selling points. One ministry exists to warn you about the dangers of x, the other to warn you about the dangers of y, and if that’s not enough a new guy is on the scene raising the midnight cry on how if you don’t understand z you and your children’s souls will be imperilled.
Adrian Zahid captured this issue well in his article, “Beyond the One project: The War Over the Local Church (5b)” He writes:
Because they are often competing with other independent ministries for the same number of churches who are open to such speakers, they have to differentiate and establish their “unique selling point” against that of another independent minister. It is a zero-sum game. Either they are invited to churches and they quickly establish urgency in the minds of the members regarding their topic and sell materials at the end of the weekend series or they and their family will starve. Enormous pressure, is therefore put on the independent minister, to present information in such a way as to create a thirst in the mind of the member that can only be quenched by buying the materials on sale after the series is ended. The member then adds the materials to their ‘threat-matrix’ system so that they can see this latest ‘spiritual danger’ coming at them a mile away. Often the member does not have the time to really study the materials in any organised fashion or depth because the next weekend another speaker is ready to present yet another ‘testing Truth’ or ‘threat’ that they have to be vigilant about. And the cycle repeats itself.
This process, Zahid argues, has a “tremendous effect on the local church” in which (among other issues) “every person views the other as a potential spiritual threat to their salvation”. Such a culture quickly degenerates into toxicity. Add to this the already existing foundation of argumentation and you end up with a nucleus of people too freaked out about existing to have any meaningful impact in the world. The church quickly becomes a fortress rather than a hospital.
We have short-sold too many people.
I want to go back to point one here. When we win people by convincing them with arguments we can publish sexy reports about how many baptisms we got, but in the long run it bites us in the butt. The truth is, belonging to the church is a passage that takes place on the heels of conversion. When a person receives Christ and is born again, the Bible says they pass from death unto life, from the headship of the first Adam to the second Adam, from humanity 1.0 to humanity 2.0, from the kingdom of men to the kingdom of heaven. This conversion experience transcends a shift in worldview. It involves being born a new from above and this is a miraculous, divinely initiated metamorphosis.
But this rebirth doesn’t happen like a physical birth. In a physical birth a person is conceived and then born into the world. But for a rebirth to take place it must be preceded, not by conception, but by death.
In other words, we must die first, before we can be born anew. And this death experience is imperative in the Christian life. It is death to self. Death to the old man. And a rebirth into an entirely new experience as a child of God. And you cannot accomplish this by convincing people that we are right. And while this is certainly the least popular thing I will ever say, I maintain that the reason most of our churches are dead is because they are filled with people convinced by the truth but not converted by it. To put it differently, most of our churches are not filled with men and women who have died and been reborn into newness of life. Instead, they are filled with men and women who have re-branded their worldview via Adventists theology. Mixed with the argumentative spirit of our historic evangelistic style and a constant bombardment of fear based sales pitches and you end up with a culture that is constantly trending toward death because it is, in essence, composed of individual souls who are already spiritually dead and have yet to experience the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit - a power that sets us free from self, from argumentative and judgmental spirits and fills with a love so perfect it casts away all our fear.
Okay, so I said some heavy stuff there. I’m anticipating some angry comments maybe? Or maybe I should be less cynical. Either way, the question that is now before us is simple: What can we do about this? I mean, its one thing to identify the issues. Its another to solve them. Here are some points I hope can be of help:
Adventist preachers, leaders, influencers etc. need to focus on conversion more. We need to preach Jesus not as a nice idea, but as a living person who is calling us to death. So many gospel presentations these days gloss over death or skip it altogether and the result, I’m afraid, is that we are simply convincing people to give Jesus a go and see how his philosophy of life improves ours. But this is not the gospel! We must come by way of his death. And that death experience is imperative not only for our individual spiritual life but for our collective mission as well. Imagine, what would Adventism be like if it was filled with less people who were staunchly convinced that the Sabbath is on Saturday, but who had died to their self-centred, argumentative and narcissistic selves and been born again a new creation in the likeness of Jesus - compassionate, kind and other-centred? You get my point. Preach conversion!
I’m not against independent ministries, but for those who are reading who perhaps lead one - please think about two things. First, think about how you market your material. The last thing our churches need is more people exploiting their fears to sell them the next DVD with the urgent warning. And please, for the love of all that is beautiful, stop calling every new thing you don’t like the “Omega Apostasy”. Seriously, if I have one more person tell me their DVD or book exposes what it really is, I’m going to puke.
Okay, let me get back to serious for a moment. If you run an independent ministry its because God has gifted you with innovation, charisma and the spirit of entrepreneurship. And that’s awesome! Use it! But chill out with the fear stuff. And I’m not just talking about marketing here. I’m talking about content as well. When it comes to marketing, I’m not even 100% against using pain points and urgency to get someones attention. What I am really frustrated with is the emotional manipulation that then leads people, not toward something redemptive, but toward more fear based content that engrosses the mind with the work of evil until the love of God becomes relegated to the pile of “cheesy milk doctrine”. Not cool. Everything you say must point to Jesus. If it doesn’t you are not doing God’s work no matter how you spin it.
For church leaders, a word of advice: don’t try and convince your members to stay away from this stuff. It turns the leaders of these ministries into martyrs and makes life harder. Instead, keep calling your flock back to the scriptures and deal with the principles of having the mind of Christ. Not everyone will get it, but it will inoculate new members and slowly lead the ones hooked on this stuff to turn their eyes to Jesus.
Focus on the good. In my second podcast episode I interviewed pastor Robert Stankovic about restoring churches high-jacked by fanaticism. He said something so wise I never forgot it. “Focus on the good and eventually the bad will discover it doesn’t fit in anymore.” I think that’s an awesome bit of practical advice and a sweet spot to end.
Do you have any thoughts to add? Feel free to comment below!