In most local churches in North America, one third to one half of the members have not attended even once in the past 12 months (excluding shutins). This statement is based on careful studies conducted over the years.
"The problem of lapsed members and expired faith is real and sizable," said Charles L. Brooks, general field secretary of the General Conference in 1977.1 His report included data showing that from the 1960s through 1975, the number of missing members on church rolls in North America had grown to 209,683. Out of every 10 people who join the church, 4.3 simply disappear. 2
The dropout problem raises serious issues of responsibility, fellowship, and the effectiveness of our nurture activities in the local church. At a more profound level it surfaces even deeper concerns about the life and structure of the Adventist Church. But we believe that something can be done about this disturbing trend.
Who Are the Dropouts?
Surveys of the past few years paint a portrait of a dropout who grew up in the Adventist faith, a younger adult who has gone through a divorce or never married, has few friends in his or her local church, holds a demanding professional position or white collar job, and does not find that the program of the local church meets his or her needs.
One of the most widely held myths about dropouts is that they are the result of quick highpressure public evangelism. In fact, half grew up in Adventist homes and only one in seven came into the church through public evangelism. The majority have attended church regularly for six years or longer.
Age is the greatest dropout factor. Nearly half are in the 20-35 age group, and another quarter are 36-50. The median age of members is 48, the median age of former members is 40, according to Dr. Jerry Lee, a social scientist at Loma Linda University who carefully completed studies of the dropouts in the Southeastern California Conference in 1978.
What are some other characteristics of former Adventists that various studies have indicated?
1. In one study 40 percent were divorced.
2. About 40 percent of single members never attend church or they attend singles' functions at churches of other denominations. According to one former single member, "They leave, at least some of the time, for the same reasons I did. Needs for love and companionship, a relationship or a hoped-for one." Singles leave the church because of unfulfilled needs rather than differences over theological issues.
3. Dr. Lee's study found that 60 percent of former members had a non-Adventist spouse as compared to 28 percent of active members. Members who attend church without a spouse may be treated by the congregation as if they were single.
4. A significant number have occupations in professional or white-collar categories. They are more likely to move from one area to another, and often never bother to ask for a letter of transfer.
5. They are people who never bonded with the core group of their congregation.
6. Only about one third have attended an Adventist school at any level.
7. They maintain a strong sense of connection with the Adventist Church, with only about one in six joining other denominations. About 37 percent say they still practice the Adventist faith. They continue to hold similar beliefs and lifestyle habits.
8. The two thirds who do not practice their faith have a low yet still positive view of the church. They have a high rate of divorce. They show less acceptance of church doctrine. They have few Adventist friends or visits from members or pastors, and are younger than the active or inactive practicing Adventists.
Why Did They Leave?
A majority consistently describe their relationship with other church members in negative terms. One in four will cite a lack of fellowship. Another quarter say the worship and church program did not meet their needs. An equal number mention that the influence of non-Adventist friends or relatives was a strong factor. Less than one in five leave because they no longer believe in some church teaching.
Dropping out is a long, slow process that Dr. John Savage, a Protestant researcher, calls a "dropout track."
The Dropout Track
1. A cluster of stressful events.
2. Subtle attempts to reach out for help.
3. Pastor and members do not respond.
4. Hurting member feels angry at nonresponse.
5. Involvement in church decreases.
6. Pastor and members do not respond.
7. Hurting member quits attending, expecting to be contacted.
8. No one contacts member to ask why he or she dropped out.
9. Hurting member tries to forget the painful memories.
10. Member reinvests the time he or she used to spend at church.
Members leave church, not because of lost beliefs, but because of the way people have treated them.
Studies of the Adventist Church find that former members point to the following influences as causing them to drop out. They are listed in order of the largest group response to the smallest.
1. Church politics and leadership.
2. Feelings of nonacceptance.
3. Lack of sympathy by church leaders for their problems.
4. Church policy on divorce and a lack of sympathy for marital problems.
5. Hypocrisy of other members and disagreement with Adventist standards on sensuality and materialism (one of the smallest groups).
6. Church policy on smoking and alcohol (a small group).
7. Those who joined the church before they really understood what it was about (the smallest group).
About half of the dropouts did not necessarily blame the church for not meeting their needs, but suggested it was something about themselves that made them stop coming.
Researchers also target the conservative/liberal polarization and social trends as adding to the increase of inactive church members.
The Role of Church Leadership in Influencing Dropouts
A significant number indicated they left the church because of dissatisfaction with local church leaders. They perceived a lack of sympathy by church leaders for their problems.
The largest group included those who reacted to the politics they found in the church and what they perceived as the impersonalness of church leaders. They felt that the church was more concerned with numbers of baptisms than those baptized, that the church had too many rules and regulations, that Adventists think they can work their way into heaven, and that the church is too organized.
Dropouts expressed that a feeling of coldness, bigotry, hypocrisy, and a judgmental attitude of members influenced them to leave. A lack of Adventist friends and visits of church leaders and members are closely related.
What Can Be Done?
In the mid-1970s Dr. Gottfried Oosterwal, researcher of Adventist Church growth, made these recommendations to churches wishing to stem the increase in inactive and former members:
1. Visit missing and former members.
2. Develop and implement small groups to foster fellowship, Bible study, and prayer.
3. Organize a strong visitation program with elders and deacons regularly visiting members assigned to them.
4. Strengthen the teaching ministry alongside the preaching ministry by employing Bible workers and showing the relevance of doctrines to life.
5. Encourage more lay participation in worship and develop richer liturgy with more singing, sharing, and Bible reading.
6. Change the present system of handling transfers of membership. Do not leave the initiative for transfers with the member.
7. Know your congregation, its people, fellowship units, interest groups, and the needs of each.
8. Do not overemphasize teachings that are more rooted in culture than in Scripture.
Visitation remains the key to reclaiming inactive members. Every church interested in bringing back former members needs a strong visitation program.
Many former members cited the lack of a visitation program. They noted that any visits made to them came after they had already left the church, and that such visits tended to be superficial, making them feel that their departure was uncontested.
A study of churches using strong visitation programs during the 1980s in the Columbia Union Conference showed a success rate from 10 to 53 percent. Churches that failed to follow through on the program were those that chose not to have a lay visitation committee or support group as outlined in a training program given by the conference.
Making personal contact in face-to-face visits has proven to be the most successful tool in reclaiming missing and former members. The one in three former members still practicing his or her faith and the one in seven not practicing it but who says it is likely he or she will return one day represent a majority of former members who can readily be brought back into the church.
1 Sabbath School Worker, July 1977, p. 33.
2 Carlos Medley, in Adventist Review, July 17, 1986, p. 5.
Monte Sahlin is the adult ministries coordinator of the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland. This article is a summary of a North American Division Church Ministries report "The Dropout Problem," published in 1989.