Changes and challenges in membership stats

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Worldwide demographics for the Adventist Church are changing, with 92 per cent of membership (16.9 million out of 18.8 million) now in the so-called global south, according to a report from the Annual Council of the General Conference (GC). 

In 1960, only 54 per cent of members lived in Africa, Asia and Latin America. And there’s positive news for the South Pacific Division (SPD). As Adventist World reported recently, Oceania now has the highest ratio of Adventists to population of any region in the world, at 1:90. And as SPD communication director James Standish points out, the SPD numbers are also some of the more accurate. 

Today, in both Australia and PNG, more people claim to be Adventist on the national census than the Church claims.

“Today, in both Australia and PNG, more people claim to be Adventist on the national census than the Church claims,” Mr Standish said. “In some areas of the world that I visited while working for the GC, the reality is exactly the opposite—it is an open secret that the membership claimed is vastly overstated. But by how much is hard to say without a vigorous audit.”

Commenting on the Annual Council report, GC executive secretary Dr GT Ng, said, “We clearly see that the demographic centre of gravity of our Church has definitively shifted.” As a result, he said, “countries that were once destinations for Western missionaries are now sending their own missionaries to various continents and beyond”.

But as secularism and other factors slow membership growth in the north, Adventist leaders in those countries are understandably more interested in investing in evangelism at home than funnelling energy and funds abroad. “Given the huge challenge of evangelising in a post-secular context, the north is justifiably correct to channel more of its precious resources to the domestic constituency,” he said.

While numbers appear greater in the global south, the Adventist Church still struggles to connect in countries that are not traditionally Christian. The ratio of Adventists to population in what is known as the 10/40 window is 1:1654 compared to 1:157 outside it. Dr Ng said the Church must get better at cross-cultural ministry, reaching people of all faiths. He praised the work of Global Mission, acknowledging its 25th anniversary.

But looking ahead, he said church members from the south increasingly would need to assist in spreading the gospel in challenging regions such as the Middle East and Northern Africa. 

Earlier this year, the Church’s South American Division dispatched 17 missionaries to the Middle East and North Africa Union for five-year terms.

Meanwhile, another challenging trend has also been revealed. Last year, Dr Ng used his report to raise the alarm about member retention. This year, Dr David Trim, director of the Church’s Office of Archives, Statistics and Research, reported that in the past 50 years, the Church has “baptised 33,202,016. Of those we lost 13,026,925.” That is four out of every 10.

Dr Trim went on to make the point that Church growth is doubly impacted by that statistic as those who have left would not themselves be encouraging others to join the Church. But there was some positive feedback with a survey of former members indicating that 36 per cent were likely and 21 per cent somewhat likely to reconnect with the Church. Only 24 per cent said they were very or somewhat unlikely to reconnect.