I vividly remember how our local pastor told our congregation that the worldwide membership of the church had passed the 1-million-member mark! This was some 50 years ago. It had taken just over a century to reach that milestone. Today global membership in the Seventh-day Adventist Church stands at roughly 16 million. If present trends continue, we are told by denominational statisticians, in another 15 years or so there may be as many as 50 million Adventists in the world.
Indeed, Adventism is a remarkable success story. Anyone who at one time doubted this but who has attended a General Conference session will forever be convinced of the vitality and vibrancy of the Adventist Church. And those who regularly read the denominational journals such as theAdventist Review and Adventist World, who make it a habit to visit the news Web site of the General Conference, or who tune in to the Hope Channel, cannot help being impressed by the unprecedented growth of the church in many areas of the world. The pictures of mass baptisms, the glowing statistics, and the exciting stories of continuous advance will remain etched in their minds!
But this is not the whole story. The coin of Adventist progress has another side. Let me explain.
Where We Are Few or Very Few
I grew up in a village in the northwestern part of the Netherlands. Our family were the only Adventists in our community of some 1,500 people. We attended a small Adventist church in a neighboring town where fewer than 20 members gathered for our simple weekly worship, and where the youth society consisted of my sister and me.
That’s how my life as an Adventist Church member started. The church in the entire country then had fewer than 3,000 members. During the last five years of my denominational career I served as a leader in the Netherlands Union. I was the president of a church with just under 5,000 people in a country with 16 million inhabitants.
Being an Adventist in isolation requires a constant, deliberate choice.
In my international contacts I was usually treated with great courtesy, but from time to time some fellow presidents tactfully informed me that in their union they had single churches with as many members as made up my entire union! To give the full perspective, I should add that the Dutch situation, with its limited growth, is quite positive when compared to some other places; for the sad reality is that some areas in the Western world experience zero growth or even negative growth.
Let me take you to a few places where the going is tough and the numbers aren’t so good. I will confine myself to three areas of the world I happen to be well acquainted with through my overseas assignments in the 1980s and 1990s.
Let’s look first at Egypt—with its 81 million inhabitants, one of the more populous countries on the African continent. Church membership in Egypt officially stands at a little more than 800, in 19 churches. This represents the result of more than a century of continuous missionary presence. Over time the church has developed a significant infrastructure. It is true some Egyptian members have migrated to places where they would find it easier to live as Adventists, so there are more Egyptian Adventists outside the country than those who reside in Egypt, but in terms of numbers on the ground, there is very little to brag about.
Let’s take another example, one in Asia. Colporteurs first visited the area that is now Pakistan in 1901, and an initial group of Adventist believers began meeting in Karachi about 1910. Today the country has among its 186.5 million or so inhabitants about 13,000 Seventh-day Adventists. Evangelistic work is restricted and is, for all practical purposes, limited to the 2-3 percent of non-Muslims, who often live in poor conditions in separate villages or ghettos on the outskirts of the cities, and many of whom are illiterate. Even though the church operates a highly respected medical facility in Karachi and a major educational institution near Lahore in the central part of the country, membership growth is slow, though not overwhelmingly so, when compared to other union conferences in the more developed parts of Europe.
My third example is Greece. Christianity in Greece has a long and colorful history but eventually has taken shape almost exclusively in the Orthodox tradition, which is not known for its flexibility and tolerance. Here also the origins of local Adventism date back to the early years of the last century. After more than a century of hard work the Greek Mission is as eager as ever (or perhaps more so) to reach the 11 million Greeks within its borders, but the numbers remain low. Statistics indicate that there were 260 members in 1975. According to the latest available figures, the membership now stands at 501. The increase is, however, to a large extent a result of migration from elsewhere, notably Romania, and not primarily from gains among the indigenous Greeks.
What Does It Mean to Be an Adventist When We Are Few?
By no means do I want to suggest that being an Adventist is always easy as long as you live where Adventists are relatively numerous. But surely it has great advantages to belong to a church that is known and respected, to enjoy the services of the church’s infrastructure, and to receive the blessings of all kinds of meetings, seminars, and other activities!
How is it being an Adventist when the numbers aren’t that great? How is it for the individual? What does it mean for the leaders of such a small and often struggling administrative church unit? I know how it is to live as an Adventist in an environment that is hostile, or at best indifferent, to my beliefs. I know also from experience how it is to be a leader of a small faith community, one that sees but little growth and hardly has a voice in the society in which it seeks to operate.
I have traveled rather widely and have been in close touch with believers in many countries, and I believe I can imagine (at least to some extent) how challenging it must be to live as an Adventist in Cairo, as part of a tiny brand of Christianity that is disliked by most Muslims and often hated by the clergy of the more established Christian Church. I think I can imagine somewhat how it must be to have become an Adventist somewhere on the outskirts of Karachi, struggling to feed my family because of Sabbath issues; and I can imagine to some extent what it must feel like to be a church member in Greece and to see that most mission efforts remain without visible results.
What Do We Do When the Numbers Aren’t Great?
Let me try to share some convictions that may provide some direction and food for further thought.
1. Being few is not always such a bad thing.The other day I met a prominent church member from one of the smaller Caribbean islands, where about 50 percent of the population is Adventist. The picture he painted was not one of a vibrant community that always leaves the kind of impact that makes one proud. For many, Adventism is a cultural thing; it is something “that runs in the family.” It reminded me of the fact that being an Adventist in isolation requires a constant, deliberate choice; it demands determination and dedication. And, those who are more isolated than they would wish should be comforted and strengthened by the thought that being part of a small remnant is a very biblical notion! Jesus Himself reminded us that numbers are not everything (Matt. 18:20)—that He is more concerned about spirituality and quality.
2. There is a tremendous blessing in knowing that one is part of something bigger. If there is anything church leaders, at any level, must foster, it is the realization that we belong to the family of God, which knows no geographic, national, cultural, or linguistic borders. More should be done to ensure that journals such as Adventist World get to their intended audience, linking this worldwide movement. The increasing number of inspiring and nurturing Adventist Internet offerings needs to be communicated to those living in isolation. Furthermore, regular visits of leaders and specialists, who can train and inspire, will further strengthen the mental and spiritual links to the larger Adventist world community. The blessings that result from knowing that one is part of something larger and successful provide an encouragement that is worth all the effort and expense the church puts into this.
3. One of the great things of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is its international solidarity.Even though this solidarity at times suffers tensions, Adventists care for one another. They give large amounts for missions; they support projects in all parts of the world, and they go on countless mission trips. The world church makes very substantial amounts of money available for work in places where results may be very slow in coming. Fortunately, Adventist mission is not just driven by cost-effectiveness and numbers. Some of the largest (per capita) financial support from the General Conference goes to the smallest divisions, where the numbers aren’t that great and immediate results will be modest.
4.In addition to continuing solidarity, there must also be a nonjudgmental attitude and real desire to understand.Few things irritated and frustrated me more during my years as the president of a small union than subtle or not-so-subtle suggestions that the mission in my country would succeed much better if we would simply copy the methods that have proven to be so successful in those parts of the world where phenomenal membership growth is experienced. Circumstances differ greatly from country to country, and from culture to culture. Challenging situations require creative thinking and careful, but daring, experimentation that is based on Scriptural values. Our believers and leaders who witness and work under challenging circumstances must feel that they are empowered to be creative and innovative.
5.When all is said and done: Let’s make sure that we are a world community of prayer.What more encouraging thought can there be for someone who lives in an isolated place than to know that today someone will pray for you. When we have prayed and worked, we leave the future and the rate of church growth in God’s capable hands. For it is not your church or my church—it isGod’s church. I appreciate Ellen White’s inspired reminder to look at the bigger picture: “While much of the fruit of their labor is not apparent in this life, God’s workers have His sure promise of ultimate success.”*
*Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Assn., 1948), p. 514.
Reinder Bruinsma is a retired church administrator living in the Netherlands, where he enjoys writing and teaching assignments.