This is the final installment of my response to Thom Rainer’s article expressing what he believes are twelve potentially powerful movements that will affect congregations.
Denominations will begin their steepest decline in 2021. This prediction is predicated upon three factors. First, it appears churches in denominations will decline more rapidly. Second, denominations will plant fewer churches. Third, churches in denominations will close and churches will withdraw from denominations more rapidly than in previous years.
How will this affect the Seventh-day Adventist denomination? I can only offer some guesses based upon limited data. First, it appears most SDA churches are not making the adjustments necessary to function effectively in this digital-forward ministry season. Rather than embrace the opportunities the pandemic tragedy has presented, it appears most churches are waiting to get back to the familiar. This may be the reason denominational churches will decline more rapidly than before the pandemic. There has been a paradigm shift in the world and in the church. But too many churches refuse to acknowledge it and make the necessary adjustments.
If fewer churches will be planted in denominations, it is likely because churches are not making the necessary adjustments to be effective in this digital-forward ministry season. This is an issue for both conference, area, and local church leaders to address.
The evidence shows pastors need in-service training to learn to do things differently and more effectively in these changing times. It is not enough to provide optional webinars. Specific, mandatory in-service training is needed on the local level so the training can be contextualized. And minimum standards must be established against which to measure progress. Depending upon pastors to figure it out for themselves after digesting a smorgasbord of webinar offerings may not be enough. And very few conferences are regularly performing in-person checks to see what is actually happening at the local church level and offering the remedial help needed to effectively advance the Great Commission. If this does not change, the SDA denomination may be included with other denominations in the draconian prediction of a steep decline.
Giving in churches will decline 20 percent to 30 percent from pre-pandemic levels. The prediction is the decline in giving will mirror the decline in church attendance. This does not need to be the case. So far, it appears SDA members have been extremely faithful and keeping reasonably close to pre-pandemic levels. Still, only about one of three regularly attending members seem to be faithful. There is room for improvement.
For some time, I have been advocating churches demonstrate the worthiness of their ministries. The biblical basis for the faithful return of tithes and offerings is undisputed. The SDA church has done a good job of educating its members on this subject. But there is still a barrier that has not been overcome. I believe the answer is for churches to have such relevant and impactful ministries that even nonmembers will want to contribute to its success. There is a specific science to communicating the value of the ministry to the right people. Until mission impact supersedes ministry maintenance, this giving barrier cannot be overcome. And if the SDA conferences are not intentional about how to advance the mission, there may be a rapid decline in tithe contributions to match the decline in church attendance.
Overall conversion growth in local churches will improve. Conversion growth is the “average worship attendance of the church divided by the number of people who became followers of Christ and active in the church in one year. For example, if a church has 20 conversions and an average worship attendance of 200, its conversion rate is 10:1…” Using this formula, some improvement in conversion rate is due to lower worship attendance. So, the news is mostly positive. But unless online attendance improves as physical attendance drops, the news could become negative.
I can only speak for conference statistics I am aware of. For the last three years, the baptism numbers have been steadily declining. Some will site the pandemic as the reason. But there was no pandemic in 2018 and 2019. Literally, millions of dollars are being invested in “evangelism” with very little to show for it in terms of church growth and mission impact. And nearly nothing is being done to track and prevent the loss of members after baptism.
As the author of Retaining the Harvest: How to Attract, Engage, and Keep the People Who Join Your Ministry, my answer is every church must develop a systematic way to attract, engage, and keep people. This must be deliberate or the maintenance ministry mindset will dominate and thwart mission progress. Activity does not equal progress. The Great Commission is not to go make members. It is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. However, church membership is an important step in that process. When membership growth is stagnant, it is very likely disciple-making is stagnant, too.
If conference leaders do not make the Great Commission the primary focus, it is not likely the pastors will, either. Years of evidence bears this out. Instead of defining denominational unity as organizational uniformity, local conference leaders must begin to reshape the conference organization to better support the local church ministry of making disciples. Financial and personnel resources must be redeployed for better outcomes. If not, the insanity of doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result will continue – pandemic or not.
Nearly nine out of ten North American congregations will self-define as needing revitalization. Think of it. Nine out of ten congregations, 90%, believe they need revitalization. Thom Reiner sees this as positive because pastors and church leaders are more open and willing to admit they need help. Some pastors may believe they need help but choose not to admit it.
There are reasons pastors are reluctant to admit they need help and to seek to obtain it. Instead of enunciating the reasons, I prefer to suggest a solution. Ultimately, the solution is to provide the help pastors need to retool and become effective in this new reality. Discovering the real needs pastors have must be an intentional process executed in such a way pastors know their best interest is at heart. Accountability for results must also be part of the process. But the effort to truly help pastors faithfully pursue the church mission must become a priority and consistent or it will dwindle as just another pointless activity.
The tragedy of this global pandemic was foreseen by God. He was not caught off guard. God’s great love for all mankind still causes God to bless His church with all it needs to fulfill its God-given mission, the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). As the song says, “The failure is not in God, it’s in me.” May the church, as an organization, and its members, as Jesus’ disciples, rise up to the high calling in Christ Jesus and finish the work God has given us to do.
Jackson M. Doggette Jr. leads Apex Leadership Consulting Group, LLC, which dramatically improves individual and organizational effectiveness. Visit https://JacksonDoggette.com