By Monte Sahlin
The Pew Research Center released its 2014 Religious Landscape of the United States yesterday and this morning there are news stories about the rapid growth of "nones" (people who tell pollsters their religion is none at all) and the decline in the number of Christians. I want to point out a small piece of the data that is probably of interest only to a narrow range of readers ....
The survey found that six-tenths of one percent of the respondents identified themselves as Adventists. Of these, most (five-tenths of one percent) said they are Seventh-day Adventists specifically. Only adults are included in the survey, so if one takes the total adult population at the time the survey was conducted (last year), then the six-tenths of one percent equals 1,455,258 and the five-tenths of one percent equals 1,212,715.
The membership of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the United States at the end of last year was 1,124,313. In other words, 7.3% more American adults told the Pew Research Center they were Seventh-day Adventists than the number of people that the denomination has record of. And this math makes no allowance for the fact that a portion of that membership total (at least 5%) are children ages 10 through 17 who are baptized members.
Bottom line: There are an estimated 300,000 to 350,000 adults in America who have sufficient affinity to Adventist faith to tell survey-takers they are Adventists but are not accounted for in the official count of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
My own surveys (conducted in more than 1,000 local churches over the past two decades) show that about 30% of the 1,124,313 members of record have stopped attending church. That is about 340,000 people.
This means that there are about 785,000 people who make up the active participants of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination in the U.S. (Those who attend at least once a month during at least nine months of the year.) And there are another 700,000 who are either participating in some other Adventist group or not participating anywhere despite their Adventist identity.
This accounting makes no effort to estimate another group, which I am sure is larger than either of the two described above. These are the people who no longer identify themselves as Adventist believers, but due to family history or background have a connection with the Adventist faith. I have personally interviewed more than a thousand of these people since 1980 and I am working on a book that will tell their stories. A very small portion of these are active in "former Adventist" groups, seeking to prove that the denomination is not legitimately a Christian faith. The vast majority have simply got on with their lives and have a mix of fond memories, respect for certain individuals they met through the church, and wry thoughts about some of the more sectarian aspects, "the silly stuff," to quote one interview. There is also some painful memories for some of the individuals in this category.
This is my faith, my denomination, so I have spent considerable time observing it. I think it is only one example of a much larger reality: Around organized religion there are large collections of human beings who have not found it beneficial to stay in the boat. At what point do we quit blaming these people and pay attention to the flaws in the institution?