An Inventory of

World Adventism

What is Really Happening Out There?

Ronald W. Lawson is Professor of Urban Studies at Queens College, City University of New York. He is no backwater college teacher. He was voted College Teacher of the Year by Queens College students in 1991-1992, and by administrators in 1992-1993.

Dr. Lawson has made a specialty of investigating Seventh-day Adventists in North America--and especially elsewhere in the world. But he did not merely take polls.. Lawson did something far more accurate, though exhausting, he went directly to local church members and pastors and interviewed them. He has also interviewed former Adventists.

On top of this, he spent years doing this and all over the world field!

Lawson carried out over 3,000 in-depth interviews with church administrators, teachers, hospital administrators and medical personnel, pastors, students, and leading laypersons in 54 countries and all 11 divisions of the world church.

The countries chosen were those in which the denomination was more established and/or experiencing rapid growth. Lawson planned his tours and interviews with the help of individuals who knew the regions involved.

He initially conducted interviews in the United States at all eight union headquarters and many local conferences, the 12 colleges and universities, several academies, the major hospitals, both publishing houses, and the media center. He also carried out interviews at a large number of urban and rural churches, making sure to include the various ethnic groupings.

Then he traveled through Canada, although less extensively than in America.

Preparatory to going overseas, he returned to Andrews University and interviewed foreign students on the undergraduate, graduate, and seminary level. The objective here was to learn about relevant issues back home.

Then, over a period of time, he toured through 52 other nations, and conducted interviews at headquarters, seminaries, schools, hospitals, and among pastors, leading laymen, as well as Adventist students at outside universities.

In 1985 and 1990, he attended our General Conference Sessions, where he conducted still more interviews--especially with significant people whom he had missed when he visited their country.

How did Lawson conduct his interviews? Because he always promised complete confidentiality, he was assured of excellent cooperation. He took detailed notes, but never made tapes. Each interview was generally two to three hours in length, although some were longer.

He dug for information on the church unit they represented, as well as special changes and issues, and how they viewed them.

Data about earlier decades was gleaned from secondary sources.

At this point, would you agree with me that Dr. Lawson did competent research? Surely, his conclusions ought to be worth our careful attention. He has published his data widely in various sociological journals.

Here is a brief overview of his research findings.  

 Seventh-day Adventism began in the United States and is now carrying on work in 208 of the 236 countries recognized by the United Nations. The first foreign missionary was sent to Switzerland in 1874.

In countries where Christianity was religiously dominant (most of Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa), Adventists were considered an heretical sect. Because of this, growth has been slow in those regions. Most Adventists there are now second-generation church members. They have experienced less upward mobility, because they have fewer and poorer educational facilities (poorer in the sense of inferior to the course offerings available elsewhere in the territory).

But, as soon as Adventism reached beyond Europe, it began growing more quickly. This growth rate has rocketed into a crescendo in recent years. What is happening in those third-world nations is significant.

When Adventist missionaries arrived in those third world nations, representatives of the mainline churches, already there, tried to stigmatize them in the eyes of the people. They declared that this was nothing but a small, schismatic sect from America which should be ignored.

But the nationals did not perceive it thus. To them, all the missionaries were alike. The inhabitants were religious, pluralistic, and welcomed another denomination into their midst. In their eyes, none of the missionaries were more orthodox than the others.

 Instead, they discovered significant benefits to be derived from the Adventists. But more on this later.

Another advantage Adventist missionaries encountered in disadvantaged nations, was one which they made for themselves: They did not try to separate themselves from the government or from other religious bodies, as was done back in America.

Missionaries frequently joined ecumenical mission councils, and even national council of churches. These ecumenical bodies negotiated important issues with colonial authorities. These were issues which were important to Adventist missionaries.

Our missionaries learned that, by developing close friendships with other denominational workers, they could more easily enter unworked territories and obtain better favors from governmental units. There was no question but that there were lots of indigenous peoples; so non-Adventist missionaries were more willing to share the territory with us--when our workers were friendly.

But, of course, this developed friendships which could produce accommodations and compromise on various points.

All these factors helped open doors for our workers in the third world. But another factor--a large one, was the fact that Adventism shaped its proselytizing strategies around institutions. First, it set up grade schools and clinics, then hospitals and high schools, and finally colleges and even universities.

This situation has produced a variety of effects. One is that governments liked the Adventist presence. We were educating the population and treating the sick. This brought us into favor with governmental leaders.

Another is that Adventism in developing nations is far less sectarian than in the U.S. (although, in recent decades, American Adventism is rapidly becoming very friendly with governments and other denominations also). Whereas historic Adventists make an issue of Great Controversy separatist issues, warning about Protestantism, Catholicism, governments, etc., such sectarianism is mellowing away to a very contented mutual toleration--both among most Adventists in developing countries, and Laodicean Adventists in America.

Something which greatly helped this government accommodation process was the Wilson Dictum: the announcement by Neal C. Wilson in the 1980s of a new principle: The official branch of the world church was that recognized by the state. This horrific position won him the full favor of the U.S.S.R. leaders in Moscow during his visit there. They had had trouble with independent Adventists, who refused to bear arms or send their children to school on Saturday. But Wilson was quite willing to compromise. (In doing so, he sacrificed many faithful believers.) More on this later.

Our emphasis on schools in third world nations ultimately led to still other unexpected results.

One was upward mobility. Indigenous peoples recognized that formal education was the doorway out of their impoverished situation, and were quick to discover that the Adventist mission station held the key to that door.

Recognizing the opportunity for better employment positions later, students would obtain an education in our schools, and frequently later compromise key church moral and other standards, leaving the church in even higher numbers than in America! In the process, they would rise up into key positions in business, and local and national politics.

When tensions with the state would arise, prominent members have been able to ease them with considerable success. They are willing to help the church, because they now or formerly belonged to it, and are indebted for the training that placed them where they are.

In the developing world, Adventism is growing so rapidly that it is still largely a first-generation religion. This single-generation aspect is partly due to the rapid growth, and partly to the high apostasy rate. It is well-known among church leaders that, at times, groups of only partially-prepared novitiates are hurried into mass baptisms, because a visiting church leader has arrived, or so union officials can report it in the Review.

You see, church leaders themselves, themselves, have their own pathway to upward mobility. They move up in the ranks more quickly if they are able to produce lots of baptisms.

When Lawson questioned members from New Guinea, for example, he was told that people are pouring into the church. When asked why, he was told that they join the church because God is blessing this church, and the evidence is that Adventists get rich! And the formula seems to work. Even though most of the Adventist members in Papua New Guinea are in the highlands, nearly all of the ministers must be brought in from the coastal areas. This is because the highlands youth go into business. Unlike their neighbors, who have swine, alcohol, and spirit parties, young Adventists are taught to shun such things--so they turn their eyes to business and politics and greatly improve their lot in life.

So it could be said that part of the problem is that Adventism teaches self-control, a positive work ethic, and broadens the perspective. But the deeper cause is that many of these individuals did not receive a thorough indoctrination before being admitted to the school and church. As a result, they were more likely to become worldly and later fall away.

Seventh-day Adventists wanted schools so they could train their teachers, pastors, hospital workers, accountants, and secretaries. But, over the years, the result, both in America and overseas, has been to produce young adults who can more easily enter highly-paid positions in the world.

Schools taught literacy, essential for reading the Bible and becoming a church worker. Did you know that, in many overseas countries, elementary literacy was required in order for a person to be baptized?

Education was seen to be the key to better-paid positions in rapidly changing societies. Graduates, instead of entering denominational work, would take higher-paying outside jobs.

One worker wrote: This is largely a waste of training effort and money . . We are not [to be] training teachers at Malamulo, Solusi, and Kamagambo to provide the government and other agencies with educated help.

Gradually, as in America, the situation became comical. Just as Adventist colleges here dropped Adventist and Missionary from their names, in order to provide their students with better passports to outside jobs, so overseas the students rose up in rebellion for similar name changes.

In the early 1980s, students at the Adventist university of Eastern Africa (in Kenya; founded in 1978), stage demonstrations and strikes that eventually forced the university council to change the institutions name to the University of Eastern Africa Baraton. Why? because the students said they did not want to limit their employment opportunities if there was a church name on the school.

A different pattern prevails in India. There are already too many university graduates there, so most of our graduates accept church jobs. Many of them use their qualifications and church contacts as a means of moving, on one pretext or another, to the U.S. In recent years, over half of the graduates of our college in India (Spicer College) have migrated out of the nation! That is rather successful outward mobility.

In some lands (especially much of Europe and parts of Latin America and Asia), Adventist and other youth find it more difficult to attend Adventist schools. Either they do not have the funds to do so, or the schools have limited course offerings, or they are not accredited with the government.

The situation in southern Mexico is an interesting one: The Adventists cannot afford to go north and attend an Adventist school, but they have learned to pay tithe, be careful with their means, and live cleaner lives than others. As a result, they can only obtain modest training at local government schools. But their way of life enables them to more resolutely carry on evangelism. The lack of advanced training produced missionaries, instead of businessmen and government workers! Ellen White said to give short courses, and then send them out to work as missionaries. Have we lost something in our craze for higher education, doctorates, and accreditation?

But, even in missionary evangelism, the devil has gotten his foot in. In the early 1980s, Adventist leaders began a strong campaign for more baptisms. Pastors and evangelists were pressured to bring in the crowds and dunk them.

This produced an accelerated growth rate throughout the world field. It went from 69.9 percent in 1970-1980, to 92.4 percent during 1982-1992.

But it occurred at a great cost to the work of God. Instead of converting people, the fields were being burned over. Half-converted, slightly-indoctrinated men and women were being hurried into the rivers and lakes. Some of these would quickly leave, but others go on to become church workers.

In Africa, for example, people had been required to be members of a baptismal class for two years before being admitted to membership. But times have changed. Now they are typically baptized at the end of a three-week evangelistic campaign. The length of time required before baptism has also been sharply reduced to a few weeks in other parts of the world field as well.

To make matters worse, post-baptismal generally disappeared also. Why? Because pastors remained under severe pressure to rush out and find more to dunk. All so church leaders, at church meetings, can tell about the marvelous things happening in their field.

Because of various factors, cited above, the apostasy rate is high. On the entry level, people are rushed in so fast, that they hardly become a part of the Adventist community and so wander right on out. On the advanced level, trained young people find it preferable to take business and government jobs. The official apostasy rate is 26.3 percent of conversions in the developing world during 1994. However, Lawson's interviews revealed a situation which was far different. Part of the problem is that local pastors are required to follow a complex system of tallying number of members, which is beyond their abilities. Another part is that local pastors at times fudge on the figures. Lawson learned that pastors who can show good growth are rewarded and those who do not are penalized. He learned that the one thing they are very reliable at reporting is baptisms.

Lawson cites a meeting he had with all the church pastors in the city of Kinshasa, capital of Zaire. Visiting Afro-American evangelists had conducted evangelistic efforts during the previous three years--resulting in 1,500 baptisms.

Returning home, they told thrilled audiences about their wonderful successes, but Lawson painstakingly found that only 50 were still in the church--3.3 percent of the 1,500!

Add to this situation yet another problem: In the African culture, people tend to think they can adhere to several different religious views at the same time. Lawson, as well as other researchers, and that it is a rarity for a church member in any of the denominations in Africa to be exclusively the member of one church!

Because of this, people may be baptized into the Adventist Church one month, and into a Pentecostal group the next; all the while thinking they are still Adventist, as well as a number of other identifications as well.

In earlier decades, the seriousness of this problem was such that church leaders would require those wanting to become Adventists to withdraw to a separate, newly-formed Adventist village built by a church and church school. This strengthened their relationship to the denomination. But this is no longer done (In Kenya it was terminated by government edict in the late 1940s.)

So, when the long period of training in baptismal classes was done away with, one of the last links to solidarity was removed.

Then there is the Sabbath problem. Whereas, in America, Adventists fought the matter all the way to the Supreme Court, which issued decisions protecting their rights to observe their holy day, in other lands the situation is different.

In Africa, most parents send their youth to classes and examinations scheduled on the Sabbath. Throughout eastern Europe, Russia, Korea, and and many other countries, the situation is about the same.

In India and Korea, so many members spend Saturday mornings at their jobs, that churches arrange special afternoon worship services for them. Lawson found that, even in the U.S., fewer members object to being called to work on the Sabbath.

In the Adventist Reform Church, the pattern is somewhat different: They let their youth go through outside schools on Sabbath, and then, following final graduation, they baptize them. They are now washed clean from the sins of the past, and, it is hoped, they will not again work on Gods holy day.

Gradually, throughout third world nations, Adventist-trained individuals climbed to influential positions in business and government. Because they have more education than average citizens, Adventists have become a political presence Jamaica, Papua New Guinea, and other island groups in the South Pacific. The president of Palau (in Micronesia), and the former prime minister, and later vice-president, of Uganda were Adventists. This has become so extensive that a special denominational series of seminars was held in various parts of the world field for members involved in politics.

Our pioneer missionary to the highlands of Peru, Fernando Stahl, did such an excellent job in training the natives, that Adventists ultimately became the largest Protestant group in the nation. Being better educated than other natives, they gradually rose to positions of great influence--especially following local government reorganization so non-Catholics could enter public office.

At the same time, our church leaders were busily making friends with governmental leaders in high places. Successful efforts have been made to reduce political tensions with authoritarian regimes in the Philippines, South Korea, Latin America, Kenya, and Ghana.

While this was going on, church leaders encouraged lower-level union leaders to join ecumenical organizations. Each one represented nearly all the denominational mission organizations in a given nation. Working together, they had great power with the government. Lawson found that, in Africa, church leaders regularly joined these organizations (each of which would be equivalent to our own National Council of Churches in America).

However, the South American and Inter-American Divisions were more conservative, and, for many years, remained aloof from the Ecumenicals. A decided factor was the concern of high-placed church leaders, especially in South America, to maintain distinctive Adventist positions and avoid contact with the apostate daughters of Babylon.

But times have changed, In the 1960s and 1970s, they decided that acceptance as evangelical Christians was more important than old-fashioned isolation. To a great extent, they have succeeded in coming together.

Back in the United States, church leaders found it increasingly difficult to determine what was this wall of separation. They were supposed to stay away from the government, but there were so many reasons for making friends with it.

Earlier, they had helped defeat 150 congressional Sunday observance bills between 1888 and 1933. But such initiatives then ceased.

During World War II, Jehovah's Witnesses won for everyone significant religious freedoms. From 1944 to 1972, our school and hospital administrators wanted to accept government funding, while the Religious Liberty staff opposed it. During that time, our church began approving vaccinations for school children.

In 1949, the church agreed to accept war surplus and capital funds. Finally, in 1972, the debate reached its conclusion. Schools had high expenses and declining enrollment. So it was agreed that a broad range of government aid could be accepted for buildings, salaries, equipment, and other operating costs, as long the schools could somehow remain independent while receiving it.

Then, in the early 1980s, a vast new channel of government money was discovered: Immense sums could be obtained from USAID, to be used primarily in overseas areas. So our disaster and famine relief agency was changed to ADRA: Adventist Development and Relief Agency.

It was hoped that funds flowing through ADRA could enable an Adventist presence to reach new, previously unentered areas. But a variety of government restrictions changed ADRA into an arm of U.S. foreign policy.

ADRA became so successful, that General Conference leaders began wondering if a closer arrangement with foreign governments might also help the church further its mission. (distance the church from its mission might be a more accurate term.)

Throughout the world (Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the communist nations of eastern Europe and the Soviet Union), overtures were made to government leaders. By agreement, our church received special favors in return for being useful to the regime, such as lending it legitimacy. To say it another way, government leaders were assured the Adventists would not oppose anything they wanted to to do. This cozy relationship worked very well with the atheistic leaders of communism.

Two examples were particularly flagrant: The U.S.S.R. and Hungary.

In the Soviet Union, the True and Faithful Seventh-day Adventists had been a source of irritation to the Kremlin for decades. (See our book, True Witness: the Story of Seventh-day Adventists in the Soviet Union, by Marite Sapiets for remarkable details.) The TFSDA opposed such things as military conscription and Sabbath schooling, and actually constituted the only truly historic believers in the country. But N.C. Wilson, in his capacity as General Conference president, visited Moscow and gave away the faithful. He told Kremlin leaders that the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church, with headquarters (at that time) in Takoma Park, fully endorsed Moscow's decision that only the State-controlled Adventist Church was legitimate.

Astounded at his words, Soviet leaders eagerly shook hands with Wilson in this iniquitous partnership of power. N.C. Wilson told them, what became known back home, as the Wilson Dictim: The official branch of the world church to be recognized in any nation would only be the one recognized by the national government ! ! ! This was the biggest sell-out of all.

During subsequent visits to Moscow, Wilson deepened the relationships with Konstantin Kharchev, head of the Council on Religious Affairs.

As a result, government approval was given for the construction of an Adventist Seminary near Moscow, and an Adventist publishing house--which alone would be authorized to print all governmentally-approved Protestant, non-Orthodox publications!

Our readers are well acquainted with the story of what happened in Hungary. From 1984 to 1989, the present writer wrote 32 tracts on the history of the Hungarian Union crisis. In January 1984, N.C. Wilson went to Hungary to decide what should be done there. Prior to his departure, two Hungarian workers from Canada warned him at General Conference headquarters that, if he rejected the faithful, they would henceforth be in danger of heavy persecution by the government, because of a ruling that only one organization with a certain set of religious beliefs would be accepted. Others would be heavily persecuted.

Upon his arrival in Budapest, Wilson went to the national capital and met with the head of the Department of Religion, who assured him that, whichever group he sided with, would be acceptable to the government. The next two or three days were spent in conference with officials from the SDA Hungarian Union office and representatives of the 1500 faithful believers who refused to countenance the ongoing apostasy by the union leaders.

Wilson's mind seemed made up from the beginning: He would back the union office. So the cream of Adventism in that nation were either ousted, or remained ousted. To this date, they worship in separate churches. (See our Hungarian/Ecumenical Tractbook for much more information.)

There is no doubt that, in recent decades, church leadershipfrom the General Conference on downhas made reducing tensions between the denomination and its environment a priority. The pendulum has swung the other way. Now, instead of preferring exclusion and separation; the church has become deeply concerned about its public image. Gaining respect and acceptance by the world, the other churches, and the government has become something of an obsession. Involvement in Ecumenical gatherings of various types, such as pastoral councils, Easter Sunrise services, joint worship services, and other involvements. Through private representatives, our denomination is involved in a number of national councils of churches, as well as the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland. (See our Hungary/Ecumenical Tractbook for more on this.)

Acceptance by the world, increase of institutional facilities, numerical growth, governmental approval; all are interlinked with one another and with watered-down doctrinal presentations, lowered standards, and remarkable toleration of sin, even to the practice of abortion.

For example, nowhere in the world field will you hear about the mark of the beast on an Adventist radio or television program. Never will you find a powerful indictment of sin in the pages of our denominational journals.

Adventism's rapid growth rate among impoverished nations all over the world is spreading resources very thin, especially since most of the available funds come from the United States. 

Based on an analysis of total tithe and offerings per capita in the world church, from 1950 to 1994, we find that the decline in constant dollars is as follows: 1950 - 100%, 1960 - 92.4%, 1970 - 94.9%, 1980 - 80.3%, 1990 - 45.2%, 1992 - 37.2%.

In the above statistics (compiled by Don Yost at the General Conference), you will note that an immense drop occurred between 1980 and 1990. It was in that decade that church leaders in the North American Division decided to side with the liberals, in protests by conservatives that the church should return to its earlier beliefs and standards.

Unfortunately, far too many of the faithful were chased out of their local churches by liberal pastors, yet appeals to conference offices were consistently ignored. Now the denomination is suffering financially as a result.

Because of this, Adventist schools in developing nations are falling behind, and are no longer educational leaders. The state of Adventist hospitals is often far worse. This has led to a switch from institutional evangelism (via schools and medical institutions) to public evangelism.

Lacking the upward mobility factor which our schools provided, local areas throughout the world field are not likely to attract converts as rapidly as they once did.

In addition, this is leading toward instability and the likelihood that major schisms could occur. This has already happened in Africa, eastern Europe, and southern and eastern Asia.

Yet the seeds of rebellion were sown when we tried so hard to accommodate the world, and ape its practices. Adventism worldwide is becoming increasingly diverse.

In his research, Bryan Wilson, an Oxford University sociologist, categorized the churches as revolutionist and conversionist. The former are those who demand that converts first become thoroughly indoctrinated into special teachings. The latter are those which are interested in quickly adding new members. Since the late 1970s, the Adventist denomination has shifted sharply to belief priority to baptism priority. This has greatly weakened the church, and, in coming decades (if time lasts), it will become very weak, poorly funded, and time-serving.

What is the solution? Individually, right where you are--make sure you are right with God! Read the Bible and Spirit of Prophecy every day, and, in the strength of Christ, obey what you discover. Do what you can to be a blessing to all those around you, and pray that Jesus will come soon.

The end will come more quickly than we expect.

                                        Vance Ferrell