Annual Council Tuesday Morning: Retention, Nurture & a Side of Zimbabwe

After the excitement of yesterday’s “do-nothing” session many of those present, including, this author were exhausted.

Yet, Annual Council has a way of enlivening even the deadest of spirits with its quality music and fascinating worship presentations. This morning, Michael Hasel shared “A More Sure Word of Prophecy”, a wonderful defense of key Adventist doctrines including Historicism and a recent 7-day creation.  Hasel even noted that some within our own ranks have denigrated these beliefs as has been confirmed through reports from certain church institutions.  Hasel argued for Adventism as consistent with Reformation teaching and challenged the session to hold true to the prophetic faith of our fathers.

After a quick prayer for Adventists impacted by the fires in California, Cliff Goldstein, Sabbath School Quarterly Editor, then gave a presentation on a new resource he just came out with to help those dealing with questions on science and creation.  Goldstein noted that he has seen far too many “Christians bowing to culture.”  Unfortunately, the vote yesterday showed far too many delegates doing the same.

Then another GC Vice President, Geoffrey G Mbwana, presided over the morning session with Elder Ted Wilson in the supporting role.  The morning was comprised almost entirely of Item 121 on the agenda “Nurture and Retention.”  Elder Mbwana noted that the church is starting to take retention seriously through appointing coordinators, holding summits and creating resources.  Starting with the Great Commission in Matthew 28, Elder Mbwana divided the effort into 3 commands: Bring Them, Keep Them and Present Them.  GT Ng, GC Secretary then got up and after his obligatory comedy routine got to the heart of the matter.  The church struggles with retention, he said, because we don’t make it a priority. We have a major disconnect between what we say and what we do.  He then asked the audience to break up into groups of ten and spend 5 minutes brainstorming ideas.  One quick takeaway was that the church’s recognition system focuses too much on glory like tithe and baptisms and not enough on nurture and internal growth.

A few other church officials, including the GC’s “King of Stats” David Trim, shared the sobering data. Another to these officials, the largest group in church (42%) are classified as observers with only 26% as participants and 12% as leaders.  The statistic that almost half the church is composed of pew-warmers demonstrates that nurture is not simply a good goal, but rather a necessary one.  Lifelong programs are needed once someone joins the church.  “A baptismal certificate is not the graduation diploma, it’s the birth certificate” noted one of the officials.

Another fascinating statistic involved those who leave.  Almost 2/3 were young adults when they left the church and out of the whole group, very few actually left for doctrinal reasons.  Instead the most common reasons given were conflict with others, discouragement over personal problems (including marital life) and perceived hypocrisy.

Yet of those who left, many are still “Adventist” in thinking.  Trim reported on a study which included both those who left and stopped attending the church and those who left yet eventually returned to church.  While differences were found in both groups, even of those who left and haven’t returned, 79% still believe in the Bible as taught through Adventist doctrine and 58% still believe in the spirit of prophecy as manifested through the ministry of Ellen White.  Additionally, the largest block of this group consider themselves Christians but don’t want to join a different denomination.  Apparently, the issue in our church is not that our beliefs or values are wrong.  16% Say they are “spiritual but not religious.”

Elder Mark Finley then shared “the dropout cycle.”  Apostasy doesn’t occur overnight but rather is a process of discomfort, discouragement and defensiveness that leads to cries for help.  If the church doesn’t respond within 6 weeks, the person is then on their way out of the church as they reinvest in the old life, reconnect with past habits and recommit themselves to something other than church.  Elder Finley shared personal stories and how by creating community and getting members involved in witnessing we can retain our people and grow God’s church.


Jim Howard, Associate Director of General Conference Sabbath School and Personal Ministries, then shared a nifty little resource he had put together with a team called the “Discipleship Handbook.”  Howard pointed out that it will not be pastors that will fix the retention problem.  The problem will only be fixed by the people in the local churches.  To assist with this effort, Howard and his team created not a book about discipleship but rather a book for it.  The handbook is a guide of 26 meetings that can be used whether for prayer meetings, Bible Studies or even seminars.  It covers spiritual growth and basic Adventist doctrines.  A couple local pastors then shared their own personal testimonies on discipleship, one of which concluded that maybe if more churches followed this process “everyone would be in compliance.”  This snide comment, from a pastor in the Potomac Conference (one of the most opposition to GC leadership) elicited laughter from the body which had recently voted to delay dealing with the problem of non-compliance.

The Nurture & Retention segment did not finish in time for lunch.  Yet before the session could break, it still had to deal with one last item of business: Zimbabwe.  A commission had been set up to realign the one union into several units and after research, the best option suggested was to split the nation into 3 unions: West, Central and East.  After testimonies about the work in the nation, the floor was opened for discussion.  Several delegates took the opportunity to criticize the expansion of unions and bureaucracy in the church and Elder Wilson came to the mic to both agree with the concerns and yet urge the realignment be carried through. 

Shortly thereafter, the session unanimously (or almost, as it was hard to tell if there were any objections) voted the realignment through.

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Jason Miller received his Law degree from C.U.A. and resides in Michigan.