When the 2011 edition of the Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches was published in February, the Seventh-day Adventist Church drew special notice for its reported 4.3 percent jump in membership. It turns out, however, that the figure was miscalculated.
The Adventists' climb to 1,043,606 U.S. members in 2009 (the latest year tabulated) was really only a little more than a 2 percent increase. A news-service story put the one-year rise at 2.5 percent, but to be exact, the increase during 2009 was 2.1 percent, according to David Trim, the statistics director for the Adventists' General Conference based in Silver Spring, Maryland.
But any increase is newsworthy these days. Mainline denominations have reported membership declines for decades, and some conservative churches, such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, have reported net losses.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church, born amid dashed hopes of a second coming in the mid-1800s, has 16.3 million members in over 200 nations. It still works and prays in anticipation of Jesus' return. Renowned for their medical institutions, vegetarian diets and weight-loss programs, Adventists defy easy classification among U.S. churches. Their biblical literalism demands belief in a seven-day creation, but their principles also allow for elective abortion when the life of a woman or fetus is endangered. The cause of women's ordination has advanced very slowly in the SDA, but the issue is coming under review. Court battles over the right to refuse work on the Sabbath from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown have made Adventists strong defenders of First Amendment rights, though their opinions vary on the use of vouchers or tax credits at their parochial schools.
If the church founded by visionary Ellen G. White is posting membership gains, especially at a time when liberal and conservative churches are suffering from a demographic malaise, it certainly deserves a closer look. But one thing closer scrutiny reveals is that the membership growth is largely attributable to the influx of immigrants from countries where the church's missions have enjoyed great success. This trend is acknowledged by researchers and Adventist leaders in the U.S.
"Adventist growth is much higher in places like Africa and Latin America," said Roger L. Dudley, director of the Institute of Church Ministry at an Adventist seminary in Berrien Springs, Maryland. "Not only do Adventists themselves tend to immigrate here, but these immigrants, being unsettled, tend to be more open to a religious approach."
Sociologist Ronald Lawson of Queens College, New York, observed in a 1998 journal article that demographic patterns contributing to a decline in the number of Caucasian and African-American Adventists were the same as those affecting mainline churches. "Given the evidence of declining fertility and the exit of youth among American-born Adventists," Lawson wrote, "it seems evident that the continued growth of American Adventists will be dependent on a continued influx of immigrants."
Reporting in 2009 at a meeting of sociologists of religion, Lawson said that the Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons and Adventists all have difficulties retaining converts worldwide. …