The Vanishing White Adventist (and What the Church Should be Doing About It)

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I had occasion this past week to take a look at photos from Adventist churches in the UK and Ireland. I was shocked to discover that I could hardly find a majority White church among the ones I looked at. Mostly, the churches were Black. Although I looked predominately in the bigger cities, particularly London and its surrounding environs, and Galway, and although I expected a fair number of non-Whites in the churches in and around London, I was not expecting the situation to be that bad in Europe quite yet. Around London, you are lucky to have a White pastor, let alone a White church. Even more surprising to me, the Galway church appears from photos to be at least half Black, if not more so. I sincerely hope that the situation is not as dire in European Adventist churches elsewhere in these countries and in other, more White, European countries (like Eastern Europe for instance). But while the fact that these are churches in Europe makes this all the more distressing, I could not help but think of the simple fact that Adventism has seeminingly left White people behind.

I grew up Adventist in two different locations in the American South, and where I grew up non-Whites in the church were few. Most church members were White, even in the Adventist hotspot around Southern Adventist University. I remember going down for the GC session in Atlanta back in 2010, and walking out of the meeting one night behind a Pathfinder club from France, and noticing with a great deal of consternation that a large number of the kids in the club were not White. But I wasn’t really struck with the thought, even at that time, that is was a serious problem. After all, I don’t begrudge non-Whites salvation, nor wish to kick them out of the church, I only lament the increasingly small numbers of my people in the Church, and the large numbers of non-White immigration into Europe which I knew that Pathfinder club in some way represented. I didn’t think for a moment at that time that White membership was lagging. I realize that now.

A few weeks back I ran across an article posted to facebook regarding the levels of racial diversity in the major North American Christian denominations. I was not particularly surprised to find that Seventh-Day Adventists were a very racially diverse church (although finding them at the top was a little off-putting), but I was shocked and horrified when I noted that the percentage of Adventist church members in North America who were White was only 37%. ‘How could that be?’ I wondered. I have grown up in North America in the church and I have seen a church that was predominantly White. While I of course new that where you were would matter significantly (for instance, I knew that around Atlanta, most Adventists were probably Black), I had always simply assumed that the racial make up of my church would largely reflect the racial make up of the population at large. That is, it would have a White majority, overall. I expected the national racial membership of the church to reflect national statistics on racial populations. Thus, I would have previously assumed that the church, nationwide (and continent wide, since Canada is also predominantly White) would be something like 70% White. When I saw that the actual number was barley over a third I was floored. After all, what this really means is that White people are severely underrepresented in the Adventist church. Whites, despite population declines, still make up around 70% of the general population, but are only 37% of the church membership.

This is a sad and worrisome trend. It really got me thinking for the first time about how the church conducts evangelism and why it might be leaving White people behind. I have come to the conclusion that it doesn’t seem likely that White people are leaving the church more often, it is more likely that more non-Whites are coming in. How is this happening? I had known that the largest gains in worldwide church membership for the last decade or so had been in Africa and India, and perhaps non-White immigration to White countries could be expected to bring some of this increase into previously White majority churches in those White countries, but I don’t think that alone can explain it. In some way, the church is not conducting evangelism that is likely to reach the White population in White countries.

While I worry for my people and my church, I don’t believe the church leadership—liberal though it has become—is actively discouraging White membership, or deliberately avoiding evangelism aimed at White people. I do however, believe there is a severe lack of focus on evangelism targeted at the White populations of White majority countries in particular. I am sure people in the church leadership will say that this is not deliberate, and I would believe them, but I think there needs to be a deliberate effort now that we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that White people are being left behind to target them for evangelism efforts.

I am aware that there may be some unique challenges in evangelism aimed at the non-Adventist White population of today’s majority White countries. For one thing, the fact that many of them are either Christian of some other denomination already, or were raised Christian and chose to walk away from it already, may make them more resistant to evangelism than those who have not previously accepted some form of Christianity, which is the case with most of the non-Whites in Africa and India, for instance. But that is not true of non-Whites who have been in majority White countries for generations already, like Blacks in the South, who are also predominantly set in Christian but not Adventist ways. Yet, it would appear that they are not being so completely left behind.

Similarly, evangelism aimed at Whites in particular will need to be aimed at large numbers of religiously unaffiliated or atheist/agnostic people as this group is gaining ground among younger Whites. Euro-pagansim is gaining ground too, and will need to be addressed. And too, it will need to have strategies for reaching a larger middle class population, as Whites tend to have a larger middle class representation. While all these things may make the White mission field less visible to church leadership, and potentially a little challenging, all evangelism is challenging in some way or other, and the church must not allow itself to lose sight of this demographic.

These numbers should be a wake up call to the Seventh-Day Adventist church. Here is a large demographic which is clearly being underserved by the church, forgotten and left behind. The church must get to work developing strategies of evangelism aimed at White people in majority White countries, and earnestly desiring to increase their representation in the church to near population level. White pastors and lay people too, in the church, should feel a special calling to their own kind of people, and to doing things which increase White membership in particular. Judging by these numbers, Adventists have a long way to go, but the church can increase White membership, it just needs to try—something which, right now, it obviously isn’t doing.

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