New religious groups are formed frequently – there are probably hundreds per year around the globe. However, most of these come to nothing, for only a tiny fraction of them grow to any extent over time. Moreover, most of these, including most of those that become prominent denominations, eventually stagnate and then decline. The key factors which determine growth, stagnation, and decline are naturally a matter of concern for researchers. However, Dean Kelley has remarked that such studies have typically focused on mainline denominations, all of which are stagnating or in decline, while “a whole wing of the spectrum of religious behavior in this country – by far the most interesting and informative – has been left out” [1979: 334]. Ironically, the latter are those which have been growing most rapidly:
“…the denominations that have continued to grow are not well known to our researchers and are not viewed by them with the same degree of understanding, identification, empathy that they feel for the denominations they know better. Such religious groups are, to some degree, just not terra incognita to the well-trained, perceptive researchers of this company, but terra aliena. They just don’t ‘dig’ the Assemblies of God, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Seventh-Day [stet] Adventists, the Mormons… I am proposing that [we] entertain the notion that such groups may be doing something right” [Kelley, 1979, 334-335].
Paper presented at the National Conference of the Association of Adventist Forums, March 1996, and at the Meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Nashville, November 1996.
Click here for a PDF version of this paper: Rapid Church Growth – Stark's Model
Stark (1996) argues that Kelley’s criticism is still correct. Having posited a “revised general model” (summarized in the Appendix below) of why religious movements succeed and fail, he urged that it be tested through application to case studies. He has already completed studies of two of the most rapidly growing groups, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, and has urged other researchers to extend the test further. This paper applies the model to Seventh-day Adventists. Adventists are an excellent case to place beside the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons. All three originated in the U.S., and arose from rather similar milieus. Indeed, the Witnesses may be seen as extended kin of the Adventists [Lawson, 1995: 351-352]. All three see themselves called by God to spread their faiths throughout the world, and have been expanding globally at a rapid pace.
This paper is a product of a large study of international Seventh-day Adventism. Over the past eleven years I have gathered data in 54 countries in all eleven of the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s world divisions, completing over 3,000 long, in-depth interviews with church administrators, pastors, teachers, hospital personnel, college students, and leading laypersons; I have also collected lengthy, probing questionnaires from interviewees and samples of college students and laity, gathered field notes from observation at church services and key meetings, and culled data systematically from Adventist periodicals, statistical reports, and secondary sources. The data for this paper are drawn from interviews, participant observation, minutes of meetings, official statistics, periodicals, and secondary sources.
The countries where research was conducted were chosen to represent the diversity of the international church, paying greater attention to those where it is more established and/or experiencing rapid growth. Local itineraries were designed with the help of people who knew the various regions well. I received extraordinary cooperation because of the Adventist respect for academics and my status as an Adventist. Even when interviewees were initially reserved or suspicious, these problems were almost always overcome quickly because of my knowledge of the issues and of Adventist jargon. Interviewees said repeatedly that they were telling me things that visiting General Conference leaders never hear because I asked the “right” questions, promised confidentiality, and was not a threat to their careers. In order to keep the confidentiality of interviewees, as promised, the convention adopted by the study is to refrain from citing their names when they are quoted except when they are major figures in the church.
Adventist Growth Patterns
Seventh-day Adventism is a direct outgrowth of the Millerite Movement of the 1830s and 1840s and of “the Great Disappointment,” when Miller’s prophecy that Christ would return in 1844 proved to be wrong. Initially the smallest of the three main groups to emerge from the Millerites, it did not organize officially until 1863. In 1870 its membership stood at 5,440, but its growth-rate remained high thereafter.
The official statistics show that this has averaged 67.9% per decade throughout this century. Indeed, a decision by church leaders in the early 1980s to place increased emphasis on growth, under which baptismal goals were set for all segments of the world church, raised the growth-rate to 91.4% during the 1980s. Growth has been maintained at almost that rate under a new program that, since 1990, places more emphasis on population segments not yet penetrated by Adventists: the growth-rate for 1985-1995 was 86.8%. During the year 1995, the official world membership increased by 429,997 to 8,812,555, an increase of 5.1%. The total passed 9 million early in 1996. (See Table 1)
These high growth-rates have resulted in dramatic numerical increases in recent years, as the base on which the increases have been made has risen. Table 2 shows the time taken to add each million members.
Table 3 shows changes in how long it has taken Adventists to double their membership at different periods of their history.
Adventist world growth-rates and total membership figures are comparable to those of the Mormons and Witnesses [see Table 4]1. Indeed, the Adventist growth-rate has been the highest of the three since the 1970s, so that the numerical lead of the Mormons, who gained a head-start as the first of the groups to form, has been narrowed.
The first Adventist foreign missionary was sent to Europe in 1874.Missions multiplied rapidly after 1890, and especially after the reorganization of the church structure in 1901. By the 1920s more than half the membership lay outside of North America. Growth has been especially strong in the Developing World in recent decades – a trend which continues to accelerate. Table 5 shows the growth of Adventist membership by continent between 1960 and 1995. The fastest growth has been in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, parts of Asia, and the Pacific Islands2. Growth in the Developed World – North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand – has lagged.
One result of this growth pattern has been that the proportion of the world membership in the U.S., where Adventism originated, has fallen sharply. Table 6 shows the relative decline, over time, of the membership within the Church’s North American Division, which includes the U.S., Canada, and Bermuda.
Table 7 shows that Adventism’s membership is much less concentrated in the U.S. than is that of either the Mormons or the Witnesses, both of which also originated here: while 50.1% of Mormons and 18.0% of Witnesses are in the U.S., only 9.2% of Adventists are here. Although the total membership of the three groups is comparable, their geographic distributions differ considerably. Relatively speaking, Adventism is highly represented in Asia and especially Africa, the Witnesses in Europe, and the Mormons in the U.S; all three have surged in Latin America. Adventism has become predominantly a religion of the Developing World, with 85.8% of its membership in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Islands. That is, Adventism has become far more globalized than either the Witnesses or Mormons. However, the Adventist presence is still sparse in some regions, especially in the Middle East and also, to a lesser extent, in parts of Asia and Africa.
The shifting demographics of Adventism is having an adverse financial impact, because the church in the Developing World has traditionally been bankrolled by the American church. Table 8 shows how small the per capita giving (tithe and offerings) is in the church “divisions” in the Developing World when measured in U.S. dollars3. All the divisions whose mean per capita contribution is below the world average are based in either the Developing World or, in the case of Euro-Asia, the countries of the former Soviet Union. All four divisions with above average contributions are based in the Developed World, although all but North America have Developing World components – and the more substantial that component, the lower their per capita contributions.
Table 9 shows that there has been a steep slide in per capita giving by Adventists over time, as measured in terms of constant 1950 U.S. dollars. A major component of this slide is the rapid growth of Adventism in poor developing countries.
Another component of the slide in per capita giving is the lowering, in recent decades, of the socioeconomic status of the typical convert in North America. Although converts historically tended to be relatively poor—since they were attracted by the prospect of an imminent apocalypse – they were also sufficiently independent to be able to survive without working on the Adventist Sabbath (Saturday) in a society where initially the six-day week was practiced almost universally. Consequently, Adventism tended to attract small farmers and artisans during its early years [Graybill, 1979: 33-35]. However, the coming of the five-day week removed the Sabbath problem, making it easier for poorer people to join. In latter years a growing proportion of the converts in North America has been comprised of recent immigrants from countries in the Developing World – Hispanics, West Indians, and Asians; their share currently stands at 75% of converts4. These are often quite poor. This was demonstrated in a striking manner by a study which coded the addresses of all the adult converts (18 and over) in the U.S. during the years 1982-85, and then used geo-demographic profiling to measure the penetration of 47 clusters within the U.S. population. All five of the most heavily penetrated clusters were predominantly Hispanic and black, and all were near the bottom of the socioeconomic scale – indeed, the four lowest clusters were among these five. They were characterized by low education, low income, unskilled occupations, and high unemployment. The study found that North American Adventism was being increasingly ineffective in its outreach to Caucasians, and that, in spite of considerable upward mobility and professionalization of second- and later-generation members, it was not reaching the middle and upper-middle classes [Dudley, Wren and Saliba, 1989: 4-8]. That is, there is a growing contrast between recent converts and members who have inherited their faith.
Thus, not only has the face of global Adventism been changing rapidly in recent decades, but also that of American Adventism. What was originally a Caucasian church, which did not send its first missionary to American blacks until the 1890s – a segment that then grew slowly until World War II but then much more rapidly – has now become racially very diverse. The Caucasian share of the membership has been falling sharply, and it is projected that it will cease forming a majority of the North American members before the year 2000 [Vasquez,1990: 12]. Table 10 shows the racial distribution of the membership of the North American Division for 1980 and 1990.
The previous section demonstrated that official Adventist statistics show sustained, rapid growth over many decades, with a notable surge since the early 1980s. How reliable are these data?
While there is no doubt that considerable growth is taking place, the evidence I have collected from around the world church suggests that the reported membership and growth data are exaggerated, especially in the Developing World. There are several factors responsible for this:
- The system of record keeping, which was developed in the U.S., is too complicated for the often poorly educated church clerks (record keepers in congregations) and pastors in many areas. Because of the emphasis placed on baptisms within the church structure, the local officials make sure that these are reported, but they frequently overlook deaths, apostasies, and transfers – that is, the additions are reported, but not necessarily the subtractions. For example, one church administrator in New Guinea commented that in one province there had been no reported deaths in a five-year period, and that this was because of poor record keeping, not the advantages of the healthful Adventist lifestyle. Other administrators there told of the problems caused to the books by the flow of members from villages to the cities and towns: they were frequently unwilling to transfer their membership away from their village churches, lest that be taken as renouncing their rights to land there; consequently, a member’s name often ended up on the rolls of two or more churches – in village, town, and city – thus inflating total membership statistics [interviews]1.
- The programs that have focused the energies of Adventism on making converts since the early 1980s created competition between the divisions of the world church in terms of growth-rates. Baptismal goals were set, and these were passed down the hierarchical structure of the church, ending ultimately on the shoulders of the pastors. The latter have often discovered that their jobs are at risk if they do not reach the baptismal goals set for them, and that the best way to gain a promotion – which could make the difference between spending their lives walking between their humble homes and the many, often distant, congregations in their districts and, as department leaders, living in better houses and driving vehicles – is to attract attention to themselves by exceeding the goals to a notable extent. Consequently, pastors have felt pressured to baptize people before they were ready.
This practice was fostered by church administrators, who have almost everywhere reduced the typical length of study required before baptism: the most dramatic change occurred in Africa, where would-be converts had previously been required to be a member of a baptismal class for two years before being admitted, but are now typically baptized at the end of a three-week evangelistic campaign. Since African culture often leads people to disregard the exclusive claims of religious bodies and to view concurrent membership in several groups as a stronger “insurance policy,” this shift in policy fostered situations where people who had been baptized by an Adventist evangelist later responded to the preaching of, for example, a Pentecostal, and were baptized again – a rite often seen as having magical qualities – so that their names were added to that flock also [interviews].
I confirmed the prevalence of premature baptisms in many interviews. One was with the president of a local administrative area in Kenya shortly after it had hit the headlines in the church press following the baptism of 4,000 people as a result of a single campaign by a visiting American evangelist. He confessed, with embarrassment, that there had been so little time to counsel and check out the baptismal candidates that their number had included several polygamists (a major affront to Adventist standards there); moreover, he was afraid that many of the new converts would drift away because of their extreme youth and because the lack of space in existing church buildings had forced the church leaders to schedule their worship in an open field.
Other pastors manipulated people into being baptized in order to get credit for the numbers. One example was associated with a large Sabbath baptism orchestrated by a large American independent evangelistic ministry at a school in Bangalore, India, to which many pastors from surrounding districts had brought candidates. I was told by a staff member at the school that the night before the baptism he had observed a large group of baptismal candidates, who were camped at the school, returning from a movie, and that many of them had been smoking cigarettes. (They thus transgressed three major Adventist standards, for secular activity on Friday night is regarded as breaking the Sabbath, smoking is forbidden as a defilement of the body because of its danger to health, and movie-going is frowned on.) After the baptism the next day a noisy argument had broken out between some of those who had been baptized and their pastors: the former claimed that they had been induced to come from their villages by a promise that they would be shown the sights of the city, but the pastors had failed to fulfill this.
Moreover, dropping out has become endemic because the need to keep a flow of baptismal candidates in the pipeline has left pastors with no time to nurture recent converts. Within the three years prior to my visit to Kinshasa, capital of Zaire, there had been two campaigns by black American evangelists which had led to a total of 1,600 baptisms. Since I was able to meet with all the pastors in the city at one time, I took the opportunity to ask them how many of these converts were still attending their churches: the figure they arrived at after conferring among themselves was only 50. Similar reports have been flowing from Russia, which has become a major target of Adventist evangelism since the collapse of the Soviet Union: the infrastructure there is unable to nurture or accommodate the converts left behind by evangelists returning to the U.S. [Tomenko 1995; Ozolins 1995; Landa 1995] While the pastors in many parts of the world with a deep respect for the authority of church administrators seemed to accept the new system focused on numbers of baptisms, others confided a deep frustration over their inability now to nurture new converts. Robert Folkenberg, the Adventist world president, recently caused a furor when, in a public address, he dubbed nurture a “four-letter word” because it is “a justification for inaction,” “a substitution for witnessing” [Folkenberg, 1995a: 24, 1995b: 18]. It is my sense that nurture is more likely to occur when laypersons are the evangelists, especially when they bring the new converts into their own congregations6.
On the other hand, American churches have also become increasingly willing to continue to count people who are rarely or never seen at church services as members – especially when they grew up as Adventists. The wish is to leave the way open for these nominal members to return to active participation, rather than to estrange them further – and offend their parents – by removing their names from the rolls. Today, the typical situation when names are dropped is that the people can no longer be found – it has finally been realized that they have moved, and so much time has elapsed since they were last contacted that they can no longer be traced. This represents a sharp change from the practice of earlier years, when the rolls of churches were “cleaned” regularly. Counts of attendance at church services across North America have shown that typically fewer than half of those on the rolls are present – and attendees include both visitors and children who have not reached the age of baptism [Sahlin, 1989: 18]. That is, if the same standards of membership were in force today as three decades ago, the North American membership would be much lower than it is today. However, it is pertinent to note that the current Adventist approach here is similar to that of the Mormons, whose statistics indicate an average attendance of only 38% of those on the rolls [Stark and Iannaccone, 1995: 14].
Although I have argued that Adventist membership statistics in the Developing World are exaggerated, the situation there is confused further by the fact that government censuses in Kenya and New Guinea, which asked about religious affiliation, have found that the numbers identifying with the Adventist Church total twice those listed on church rolls. This suggests considerable nominalism in these countries in areas with heavy concentrations of Adventists.
Finally, I should draw attention to some peculiarities about the surveys that have gathered data about Adventists in North America. Most of these have been carried out by church entities, using one of two methodologies. The first is to draw a stratified random sample of churches and then distribute questionnaires to those present in church on a particular week. Since it focuses on those members present at church, this method inevitably inflates the number of more highly committed members surveyed. Moreover, I suspect that because the questionnaires are distributed by the pastor and are completed at church, respondents may be more inclined to give more acceptable answers, thus exaggerating the “halo effect.” The second method is to mail questionnaires to a sample chosen from the mailing lists of the church periodicals that are sent to all members. This method elicits replies from members whose average SES is higher than those reached by the first method; it is also likely to elicit conformist responses because of the source of the questionnaire. On the other hand, surveys carried out by non-Adventist researchers, such as Kosmin and Lachman , gather a rather different sample because they, like the Kenyan government census, select from among all those who identify with Adventism. These differences help explain the somewhat divergent results obtained by the different surveys.
The Implications of Adventist Growth Patterns
The observations made in the preceding section leave us facing two key questions: to what extent is recent Adventist growth real, and to what extent is it likely to continue. These are explored through an application of Stark’s “revised general model” of why religious movements succeed or fail. The effectiveness of the model is tested concurrently. Stark proposes ten conditions that are necessary for the rapid and sustained growth of a religious group. Each proposition is applied in turn, although the order is different from that used by Stark because it lends greater coherence. The first two propositions focus on the religious environment in which a religious movement wishing to expand finds itself. Although I differ with Stark concerning these two propositions, discussion of them nevertheless yields useful insights. I found the remaining eight propositions directly helpful in both accounting for Adventist growth patterns and in assessing the extent to which these are likely to continue.
1. Cultural continuity: “New religious movements are likely to succeed to the extent that they retain cultural continuity with the conventional faith(s)of the societies in which they seek converts.” Stark and Iannaccone clarify this proposition: “…a Christian sect…will do best where most people are familiar with Christian culture and will do least well where most people are familiar with another religious culture” [1995: 18].
The Adventist experience supports this proposition to only some extent. Adventism presented itself to the U.S. in the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries as a return to New Testament Christianity, arguing, for example, that there was no evidence within the Scriptures of any change of the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday, so that the subsequent deviation was illegitimate. It met with initial success, in terms of a high growth-rate, in a culture where biblical literalism was widespread. It has also, as the proposition would predict, done poorly among Muslims, whether in the Middle East, Africa, or Southeast Asia, and Hindus.
However, the data showing rapid growth in many parts of the Developing World and among recent immigrants to the U.S. and concurrent stagnation among Americans and in the rest of the Developed World run counter to the proposition and beg for explanation. I begin my explanation of the contrary evidence in the Adventist experience by quoting from my analysis in another paper:
In general, [Adventists] were received rather differently in different regions. In countries where Christianity was religiously dominant, such as most of Europe, Australia and New Zealand, and South Africa, they were stigmatized as heretical and sectarian because they were small and different. Their growth over time in these parts has been relatively slow, with the result that Adventism there is now made up of mostly second-generation members…
The situation in many countries of the Developing World has often been markedly different from this. Although the missionaries were sent there by what was seen in the U.S. as a small schismatic sect, and the Adventist penetration often brought complaints from the “historic churches” – that their doctrine was heretical, that they were sheep-stealers [Wilson, 1969 (1963): 378; Assimeng,1986: 223] – their targets, the local people, did not distinguish between the various missions, seeing them “as part of the process of western cultural importations, rather than as special brands of them” [Assimeng, 1986: 53]. Adventism found an explicitly religiously pluralistic context, where it had no need to set itself over against an indigenous established church or religious orthodoxy, advantageous [Lawson, 1996a]. This pattern helps to explain the extent to which Adventist membership is now concentrated in the Developing World.
Moreover, Stark’s arguments concerning Mormons and Witnesses pose problems when Adventist data are introduced. He argues, for example, that Witnesses have done better in Europe than Mormons because their doctrine is more traditionally Christian. However, although Adventists are doctrinally even more traditional, their success in Europe has been comparatively poor, as was shown in Table 7. Again, he argues that both Witnesses and Mormons have done poorly in Asia because they are both culturally foreign there. However, Adventism, which is equally foreign in Asia, has done much better there. Finally, Stark explains the greater success of Mormons in Latin America, in spite of the dominance there of Catholicism, in terms of its continuity with pre-Columbian faiths and the failure of Catholics to deeply Christianize the masses. However, Adventists have done even better there than the Mormons even though their belief system is more akin to that of the Witnesses and they can boast no continuity with earlier indigenous faiths.
However, it is true that Adventists have often done best in Developing countries among those who were already Christians, such as Baptists in India. They have really earned their reputation among other Christian denominations as “sheep-stealers.” Moreover, their evangelism among recent immigrants from Developing countries to the U.S., Canada, and Britain is usually spearheaded by Adventists who have also arrived fairly recently from the same countries. These instances lend support to Proposition 1.
Nevertheless, several other factors, extraneous to the proposition, must be
introduced in order to explain Adventist geographic concentration patterns more fully:
- Adventism has also done well among some other non-Christian religions where ideology is less developed. This is particularly true of Animism—in Africa, Asia, and Oceania – and among Buddhism where it is less entrenched, most notably in Korea.
- Adventism tends to be more successful where economies are less developed and cultures less Westernized – in Peru (14,876 members per million), Bolivia (9,111), and Guyana (35,976) rather than Argentina (1,996) and Uruguay (2,117), in the Philippines (9,132) rather than Japan (110), in Jamaica (67,599) rather than the U.S. (2,974) [General Conference, 1995: 43-45]7.
- Adventist ideology has become less attractive in societies where people have become less committed to biblical literalism and more secular. Consequently, Adventism is experiencing stagnation among Americans and in other developed countries, and is growing more slowly in the more Westernized countries of the Developing World.
- On the other hand, Adventism is perceived to be relevant where changes (such as decolonization) among poor populations create yearnings for self-betterment and/or for understanding and control of baffling shifts (see below, Proposition 5).
- Adventism has also proved successful in situations of geographic mobility – as with recent immigrants to the U.S. and among those who have moved within the U.S. [Dudley et al, 1989: 6) – and also among people who have recently experienced personal trauma such as divorce, the death of a loved one, or loss of job [Sahlin, 1993: 6].
That is, in direct contradiction to Proposition 1, Adventism has also been doing well where it has been able to provide hope – both millennial and temporal – and help make sense of situations of cultural discontinuity.
2. A favorable ecology: “Other things being equal, new religious movements will prosper to the extent that they compete against weak, local conventional religious organizations within a relatively unregulated religious economy” – they will do best when conventional religious mobilization is low, and converts will come primarily from the ranks of the religiously inactive.
It is true that Adventism has prospered in the Developing World as the dominant religions there – whether Catholicism in Latin America and the Philippines or Animism in Africa, Oceania, and parts of Asia – have weakened following economic, political, and social changes. It is also true that converts tend to be drawn from the ranks of those who are less active in other religions.
However, sects are normally spawned in times of religious enthusiasm, and this was notably true of the origins of Adventism in America. Later, it benefited, as Proposition 2 would suggest, from weakening enthusiasm among members of the mainline churches, and it continues to benefit today as immigrants and the geographically mobile are detached by their moves from the irreligious connections. However, Adventism has found that increasing secularization in the Developed World has created a less favorable environment in recent years. This was recognized dramatically by a vote of the British Union of Seventh-day Adventists at a time, in the late 1980s, when the British government was considering removing the “blue laws” that prevented stores from opening on Sundays. Such moves have always been greeted with enthusiasm by American Adventists, who have interpreted them as eliminating privileges accorded to Sunday-keepers and as delaying the persecution that their prophet, Ellen White, expected would sooner or later befall those keeping the Saturday-Sabbath. However, Adventist leaders in Britain, aware that their converts were drawn almost exclusively from the ranks of those that were at least somewhat religious and that secularization had substantially reduced the size of this pool, and fearing that turning Sunday into another shopping day would speed the secularization process, voted to inform the government that the Adventist Church opposed changing the Sunday-closing statute [interviews]8.
Adventists have also found, as Stark suggests, that state prohibition of missionary and evangelistic activity can hamper growth – as is exemplified by their experience in parts of the Middle East and in the USSR. However, this is not always so. For example, it has recently been discovered that Adventism has grown more rapidly in China through illegal underground proselytizing since its missionaries were expelled, its schools and hospitals closed, and its members isolated from the world church by the Communist revolution in 1949, than it ever did during its earlier decades of legal activity.
That is, while the Adventist data give some support to Proposition 2, they would also qualify it in notable ways.
3. Can prophecy fail?: “New religious movements are likely to succeed to the extent that their doctrines are non-empirical” – that is, that they cannot be empirically disconfirmed.
Adventist data extend the credibility of this proposition. The early Adventist leaders knew the danger of failed prophecy, for they had been part of the Millerite Movement when it shattered after the Great Disappointment in 1844. They learned this lesson well, and their successors have avoided ever setting another date for the return of Christ, unlike the Witnesses, whose most recent false date for this event, 1975, slowed their growth for several years [Stark and Iannaccone, 1995]. Because Adventists continued to preach that the Second Coming was imminent, they gained urgency and excitement without risking disconfirmation.
However, eventually urgency goes stale, especially for the inherited members, many of whom recall the extent to which their grandparents and great-grandparents lived lives shaped by eager expectation; I, for example, remember that friends of my mother chose not to have children because of the warning “Woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days” [Matt. 24: 19 KJV], and that my parents never expected me to reach adulthood or to face death themselves. Although the 150th anniversary of the Great Disappointment on October 22, 1994, was turned by leaders into a celebration of the progress of the church and of its mission, it was for many a bittersweet occasion. Nevertheless, Adventist evangelists continue to preach an imminent but undated apocalypse, for this is effective in attracting converts.
Ellen White, the Adventist prophet, lived until 1915. Living prophets can be risky, for there is danger that their utterances will be open to disconfirmation. While White was usually suitably vague, she did occasionally make problematical statements in her preaching or writing, such as that an angel had told her that while some of those present at a conference in the1860s would become “food for worms,” others there would “be alive and remain upon the earth to be translated at the coming of Jesus” [White, 1948 (1856): 131-132]. Although no date was set, it is now obvious that the statement has been disconfirmed.
Even though Adventist leaders learned not to set a date for the apocalypse, a stream of their followers over the years have found the mixture of urgency of message and uncertainty of time of fulfillment too much to bear. Their eagerness to read the “signs of the times,” to see evidence that the end of the world is upon us in current headlines, has led a succession of extremists both on the fringes of Adventism and within its mainstream to set dates for the Second Coming (some recently have focused on the year 2000) or to declare that the U.S. government is about to proclaim the long-feared “Sunday laws” prophesied by Ellen White [Reid, 1994; Marcussen, 1983; Finley, 1992; Moore, 1993; Nelson, 1992; Goldstein, 1993]. David Koresh, who perished in Waco with his Seventh-day Adventist Branch Davidian followers, was the best-known of such recent preachers; many others are currently active, some of whom are being published and promoted by the official church presses [Lawson, 1995; 1997]. The apocalyptic message of Adventism is confused.
Nevertheless, Adventism remains largely free from sharp risk of prophetic disconfirmation. The major danger is a cynicism that grows among members as a result of their own education, sophistication, and awareness of the disappointments experienced by their forebears. A second danger flows from the fact that many Adventist outreach programs continue to proclaim an urgently millenarian message, for this is still successful in attracting the poor and unsettled. However, because this message encourages some to adopt a more extreme tone, they risk bringing discredit on the Adventist enterprise.
4. Medium tension: “New religious movements are likely to succeed to the extent that they maintain a medium level of tension with their surrounding environment – and are strict but not too strict.” In an earlier book, Stark defined such tension as having three elements – “difference, antagonism, and separation” – and argued that level of tension summarized the difference between a sect (relatively high tension) and a denomination (low tension) [Stark and Bainbridge, 1985: 49-50]. Considerable distinctness/strictness can result in scorn and persecution from both populace and government. The danger of such costs is likely to screen out “free riders,” which in turn increases member commitment, consensus, and mobilization of resources. However, if the likely costs are too high, this may become counter- productive – and therefore Stark’s emphasis on “medium tension.”
During its early decades, Adventism stood in considerable tension with society. Marked normative differences, such as its insistence on observing Saturday as a Sabbath in a society where a six-day week was almost universal, diet restrictions (vegetarianism, no coffee, tea, or alcohol), social life-style prohibitions (no theater, dancing, gambling, card playing, smoking, or reading of fiction), a commitment to “dress reform” and abstinence from jewelry and makeup, and a refusal to bear arms if conscripted, together with its focus on the imminent return of Christ and end of the world as we know it, set Adventism apart. Its view of itself, as God’s Remnant people, the true church bearing God’s final message in the last days, and its declarations that other religious groups were “apostate” and had become “the whore of Babylon”, its brazen challenges to clergy of other denominations in its evangelistic meetings, and its expectation of persecution from other churches in collaboration with the state, all tended to create bitter antagonisms. These barriers were reinforced by the close, often encapsulating, ties that developed among Adventists, whose lives usually centered around their church, the subculture it created and fostered, and its mission, who attended church schools, often worked for church institutions, and were frequently drawn by educational opportunities and economic and social ties to live in what became known colloquially as “Adventist Ghettos” or “New Jerusalems.” Barriers were also strengthened by rules, such as endogamy, and practices, such as their dietary and social prohibitions, that made it extremely difficult and/or uncomfortable to associate with others. Not only did Adventist differences attract scorn, but their Sabbath observance caused problems with employers and their refusal to bear arms and their insistence on working openly on Sundays in defiance of state “blue laws” had legal repercussions.
However, Adventists quickly learned to reduce tensions, especially those with the state. I have, in another paper, shown how they relaxed their stance towards the American Republic beginning in the 1870s and became involved politically during the 1880s in opposition to the adoption of a national law that would have established Sunday sacredness – and thus, in their view, set out to delay, rather than welcome, the last major event preceding the return of Christ; although Adventist leaders had taken a strong position against armed participation in war during the American Civil War, when alternatives proved unavailable in Latin America during the 1890s, members there chose to serve with arms when conscripted rather than face severe penalties; and during World War I the church leadership in America chose to switch its official stance on military service from pacifism, or absolute refusal to serve, to willingness to serve, preferably in a medical unit, without arms – and thus began to gain the favor of the American military [Lawson, 1996b]. Through these changes Adventists set a level of tension with society that was, according to Proposition 4, near optimal. Consequently, although their strict standards made them less comfortable with the general culture than were either Mormons or Witnesses, they faced much less persecution than either group.
5. Staying strict: “Religious movements will continue to grow only to the extent that they maintain sufficient tension with their environment—remain sufficiently strict.” Stark concedes that a group probably needs to modify its position over time in order to keep tension within tolerable limits; however, if such changes allow tension to fall too low9, then its growth-rate will decline. Ideally, a group should encourage the exit of those members who are not compatible with the optimal level of tension lest it bow to their pressure to compromise its standards.
The major impetus to reduce Adventism’s tension with its environment may be traced to the development of its education system. The first official church school was founded in 1872, and after that elementary schools, academies, colleges multiplied quickly and the system was crowned by a medical school. Today Adventists have the second-largest parochial education system in the world, with 86 colleges and universities, 1,040 academies, and 4,572 elementary schools educating a total of over 822,000 students; of these, 15 colleges and universities, 96 academies, and 1,050 elementary schools educating almost 86,700 students are located in North America [General Conference,1995: 21-31).
The Adventist Church became involved in education in order to protect its children from “worldly” influences and to train pastors and other church workers. The American colleges were forced to seek accreditation in the 1920s and 1930s, after the body accrediting the medical school decreed that the latter could admit only students with degrees from accredited colleges. Recognized degrees broadened the employment opportunities for graduates outside the church. As the Adventist educational system in America expanded over time, it became a major source of upward mobility for second generation members. The impact of this trend was felt increasingly in the decades following World War II.
Although the surveys measuring education and income levels among North American Adventists provide rather contradictory results, it is clear that the membership is considerably diverse when it comes to socioeconomic status. I referred earlier to a study in which the addresses of all the adult converts in the U.S. during the years 1982-85 were coded and then used, in what is known as geo-demographic profiling, to measure the Adventist penetration of 47 clusters within the U.S. population which were ranked according to SES. This process was also applied concurrently to the total U.S. church membership. The results show, in sharp contrast to the recent converts, that the membership is spread across all clusters, only three of which have penetration indexes of less than 50 (where the average score is 100), although the underrepresented clusters tend to have higher incomes and more education [Netteburg et al., 1986, 1987; Sahlin, 1990b: 42].
Balancing the many professionals, who now abound within American Adventism, especially among the younger Baby Boomer generation, are the mostly poor and poorly educated retirees and recent converts drawn from immigrant ranks, and women homemakers and part-time workers10. However, even the new Hispanic converts – the poorest category among all the new members – see their status as having improved since they became Adventists. Although only 22% of their children are in church schools (because most of them cannot afford the tuition), the norm that Adventists seek education is now so widely accepted that they pursue their education in public schools more eagerly than their non-Adventist peers [Hernandez, 1995: 31-32].
At the same time as many second-generation Adventists were experiencing upward mobility and becoming professionals, Church leaders became increasingly concerned with bolstering their own images, and adopted the corporate model for themselves. Consequently, they moved the General Conference, the headquarters of the Church, to a corporate park in suburban Washington, D.C., and in 1994 proposed that the President of the General Conference be recognized as the Church’s Chief Executive Officer. Meanwhile, the Master of Divinity, a professional degree, became the standard qualification for pastors.
As the qualifications and status of Church administrators, pastors, and leading laypersons rose, many of these became increasingly concerned with the image of the Church11, wishing ardently that it was not viewed as so peculiar by fellow professionals and the public in general. These trends have had the effect of accelerating the reduction of tension between the Church and society:
“The level of tension between American Adventists and society has lowered markedly and at an increasing pace in recent decades. The growth and accreditation of their educational and medical institutions has encouraged participation in society and provided opportunities for upward mobility; Adventist medicine has become increasingly orthodox, and many of its hospitals have prospered and won friends; the coming of the five-day week has removed most of the major problems surrounding Sabbath observance; and Adventist dietary and smoking prohibitions have won increasing credibility as a result of medical research. At the same time, Adventism has lowered levels of antagonism toward others: it has sought good relations with governments, switched its position on military service, allowed its expectations of persecution to diminish, and begun to build better relations with other churches” [Lawson,1995a].
During this same period, many of the members became less strict in observing traditional church standards. “ValueGenesis,” a massive study of North American church school students who were in grades 6-12, found that Adventist families were less restrictive than either the Church or its schools. Fifty percent of the students agreed that “non-Adventists laugh when they hear what Adventists are forbidden to do,” and a majority of them stated that they disagreed with seven of 16 long-taught and -enforced standards [Dudley and Gillespie, 1992: 148-158].
What of trends in the Developing World? We would expect that Adventism there would be much stricter and in far greater tension with society than in the U.S., since those who went there as missionaries over the years were typically more conservative than their fellow members in the homeland, and therefore placed more emphasis on the peculiarly Adventist teachings, and the rapid growth-rate has created a situation where often the vast majority of the church members are adult converts, who are usually more committed and sectarian. However, the level of sectarianism is much lower than expected: Adventism in these parts is increasingly following a trajectory which is similar in many ways to that taken in the U.S. It is already far less strict than American Adventism was when it had a similar proportion of first generation converts among its membership. Several factors contribute to this situation:
Adventists have experienced widespread upward mobility, and new members are attracted to Adventism because it is seen as offering such opportunities. In spite of the facts that converts to Adventism are typically poor and that their teachers are usually conservative Adventists who emphasize that the world will soon end, one of the ingredients in the attraction of many of the converts to Adventism is the prospect of upward mobility. In the Highlands of New Guinea, for example, where a veritable people movement is pouring into Adventism, the newcomers say that they are joining because God is blessing this church, and the evidence for this is that Adventists get rich! The tradition of measuring wealth in terms of how many pigs a person owns continues to some extent, even though this wealth is highly expendable, given the cultural demand that a “wealthy” person throw parties for his extended kin. The Adventist prohibition against keeping pigs (since they are regarded as unclean) and participation in parties (because of their association with alcohol and spirit worship) has had the effect of freeing members from their cultural obligations to kin and of fostering individualism, and has thus prepared them ideally for the emerging capitalist economy. Even though the bulk of the Adventist membership in Papua-New Guinea is in the Highlands, almost all the ministers there have to be recruited from coastal areas: the Highlands youth prefer to go into business [interviews].
Converts have also been drawn to Adventism because its system of parochial education offers members opportunities for advancement, just as it does in the US. Adventist missionaries made education the keystone to their evangelization, and therefore gave highest priority to developing schools: “for [Latin American] peasants who desired a school for their children, an Adventist teacher complete with salary was a powerful inducement; in exchange, he organized them into a congregation” [Stoll, 1990: 103]. Schools taught literacy, which was essential if the people were to read the Bible and study Adventist doctrine: “Elementary literacy was part of the prerequisites for baptism” [Nyaundi, 1993: 108]; they were also the means of preparing workers for the church. However, the people quickly realized that education was the key to upward mobility in rapidly changing societies, so that missionaries in Africa, for example, soon complained that their graduates frequently took the higher paying secular jobs that were available. One wrote that this was
“largely a waste of training effort and money. … We are not training teachers at Mamalulo, Solusi, and Kamagambo to provide the government and other agencies with educated help” [Flaiz, 1950: 30].
This trend continued as the Adventist Church added the higher layers to its educational system, and educational administrators now bemoan the fact that the majority of students enroll in programs, such as computer science and accounting, where there are few opportunities for church employment, rather than preparing to serve the rapidly expanding church. A striking confirmation of this pattern occurred at the Adventist University of Eastern Africa, in Kenya, which had been founded in 1978, in the early 1980s. Students there, complaining that having the church’s name on their degrees would limit their employment opportunities, staged demonstrations and strikes which eventually forced the University Council to change the institution’s name to the “University of Eastern Africa” [interviews].
The patterns of upward mobility resulting from church-provided education vary from one country to another because of differing economic conditions. In India, for example, where graduates from other universities often find it impossible to secure positions which utilize their qualifications, all who graduate from the Adventists’ Spicer College are offered church employment. Many of these graduates have used their qualifications and church contacts as a means of securing entry to the U.S.: more than half of the college’s graduates in recent years have migrated [interviews].
Adventist educational institutions are less likely to offer avenues for widespread upward mobility where they lack government accreditation or their programs are severely limited, or where almost all church members are too poor to go away from home for education. These conditions apply, variously, in much of Europe and parts of Latin America and Asia. For example, interviewees in Southern Mexico frequently explained that the peasant members had no chance of traveling to the College in the north, or of affording tuition and board at the academy in the south; however, they credited the church’s emphasis on tithing and a simple, healthy lifestyle with encouraging them to steward their resources and to complete more frequently the available grades at the local public schools, so that their houses were typically better than average and they had the confidence to engage in evangelism [interviews].
The widespread concern for, and experience of, upward mobility among Adventist members in the Developing World leaves them with an experience that is closer to that of American Adventists than the predominance of converts and the emphasis on sectarian teachings among the missionaries would lead us to expect.
Decreased socialization of new members. It was noted above that the much greater emphasis placed on growth by Adventist leaders since the early1980s has promoted evangelism as a major proselytizing strategy in the Developing World and pressured pastors and evangelists there with high goals for new converts. The resulting competition has encouraged the premature baptism of converts and resulted in the virtual disappearance of post-baptismal nurture.
A factor isolated by Wilson is significant at this point. He found that those sects which he defines as “revolutionist,” or apocalyptic, tend to move much more slowly from sect towards denomination than those he defines as “conversionist” sects. This is because the former demand that converts have considerable knowledge before they are admitted, while the latter add new members rapidly without a great deal of prior training and socialization [Wilson, 1967 (1959)]. Adventism was originally a revolutionist sect. However, in terms of this analysis, it has shifted sharply towards becoming a “conversionist sect” in the Developing World over the past decade or so: the grounding of converts in the sectarian teachings and separating lifestyle of Adventism is now often much weaker than it was in earlier decades. According to Wilson, such a change is likely to reduce sectarianism and foster denomination-like characteristics – that is, in the terms of this paper, to foster reductions in strictness and tension.
Weakened member commitment. Given the evidence of widespread limited commitment among Adventist members – with poor socialization, focus on opportunities for career advancement, and high apostasy rates – it is not surprising that many members have proved willing to compromise the standards of their faith rather than face difficulties. The major test for Adventists has usually been observance of the (Saturday) Sabbath. Many Adventists have had their job options circumscribed or suffered unemployment because of their refusal to work on that day, and American Adventists dismissed for refusing to work when scheduled on their Sabbath have fought the issue all the way to the Supreme Court. In Africa, groups of Adventist students at both church- and state-run colleges and universities stated that the core of Adventist doctrine as preached there was the Sabbath. However, they reported that when they were faced with the problem of classes and exams being scheduled on that day, which was regularly the case at all educational levels in the former French and Belgian colonies (for example, Zaire, Rwanda, the Cameroon, the Ivory Coast) and has also increasingly become an issue in such former English colonies as Nigeria and Ghana, most of them had been sent by their parents and then later chose themselves to attend such classes and examinations [interviews]. Adventists in many other countries, ranging from Korea to Eastern Europe, have frequently made similar choices. Indeed, in Korea and India so many members spend Saturday mornings at their jobs that churches have arranged special worship services for them on Saturday afternoon. Even in the U.S., fewer members have in recent years been choosing to make an issue of being called to work on the Sabbath [interviews].
An emerging political presence. The rapid growth of Adventism in parts of the Developing World, together the upward mobility that members have often experienced there, has transformed Adventists into a political presence in some countries. This is especially the case in Jamaica and in Papua-New Guinea and other island groups in the South Pacific, where there have been several Adventist members of cabinet, in Micronesia, where the president of Palau is a church member, and in Uganda, where the vice-president (who was formerly the prime minister) is also an active Adventist. These developments took the leaders at church headquarters in the U.S. by surprise, for Adventists have rarely walked the corridors of political power in this country [interviews]12.
A similar process has occurred at a more local level in other countries where the Adventist presence is more geographically concentrated. This is the situation among the Aymara of Peru, in the highlands around Lake Titicaca. Here Adventists brought education and literacy, and so many conversions followed that they became the largest Protestant group in the country. However, their education was not politically and economically relevant while the old, Catholic-dominated social system remained intact. When population growth outran available land, forcing a shift from subsistence agriculture to a money economy as Aymara took wage labor on the coast, this presented them with an opportunity: since they were better educated, they were able to find better jobs during the time spent on the coast, and consequently gained more possessions. Moreover, when local government was reorganized and secularized, and thus opened to non-Catholics, only they were educationally ready for these changes. A small group of Adventists subsequently emerged “as the power elite in the community” [Lewellen, 1979: 245; Martin, 1990: 224-25; interviews].
Relations with governments and other missions. In other parts of the Developing World, such as Latin America, the Philippines, South Korea, Kenya, and Ghana, Adventists have moved, often successfully, to reduce political tensions with the authoritarian regimes holding power. Their frequent successes in cementing exchange relationships, in which the ruler performs favors for the church in return for it bolstering his legitimacy, have all but removed the tension between the Church and the state13.
It was noted above that Adventist missionaries typically joined the ecumenical organizations representing mission bodies in Africa. In Latin America, however, they initially stood aloof from other Protestant missions, dismissing the other fundamentalists as apostate and, in turn, being seen as legalistic and heretical because of their strong focus on Adventist doctrinal and behavioral peculiarities. With time, however, they came to desire acceptance as evangelical Christians and, beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, they won a measure of this [Stoll, 1990: 103].
In Proposition 5 Stark argues that a religious movement must maintain tension with its environment at a medium level over time if it is to continue rapid growth. It has been shown that tension has been reduced considerably in North America, especially among the Caucasian membership, where growth has well-nigh disappeared. However, we expected that tension would be maintained in the Developing World because growth is often so rapid there. However, tension was found to be fairly low and diminishing – to invoke Stark and Bainbridge’s three markers of tension with its sociocultural environment, it is far less different, antagonistic, or separated from society than its forebears were in nineteenth century America. The determined push for growth by administrators has caused Adventism to mutate from what Wilson has defined as a “revolutionist,” or apocalyptic, sect to a “conversionist sect,” which he found, in the Developed World, is likely to facilitate further muting of tension with its environment. In accordance with such a shift, members are less strongly committed than might be expected of adult converts: they are attracted to Adventism by perceived opportunities for upward mobility, they frequently compromise key church standards, and there is a high apostasy rate among them. Moreover, Adventists in many of these countries have experienced upward mobility, and in some cases have risen to political prominence; where there have been tensions with the state, they have striven to ease these – often with considerable success. That is, tension between Adventists in the Developing World and their environment has rarely been sharp, and has been reduced overtime.
6. Legitimate authority the basis of effective leadership: “Religious movements will succeed to the extent that they have legitimate leaders with adequate authority to be effective.” Effective and legitimate leadership depends (a) on it having “clear doctrinal justifications,” and (b) “the degree that members perceive themselves as participants in the system of authority.”
Although Adventist leadership has not had the same degree of authority as either that of the Witnesses, who see themselves as governed by a theocracy, or the Mormons, whose presidents are, in turn, regarded as the living prophet, the General Conference has exercised strong authority. This authority was legitimated by Ellen White as being God’s voice on earth, and, doctrinally, the system of church government was regarded as being given by God. The democratic trappings – business sessions and elections of officers at every level of church government – and considerable lay participation in running local churches14 made the members feel that they were participants in the system of authority.
While the authority of the General Conference is still considerable, it is increasingly under siege – its legitimacy is being questioned, its power is eroding. A survey of the North American church in 1991 found that while 78% of members had confidence in the leadership of their pastors, only 64% expressed confidence in the leadership of the General Conference; while 67% approved of how their local church spent money, only 49% approved of General Conference spending patterns [Sahlin, 1995: 12,13].
Several reasons can be adduced for these changes:
- In an increasingly diverse, global church, where less than 10% of the membership is in North America, the General Conference is strongly identified with the U.S. because it is located here and its leadership is still largely American. Although some diversity has been introduced in the last 15 years, the segments of the international church which have experienced rapid growth in recent years are severely underrepresented within the hierarchy. Moreover, the Americans leaders of the church are mostly white, and the rapidly growing Hispanic and Asian segments of the church in North America are almost entirely absent from the corridors of power. Potentially divisive questions about who will lead the church in the future hang like a pall over the General Conference.
- Adventism is becoming increasingly diverse theologically, with tensions between the various strands. I see five broad strands: liberal Adventists, who include the majority of biblical scholars and scientists, whose hermeneutic is the historical-critical method and journals are Spectrum and Adventist Today; evangelical Adventists, who include some theologians and more pastors, but are little organized, lack a journal of their own, but read Christianity Today and Good News Unlimited; conservative Adventists, whose literalistic hermeneutic they call the “grammatical-historical method,” who include a few very vocal theologians active in the Adventist Theological Society and some pastors and laypersons, a few of whom are influential with the hierarchy because of well-placed donations of magnitude, whose journal is Adventists Affirm; historic Adventists, whose hermeneutic is proof-texting both the Bible and the writings of Ellen White, whose leaders are mostly former pastors, while their followers tend to be less educated, older Caucasian laypersons, and whose prime journal is Our Firm Foundation; finally, urgently apocalyptic Adventists, who come in a variety of stripes, are often but by no means always on the fringes of the church, whose hermeneutic is selective proof-texting, and whose various publications are associated with different personalities, each often with his own interpretation, and range these days from two official journals, Signs of the Times and Liberty (both of which are intended primarily for non-Adventist audiences), to a variety of small, audacious rags. Since these strands are to a large extent identified with differing hermeneutics, tensions have been heightened by the debate over women’s ordination, which drew wide attention to the differences.
- Theology is a problem to church leaders, because it is potentially divisive and members who are theologically committed tend to be out of step with the administrative pragmatists who lead the church and therefore to be critical of them. This statement deserves clarification: as Adventism institutionalized and developed its hierarchical pyramid, it followed the usual pattern, long spelled-out by sociologists, of modifying its goals so that the prime concerns became maintaining the organization, preserving unity, and keeping resources flowing to the center in order to maintain its control. In keeping with such goals, administrators fell increasingly into the mold of pragmatic conservatives. Having adopted the corporate model, they are especially concerned with such items as finances, numerical growth, the reputation of the church in society and its standing with authorities, and leadership status. They rarely have advanced training in theology, nor are they deeply interested in it, except to invoke it in order better to mobilize resources.
- The reality of lay participation in the system of authority is being questioned as
- A better educated membership has realized that the system of choosing delegates to constituency meetings, and especially to the General Conference Session, is biased against the laity;
- Various constituencies – women, singles, homosexuals, and various racial and ethnic minorities – are realizing the extent to which they are excluded;
- Power is beginning to shift to the congregations, as some have refused to disfellowship prominent dissidents such as Desmond Ford and Lorna Tobler, as some congregations have chosen to ordain their own women clergy, and as increasing numbers of members divert tithe from official channels.
Since power depends on the control of the purse, changing patterns in how tithes and offerings are channeled indicate the growing threat to the legitimacy of church leadership. A 1991 study of giving patterns in North America found that 41% of members gave at least part of their tithe to the local church budget, building fund, a student aid fund, etc, and that 15% gave at least part of their tithe to independent ministries, and 12% to non-Adventist organizations [Sahlin, 1995: 6]. This represents a remarkable change in giving patterns in a few years, as is demonstrated by four studies carried out over six years by Monte Sahlin, the current director of the North American Division Office of Information and Research. A study in 1985 found that 7% of active church members in Ohio had directed tithe to nontraditional categories the previous year; in 1987-88 the finding was 14% in the Potomac Conference (around Washington, D.C.); in 1989, when the questions were asked in the Pacific Union (California and surrounding states), the figure so doing stood at 30%; finally, it stood at 41% in the national sample in 1991 [personal communication]. Moreover, those shifting from the giving patterns advised by church leaders are almost all middle aged and younger – and they are also more likely to compute their tithes after taxes and to give less in offerings [Sahlin, 1990b: 85]. This same crucial age-cohort expresses less confidence in the leadership of the General Conference. According to Stark’s Proposition 6, as the authority of the General Conference leadership is undermined, the Adventist Church is likely to become less successful.
7. Adequate fertility: “Religious movements must maintain a level of fertility sufficient to at least offset member mortality.” – “a rising rate of mortality may cancel a substantial rate of conversion.”
Fertility is closely related to age distribution – especially that of women15. I have not seen age or fertility data for Adventists in the Developing World. However, the fertility rate is likely to be high in most countries where baptisms are high, because most of the converts are reported to be young.
Conversely, the fertility-rate is likely to be low among Adventists in most of the Developed Countries, especially where there are few immigrants to evangelize. For example, the membership is aging in the countries of Scandinavia, because families there tend generally to be small, and the loss of youth through apostasy is not being offset by conversions. Consequently, Adventist membership totals declined in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland between 1984 and 1994, ranging from a 4.4% loss in Norway to a 14.1% loss in Denmark [General Conference, 1985, 1995].
Neither have I been able to find recent fertility or age data by racial group in the North American Division. The high rate of conversions among recent immigrants should be swelling the fertility-rate among Hispanics and Asians in particular and, to a lesser extent, among blacks. Hernandez found that 76% of the Hispanic members were 41 years old or younger – and this figure omits unbaptized children [1995: 31]. On the other hand, Caucasian members are now disproportionately elderly, with couples with no children at home – the “empty nesters” – the largest category. This means that Caucasian Adventists are certainly not reproducing themselves.
The surprise among fertility-related data, given the heavy concentration of recent immigrants among converts, is that North American Adventists are collectively graying – in a pattern akin to that found in the mainline churches, but unlike that found among Mormons, Witnesses, Pentecostals, and Catholics [Kosmin and Lachman, 1993: 216]. 1990 data, comparing the age distribution of North American Adventists with a combined figure representing the general population of both the U.S. and Canada drawn from both their censuses, shows that Adventists are heavily underrepresented among the cohorts aged 20-34 (that is, the childbearing years), and heavily overrepresented among the middle aged cohorts (40-55) and again among those aged 65-74, when the more healthy Adventist lifestyle makes its impact. The aging of Adventists beyond the childbearing years made itself felt dramatically in these data, which showed Adventists with above-average numbers of children aged 5-9 (7.6% of total adherents) and 10-14 (8.0%), but with drastically lowered representation among those aged 0-4 (only 4.8% of total adherents). To put this in another way, while there were in 1990 67,258 children aged 10-14 in Adventist homes in North America, there were only 40,630 aged 0-4. The largest Adventist cohort was aged 40-44 [Sahlin, 1990a: 3,4].
Another sign of low fertility among Adventists is that the average household size among them – 2.56 people – is smaller than that of the general population of either the U.S. (2.66) or Canada (2.85). The smallness of this figure is underlined by the fact that Adventists have a much higher proportion of married couples than average, and a correspondingly smaller proportion of singles [Sahlin, 1990a: 8,10].
Given these statistics, it can be expected that a rising tide of mortality will greatly reduce the overall growth-rate among Adventists in North America even if the high rate of conversions among recent immigrants continues. Given the low conversion- and birthrates among Caucasians and their agingpopulation, we can expect that their numbers, as represented on the membership rolls, will soon begin to decline – if they are not already declining.
8. Effective socialization: “Religious movements must socialize the young sufficiently well to minimize both defection and the appeal of reduced strictness.” A high rate of defections, like low fertility, has the effect of wiping out numerical gains made though conversions.
On the basis of his studies of the Mormons and Witnesses, Stark concludes that very effective socialization is achieved by giving young people important roles to perform. Mormons are prepared to become full-time missionaries for two years, Witnesses to spend their lives as part-time missionaries. In these capacities they build and exhibit commitment, just at the age when they would normally be most susceptible to doubt and defection [Stark and Iannaccone,1995: 37-38].
The Adventist student missionary program is similar to that of the Mormons,
though usually limited to one year. However, it is relatively small, with usually between 200 and 300 students from North America traveling to other divisions – far fewer than the number of openings available, which totaled 670 in 1996 [Leona Ganson, personal communication]. Students from other divisions also participate in similar programs – from South America to Africa and Korea to China, for example; however, there are no data available on the number of students involved.
Historically, youth involvement in their local churches has been an important means of socialization to Adventism. However, in recent years two programs which involved youth the most have faltered: Adventist Youth (A.Y.) societies have closed in many churches, especially in Caucasian churches in North America and in other Developed countries; and attendance at Sabbath Schools, which were attended by most of the members of all ages thirty years ago, has plummeted. This has left the Adventist parochial school system as the major vehicle of youth socialization apart from the family. When, in the mid-1980s, this system seemed beset by problems, a study which interviewed a representative sample of members, pastors, educators, and administrators found considerable consensus that “Adventist education is central to the mission of the church and the salvation of its children” and that it was “the key to the future survival of the church” [Dudley and Gillespie, 1992: 10]. These opinions no doubt drew on data, long pedaled in churches by Adventist education administrators, which purported to show that the more years of education youth received in church schools, the more likely they were to remain Adventists [Dudley and Kangas, 1990: 76].
This endorsement of Adventist education occurred at a time when the enrollment statistics in North America showed long-term decline. Tuition had risen sharply, squeezing parents and placing the schools out of the reach of many Adventist families, especially those of minority racial and ethnic groups [Hernandez, 1995: 31-32]; the real value of subsidies from church sources had dropped; moreover, parents were increasingly demanding quality academic education and preparation for the “real” world, and were willing to weigh other educational options [Dudley and Gillespie, 1992: 7-10]. As a result of these trends, only about half of the Adventist children and youth in North America are in church schools.
ValueGenesis, a massive study of over 12,000 youth in grades 6 through 12 in North America, almost all of whom were in Adventist schools, allows us to evaluate the quality of the socialization gained there [Dudley and Gillespie,1992]. Some variables indicate successful socialization: 91% were sure Saturday is the Sabbath, 75% had made a commitment to Jesus Christ, and 72% of academy seniors said that there is an excellent (27%) or good (45%) chance that they would be active in the church when they are 40 years old . However, there are also red flags: for example, attitudes towards their local congregations were generally quite negative, and only 13% reported reading the Bible daily for devotional purposes – moreover, both indicators worsened with advancing grades [46, 42]. Perhaps most damaging to the Adventist commitment to its costly system of education as the prime source of youth socialization was the finding that on most key variables, such as whether they expected to be active in the church at age 40, there was no significant difference between the answers of youth in Adventist and public schools [183, 248-49]16.
What, then, is the evidence concerning the turnover among Adventists in general and youth dropouts in particular? According to an article published in 1989 which drew on six major studies over the previous decade, at that time, when the official membership in North America stood at 730,000, church leaders had concluded that there were between one and two million former and inactive Adventists living in America. Moreover, most of these were young adults who had grown up in the church rather than converts from evangelistic series who had been baptized prematurely [Sahlin, 1989: 18-19]. The age distribution of North American Adventists, which shows that members in the cohorts 20-34 are heavily underrepresented (see above), supports this conclusion.
In the mid-1980s, amid far-flung rumors that the dropout rate among Adventist youth was 75%, church leaders decided to sponsor a study that would follow a cohort of youth for ten years. This began in the school year 1987-88 with a stratified sample of 1,523 baptized 15 and 16 year-olds, only half of whom were in Adventist schools [Dudley and Kangas, 1990]. By the eighth year of the study (1994-95), the number participating had fallen to 684, or 45% of the original number. Although 90% of these said that they were still officially church members, only 56% said that they attended church services regularly. Half of the respondents stated that they had stopped attending church at sometime, although 38% of these (19% of the total group) had later returned. Unfortunately, these figures do not allow the computation of a dropout rate, for we are without current data from 55% of the original sample. Since it seems logical to assume that those who have dropped out of the study are also more likely to be dropouts from church, it seems likely that the proportion of the original sample attending church regularly is a good deal lower than 56%: indeed, the dropout rate may not be far below the previously rumored rate of 75%, which was also the estimate tendered to me by many of the pastors I interviewed in North America. Recent anecdotal evidence supports this trend: I have been told by four friends who have recently attended 25th anniversary reunions of their academy classes that the proportion of class members who had exited the church was in each case at least 75%.
That is, North American Adventism is not only suffering from low fertility, but also a huge hemorrhage from the ranks of the young people who have grown up in the church. This is especially true of the Caucasian church. When the slow conversion rate among Caucasians is added to their fertility and dropout data, it becomes evident that the active Caucasian membership in the U.S. is now declining. However, this is not reflected in the membership rolls because of the pattern of retaining dropouts there. On the other hand, the data also suggest that to the extent that young people are retained as members, they tend to dilute Adventist strictness.
What about Adventism in the Developing World? It has already been noted that the rush to baptisms has undermined the socialization of new converts, resulting often in patterns of widespread apostasies. Young people face a situation different from that in North America: the church has beenexpanding so rapidly, with large numbers of young converts, that the church schools have no hope of providing education to any but a small proportion of those of school age. That is, most of the youth do not have access to the main official source of Adventist socialization. However, the data suggest that this does not necessarily create a disaster from the church’s point of view. For example, in Papua-New Guinea, where there were at that time only four Adventist high schools, a situation that forced many of the Adventists into public schools, I found in the universities groups of Adventist students who were very active in evangelism among their fellow students. On each of the campuses these told me that the active students were nearly all products of the public schools, for those who had survived that alien environment had developed spiritual muscle here. In contrast, the students from Adventist high schools had mostly become inactive church members upon moving on to university [interviews].
9. Network ties: “New religious movements will succeed to the extent that they sustain strong internal attachments, while remaining an open social network, able to maintain and form ties to outsiders.” Personal attachments help maintain religious commitment, for social relationships are a tangible reward. However, if internal networks are too embracing, they make proselytizing difficult.
Those religious groups which are marked by a fairly strong tension with their environments typically develop strong internal ties. This was the case among North American Adventists. Not only did they feel different and stigmatized, called to be a “peculiar people,” but they often spent much of their lives together, from being born in an Adventist hospital, educated from kindergarten to university in Adventist schools, working in Adventist institutions, living in Adventist “ghettos” surrounding such institutions, and closing their days in Adventist retirement centers. Since they lived such encapsulated lives, many of them felt awkward with “outsiders,” and so failed to witness to them or, if their commitment to their message forced them to try to share it, their witnessing was often impersonal – a torrent of words, with little concern for whether the hearer welcomed them or not, or a prepackaged tract [Sahlin, 1990b: 29]. For the most part, Adventists relied on public evangelism, and hoped that the curious would respond to the advertising.
Although many Adventists continue to live around church institutions, the proportion doing so has declined, and the lowering of tension with society has allowed many Adventists to feel more comfortable with others. Nevertheless, nervous authors and pastors continue to warn members of the danger of friendships with non-Adventists, fearing that the influence may flow in the wrong direction, even though a study published as early as 1976 showed that 57%of adults joining the Adventist Church list friends and relatives as the most important influence in that decision, and 67% say that this was the avenue through which they first became acquainted with Adventism [Oosterwal, 1976: 40]. It is only in recent years that church leaders have been urging that members turn to relational, or friendship, evangelism – telling, for example, of the success of a regular Sunday afternoon ball game in which a pastor, members, and neighbors participated, in leading some of the latter into the church [Sahlin,1993: 6].
As Adventists came to feel less embattled, some of them realized that they were not as closely knit as they had thought. Diversity had created clusters, based on race, social class, generation, theology, musical taste, etc., in which people were embedded, while ties between those from different clusters were weaker. They also noticed that the tendency among Adventists to judge one another’s behavior, and the felt need to present oneself as being a successful Christian, often made it difficult to be truly open with one another, to be honest about their problems. That is, they often found that the ties were one of category rather than a personal bonding. Some members realized that they were really alone: in churches that are typically composed of families, singles, divorcees, gays and lesbians are especially likely to feel marginalized. They began to create their own clusters, which, by their nature, often extended across congregations.
As the costs of being an Adventist have diminished in recent years, leaving Adventists feeling less isolated, their commitment to their church has often dropped also. Consequently, as noted above, attendance at Sabbath School has declined sharply – which, in turn, has reduced the social benefits that others gain there, so that they too became less likely to attend. Yet Sabbath School is an institution which was, in earlier years, very important in helping to create and reinforce networks among Adventists. It seems, then, that Adventist networks are loosening. This, in turn, contributes to the exit rate, for dropouts are often poorly attached to church networks: surveys show that “former members felt that their departure was uncontested” [Sahlin, 1989: 20].
North American Adventism has thus moved from a situation where church ties were almost encapsulating to one where, although they are often still strong, they are loosening – sometimes notably, as the dropout rate attests.
10. A volunteer missionary force: “Religious movements will grow to the extent that they can generate a highly motivated, volunteer, religious labor force, including many willing to proselytize.” – they need both numbers and commitment to spreading their religious faith.
Throughout Adventist history, public evangelism and the printed page have been the main vehicles for outreach. Although their isolation from the broader society often made Adventists uncomfortable in dealing with “outsiders,” their commitment led many of them to involvement in such activities as distributing printed tracts door-to-door and giving Bible studies when the opportunity arose. Adventist women also involved themselves in making, repairing, and distributing clothes, and helping in clinics and cooking schools.
The level of activity declined in North America in recent decades, especially the 1980s, as increasing numbers of Adventist women sought employment, upwardly mobile Adventists became uncomfortable going door-to-door, and an aging church membership sought nurture rather than opportunities to witness. Also, as Adventists’ tension with their environment declined, so too did their compulsion to proselytize, as some members became less sure of the unique truth of the “Adventist message” and that all others, including churchgoing Christians, needed to accept it in order to find salvation.
“World Survey,” a 1993 study of all the divisions of international Adventism, found that, in general, the lowest reported participation in witnessing activities was in North America: for example, while 19% of respondents in North America reported that they had participated in the giving of Bible studies in homes during the previous twelve months, the parallel figure for the other divisions rose as high as 52%.
Nevertheless, involvement in witnessing activities by Adventists in North America is not inconsiderable if what is claimed can be believed. Twenty percent of respondents to the NAD Office of Information and Research annual survey of church members in 1993 stated that they had attended a witnessing training program during the previous year; the same percentage had given Bible studies to a non-Adventist during the same period; and 34% stated that they had helped to bring at least one person into the church during the previous three years – a claim which seems unlikely given the Adventist growth-rate in North America, even though several members can jointly help make a single convert.
In response to the decline in witnessing, the NAD shifted its focus from public evangelism to a seminar format (Revelation Seminars), it embraced “friendship evangelism,” and launched the Caring Church program, which promised concern for people’s economic, social, and physical needs as well as the spiritual dimension [Sahlin, 1990b: 20-21].
Meanwhile, the trajectory of lay involvement has often moved in the opposite direction in the Developing World, where initially too great reliance on the missionaries was encouraged. However, once the churches there developed local leadership, and rapid expansion spread resources thin so that pastors often had responsibility for perhaps 25 congregations, lay involvement tended to expand. In Latin America, for example, lay evangelists prepare a constant flow of converts for baptisms, which are carried out by pastors as they move from church to church around their districts. However, although overall laypersons stated that they were involved in witnessing to a greater degree than their counterparts in North America, involvement was still limited to what were usually fairly small minorities of the membership [World Survey, 1993].
That is, although there is a high consensus among Adventists that witnessing is important, the supply of volunteers for proselytizing in the various segments of the international church is rather patchy. The energy and commitment of some are counterbalanced by the apathy of many.
In 1984, Rodney Stark published an essay tracing Mormon growth from 1830 until 1980 and then projected it as far as the year 2080. Since Mormons had grown an average of 53% per decade between 1940 and 1980, he projected continued growth at 50% per decade. At this rate, exponential growth would give them over 267 million members in 2080. His estimate over the first 14 years of the period proves to have been conservative, for the actual Mormon membership at the end of 1994 was over 800,000 higher than his estimate would have placed it.
Similarly, given the fact that the growth-rate of Witness Pioneers in recent years had been over 5%, Stark and Iannaccone in 1990 projected their growth to 2090, using the more conservative rate of 4% per year. This would give them over 194 million Pioneers by that year. Comparing actual growth, 1990-1995 with their projected growth, they found the former to be running almost 300,000 over the estimate.
Adventists have averaged a growth-rate of 67.9% per decade this century. If I were conservative and projected the increase at a mere 50% per decade for a century, this would give a total membership of over 384 million in 2090. And, indeed, if I begin with the membership figure for 1990, and then increase it at the rate of 4.138% per year (50% per decade), the membership projected for the end of 1995 is 8,158,601, over 650,000 fewer than the actual membership at that time.
However, I am most uncomfortable with this projection – for several reasons.
First, I remember the reversals suffered by the Methodists in America – stagnation and then decline – beginning only a century after they became one of the boom religious groups of the nineteenth century. When I read Finke and Stark’s analysis of the Methodist trajectory, I saw parallels with where Adventism seemed to be headed in the U.S. . I would have expected that Stark’s involvement in this book, together with his work with Bainbridge on the move from sect towards denomination – and thus to lowered growth-rates – as a group’s tension with its surrounding environment declines , would have made him more wary about projecting continued growth for the Mormons and Witnesses.
Secondly, I wonder what such projections for the Mormons mean when they admit now that only 38% of those listed as members attend church – a figure Stark himself cites . The Mormon membership total today is really comprised of people who have at some time been Mormons, only a minority of whom are currently active Mormons; the rest are people whom the church prefers to keep on the rolls in the hope that continued contact with them will some day draw them to return. To project such a statistic into the future compounds the confusion. Since the Adventist situation is like unto that of the Mormons, projecting their growth-rate into the future would be similarly uncertain in its meaning.
Thirdly, my analysis of the Adventist data and situation lead me to doubt both the reliability of recent growth statistics and whether they will be maintained. The crash programs introduced since the early 1980s, which increased Adventism’s growth-rate by creating competition between geographical units within the church and pressuring pastors, resulted in inflated net growth figures, the introduction of large numbers of poorly socialized converts, and considerable nominalism and turnover among members. Although the reported growth was greeted as proof that God was blessing His people, it was really turning Adventism into a house of cards. This is not to say that it has become stagnant overall (the situation among Caucasians in the U.S., and also in other parts of the Developed World, notwithstanding), for there are many pockets of real strength. However, the inflow of many inadequately prepared converts has weakened Adventism. Many of these inevitably become “free riders,” and thus reduce the group’s strictness. According to Stark’s model, this will eventually have the effect of reducing growth.
My analysis applying the Stark model to the Adventist data showed that the latter were in accord with eight of Stark’s ten propositions. These help explain Adventism’s continued high growth-rate. However, the analysis also shows that Adventism’s position on most of these variables has been changing: its tension with its environment has dropped sharply; the problem of the prolonged delay of the apocalypse is undermining confidence and fostering schismatic ministries and prophets, even though the actual setting of a date was avoided; leadership authority is being subverted; fertility has fallen sharply among members in the U.S. and in much of the rest of the Developed World; socialization is often so problematical that the exits of young people and new converts have become a threatening hemorrhage; network ties, which were once so strong that they impeded proselytizing, are now becoming too weak; and the presence of a voluntary missionary force is patchy. That is, Adventism has changed recently to such an extent that Stark’s model would now predict that real growth will slow considerably.
In the discussion above of Proposition 1, it was argued that rather than doing well where there is cultural continuity, Adventism has prospered where it has been able to provide hope – both temporal and millennial – and help make sense of situations of cultural discontinuity. That is, it has flourished amidst dramatic social changes, such as decolonization and a sudden need to Westernize, to find skills relevant in the emerging societies. But given this, one cannot help but ask whether this is therefore but a phase that will inevitably wane if such societies find greater stability.
Moreover, Adventism’s rapid growth among the poor all over the world is spreading its resources, which are drawn primarily from the Developed World and especially from the U.S., very thin. As a result, although Adventists have recently developed educational institutions of stature in some countries, such as their universities in Zimbabwe and Kenya, overall their schools in the Developing World are falling behind: they have no hope of accommodating the wave of potential students from among the vast array of young converts, and their quality is suffering in comparison with their rivals. The state of Adventist hospitals is often worse still. It seems inevitable, then, that the importance of these institutions as vehicles for upward mobility will decline. The switch to public evangelism as a major proselytizing strategy in the Developing World was not just an attempt to increase the growth-rate, but also a recognition of the decline of the traditional institution-based approach. But will Adventism continue to attract converts at the same rate once it is realized in communities that it no longer offers the same opportunities for upward mobility?
Finally, it appears as if major schisms are becoming more likely. Adventism is deeply divided across several key variables – by world region, race, age, gender, and, perhaps most explosive of all, theology. That is, Adventism is looking increasingly as if it is several churches rather than one. Church leaders, desperate to hold it together, focused the 1995 quinquennial Session of the General Conference, which is always a combination of business session and pep rally, so closely on the theme of unity within the enormously diverse world church that they left no doubt concerning their fear of disunity. It is not clear what would be the tone of what remains as “officially Adventist” – that is, the direction the trajectory would take – should Adventism experience major splits. However, under these circumstances schism would sharply reduce its membership from the present levels.
Assessing Stark’s Model
The above analysis showed that eight of Stark’s ten propositions were useful in helping to understand Adventism’s considerable growth in recent decades. By highlighting recent changes, the analysis also led to a prediction that the growth-rate would slow in the future. On the other hand, the application of the other two propositions – numbers 1 and 2, which focused on the religious environment in which a religious movement wishing to expand finds itself – proved more problematical.
At the same time, the model omits several factors which have proved central to understanding the growth patterns of Adventists. These include:
- The role of mores and mechanisms within the culture of a religious movement which encourage upward mobility, and thus, through matching the yearnings of poor peoples, especially those facing economic, social, and political changes, attract recruits – and, ultimately, reduce tension between members and their environment.
- The role of migration (both international and internal) in detaching people who yearn to better themselves from networks and confronting them with frightening new situations, thus rendering them open for recruitment and, ultimately, their embedding in the networks of the newly acquired religious group.
- The importance of ideology and mores which are relevant to the aspirations of a people in recruiting them to a religious movement. As migration and/or economic and social changes reduce existing ties and create a yearning for self-betterment in a changing situation, people can become more open to a new religious ideology and culture that seems to speak to their needs.
That is, as noted in the discussion of Proposition 1, and in direct contradiction to it, Adventism has done well where it has been able to provide hope – both apocalyptic and temporal – and help to make sense of situations of cultural discontinuity.
Finally, because my research in 54 countries has made me only too aware of the weaknesses in Adventist statistics, especially in the Developing World, this leads me to doubt the reliability of the Witness and Mormon statistics, and also the conclusions that are based on them without first testing them through fieldwork and interviews.
- Unlike the Mormons and Adventists, the Witnesses do not publish total baptized members. Instead, they publish the number of “pioneers,” the more heavily involved members who are expected to witness door-to-door and on streets for a minimum number of hours per week and to attend several meetings per week in Kingdom Halls. The figures given are therefore considerably lower than the total membership.
- Only 5.9 of the growth in Oceania, 1984-1994, occurred in Australia and New Zealand.
- The figure for the Euro-Africa Division, which includes Southern, Central, and parts of Eastern Europe,and Angola and Mozambique in Africa, was published erroneously as $1,118.81. This figure was calculated omitting the large but poor membership in Romania, Angola and Mozambique because these church entities submitted no reports, so that the statistic was largely dominated by German giving. I recalculated the figure based on the total membership.
- This datum was derived from data supplied the author by Monte Sahlin, North American Division Office of Church Information and Research.
- Stark  and Stark and Iannaccone  praise the record keeping systems of Mormons and Witnesses. However, they have not checked out how well these systems work in the various parts of the Developing World. Given the problems encountered there by Adventists, I would be doubtful of record keeping there until its effectiveness has been more carefully verified.
- This is frequently the case in parts of Latin America, for example.
- The Japanese member:population ratio provides a remarkable contrast to the equivalent Witness statistic, which stands at 1,529 publishers per million [Stark and Iannaccone, 1995: Table 2].
- However, this vote raised such a storm of protest from the church hierarchy in the U.S. that the committee later voted to change its position to one of neutrality on the issue [interviews].
- So that the group is allowed to move from sect towards denomination.
- One study, which was mailed to households selected by stratified probability sampling from the mailing lists of the free Union papers, found that 43% of men and 35% of women were college graduates, and 21% and 9% respectively had graduate degrees; a second survey, which asked a broad sample of the general population which religious group they identified with, found that only 17.9% were graduates [Sahlin, 1990a: 16; Kosmin and Lachman, 1993: 258]. Only 44% of the women work full-time [Sahlin, 1990a: 18]
- So that, for example, they trademarked the Church’s name in 1981 in order to forestall any unsavory group from causing embarrassment by claiming to be Adventists.
- There are currently three Adventist members of Congress, which is the highest such number to date.
- A paper which deals in depth with this pattern is Lawson, 1996b.
- However, because of the presence of pastors in churches, who were paid by and responsible to the hierarchical structure, Adventist laity have less power in local decisions than the Mormon lay priests.
- Also to the proportion married, and cultural variables such as the use of birth control, perceptions of ideal number of children, etc.
- However, the sample of youth at public schools was small, and it was taken from among attendees at church services, which may have biased it towards commitment.
Acknowledgements: The author wishes to thank Rodney Stark for important dialogue, the National Endowment for the Humanities for two fellowships which provided time for data gathering, PSC-CUNY which helped with travel funds, and the Louisville Institute for a fellowship which provided time for data analysis.
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Appendix: Summary of Stark’s (1996) Propositions
1. Cultural continuity: “…a Christian sect…will do best where most people are familiar with Christian culture and will do least well where most people are familiar with another religious culture”
2. A favorable ecology: “…new religious movements will prosper to the extent that they compete against weak, local conventional religious organizations within a relatively unregulated religious economy”
3. Can prophecy fail?: “New religious movements are likely to succeed to the extent that their doctrines” cannot be empirically disconfirmed.
4. Medium tension: “New religious movements are likely to succeed to the extent that they maintain a medium level of tension with their surrounding environment–and are strict but not too strict.”
5. Staying strict: “Religious movements will continue to grow only to the extent that they maintain sufficient tension with their environment—-remain sufficiently strict.”
6. Legitimate authority: “Religious movements will succeed to the extent that they have legitimate leaders with adequate authority to be effective.”
7. Adequate fertility: “Religious movements must maintain a level of fertility sufficient to at least offset member mortality.” “a rising rate of mortality may cancel a substantial rate of conversion.”
8. Effective socialization: “Religious movements must socialize the young sufficiently well to minimize both defection and the appeal of reduced strictness.”
9. Network ties: “New religious movements will succeed to the extent that they sustain strong internal attachments, while remaining an open social network, able to maintain and form ties to outsiders.”
10. A volunteer missionary force: “Religious movements will grow to the extent that they can generate a highly motivated, volunteer, religious labor force, including many willing to proselytize.”