For many, religion offers more than a worldview; it is a way of life – from community living to shared values and a sense of transcendence. One of the major religions in the world is Christianity, which stems from the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ of Nazareth in the 1st century AD. Like most religions, such as Judaism, Islam, and many lesser-known faiths, Christianity traces its origins to the Middle East with many denominations, including the Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) Church.
I want to consider the following critical facts as the basis for this article:
- The Seventh-day Adventist Church remains a religious minority in the British Isles more than a century after its inception.
- There is 1 Adventist for every 700 Christians in the British Isles.
- The Church will take 70 years to double its membership at the current annual growth rates.
- Our only hope is for God, the Author of church growth, to grow His Church.
The most recent population census data for England and Wales in 20211 confirms that Christianity is declining in the UK, with fewer church members and the threat of extinction. There is no hiding place, as Seventh-day Adventists, like the rest of the Christian community, are not immune to these existential threats. The big question is, "How do we face these challenges as a Church to halt the decline and the dwindling influence of Christianity on society?"
According to Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, looking at the beginning is a good place to start. It pays to look at the origins of Adventism and how it began in the British Isles. The Adventist Church, as a worldwide movement, arose from the Millerite Movement in North America in the 1840s but became officially organised in 1863 with 125 churches and 3,500 members. The Church's work was primarily confined to North America for the first few years until the first missionary, Johnny N Andrews, went to Switzerland, opening the door for further missionary work. In 1886, the first Adventist minister entered a non-Protestant Christian country in Russia, followed by other non-Adventist countries in 1894 – Gold Coast (Ghana), West Africa, and Matabeleland, South Africa. The same year saw missionaries entering South America, and in 1896, representatives went to Japan.
The first Adventist to visit England was J N Andrews 1874 en route to his mission field in Switzerland. However, the British-born emigrant to America, William Ings, was the first to settle in England when he returned to Southampton and pioneered the Adventist Church in the British Isles. His work as a colporteur (literature evangelist), distributing religious literature by hand to people on the street and going door-to-door, saw him start publishing work in the United Kingdom. The first Seventh-day Adventist baptism finally took place in the British Isles on Sunday, 8 February 1880, laying the foundations for a truly British Adventist Church in Britain2.
The Adventist Church now has a visible presence and established work in 216 countries worldwide, thanks mainly to the publishing ministry, distributing literature, and exporting the Adventist health message.
The worldwide Adventist Church comprises 13 large territories known as Divisions, of which the Trans-European Division (TED) spans parts of Europe. The British Union Conference (BUC) is a Union in the TED, whose territory covers the British Isles from England, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and the adjacent islands, including Guernsey, Isle of Man, Isle of Wight, Isles of Scilly, and Jersey. The BUC, which comprises two Conferences, North England (NEC) and South England (SEC), and three Missions, Irish (IM), Scottish (SM), and Welsh (WM), was formally organised in 1902 and subsequently reorganised in 1920 and has a current total membership of 42,297, 305 Churches and 119 Companies (as of June 2023). However, the Adventist Church remains a minority Christian religion in the British Isles, largely consisting of immigrant populations.
In England and Wales, the 2021 population census data gives us a glimpse into the declining state of religiosity. The question about religion in the census is voluntary and was reintroduced into the census in 2001, after not being part of the previous censuses, except in 1851. The 2021 census was the first time the highest number opted to answer this voluntary question (94%), with only 6% choosing not to answer. Figure 1 shows that 33 million people (57%) were affiliated with a religion, whereas over a third (37%, 22 million people) described themselves as practising 'No religion', a sharp and significant increase from the last census in 2011.
However, figure 2 below shows that 46% (less than half) of the population described themselves as 'Christians', the first time any census has yielded this disturbing finding in a country rooted in the Christian faith.
When combining the counts from the last three censuses (2001, 2011 and 2021), figure 3 shows a vast gap between the proportion of people identifying with Christianity and those with no religious identity (65% in 2001, 35% in 2011 and 9% in 2021). This gap continues to narrow, with a prediction that the non-religious group will surpass the Christian group before the next census in 2031.
Adventist church membership
According to the Church's Yearbook3, there were 38,112 Adventist members in England and Wales in 2021, representing 0.14% of all Christians and 0.11% of the whole population of England and Wales. It translates to 1 Adventist for every 700 Christians, 1 Adventist for every 900 people from all religions and 1 Adventist for every 2000 people in England and Wales.
Our calling is to make disciples of all nations by making disciples of our next-door neighbours. We can start using the data from the church membership records to calculate the doubling time – the time it will take for the membership to double in size. The projected membership growth in the Adventist Church in England and Wales, based on a constant growth rate of 0.99% from the 2021 Church Yearbook census of 38 112 members, would mean it would take nearly 70 years for the membership to double from the current count.
The membership of the BUC mirrors the characteristics seen with the data from England and Wales. The BUC membership plotted throughout 2011 to 2021, based on end-of-year head counts, shows a very dismal trend. There is a flattening out in the membership growth, most marked from 2019 to 2021. This trend coincides with the recent Covid-19 pandemic during the national lockdown when face-to-face church meetings ceased (see figure below). It will be interesting to review these figures in the post-Covid-19 era.
The church growth statistics within the BUC have plateaued during the last decade. The annual church growth rates (green line) were highest in 2011 at 4.3% and lowest in 2020 at 1.0%, with an average yearly growth rate of 2.3% (see figure 5).
We believe that God is the Author of church growth through the power and unction of the Holy Spirit. Church growth or decline stems from the difference between the rate of entry into a church relative to the rate of exit from that church. Evangelism, such as the revival series, will tremendously increase access to the church (accession rates). The total entry into a church result from variables such as birth, outside movement into the region, local membership transfers, and conversion. The total exit from a church (attrition rate) results from variables such as death, leaving the area, local transfers out, joining another religion and falling away (apostasy). For the church to grow, there must be a high accession rate and a corresponding decrease in the attrition rate.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church has remained a religious minority in the British Isles for over a century since its inception on these shores, demographically making up a small proportion of the population. There is a profound underrepresentation of the indigenous white British people among so many Adventist congregations, which underpins the barriers to be broken in reaching out to the hardest-to-reach groups in our society. The current statistics do not fill our hearts with joy, as the annual growth rates testify to the Adventist Church's slow growth. However, to be discussed in my next article there is a ray of hope on the horizon when the Church intentionally focuses on outreach for growth and retention strategies that work in this modern era.
1Religion, England and Wales: Census 2021– www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/culturalidentity/religion/bulletins/religionenglandandwales/census2021 (accessed 17/10/2023)
2The Story of Seventh-day Adventists in the British Isles 1902-1992 – www.adventisthistory.org.uk/documents/souvenirmessenger1902-1992.pdf (accessed 17/10/2023)
32021 Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook – adventistyearbook.org/2021.pdf (accessed 17/10/2023)