Rest on the Sabbath. Heed Old Testament dietary codes. And be ready for Jesus to return at any moment. If these practices sound quaint or antiquated, think again. They’re hallmarks of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the fastest-growing Christian denomination in North America.
Newly released data show Seventh-day Adventism growing by 2.5 percent in North America, a rapid clip for this part of the world, where Southern Baptists and mainline denominations, as well as other church groups are declining. Adventists are even growing 75 percent faster than Mormons (1.4 percent), who prioritize numeric growth.
For observers outside the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the growth rate in North America is perplexing.
“You’ve got a denomination that is basically going back to basics … saying, `What did God mean by all these rules and regulations and how can we fit in to be what God wants us to be?’,” said Daniel Shaw, an expert on Christian missionary outreach at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. “That’s just totally contrary to anything that’s happening in American culture. So I’m saying, `Whoa! That’s very interesting.’ And I can’t answer it.”
Seventh-day Adventists are asking a different question: Why isn’t the church growing much faster on these shores, which is home to just 1.1 million of the world’s 16 million Adventists? Despite its North American roots, the church is growing more than twice as fast overseas.
“We don’t feel that we’re growing very much, and that is a source of concern, especially for North America,” said Ron Clouzet, director of the North American Division Evangelism Institute at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Mich. Hispanic Adventists are “the one group that is growing very well,” he added. “If we didn’t have that group, we would look even more dismal.”
With Saturday worship services and vegetarian lifestyles, Seventh-day Adventism owns a distinctive niche outside the Christian mainstream. But being different is turning out to be more of an asset than a liability.
Since the mid-19th century when the movement sprang up in New Hampshire, Seventh-day Adventism has had an urgent mission to bring the gospel — with a distinctive emphasis on Christ’s imminent second coming — to the ends of the earth. Adventists find the essence of their mission in Revelation 14:12, where the end of the age “calls for patient endurance on the part of the people of God who keep his commands and remain faithful to Jesus.”