The Seventh-day Adventist Church’s Inter-American Division surpassed its goal of baptizing at least 1 million new members over the five years, but it also removed more than 690,000 members during the first major audit of its books.
The two figures, presented in a report by division executive secretary Elie Henry at ongoing division year-end meetings, represent steady evangelistic growth across the region and an aggressive plan among leaders to keep the membership books more accurate.
The Inter-American Division baptized 1,046,766 new members from January 2010 through June 2015 and removed 690,366 names from its books during an ongoing audit that began in 2012, Henry said in his secretary’s report to 140 leaders attending the weeklong meetings at the division’s headquarters in Miami, Florida.
Membership now stands at 3,606,078, making the division the largest in the world church. Members worship in 21,179 congregations in 24 unions and 125 conferences and missions.
“We are dealing with more real figures of what membership looks like thanks to the hard work of most of church unions in keeping accurate numbers,” Henry said.
“This is about being honest with ourselves and realizing that we are responsible for those who have left the church,” he said. “We are learning who they are so we can proceed in reaching them.”
Reaching them means connecting with them in the best possible ways, said Edgar Redondo, president of the North Colombia Union, which was the first to audit its churches. The union saw membership drop to 92,000 from the previous 167,000, a removal of 75,000 names from the books of 1,410 congregations.
“This was the first time in more than 40 years that the books in our churches were checked thoroughly,” Redondo said.
The union has identified about 30,000 names as members who left the church. Others died, moved to other regions, or simply disappeared.
Redondo said the large reduction in membership caused some initial concern, but the findings have spurred local church leaders and laypeople to reach out to former members.
“We are determined to rescue our members who left,” he said.
The Inter-Oceanic Mexican Union lost about 12 percent of its membership, or 21,300 people, through the audit, but the remaining 198,000 members in 2,671 congregations are how able to befriend those who left, said the union’s executive secretary, Abraham Sandoval.
“Our local church leaders were trained properly and were clear that auditing church records was not about grabbing a large broom and cleaning out the books without investigating thoroughly,” he said. “Now we can have on-target rescue plans to reach members who have left the church because we are dealing with real numbers.”
Ten other unions are currently auditing its books in line with automated standards set by the Adventist world church, Henry said. The Guatemala Union has seen membership drop from 18,000 to 6,000 in one conference alone. The Dominican Union has audited 60 percent of its territory and plans to complete the process next year.
But the work has been slow in some places. The Haitian Union, which has the largest membership of in the division, with more than 433,000 members, hopes to complete the auditing of its books by 2020. The lack of computers in churches across its two conferences and two missions has slowed down the process, said Pierre Caporal, executive secretary for the church in Haiti. In addition, many church records were lost in a 2010 earthquake.
Caporal said Haiti’s final membership figures could be larger than the current numbers once the auditing is completed.
“Most of our 1,046 churches and congregations have two services every Sabbath, and some even three, and they are packed to the max,” he said. “So looking at the crowded churches tells us that there could be more members than what we have had in our figures.”
Gerson Santos, associate secretary of the Adventist world church, encouraged attendees not to be discouraged by a shortage of pastors and stressed that more church members should become actively involved in sharing the gospel in their communities.
He underscored that the audits were good for local churches.
“If more people are registered in the books than show up in church, then the church is dying,” he said. “But if you have more people in your pews, your church is growing.”