Most Adventists would agree that loving those closest to us, as well as those in our community, are features of our faith. It’s what we’d like to be known for. But are we truly known for that? Do the people in your immediate neighborhood, or the neighborhood of your church, know that you love them?
The Adventist Church has a problem being in the world. It is the problem of invisibility. A number of polls have been taken among the public. The national polls were carried out in 1970, 1986, 1994, and 2003—about once a decade. The first two were conducted by Gallup, and the more recent surveys were done by the Center for Creative Ministry, using the same methodologies. Each had a sample of about 1,200 random telephone interviews, which is the standard for a professional, scientific survey.
The surveys show a distressing trend. From 1970 to 1986, there is a modest increase in the percentage of people who say they have heard of the Adventist Church. But in the next decade there is a dramatic decline. Why? One major difference is that in the 1970s and early 1980s, the church was still benefiting from the enormous energy put into its Five-day Stop Smoking Plan. But between 1986 and 1994, that came to an end. The 2003 survey is about the same as 1994, and subsequent surveys in major metropolitan areas drop to much lower levels. There is very little public awareness of the Adventist Church in North America.
Frankly, there’s more distressing information in these surveys. The first question interviewers asked each person is “Have you ever heard of the Seventh-day Adventist Church?” If they said no, they were asked a couple of demographic questions and then the interview was concluded. For the largest number of the people the interview ends there. But if they said yes, the second question was “When you hear the name Seventh-day Adventist Church, what comes to mind?” That’s not such a simple question; some thought has to be given to the answer. For the largest number of those who were asked the question, the answer was “nothing.” Another percentage said, “It’s a religion,” which they gathered from the question, so their answers are not much different from those who said “nothing.” Another, much smaller segment said, “That is the church that doesn’t believe in blood transfusions,” or something similar, which clearly indicates they had a group other than Seventh-day Adventists in mind.
Only a percentage in the single digits have both heard of the Adventist Church and know something accurate about it. And some of those people aren’t happy about what they know. The overwhelming majority of North Americans really do not know anything about the Adventist Church, or what they know is incorrect or inaccurate. In other words, our problem isn’t prejudice.
Our problem is invisibility. The public doesn’t even know we’re here. In all too many cases, we are invisible to the community. We need to mingle more, not just to acquaint people with the church, but to introduce them to Jesus. We need to become more involved in the life of the community until we are making a contribution outside the religious sphere. That’s when we get on the map, become a good neighbor, and become visible.
People expect any church to work in the religious sphere, to seek to proclaim its message and to recruit members. But when you go beyond your sphere and begin to contribute to non-religious needs in the community, you become known; you stand out.
If we want our neighbors to know we love them, that we are interested in sharing with them the good news of a God who loves them, we have to penetrate our communities far more deeply than we’re currently doing. We must mingle.*