A region-wide commitment to train new members for mission is contributing to strong retention rates of new Seventh-day Adventists in Southern Africa, church officials said.
Since May of last year, leadership has implemented an initiative for integrating new members into the church, both to help them better learn the church's beliefs and to help them share their new faith with other potential members.
Titled Fishers of Men, the program provides resources and weekly Bible studies, which begin the day following a new member's baptism. Leaders are designated four months in advance for the program, which lasts for a year for each new member.
"Our goal isn't just to baptize but make them disciples," said Paul Ratsara, president of the church's Southern Africa-Indian Ocean region. "We want them to be well grounded in our beliefs."
Ratsara delivered his comments during a report to the world church's Council on Evangelism and Witness, a committee of world church leaders meeting at the church's headquarters today.
Last year, the church's Southern Africa-Indian Ocean region had the highest growth rate among the church's 13 world regions, according to the world church's 2008 statistical report, due out next month. Annual membership there grew by 6.3 percent, and now stands at about 2.4 million, as of the end of June. The church's current worldwide membership is slightly more than 16 million, according to the church's Department of Archives and Statistics.
Ratsara said leaders in Southern Africa are emphasizing retention rates among new members instead of initial baptism records as a measure of membership gains.
"We tell our pastors, 'We are happy to receive the report about your baptisms, but we would like to wait three months and then again in one year to see how many of those people are still in church and involved in outreach,'" he told church leaders Thursday.
The shift has come after years of world church leaders urging regions to focus on ministering to members and the community instead of solely on membership growth. At the last Adventist Church world session in 2005, leadership cited concerns over new believers who join the church en mass during public evangelism campaigns, but don't feel integrated in a local congregation and soon drop out.
Leaders in Southern Africa hope the investment in new members will also help maintain accurate records.
Several regions of the church -- including South America and Southeast Asia -- have recently undergone membership audits in an effort to maintain accurate representation for world church business meetings and appropriations. The church in Southern Africa underwent a membership audit in 2008.
So far, nearly 90 percent of members in the Fishers of Men initiative have remained in the church, Ratsara said.
The new focus in Southern Africa was welcomed by world church leaders. "I think we're moving forward with more intentionality in nurturing converts," said Mark Finley, the council's co-chairman and a general vice president of the world church.
"We're looking at the broader concept of making disciples, not just baptizing people," Finley said. "This emphasis is a very positive one."
Ratsara's report was one of several to the council during the church's designed Year of Evangelism. Other presentations included updates from India, Australia and China. The council also received an update on the church's Follow The Bible initiative, a program to emphasize the importance of Bible study.