There’s a lot of talk going on right now about young Adventists and their future in the church. I know because I’m part of it. I’m part of the demographic the church wants to keep as well as the youth leader and de facto liaison between high school students and church leadership. You’d have to be blind, ignorant, or both not to notice that the average age of people sitting in the pews on Sabbath morning is getting higher. And for all the talk about what to do and how to do it, it seems like the divide between the church and the next generation is growing larger and larger. I can confirm first hand that youth and young adults feel a growing disconnect between themselves and the church as an organization. Official statements from leadership regarding creative arts, lifestyle choices, and even worship practices have left many confused, disillusioned, and frustrated. The message received by them (intended or not) is that church doctrine precedes any other personal value or biblical teaching. If you don’t believe me, ask one of them yourself. They feel that unless they conform to what they perceive as an antiquated set of dogmas which stifle their abilities to help the church, there is no place for them. Add the lethal combination of church politics with a seemingly uncaring church body and many young people have the sense that they are not wanted, needed, or missed. With such a growing divide between “old-fashioned” traditions and contemporary beliefs, what does the future of a global, multicultural church really look like; if there is one at all?
I’ve spent 35 years in the church. I’ve seen the change from a generation who argued Ellen White first and foremost, with the scripture second. I can’t count how many Revelation and Prophecy seminars I’ve sat through. I then saw the next group come up who was sick of all of that. They pushed it aside and tried going the opposite direction. Ellen White became a hallucinating, out of touch, plagiarizer with little to no credibility. I was stuck somewhere between the two, understanding both sides but not really taking either. Then I got involved in youth ministry. And in a generation that’s been told “you are the future” but never given the chance to step up and take that role, I found where the true heart of the church was. In so doing I came to believe that the Adventist church isn’t dying; it’s evolving.
The church is evolving in the sense that it is struggling, straining, and growing into something stronger and better than what it was before. To use softer “Christian” terms you could say it’s going through a reformation or enlightenment. To use an Adventist term, you could call it “the shaking” (see Great Controversy Ch. 32). No one sets out during a time period and says “let’s call the next 50 years the renaissance and do really great things”. History takes a look back and labels the time based on the outcomes. And I believe that when history looks back at what comes next for the church it will be equal to what Luther, Calvin, and Huss did for the Reformation. I see it in the students I work with every single day. The Millennial generation isn’t leaving God. Despite what you see in the news about the growth Atheism, students who leave the church aren’t giving up on God. A while back a student of mine explained why she was Atheist after growing up in the church and spending four years in my youth group. She said “Atheism to me isn’t giving up on God and saying he doesn’t exist. It’s hitting the reset button, going back to zero, getting rid of what everyone else says, and figuring out God for myself”. With that kind of response I wanted to be an Atheist.
One high school student I mentor recently told me with tears running down her cheeks “Jesus was about love and treating people right. Religion and the church don’t care about any of that.” When pressing further to explain what she meant I found that the student wasn’t far away from God (despite the fact that she said she didn’t believe in religion anymore). She was actually closer than she realized. I saw in her response Jesus approaching Jerusalem and weeping over how they had lost their focus (Luke 19:41). It’s Isaiah lamenting over the treatment of the poor, orphaned, and widows (Isaiah 10:1-2). This generation is looking at a church that has been greatly blessed and is broken hearted that we don’t do more. They don’t care about the squabbles and intricate interpretations of doctrine. They want to extend the life-saving, peace-giving, life of Jesus in love.
What many don’t see is that hidden behind the scenes of this great evolution of Christianity that is getting ready to burst forth, are those who are actively facilitating it. They have moved past sitting with their head in their hands wondering where we will be when we’ve driven off all the young people and all the old people have died. These too are church leaders and official representatives of the Seventh-day Adventist church who understand the issues facing young people and care immensely about them. To them it’s not about declining tithe or empty church buildings as conspiracy theorists would have you believe. It’s about the kingdom of heaven. It’s about the hope of salvation through Jesus Christ, and the healthy holistic lifestyle of living with God that the Adventist church teaches. These leaders don’t want to see a generation walk away from such a life-changing force. They are trying to bring us away from just quoting Ellen White for argument sake and more correctly follow her example of “thoughtful contemplation on the life of Christ… and let the imagination grasp each scene” (Desire of Ages p.83).
The next generation will teach us so much more about what it means to be followers of Christ. These are people who will sit down at the well and talk to an outcast when church officials say not to. This is a generation that would gladly skip church to give healing to those who are hungry and thirsty, while others sit in their pew and call it “work”. To me all of this sounds very similar to someone that we have told the world we model our lives after. This generation has not only taken on that title, but are owning it in a way far better than anyone before. They want a clean slate to read the Bible, Ellen White, CS Lewis, and others without a jaded opinion. To let God speak to them and reveal Himself to them through the Holy Spirit. They want to bring our focus back on what made us who we are. They don’t want coffee shops and pyrotechnics anymore than their grandparents. Those ideas were misguided attempts. This generation is looking for genuine, authentic, relationships with other believers and most importantly with their savior. They want to use the talents that God has blessed them with to share that relationship with the world. They will not fight, but step out, let the dust settle, the pews empty, and the churches close, then come back with a vigor to re-awaken God in the hearts of man. I see it. I believe it. And can’t wait to be part of it.