From May 28-30 I participated in the My Church Summit at Mohawk College in Hamilton, Canada.
The purpose of the summit was to bring together Adventist students on non-Adventist campuses and church leadership in the North American Division. More than 150 young people attended, including delegates representing each union.
Special guests from the church in North America included: Dan Jackson, president; Deborah Brill, vice president; James Black, youth director. Representing the world church: Gilbert Cangy, youth director; Jiwan Moon, public campus ministries director.
The event was primarily organized by Ron Pickell, public campus ministry coordinator for the NAD. The summit was the result of a similar one which took place last year at Union College for students attending Adventist schools.
Three questions were addressed:
1. Why are young adults leaving the church?
2. Why are they staying?
3. What can the church do for young people?
Both summits, the one in Canada and the one at Union College referenced a recent study commissioned by the Seventh-day Adventist Church addressing the relationship between the Adventist Church and its millennial population (and potential population).
Delegates were broken up into groups of eight to discuss the topics. Speakers were invited to give presentations addressing each question. I was invited to address the topic of why Adventist young people choose to stay based on my experience with GYC and CAMPUS.
From experience with GYC, my observation is that three important components are critical when it comes to young adult retention in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Young people who stay (and dedicate their talents to the church) usually do so because:
They were empowered by leadership during critical times in their spiritual and/or academic/professional development;
A church leader or mentor placed high expectations on them, propelling them to aim and reach high standards in their professional, intellectual, and spiritual lives;
At key moments in their spiritual walk they bought into an ideology of Adventism that made the message of the Bible more important than anything else in their lives.
The truer the above statements are in the lives of young adults, the more likely it is that they will remain engaged in the church and participate in its mission. It also seems that when high expectations, empowerment, and message are present simultaneously at critical times, the chances of retention and engagement increase in quality and quantity.
Although I have come to appreciate Barna for its research throughout the years, I feel that there are several weak points in their report that diminish its usefulness for the Adventist Church today.
1. To define “engaged young adults” as people who come to church once/month is less than ideal. Yet this sample group is placed at the center of the study. If the difference between an engaged individual and a disengaged individual ultimately results in having an increase of attendance from zero to one Sabbath each month, the value of the study must be questioned.
2. Boxing young adults into socially constructed categories also brings limitation to the study. We have to ask the question: Are we really allowing young people to speak for themselves or is the church guilty of telling young people who they are? Are the sample groups used in this study really representative of young adult Adventism? I have doubts.
3. The dramatic conclusion of the study also has a major shortcoming. It presents the church with the choice: do we value traditions more than our children? However, it fails to adequately show tension between the two.
Young people are not at war with what the Seventh-day Adventist Church believes and stands for. They may be at war with how some present our truths. They may be at war with how some use our message, portraying it to be what it is not. But in speaking with thousands of youth around the world, I’ve seen that they are not really at war with our message.
In many cases, our “traditions” are a victim just like Jesus was a victim of misrepresentation. Can it be that dissonance exists, not between message and young people? But instead, perhaps, the battle that exists is between young adults and those who abuse and misuse the beautiful truths that provide everything we ever wanted? Jesus loves His church. He died for it. He invested Himself in it. He died for it because it’s beautiful. In fact, its only flaw is me and you.
If you’re interested in the presentation, here’s the prezi. It also shares stories of University of Michigan graduates as genuinely engaged young adults: