Conversation with the young adults of our church is just the beginning.
By Jan Paulsen
In November 1848 Ellen White experienced a vision that had profound consequences for the development of our church. It’s sometimes called the “streams of light” vision. She saw that James White should start publishing a “little paper” that would eventually take the Advent message around the world like streams of light.
What is remarkable to me is not just the vision itself, but Ellen White’s actions after she received the vision; her determination to see the Lord’s plan put into action in spite of those who said it was impractical, if not impossible. She stood firm against the disapproval of other leaders, such as Joseph Bates, who felt that her husband, James, would be more effective as a preacher than a writer. She also withstood the doubts of James, who saw the huge financial difficulties involved in printing and distributing such a paper. She insisted: “He must write, write, write, and walk out by faith.”*
It’s easy to forget she was just 21 years of age.
Our Most Valuable Resource
More than five years ago I began a series of conversations with Seventh-day Adventist young people and young professionals around the world. We called the series Let’s Talk. And as a result of those conversations I am firmly convinced that they, too, have a vision for their church. They are innovative, eager for involvement, and above all, passionately committed to the Lord and to His mission.
These Let’s Talk conversations have taken place through live television broadcasts and an ongoing Internet correspondence. Through this dialogue I’ve come to feel a deep and profound trust in our young people. Yes, there have been moments when I’ve been skeptical, but it’s come back to me in conversation after conversation—from men and women, from 15-year-olds and 25-year-olds—that they love this church. This is where they want to be. This is where they want to serve the Lord. They are ready.
These conversations have been wide-ranging, sometimes driven by local concerns, things specific to a particular context and culture. But there were also a number of questions—overarching themes—that I heard again and again, whether they came to me in Spanish or Swahili, Portuguese or English.
1. Seeking a place and a voice. At the heart of what young people say is often: “Why can’t we be allowed a greater say?” “Why can’t we be more involved in leadership?” These are demanding questions, but they are fair questions. They are not asking: “Why can’t more of us be members of the General Conference Executive Committee?” They aren’t even really asking why more can’t be members of division or union conference committees. They want to be entrusted with a greater share of responsibility for the running of their local congregations.
Why should we be reluctant to let them? Look back to the twelve individuals Christ chose. Look back to our own church pioneers.
We sometimes forget the path we have walked, the mistakes we have made. We forget that we, too, at first walked unsteadily or stumbled. This is normal until our muscles are stronger, we gain stronger footing, and we know where to step.
We sometimes also overplay the value of experience. Experience is important, but basic personality makeup is more important: how we deal with people, our capacity to love and care for the church, and how to be responsible—these things are more significant. If you put the right man or woman into a certain place, they will gain the experience they need. But put the wrong person in, regardless of age, and they will never do well.
2. Defining boundaries. A whole raft of questions come under this banner: clothes and jewelry, enter-tainment, music, and relationships.
The young mind can be very “legalistic” in the sense that it sees the world in sharp, distinct lines. It seeks safety in clearly defined borders. Some young people want precise formulas, and they can be very persistent. They are sometimes not comforted with principles; they want specific answers. They are driven by a need to define themselves, to define the boundaries that surround them, to discover “Where do I fit into this? Do I like what contains me? Do I even understand the boundaries and why they are there? How does a life of obedience to God express itself?”
Like many of the young people I spoke with, I also grew up in an Adventist home. I reached the age of 20 and was really quite legalistic in my thinking. I was impatient with those who said: “Well, then, maybe not.” The “maybe nots” were problem-makers. But I have learned through my own walk in life that there are situations in which you have to allow others the latitude to grow and develop, to discover God’s will for themselves.
There is trust in this, but also great responsibility. So I remind young people: Don’t take license with your freedom. Don’t take it lightly.
Choice of music was a reoccurring theme. We kept coming back to this because it’s a legitimate concern for young people. Music is such a large part of their lives (just look at the role music plays in any worship service conducted by young people!), and their questions are serious ones.
How do I know whether certain music has a place in the life of the church? I have to ask, “Is this music worshipful? Does it draw me closer to God and provide spiritual nurture? Or does it remind me of that which is far removed from God, short on content, and full of noise? Is it music that creates community? Does it bond and blend this family together in worship?”
I know some older people who perhaps listened to these conversations and said: “Why can’t he simply tell it how it should be, down the line, very sharply?” And I can only respond, very simply: “Look, these are your children; talk to them. Your children are seeking a legitimate identity for themselves in the church. Help them find it. Don’t drive them away. Help them understand the trust and also the responsibility that is theirs.”
3. Finding a mission. Young people are also frustrated by the sheer numbers of their peers who are leaving the church. This concern came up again and again.
I often asked: “Tell me, why did they go?”
The answers came back: “Well, the church is so old-fashioned.” “There’s no sense of tolerance.” “There’s too much negativity, too much criticism of how we look and of our choices.”
And I asked: “What about friendship? Did your peers leave because they lost a sense of community? Were you a friend to them?”
Often there was silence, then the answer came back: “Yes, maybe we failed some of them too.”
And I asked: “Well, shouldn’t you go after them?”
Young people should be commissioned to take greater responsibility for ministry to their peers. This is a task for which they are uniquely equipped. Let it be a defined, recognized ministry within the local church, like Sabbath school, or being a deacon or elder. Let’s provide young people with official space, a territory of trust. They will grasp it, and something new and powerful will emerge.
Let’s Trust Them
We are losing too many of our young people—too many people under the age of 25. Exact figures are difficult to find, but it would not surprise me if half of those who grow up in this family lose their way for one reason or another. And even if it’s not that many, the numbers are still much, much too high.
I have always believed that tomorrow is in the hands of our young people, and this reality should be reflected in the church today. This conviction has not been changed by my Let’s Talkconversations, but rather it has been sharpened and strengthened. I feel an added sense of urgency, of feeling: What’s holding us back? Let’s just give them the space and opportunity to grow.
My message to the church is to trust our young people; talk with them; listen to what they say; show you trust them by giving them opportunities and responsibilities. Will they get it right 100 percent of the time? Maybe not, but then, neither do we.
Trust them and they will still be here tomorrow, and the tomorrow after that.
*Life Sketches, pp. 125, 126.
Jan Paulsen is president of the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church.