Keeping youth and young adults engaged in the church must be one of our highest priorities.
By Jan Paulsen
When we consider the course our life has taken, it’s easy to project back a certain quality of “inevitability”—the path we took in our education and career, the life-partner we chose, the family we raised. And yet, this sense of inevitability is an illusion. In that critical early phase of decision-making—in the teenage and young professional years—when so many of our choices have such long-lasting, unknowable consequences, the shape of our future is far from certain. It balances precariously upon a multitude of variables, tipped this way and that by circumstances or opportunities or choice.
I look back at my own teenage years and I think: How slim the margins were! How easily could an ill-judged decision, or a coincidence of circumstances, have pushed things a completely different way.
And I look at those in our church family—those under 35—who are in the process of making these same life-decisions. They no longer merely reflect the attitudes and beliefs of their parents or teachers. They’re testing these values for themselves—“trying them on for size,” deciding whether they’ll keep them, modify them, or replace them with something entirely different.
Then I consider the exodus of young people from our churches, and it distresses me deeply.
Why do so many walk away? At the risk of oversimplifying something of such grave importance to the church, I’d like to offer a few reflections that have taken shape in my mind over time, but which in recent years have gained an increasing sense of weight and urgency.
In talking about this, we have to differentiate between two broad groups—teenagers, and young adults or young professionals. Although some issues overlap between them, their struggles and experiences are essentially different, therefore their reasons for leaving the church will be different, too.
Many years ago something happened to a young person who was very close to me. He was struggling with a number of things at the time, and it was not easy for him to get up each Sabbath and go to church. He arrived at the door of the church one Sabbath morning, a little late, dressed in jeans. The head elder who met him there said, “You’re not suitably dressed. Go home and change your clothes.” So he went home and he didn’t come back. And there began his long journey into the wilderness where he has spent a long, long time. Occasionally he comes out from the wilderness, but this is more a reflection of love he has for his parents, and his sense of their unquenchable love for him.
Was this incident the sole reason he left the church? No. But for him it was a defining moment when the church said to him, “You really don’t fit the role of someone who should be worshipping here. Go home and put on more suitable clothes.”
What difference does the label "Adventist" really make in practice?
Many teenagers choose to leave the church primarily because they feel “picked on.” They are made to feel unworthy; they have no useful role; they have no safe place within the church to work through those questions of behavior and standards with which they and their peers struggle. We could make a long list of these: social activities, choices in music and entertainment, relationships and sexuality, their need to express their growing sense of individuality and independence. They’ll talk about these things among themselves, but quietly, with the feeling that they’ll be condemned if they’re heard.
How do we more effectively embrace our teenagers?
♦ Make it personal. Think of your own family, your own kids. Does it take much for your son or your daughter to establish “worthiness” with you? Of course not! They are blood of your blood, flesh of your flesh.
If we take time to think about each young person in our congregation as we would our own son, or our own daughter, there’s an amazing shift in perspective. It’s only when a teenager feels the same kind of warmth from the church collectively that a child feels within the close bonds of family that we can effectively offer guidance and correction.
It has to be personal. This isn’t a task to be delegated to youth ministries or Pathfinders or Sabbath school. It’s my attitude to the younger members of my congregation that makes the difference. What are they sensing from my words and attitude toward them?
♦ Put it in context. Teenagers do and say some crazy things; they just do. They’re teenagers, and doing and saying crazy things is actually quite normal. It’s the nature of teenagers to test the waters, to make choices that rattle and unsettle the “elders.” It may be due to peer pressure, an act of rebellion, or simply the fact that they’ve grown up in one world—an Adventist world—and want to taste, smell, and experience the “other world.” Quite simply, the values of parents aren’t passed on genetically; the teenager is actively questioning and testing—it’s a process that belongs naturally to this stage of their journey. So let’s extend grace and patience and be willing to take the long view.
♦ Remember. Remember: I was there once, and I also made mistakes. Many mistakes! Can you remember when you were a teenager? Sometimes you didn’t feel very good about yourself. You were self-conscious about every single thing: every pimple on your face, every perceived shortcoming, and so you were exceptionally vulnerable to others’ opinions.
A word thoughtlessly spoken by an older member of a congregation can have untold consequences for a young person whose fragile self-opinion is easily shattered. Yet a few words of affirmation can have an equally powerful, positive impact.
Young Adults and Young Professionals
Then there are those who survive the teenage years—they’re still in the pews, at least most Sabbaths. They’re finishing their education, embarking on their careers, establishing families. What makes the difference between those who put down strong, long-lasting roots within the community of believers and those who will drift in slow degrees toward the door?
♦ Relevance. There’s a group of friends, young professionals, who sometimes get together socially. They come from different countries, but their careers have brought them and their families to the same city in western Europe. Some still have strong ties to the Adventist community, others have lost the connection along the way, but they’ve all traveled much the same path together in their education and early life experiences. Sometimes they talk about the church. They ask: How relevant is Adventism? Does it have anything significant to say about the everyday issues of life—about social justice, poverty, and human rights, about the environment, about ethics, the economy, or about the communities we live in? What difference does the label “Adventist” really make in practice?
For many young adults, their perception of how well the church answers these questions can determine whether they will stay or walk away. They’re disenchanted with religion that focuses wholly on the time to come and neglects the present. It’s not that they’ve ceased to believe what the church teaches, but they’ve lost faith in the church’s ability to speak meaningfully to life as they experience it every day. They’re frustrated by what they perceive as the church’s unwillingness to bring its moral and theological weight to bear on the issues in society that trouble them most.
♦ Community. But more important still, for some in this age group the church does not adequately provide the community ties they crave. One young professional wrote to me recently: “When someone is struggling, do they immediately reach out to the church as a place they know they will be loved and cared for? Or is the church the last place they consider ‘safe’ to open up and ask for help? Too often it’s the latter.”
For generations of young people shaped by the postmodern world, being “right” will take you only so far. You can speak the truth ever so eloquently, you can be correct in every detail, you can cite chapter and verse, but they will still walk away if they do not also strongly sense a deep, embracing warmth and acceptance.
♦ Function and trust. Young adults and professionals also walk away because they are filled with ideas, opinions, and energy, and yet find no room to release this within the church. It’s not that they believe the church is irrelevant to them, but rather they believe they’re irrelevant to the church! So they may stay on for a while—for family or social reasons—but they’ve already “checked out.”
A Call to Action
I don’t have the words to express the depth of my conviction that we must give young adults meaningful roles within the church. It can’t be mere “busywork,” but we must vote them into substantive roles that bespeak a high level of trust, include them in decision-making processes, seek their involvement in ways that say: “We want to hear your voice.”
For teenagers and young professionals alike, “trust” is the pivot upon which so many of these issues turn. Not the kind of trust that says: “I’ll give you this defined responsibility, and after a time we’ll see if you measure up.” I’m talking instead about a trust that frees and empowers young people to be active partners in shaping the worship and witness of their congregations; a trust that acknowledges one doesn’t have to be 40, 50, or 60 to have a passionate desire to serve God; a trust that recognizes their love for the church runs as deep as mine and that they, too, have chosen this place as their spiritual home.
Will their expression of these things sometimes be different from the way I would express them? Yes, perhaps. Is there risk involved? Maybe. But the risk of not trusting our young people is far greater. For if we don’t trust them on some level, they will simply walk away.
Jan Paulsen is president of the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church.