North American Division

Studies suggest ways church can develop faith in its young people

Upcoming third study will offer research on three generations of Adventist youth

Commentary | V. Bailey Gillespie

Upcoming third study will offer research on three generations of Adventist youth

Research on faith, values, and commitment in the Seventh-day Adventist Church provides suggestions that homes, churches and schools need to seriously discuss in order to facilitate a rich and growing faith life in its young people.

The Adventist Church's Department of Education in North America launched a study, titled Valuegenesis, in 1990 and repeated it in 2000 with Valuegenesis 2.

As chief researcher for these projects, I think conclusions from the studies offer significant insights into the growing faith of young people in Adventist schools. Coupled with the CognitiveGenesis research on the quality of Adventist education, we have much to be proud of when it comes to encouraging the young to know Jesus and to develop critical skills necessary in today's world.

But three venues -- the home, church and school -- often find themselves so mired in the business at hand that they forget the necessity of making some subtle changes, which just might make a real difference in the lives of their young people.

First, homes and families are a central concern. I was reminded of this by a note from Julie Westlake, Children's Ministries director for the church's South Pacific region. She says, "...we need to be churches of family ministries, not just churches with family ministries."

Our research suggests that youth need parents who know how to talk about their own relationship with God, homes that guarantee the faith that we so dearly love. In addition, Valuegenesis discovered the seriousness of building quality family worship, worship that is meaningful and relevant because parents focus their worship on everyday practical lessons that relate to their children and they share the leadership among all family members. Learning to help at home and doing service activities as a family, not waiting for the church or Adventist school to provide the opportunity, along with setting limits on how much time is spent with video games and computer and television use will provide the best opportunity to build a mature faith.

Setting limits in an environment of love and acceptance proves to be the best model of family life -- exercising love and accepting the challenge of affectionate control. After all, the home is a model of the Kingdom of God and probably the best teacher and guarantor of this fact to our children.

Second, when looking at the church, the key issue for young people is the climate of the congregation. In our research we discovered two areas where improvement is needed: positive warmth and critical thinking skills. What is tragic, it seems to me, is that as young people grow up from grades six to twelve, they view both warmth and thinking in the church as diminishing climates.

The trend we see is a dramatic drop in the percentage of young people who perceive these traits in their congregation, in the year 2000, from 77 percent in 6th grade to 56 percent for high school seniors. While this is significant, it's nearly a 50 percent improvement from the Valuegenesis 1 study 10 years earlier. But do we really want to be content with almost half of our young people seeing their local church as cold and unfriendly and a place where they don't feel comfortable in asking tough questions about their beliefs?

The weakest improvement was in the area of critical thinking. When asked if the church challenges their thinking, there was only a 6 percent increase over our first research project, and the total now is still only 37 percent.

On the positive side, nearly all of the 28 Fundamental Beliefs of the Adventist Church are definitely believed. When we look at each one of the doctrines, only four of them are below 63 percent of acceptance by the total group of young people -- marriage within the same faith, the doctrine of the remnant, Ellen G. White fulfilling the gift of prophecy, and the investigative judgment belief. In looking at the research this may be because over the first ten years of Valuegenesis research, fewer young people were reading their Bibles and Ellen White. And for a church that values a written revelation of God, less reading of the Bible probably means less understanding of its beliefs.

All of the other Fundamental Beliefs were held at the "definitely believe" level by almost two-thirds of our youth between the 6th and 12th grade levels.

The personal doctrine of the Sabbath was the most believed by every age group.

Couple these findings with the need for churches to support helpful family ministry and assist the home in their spiritual quest, and we can see more work left to do to make it happen.

The third venue in our research was the Adventist school. In every age group, having a quality Christian education was identified in the top most important factors in building a personal faith. La Sierra University's CognitiveGenesis research on school quality has begun to lay this issue to rest. Our schools are statistically doing a good job in this area.

School spirit is high, they feel comfortable talking to their teachers about significant, personal problems, and the at-risk behaviors that are so prevalent in public education are at minimal levels in Adventist schools. The research shows that the Adventist school is a safer place to be because behaviors such as alcohol use, illegal drug use, binge drinking, tobacco use, and getting into trouble in school -- all at-risk behaviors studied regularly in public education -- are at very low percentages in Adventist Christian education.

It would be a tragedy if we don't listen to what our students tell us and treasure what has been shared and move to action in all of the venues we continue to research.

So, what's next?

This October, we will repeat this research with Valuegenesis 3, giving us three surveys two decades apart of young people in our Adventist schools in North America. We'll end up with research on three generations of Adventist young people.

What we discover will provide significant insight into the progress we have made and what still needs to happen to make our schools, families and churches truly important in the faith life of our young people.

We will see the trends begun 20 years ago and the direction in which the young people of the church are moving regarding their maturing faith and involvement in and loyalty to their church and the benefits of their Christian education.

In the words of one of our statisticians on this vital project: "No more prizes for predicting rain; prizes only for building arks." We strive to bring about God's Kingdom the best way we know how, and this drives us to seek ways to do better still.

--V. Bailey Gillespie, Ph.D. is Professor of Theology and Personality and director of the John Hancock Center for Youth and Family Ministry at the School of Religion at La Sierra University in Riverside, California, United States.