Many Seventh-day Adventists are concerned with keeping youth involved in church.
I was in a unique position to observe this at the church's recent General Conference Session -- I operated the exhibit booth for the General Conference's Office of Assessment and Program Effectiveness. Patrons were challenged to answer the question, "What would you like to tell your church?"
Of the hundreds of written responses received, some replied with exhortations and others with questions. But the vast majority took the opportunity to express concerns. One of the most common topics was youth.
"What can the church do to maintain the interest of the 20-35 year old?" wrote a 62-year-old woman.
Many church leaders in attempting to address disappointing youth retention rates have assumed that they must compete with modern media and secular entertainment by making their presentation of the truth flashy and exciting without a lot of depth. Unfortunately, this approach isn't what most youth are looking for.
So what do youth want? "Have programs geared for youth/young adults that appeal and are fun but don't appeal to the world in an entertaining type," wrote a 22-year-old woman. "We young people are searching for substance and not just entertainment."
"We need to encourage our youth to discover the joy of getting to know God as a personal, trustworthy friend and partner for life, not just a Bible character to know about. I call it an individualized, independent discovery experience," said a 77-year-old man.
What youth are searching for -- both for themselves and in others -- is meaning, depth, and harmony between words and actions. The first step in youth retention is to teach them all the "meat" of Christianity that they can handle. Then, ensure that what we say about these things is allowed to transform our own lives as well. If we don't, youth will notice.
Hypocrisy is a turnoff. One 20-year-old woman wrote, "I believe the church has the truth... However...sometimes I feel the true purpose is lost. I go to an Adventist school, and the difference between the adults, who have been in the system awhile, and the youth, who are either new converts or have lived several years in it, is astounding. It seems that passion is lost with age and that is a horrible problem."
Who are 'youth?'
The definition of "youth and young adult" seems to be ever expanding. When I was in my teens, the definition included teens and those in college. By the time I finished college, the upper end of the range was set about age 25. When I reached that marker the range expanded again, to age 30. Now, as I write this at age 28, I find that some people set the upper limit at 35. The adjective "young" isn't relinquished until one begins to have children and is forced to yield the term to them.
It seems I can't stop being a "young adult." This trend troubles me, not because I wish to be considered "old," but because the ongoing expansion of the definition of "young" reflects an exclusion rather than an inclusion or a compliment. The Adventist Church simply doesn't integrate those who have recently entered adulthood into the main body of adult believers. Consequently, rather than making the appropriate transition from children's activities into the adult life of the church, these "young adults" remain separate and aloof, ever expanding the definition of their group as its members continue to age.
That is, if they are still in the church to group together at all.
What they need is not to have the church cater to them while they remain separate, but to be brought into the main body of believers and ministered to with everyone else.
I am asked from time to time why I'm different; how it is that I am not only still attending, but actively taking part in the regular adult life of the church.
My own involvement in church (beyond just showing up) began at age 15 when I was asked to join the team of teachers for the adult Sabbath School class I was attending in search of the substance I had been unable to find in "age appropriate" classes. Much to my surprise, that same year I was also elected as a deaconess and invited to meet with the church board. This sort of intentional involvement of the young creates habits of involvement that can last a lifetime.
What to do
Integration of youth and young adults needs to be deliberate. Whether or not they are formally elected to a position, by a certain age every single young person should be approached and recruited to join at least one ministry in the church that is suited to their gifts.
Trying several to find those for which they are best suited should be encouraged. Immediately upon joining a ministry a young person should be paired with an older member of that ministry team in a mentoring relationship. This mentor should teach the youth about the functions of that ministry and encourage the young person in his or her spiritual walk.
As youth take their rightful places among adult believers, the leaders of the church need to harness both their energy and their ideas for enhancing the overall work of the church. As one 26-year-old man wrote, "Our church needs to provide more opportunities for youth and young adults to be heard. ...Please listen and respond in a way which would enable and empower the creativity of the youth."
Finally, we all need to recognize that, ultimately, youth are responsible for their own decisions for or against God. As the saying goes, "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink." The fellowship of believers should do everything within its power to lead youth to Christ, but in doing so it should make clear that choosing to follow Him is an individual responsibility and decision that no one can make for them.
Youth, that part's on you.
--Lisa Rasmussen holds a Master of Architecture degree from Andrews University and is temporarily assisting in the General Conference Office of Assessment and Program Effectiveness