April 8, 2009

A Place to Belong

Adventists have struggled to pass their faith on to the next generation since the church’s inception nearly 150 years ago. Here, the author shares her experience in finding her faith, and her own place in the church. We hope this article inspires dialogue on this issue, and we encourage you, dear reader, to send us your comments.—Editors. 

2009 1510 page18 capadison cries herself to sleep every night.* Each night she eats a scoop of chocolate-chip-cookie-dough ice cream, then kisses David and Jennifer good night. Neither of their fathers is there to read them a nighttime story. After she crawls into bed, alone, she cries. Tomorrow, the first of the month, she must pay for rent, heat, water and electricity, telephone. The money left over should buy food and clothes for the children, but she always hears the whispered promise of alcohol—that for a little while she can forget her loneliness. She cries herself to sleep in her desolate spiritual house, with abandonment, fear, and hurt her only companions.
My nights end differently. Every night before I fluff my pillows, turn out the light, and snuggle deeply into the covers, I take a moment, just a moment, to reconnect with my Maker. It’s not something I force myself to do. Rather, I am drawn to Him, eager to place my life in my Maker’s hands before drifting off to sleep.
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You see, Madison and I grew up together in the same church. In our preteen years fellow churchgoers saw me as more likely to rebel, to become the prodigal child. They saw my friend Madison as the perfect example of what a Christian should be.

ConneXions99 a Decade LaterWhere Do I Start?

Related Stories We both grew up in the Midwest, in a quiet community, far from any “Adventist center.” Only one or two local Adventist churches provided spiritual sustenance. I can count on one hand the years during my childhood that brought a sense of attachment and fulfillment in an Adventist church. Otherwise, I spent my childhood in a congregation unprepared for the task of nurturing the lives of young people. Without appropriate spiritual boundaries, their soul wounds left them open to anything that promised to fill their emptiness.

The church was supposed to provide a spiritual haven; instead it became the one place Madison would flee. Today, however, I am an eager and enthusiastic member of the church, while Madison gave up on the church long ago.
Because I Asked
I still vividly remember my mother, pregnant with my younger sister, tucking me into bed with a hug and a prayer. This tradition continued for many years. As a little girl, these bedtime prayers gave me peace. The shadows and dark places in my room, where my young imagination might have created another reality, instead quietly filled with calm and quiet as I rested in the realization of a power bigger than any other on earth. I sensed God watching over me, and I trusted Him. And in time, my own quick prayers in the middle of the night chased away any lingering nightmares.
As a preteen, I liked hearing my mother pray—for me, over me, because of me, for my future plans, and for my life. In her prayers I heard an amazing mystery just waiting to unfold in front of me—perhaps a version of the woman my mother hoped I might become.
My mother continued to pray with me through most of my early teen years—because I asked her to. The calming effect of her prayers helped to ease me through the troubles of those confusing years. As I struggled to become an adult, I found new value in this nightly childhood ritual of praying with my mom. Bad days, disagreements, fear of my unknown and quickly approaching future life as an adult disappeared in a moment as those prayers drifted heavenward. My mother and God had my future taken care of. The foundation of my spiritual house was founded on a deep sense of belonging to God. But who was this God I belonged to? I found the answer at the family dinner table.
Why Do We Believe?
One Friday night after our evening dinner (I was nearly 12 then) my dad looked at us and said, “Ask me any question you want about my beliefs.”
2009 1510 page18Since we didn’t attend church at the time, I recall my questions being about why we still kept the Sabbath, and why he still believed in the doctrines of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. After that, every Friday night for at least a year, someone in the family had a question about what my parents believed. And as teenagers we challenged their beliefs and learned why our parents held so dearly to them.
In the process I came to believe for my own reasons. I no longer believed in the message of the Adventist Church because my dad believed, or because my mom believed. I believed in the message of the Adventist Church because I had asked the questions myself, read the Scriptures myself, and studied the beliefs of other denominations. In the end I believed the message of the Adventist Church to be as my dad so eloquently put it: “the beliefs that are closest to reality.”
Madison swallowed Adventist lifestyle choices whole, not comprehending that these behaviors should be the result of the choice she’d make to follow Jesus. She did not recognize that how you live is just an outward reflection of your inner self. And those external behaviors quickly become meaningless when you lack a real relationship with Christ.
Christ became real to me. I, a sinner, did not deserve anything that Christ had done on my behalf. My Adventist experience became real because I wanted to please my Savior. Shortly after that year or so of questions we started attending the local Adventist church again as a family. The structure of my spiritual house was completed, and within a year, at the age of 13, I became a baptized member of the Adventist Church.
From Dread to Anticipation
The experience Madison and I shared at one of the local Adventist churches can be illustrated best in the Communion service. As children, we were not allowed to participate—we could only endure this marathon service. The rule was: “Only baptized members of the church allowed.” We children dreaded Communion Sabbath. The service started out normally, but stopped a third of the way through to shepherd the men and women to different rooms to wash each other’s feet, in sterile basins, with crisply folded white towels. This was a very clean and proper procedure supervised by deacons and deaconesses. Following prayer, the adults then returned upstairs for Communion, again limited to baptized members of the church. No children allowed.
My mother used to break off tiny pieces of her small piece of bread for us to nibble on, since we couldn’t get our own piece of bread, and give us tiny sips of juice, since we couldn’t get our own juice. I managed to still find some joy in the service. Once, when I tried to help clean up after a Communion service I couldn’t participate in, an elder scolded me soundly because only deacons and deaconesses were allowed to touch the “holy” dishes that held the bread and juice. Needless to say, I never offered to help at that church again.
2009 1510 page18aOn the basis of our shared experience, I can see why my friend Madison, and so many of our peers, made the choice to leave. I know that there are loving, caring, Christlike congregations out there (I’m part of one now), but that’s not always the case. For us, that Adventist congregation offered only an empty, lifeless existence with no joy, peace, or fulfillment.
But instead of letting those few Adventists shape my view of the church, I had the opportunity to get involved in a church plant. I met wonderful Christian Adventists, and I lived my faith as never before. Today, I get to share my positive understanding of being a Christian and an Adventist with the next generation of Adventists. My 3-year-old nephew, Jonathan, already experiences parts of Communion as a component of his growing Christian experience. At last year’s Easter service, Jonathan watched as I washed my dad’s feet, and then wanted to help as Grandpa washed Auntie’s feet. After helping only a couple of seconds, he kicked off his shoes, peeled off his socks, and stepped into the water to have his own feet washed. No adult in the room refused his eager desire to take part. Seeing my nephew’s joyful experience makes my difficult experiences with the church inconsequential. I could blame others for how injured I felt at the injustice of their actions, or I can make the church a better place for myself and those who follow.
Don’t Blame Others
I want to challenge other young adults: don’t blame others. Yes, we have experienced pain from actions and behaviors of some who claim to be Christians. Those who caused the pain were wrong, and the consequences to our church, I believe, have yet to be truly felt. But blaming others only exacerbates what was done to us. As adults, we are now ambassadors of the church and can influence how others are treated. There are so many wonderful Adventists in the church who love the Lord, who love this imperfect church, and who want the chance to love us, to love you and me, young adult members of the Adventist Church.
Put your spiritual welfare first. Attend several different Adventist churches, attend Adventist conferences that hold your interest, listen to sermons of different pastors and leaders. Be willing to move to a different state—whatever it takes to find a congregation that will meet your needs. Be willing to sacrifice money, power, and prestige for your own spiritual health.
I am often asked why I remain in the Midwest; I’m teased that there is “nothing” here: no jobs, no entertainment, no people. But here I have the opportunity to experience real Christianity. Here I have found other believers who support and encourage me to live according to my beliefs. I know money, power, and prestige are not worth being separated from their love and support.
Being part of the body of Christ means building real relationships, real searching, and real love. As you begin your search for something more, look for books, articles, and sermons by C. S. Lewis, Paula Rinehart, Rick Warren, George Knight, Marty Weber, Jon Paulien, and my personal favorite, Ed Dickerson—people who aren’t afraid to ask or be asked tough questions and can direct you through the process.
The church needs everybody, people of all ages and generations. Forming generational communities is a dead end. Young adults cannot afford to lose the wisdom of those who came before, or the joy of those who follow. There is a place to belong for all who seek: you, me, and my friend Madison. 
*Names have been changed.

Shoshannah Guerrero is a fifth-generation Adventist and a member of The Home Page, a church plant in Marion, Iowa.