May 27, 2009

Continuing the Conversation

2009 1515 page17 capHEN A WRITER SUBMITS A PIECE FOR PUBLICATION, MOST OFTEN THE dialogue ends there. If, by happenstance, he’s blessed enough to receive reader feedback, rarely does the exchange pass that point. And that’s exactly the reason for this month’s column: I’m adding another link to the chain by responding to a few of the thoughtful letters generated by my recent cover story, “Like Water Between Our Fingers” (Feb. 19, 2009). Let’s continue the conversation.
“Instead of forming [small] groups based on commonalities, we should become more deliberate and inclusive of a broader spectrum of the church population. Too often there are not enough ‘Jimmys’ to make a young adult group for themselves, and I question whether that is the right approach anyway. We need integration. The church needs to purposely design small groups that move beyond natural lines of demarcation if we want to include Phillips and others like him.”—Susan Zork, Michigan
As I read Ms. Zork’s letter, my head bobbed up and down involuntarily. A chain reaction to not having enough young adults in the church is that the problem builds on itself as those who are there become isolated and disengaged. But Zork takes it a step further, encouraging the older generations to learn about iPhones and Facebook, texting and Twitter. To underscore her point, young adults can’t be expected to be the only group changing and conforming. Older Adventists have to step into our world, too (trust me, texting isn’t as hard as it looks).
2009 1515 page17“For young adults who try one church then another to find one that meets their needs, why don’t they try meeting the needs of the older members in the first church visited? Churches large and small need volunteers. How about coming a bit early and opening the door for the members as they enter? . . . A willingness to serve others is the first step toward belonging and building a loving relationship with the worshippers.”—Charlotte Groff, Michigan
I couldn’t agree more that such acts of service would be beneficial. There’s just one problem: the cold hard truth is that right now, young adults aren’t coming to church—period. Those who are currently in the church must take the initiative toward us; because whether it’s fair or not, most of my generation aren’t willing or ready to take the first step. It’s not about responsibility; it’s about salvation.
“Our attendance had dwindled to about 20 or 30 attendees on Sabbath—counting kids, adults, and visitors. There was even discussion of disbanding and joining one of the other churches in the area. Then at a board meeting we discussed the lack of any Sabbath school teachers for children under 18. We had four adult teachers, but no leadership for the kids. . . . We decided to get radical. All the adult teachers agreed to become teachers in the kids’ classes. We now had teachers for kindergarten, primary, juniors, and earliteens, but no adult class teachers.”—Mark Kendall, North Carolina
Mr. Kendall goes on to say that when the kindergarten class outgrew its tiny room, the church moved it to the only place large enough to house it—the sanctuary. The congregation’s membership is now approaching 300, the once-deteriorating church is bursting at the seams with an expansion, and a new church plant is on the horizon.

Kendall’s church knew it had a problem. It didn’t know how to fix it, but it wasn’t afraid to abandon tradition in search of the answer. Now its radical approach has helped grow the congregation 10 times over. Kendall himself sums it up best: “I have to believe that it is God’s blessing on our efforts to focus on the family that is making this possible.”
Sounds a lot like those five loaves and two fish to me. Nobody could explain that either—but everyone sure wanted a taste.
Thanks to all who write letters to the Review. Keep it up; it’s a vital part of this great publication. If you’d like to continue the dialogue, I invite you to comment on my blog or e-mail me at [email protected]. 

A proud Nebraskan, Jimmy Phillips writes from Bakersfield, California, where he is marketing and communications coordinator for San Joaquin Community Hospital.