September 9, 2009

Drowning in a Sea of Gray

2009 1525 page16 capooks are written on it. Sermons are preached on it. Parents attend seminars to keep it from occurring. But it seems as if nothing is changing: youth are leaving Adventist churches in noticeable numbers.1 The question remains: What can be done about it? To answer this question, we have to ask another why: Why do the youth of today’s church feel strongly enough to leave the “families” they’ve grown up in?

One answer seems to be surfacing more than any other: while they respect and appreciate their parents and upbringing, young adults don’t necessarily understand or agree with the lifestyle standards or values they have been taught. Consider the following story of one young woman who remains in the church, but fits into this trend:
“For most of my childhood I was not allowed to eat meat, drink coffee, go to the movie theater, wear nail polish, wear jewelry, listen to rock/pop music, go to dances, or play violent video games.
“I was taught to keep the Sabbath holy by not doing certain things, such as homework or working, going shopping and buying anything, watching television or movies, playing sports or games, or recreational activities such as swimming or riding bikes. That was our list of ‘don’ts’ for the Sabbath. It wasn’t until I was a little older that I realized what the Sabbath was really all about.
2009 1525 page16“The Sabbath is still important to me. I keep it similarly to the way I did when I was younger, but I am not quite as strict with myself as far as what I cannot do.
“Other standards I think are important are taking care of my body and not smoking, doing drugs, or having premarital sex. I also value the Ten Commandments.
“I feel like I have moderation. For example, when I was young my parents discouraged us from listening to anything but Christian or classical music. Today, I choose to listen to rock, techno, pop, and country music, but I also still listen to Christian music because those are songs I know and love. I feel I can still be the same Christian person, even with listening to rock music, going to the movies, or having pierced ears.”
The argument that is typically made in regard to the issue of standards—modesty and balance—isn’t always applicable in cases such as these. Young adults aren’t necessarily rebelling against their parents or their churches; they simply don’t feel that the values or standards they have been taught are a necessity in their walk with Christ, or for their salvation. Many ask openly: If God knows our hearts, does it matter how we look?
What Matters Most
Teens and young adults typically feel pressured to fit in with the secular world, and new members frequently admit their uncertainty in knowing what belongs to Christ and what to the world. We’re often told that a specific lifestyle choice won’t keep us out of heaven—that we are saved through grace alone. So how do young people make lifestyle decisions in a world in which temptation is strong, and while believing that their relationship with Christ is all that matters? Many opinions exist on this issue, and blame is widely distributed: leaders are faulted, youth are criticized, but the problem remains. Why are they leaving? Is it because we’re not feeding them?
Kevin Kibble, associate chaplain at Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tennessee, believes this may be the case. “Too many still give voice to the external elements of discipleship without witnessing to the heart of the matter. Far too many in the church are preaching to the smoke and not the fire. We are making proclamations about the fruit without giving thought to the root. Many of our young adults are challenging us to speak to the core issues of salvation with a tattoo or two and a cup of coffee in their hands. They are very clever in doing so. In this way they can determine if we really can present the gospel in its greatest clarity.”
2009 1525 page16Jan Paulsen, president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, addresses these issues in his televised forum for youth, Let’s Talk.2 Questions cover topics from Ellen White ?to legalism to morals, but the largest grouping of questions relates to lifestyle. Adventist young adults want to know: “Will disobeying these rules—such as wearing jewelry and eating meat—really keep me from going to heaven?” “How should a young person dress?” “Do I have to ignore popular culture?”
Paulsen answers this way: “God is concerned for our quality of life. . . . Jewelry and vegetarianism are matters that fall into this category of living the best life possible. They are based on principles that come from the Bible—God’s guidebook for how you can live the happiest, healthiest, most productive life possible.”
Paulsen goes on to assure youth that salvation isn’t based on choosing to wear jewelry or eat meat, “because we have placed our faith in Jesus.” But, he reminds them, the way we live is part of our response to God’s gift of eternal life.
How should a person dress? “With modesty and simplicity,” says Paulsen. “The church encourages men and women not to rely on the outward appearance, but to develop the inner, spiritual life, which is the secret of real beauty” (see 1 Peter 3:3-5).
We All Have Choices
The Amish are a unique example of a group who has been established since the late 1600s and has not changed its ideals or standards for membership. The rules of the church must be obeyed; members who don’t live according to these boundaries are excommunicated. However, young adults who belong to the Amish sect have chosen to be there. They are given a chance to see and experience the world during adolescence, an event called Rumspringa, after which they may choose to remain in the secular world or return back home, understanding that they must now hold fast to Amish values. According to MSNBC, four out of five young adults choose to remain in the Amish church, and more than half of the group’s membership is under 21.3 What are they doing that we are not?
“I have a lot of respect for the Amish people,” said Roy Adams, an associate editor of the Adventist Review. “And I believe the contribution they’re making to Christianity, ?or to society, is their ability to do what they believe—what their conviction tells them to do. It’s something I think we can copy. The trick is how to do that, and yet not isolate ourselves from the modern world. How do we guide our young people through the places where the Amish send theirs for only a while, and yet keep them from the evil one?”
Surrounded by a sea of gray issues, young adults want black and white answers. Thoughtful leaders remind us that the answers may not lie in how our choices affect our relationship with God, but how that relationship affects our choices.
2009 1525 page16“I want to challenge young people to compare themselves with the believers who have gone before us—and what they went through for their faith,” said Adams. “Some of them lost their lives for their faith. And I want to ask young people, as well as others, what have you done for Jesus lately? What have you sacrificed for Him lately? Are the things that attract me in the world really that important? If I can answer this honestly to myself, then it would resolve many of the questions asked about standards.”
In a swirling fog of claims and counterclaims about lifestyle, one truth shines: when a relationship with Jesus is put first, the things of the world look a lot less tempting—and things are not as gray.
 “I base my service to young people on the proposition that if they understand Jesus in high definition, they will inevitably volunteer to set aside absolutely everything to be with Him,” said Kibble. “Wearing the robe of Christ’s righteousness is always fashionable; eating of His Word and drinking the water of life is the best diet of their lives. They will grow into the other elements if these are fixed in their hearts. The young adults who have spent time in the Seventh-day Adventist Church and are making decisions about their personal commitment to the denomination deserve good conversations. We can give them authentic and relevant responses that will show them how much Jesus Christ loves them, and what He did more than 2,000 years ago and is doing now to prove that love to them.”
Young adult Adventists are the future pastors, elders, and (we hope) members of our churches—what kind of examples do we want them to witness? And what example do we want them to bear?
Perhaps there’s only one standard that we can hold to, a standard greater than any other—one that can answer every question, and direct every decision. Belittled by comics and mocked by unbelievers, it’s a question that has reached cliché status. But it’s one that youth, leaders, and members alike could stand to ask more often—What would Jesus do? 
*See Roger L. Dudley’s book Why Our Teenagers Leave the Church (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Publishing Assn., 2000), pp. 124, 125.
Ibid., p. 40.

1According to a 10-year study done by Roger L. Dudley, at least 40 to 50 percent of Seventh-day Adventist teenagers in North America leave the church by their mid-20s. See Why Our Teenagers Leave the Church (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Publishing Assn., 2000).
2For the Let’s Talk online forum, visit
3Associated Press, “Amish Population Nearly Doubles in 16 Years,” MSNBC, August 20, 2008; accessed online at
Erica Richards was a summer intern for the Adventist Review when she wrote this article. She is a senior English major at Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tenessee, U.S.A.