For at least the last 40 years, there has been a recurring emphasis on retaining young adults within the Adventist Church. Articles in church publications have been written on the topic (you’re reading one now!); studies have been commissioned; and impassioned speeches have been delivered. Generally speaking, they have all trumpeted the same refrain: We are not keeping young adults in the church, and this does not bode well for either their or the church’s future.
This is of course correct, in fact, we are not merely losing young adults, we are hemorrhaging them. Some studies place the number of church members ages 18-35 that leave the Adventist Church at nearly 70 percent.1 Moreover, in the United States in general (not just within Adventism), young adults in the Millennial2 and Gen Z3 generations clearly have less interest in staying in church than any other generation currently living.4 No wonder so many church leaders, researchers, etc., continue to probe this issue. Something must be done!
But what? If you’ve discussed this topic with others, you’ve probably heard the following suggestions as possible ways to retain the church’s evaporating young adult population:
To these suggestions, I say amen! I have personally found some success in retaining young adults through implementing these suggestions. Moreover, there is both quantitative and qualitative data to illustrate that others have found them useful, as well.5
But I must quickly add an important caveat. Despite my endorsement of these suggestions, I nonetheless strongly question whether any of the above suggestions, by themselves or as a package, will yield long-term positive results in reducing the number of young adults vanishing from our pews.
Chronic déjà vu?
Some years ago, I was one of the thousands of young adults that the church wanted very much to retain. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the now-standard cycle of articles, studies, and speeches were generated in hopes of stopping the growing flight of young adults (which back then meant Generation X6) from the church.
Multiple solutions were suggested, solutions that, strangely, were almost identical to the recommendations we are hearing now. With few exceptions, the consistent milieu of the day was that if the church put sweat and money and smiles into these solutions, young adults would stay. (And my guess is that the generations before me could share similar memories from when they were the generation du jour.)
The results for me and other young adults I knew were decidedly…mixed. True, I have stayed in the church, and have been glad to do so. But the majority of my friends and associates from those young adult ministry years did not stay. Perhaps more ominously, many of those that went through theological training with me in college are no longer in active ministry, and a disturbingly high number of them are no longer involved with the Adventist Church at all.
The unsettling truth is that most of those young adults were actively participating in the solutions offered at the time—and again, in solutions that are still being offered today. Those young adults were leaders in the church. They participated in church-sponsored social action initiatives. They fed the hungry and clothed the naked. They went on mission trips to far off lands. They attended and/or led worship services featuring thoroughly contemporary styles of music and attire. They heard church leaders model authenticity by publicly acknowledging their weaknesses and mistakes. The volume on church doctrine was turned down, and the volume on community service was turned up.
And they still left.
Young adults are still leaving the Adventist Church today, despite the aforementioned list of solutions being vigorously and enthusiastically implemented in many places within Adventism. Moreover, I fear this trend will only intensify, unless we add to these laudable and necessary solutions a much more radical one.
What is this radical solution? It is one that is helped by, but does not ultimately depend on, local churches being healthy or cutting edge or having young adults as formal leaders or having the right type of worship. While it is a new solution to some, it is an ancient one, one that has stood the test of time for nearly two thousand years. Though undoubtedly challenged by them, it has nonetheless regularly prevailed over stodgy parents, irrelevant and oppressive church policies, legalistic leaders, and dreary music. And most of all, it is a solution that in my experience, when given first place in a larger package of solutions, generally brings tangibly positive results when it comes to keeping more young adults in the church.
This solution is…Jesus Christ.
You must be joking!
I’m quite serious. The most effective solution I know for reducing the number of young adults leaving the Adventist Church is Jesus Christ. Knowing Christ, being with Christ, learning from Christ, living with Christ, in my experience, this has been and remains the most effective way to help more young adults (and anyone else, for that matter) remain in the church, in the kingdom, active for and faithful to God.
When I have made this assertion in the past, it usually generates one of two responses. First, some assume that I'm simply stating the obvious. “Of course Christ is the answer! Doesn’t everyone know that?” To which I would quickly respond: No, unfortunately, they don’t. I long ago lost track of the number of times I’ve heard ministry leaders at various seminars, conference gatherings, etc., assert with deep conviction that, “To retain our young adults, what we really need is better ____________ [fill in the blank with things like “music,” “facilities,” “preaching,” “dress codes,” “parties,” “media,” etc., etc.].”
I have even been to some young adult ministry training events where Christ was never mentioned as even one factor among many that might possibly help keep a young adult in the church! Attendance, not discipleship in Christ, seemed to be the main goal, and thus Christ was not strategically necessary.
A second response I’ve heard frequently is something like this: “Of course Christ is the answer! But there are too many places where Christ is clearly being preached, and young adults are still leaving in droves from those places. Therefore, it must be something else that we’re missing, such as [insert the usual list here of better music, better preaching, etc.].”
This to me is the better of the two responses, not because I believe it is correct, but because it can sometimes reveal a great deal about the kind of Jesus we are “clearly preaching” to our young adults.
History is replete with examples of faithful Christians who endured overwhelming persecution of every imaginable stripe and yet remained faithful to Christ and His church. Some faced extreme economic hardship for their faith, not being able to gain employment or knowing where their next meal would come from. Some were imprisoned under the cruelest of circumstances. Others were beaten and tortured for their beliefs. And of course, millions paid the ultimate price, giving their lives for the sake of Christ.
But it seems that in the minds of some ministry leaders, there are young adult Christians that today face even greater persecution. For instance, some have parents who wear out-of-date clothes and who are out of step with the current culture. Some attend Sabbath morning worship services where their musical preferences are not represented. Some worship with grouches and hypocritical malcontents. And some worship in places where ideas are presented that seem to match the Bible, but that don’t match their personal beliefs—and that makes them uncomfortable.
And yet to the surprise of those same ministry leaders, there are some of these “persecuted” young adults—and not just a few—who not only stay in the church under such circumstances, but who even seem to thrive. These young adults have chosen to admire their parents for reasons other than their attire, coolness, or pop culture fluency. They have created new places in the church where they could worship with their style of music without offending weaker brothers and sisters (or they have spearheaded successful drives to hold services with blended styles of music, or even to appreciate music they previously despised). They have prayed for the Pharisees in their lives (and prayed that God would help them overcome their own hypocrisy, as well). And they have learned to grow despite—and sometimes, directly because of—ideas that didn’t initially match their personal beliefs.
For those young adults who have stayed in the church in the face of such conditions, the question begs to be answered: Why didn’t they leave? So many other young adults have! Why didn’t they? Though there have been exceptions, in my experience, the answer again is generally simple: they did not leave, because they knew Jesus Christ. For when you know Him, you tend to not let the foolishness of others or bad music or hypocrisy or inter-generational angst or ideological unease keep you from following Him, or from staying in and building up His church.
It’s our fault, and we can fix it!
Some of you reading this may feel I’m coming too close to excusing the sins of the “fathers” (aka Adventist leaders at various levels of the church) that are at times visited on our exiting young adult children. You may wonder if I’m defending the status quo in our churches as being “right” and any changes to it suggested by young adults as being “wrong.” If so, let me quickly clarify.
There is no question in my mind that Adventism has too often done an unacceptable job in engaging upcoming generations in the life and leadership of the church. There is also no question that we have far too often failed to contextualize the Adventist message for young adults as the unendingly contemporary spiritual revolution it is, and instead have portrayed it as little more than an irrelevant relic of 19th-century-style pietism.
Our worship music has indeed at times been interminably funereal and patently uninspiring. We have too often rewarded hypocrites with church leadership positions when we should have instead called them to repentance. At times, we have not appropriately addressed abuse situations in the church. And let’s be clear: There are no good excuses for these lapses.
When such things go consistently unaddressed, we can be sure we have failed particularly our young people, including young adults. The sooner we embrace these failures as our own and begin finding ways to rectify them, the sooner we can move forward.
If we embrace responsibility for our failures, how ought we then to move forward? The full answer to that question is more than any one article can tackle, particularly if the young adults in question left the church due to an abuse situation (situations which to me are beyond the scope of this article—what follows should not be taken as directly addressing such issues).
I would offer four suggestions. When coupled with a healthy bevy of the usual practical solutions suggested earlier, I have seen these suggestions make a positive, tangible reduction in the number of young adults leaving the church.
First, we must live the reality—and encourage others to live the reality—that our personal comfort is NOT Christ’s primary goal. Many church members, older and younger, think it would be marvelous if Christians had a corner on the comfort market. How awesome it would be if we had in Jesus a peace that is not only above the storms of life, but eliminates them!
While initially attractive, the All-Comfort-All-the-Time Gospel turns out to be hollow, and at times even profoundly destructive. For Christ actually is not primarily concerned with our comfort, but rather our salvation—two things that are at times mutually exclusive.
I firmly believe and have witnessed that living with, in, and for Christ does indeed bring joy, fulfillment, and purpose! These very attributes are often purchased by facing discomfort rather than running from it. For instance, living in Christ inevitably means learning to live with and sometimes even appreciate (if not actually agree with) the tastes and styles of others that differ drastically from our own.
It means learning to deal with the faults and hypocrisy of others, even though doing so can bring us into some markedly uncomfortable conversations with them. On a deeper level, it often means dealing with skeletons from the past that we would just as soon slam the closet door of our memories on. It means facing adversity, self-inflicted or otherwise, knowing that Christ can and will use it for our betterment if we allow it. In fact, following Christ sometimes means that He will intentionally bring us into uncomfortable and even painful places.7 All the time? No. Some of the time? Definitely, emphatically, yes.
The good news is that stories of people like Daniel and his three friends, Esther, Ezekiel, Naomi, Jeremiah, Rahab, Naaman’s maidservant, John the Baptist, the apostle Paul and many others, all boldly declare that the discomfort is more than worth it!
These believers did not run from pain, but rather leaned into it! Not because they were self-flagellating fools, but because that was where God was leading them. And God was—and remains today—faithful: The discomfort or pain they encountered, faithfully leaned into by His strength, led to a closeness to Him that far outweighed any distress.8
To any of my young adult friends reading this, please join me in celebrating the fact that Christ loves us too much to be concerned merely with our personal comfort! He is instead passionately fighting for our salvation, the only thing which will ultimately bring us true and eternal happiness. If this means we must suffer due to tedious music and out of touch policies and practices on the one hand, or a persecutor’s knife at our throats on the other, by God’s grace, we will overcome, and we will not leave. That’s just how people who know Christ live. We don’t leave the church when we feel uncomfortable; we instead change it, for Christ’s glory, according to His Word. Let’s start living this way ourselves and start encouraging other young adult friends to do the same.
The limits of programs
A second suggestion for how to move forward and retain more of our young adults was briefly touched on earlier, and merits fuller attention: recognize the limits of church programming.
The next time you hear someone offer solutions to the church losing young adults, notice how many of those solutions are related to formal programs. For instance, when someone says that the church needs to be more relevant to the needs and concerns of young adults, they are usually referring to the programming that happens between nine and noon on Sabbath mornings (e.g., newer music, starting a new Sabbath School class for young adults, etc.).
When someone says we should give young adults leadership roles, they usually mean some kind of formal church office: elder, deaconess, Sabbath School teacher, conference officer, etc. More service opportunities for young adults usually means starting a soup kitchen program or a political action group being formed, etc.
As I mentioned previously, there is real value in these programmatic solutions! I have personally spearheaded some of them in the past and intend to do so again in the future.9 At the same time, we must never forget that programs are no replacement for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, Who alone is the Author of anyone’s salvation.
Do we do need more young adults in various formal church office-type positions? Certainly! But if we offer formal organizational authority to young adults (something that only a handful of them will be able to accept due to the limited number of offices available) when they are not yet disciples of Christ, their souls will ultimately be left empty.
Do we need to regularly evaluate the programmatic elements of our worship services to ensure they engage across generations? Of course! But if Christ is not living in a young adult’s heart, then the only reasons he or she may stay “in the church” are things like music style, friend groups, sermon topics they like, etc. Again, in my experience, while these things can hold a young adult for a time, they will not do so long-term unless Christ becomes Lord, Savior, and Friend in their hearts.
The truth is that there is no substitute for Jesus! The trendiest, most culturally relevant, most well-attended young adult program on the planet is worthless unless Christ at some point comes to live in those same young adults’ hearts! Consequently, every time we consider implementing a new program for young adults, I believe we need to filter our plans through key questions like the following:
I believe that questions like these, honestly asked and answered, can go a long way towards reaching and retaining more young adults in the church.
A final note on programmatic solutions to the young adult exodus: We must remember that while programs definitely have their place today, Jesus arguably never used them. His was instead a very different ministry, focused far more on the one potential believer than on the masses. Personal discipleship dominated His ministry, for He knew that if one believer could be solidly established in his or her faith, they would inevitably someday help solidly establish someone else in their faith, as well. It worked. Less than 40 years later, the known world had been exposed to the Gospel.
I would suggest that the best programs for young adults today will be those that focus more on the individual than on the masses. Cross-generational mentoring programs, small group ministry, live and regular Q & A sessions/studies where the floor is open for spiritual and social questions from individuals present, etc., these are the kinds of programs that I believe hold the most promise for stemming the tide of young adults leaving the church.
Keep them together
A third suggestion for how to move forward and retain more of our young adults is to absolutely refuse to separate Adventist doctrine from Christ. In my pastoral ministry, I have heard capacious numbers of disgruntled Adventists—some of which are younger, many more are older—say that we should “teach more about Jesus and less about doctrine.” Many of these see Adventist doctrine of the past and present as inherently legalistic, or at the very least unnecessarily exclusive. The cure, they contend, is to leave distinctively Adventist beliefs behind in favor of presenting what they see as a kinder, gentler, more flexible gospel that is more accepting of the general populace.
A part of me definitely gets this! Having met and ministered to many former Adventists over the years, I can see from their perspective how the more-Jesus-less-doctrine philosophy would have some genuine appeal. Church doctrine was inappropriately presented and weaponized against them in the past, and today they have lasting scars.
But my broader experience has also been a good teacher. Based on that broader experience, I would gently suggest that few things pose a greater threat to existence of the church than attempting to separate our unique doctrines from Christ.
I am fully persuaded that Christ asked the Seventh-day Adventist Church to represent Him to the world precisely by living out and teaching certain doctrines about Himself that the world has left behind. This is core to why we exist! Have some preached these distinct doctrines in a way that is divorced from Christ? Sadly, yes; such have indeed caused great damage in the church and out of it. But we cannot let their abuses lead us to make the opposite and equally damaging error of “preaching Christ” while ignoring what He has asked us to say about Him! He instead invites us to see doctrine—true, biblical, Adventist doctrine—as it truly is, a revelation of Himself.
The Sabbath, for instance, rightly understood, is a message about Christ, His status as our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. The health message, rightly understood, is all about being better in tune with Christ. Good health is a means to an end—effective communication with Christ—and not salvation itself. Righteousness by faith, rightly understood, is fully focused on knowing Jesus better, being with Him, being like Him, being loved by Him, yes, and becoming more loving like Him. And the same must be said about all properly understood Adventist teaching. Jesus and His kingdom, lived out and taught through our doctrines, is our Seventh-day Adventist raison d’être.
In truth, when we attempt to separate Christ from His doctrines, we are attempting the impossible. Christ’s doctrines reflect who He truly is. By attempting this separation, we are choosing to remove some aspects of Jesus, and what results is at best an incomplete portrayal and at worst heresy. All of this brings us to a fourth and final suggestion for retaining more of our young adults in the church.
Be the change we want to see
After 25+ years of working with young adults, I have come to an uncomfortable conclusion: It may be that one of the primary causes of young adults leaving the church…is us. By “us,” I am referring to us older adults in the church. Unlike many of our young adult counterparts, we are still in the church today. But it may be that we are not still here because we know Jesus and have a daily, deep relationship with Him.
It may instead be that we are still here because, though at one time passionately committed to Christ, over the years we’ve become more committed to what is essentially tradition—that is, we’re still here, because, well, we’ve been here, and for a long time. In place of our previous passion, we’ve settled for the ease and security of knowing our place in our predictable corner of the world. We don’t have an intimate connection with Christ, and we don’t share our faith with others. We are, in a word, dry, spiritually-speaking.
Consequently, it may be that the young adults in our spheres of influence have picked up on this, and in leaving the church physically are simply doing what we’ve already done spiritually. Our bodies are in the church building, but our hearts are not in Christ. And as it turns out, being in the church but not of it too easily inspires others—including young adults—to be out of the church and into the world. They are living out our spiritual legacy.
Consequently, my fourth suggestion for reducing the number of young adults leaving the church is to let the transformation we want to see in our young adults start with us older ones. Let us older adults in the church be revived and reformed in Christ! Let us individually choose Christ afresh (even while you’re reading these words). Let us confess to Christ our spiritual tepidness, our worldly waffling, our own predilection to choose comfort over genuine growth in Him, our own hypocrisy. By the grace of Christ, begin to prune away the sin that so easily entangles. Let nothing stand in His way. Be honest with Him and with yourself; let Him lead you closer to Him, further from sin, and deeper into His kingdom.
We can feed this process by prioritizing again our time each day with Christ in prayer and study. We can begin (like we may have years ago in fresher seasons) taking time to listen to the Holy Spirit and His day-by-day guidance in our lives. We can begin to serve in and through the church again with renewed passion and enthusiasm (both of which are choices first and feelings second).
Repentance, inner renewal by the Spirit through prayer and Bible study, service to God and others—these simple things, faithfully implemented in our lives, cannot help but restore us to vibrancy and power and strength in Christ!
And then, we can encourage the young adults in our sphere of influence to do the same. We can echo the Apostle Paul and say to them, “Follow me, as I follow Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Jesus, when living vibrantly through the lives of His disciples, is the Ultimate Contagion, and blessedly, even young adults are not immune. Be the change you wish to see in our young adults.
Recently, a young adult I know experienced a profound transformation. For many years, he had been overwhelmed by the hypocrisy and legalism he perceived in the church. He despised living in an Adventist community, and regularly felt like he was out of place in a church that did not seem relevant to the culture around him.
But then something changed: he found Jesus. Two months later, the change is still going strong, and he says that the months since he found Jesus have been the happiest in his life, even though his basic life situation, where he lives, whom he sees on a daily basis, the church he attends, etc., remains the same. At the risk of gross understatement, Jesus really does make a difference!
Once young adults like him catch Jesus, God can use them to spread the Gospel to others in ways both quiet and spectacular. In fact, it was a group of just this kind of young adults, James White, Ellen White, J.N. Andrews, J.N. Loughborough, and others, that Christ transformed with His Gospel in the three angels’ messages many years ago.
When they faced opposition in their day, they didn’t back down or get angry or sulk—and they most certainly did not leave. Instead, because of and by the goodness of Christ, they created one of the most pervasive, transformative, and fastest growing spiritual movements the world had ever seen.
Christ was the answer then. He still is today. Yes, we must put in place the programs and other changes needed in our churches to meet young adults’ needs. But let us also never forget to put first things first. Let us older adults let Christ back into our hearts fully. Let us then lead young adults to do the same. Then those who are Christ’s, both younger and older, will not only stay but will turn the world upside down for His glory one last time.
1 For instance, see Alan Parker, Professor of Religion at Southern Adventist University, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ynm4A2tdQsc. See also Jacobs, D., Tilstra, D., Benjamin, F. et al. Adventist Millennials: Measuring Emerging Adults’ Connection to Church. Rev Relig Res 61, 39–56 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13644-018-0348-3
2 Roughly those born between 1981 and 1996.
3 Roughly those born between 1997 and 2015.
4 For instance, see https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2010/02/17/religion-among-the-millennials/ , https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/millennials-are-leaving-organized-religion-heres-where-some-are-finding-community , and https://www.cnbc.com/2021/12/29/millennials-lead-shift-away-from-organized-religion-as-pandemic-tests-faith.html for research on Millennials leaving religion in general (not just in Adventism). See https://www.logos.com/grow/millennials-gen-z-leaving-church/ , https://www.barna.com/research/atheism-doubles-among-generation-z/ , and https://www.americansurveycenter.org/research/generation-z-future-of-faith/ for examples of research on Gen Z leaving religion in general.
5 See https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/2014/05/engaging-adventist-millennials for some of the results of a study done by The Barna Group on Adventist Millennials in 2014. See also the articles linked to in the previous footnote.
6 Roughly those born between 1965 and 1980.
7 See Hebrews 12:7-12 and Matthew 4:1-11, for instance.
8 It’s also no coincidence that on the other side of these experiences, God knew that many of these mature, battle-hardened witnesses for Him could be trusted with front-line missions of eternal importance. They had learned what it meant to know God and to grow in Him, even in the face of profound discomfort, and their usefulness for the kingdom grew exponentially.
9 See https://www.barna.com/research/5-reasons-millennials-stay-connected-to-church/ for some insights on programming and Millennials.
Shane Anderson is the senior pastor of the Pioneer Memorial Church located in Berrien Springs, Michigan.