The sight has become common in many churches within the territory of the North American Division. Gray hair outnumbers blond, black, brown, red, or anything in between. Pews, once filled with youth and young adults, remain empty. Trends are not looking good. Conservative estimates by respected Adventist researchers suggest that we lose between one third and one half of youth and young adults every year.*
“We have heard this before,” you may say. “Why do we have to go over this again? Things are not looking good—but we know this already.” When I recently attended the North American Division year-end meetings, a quick look at the audience from the back of the General Conference auditorium confirmed this trend. I saw mostly gray hair—or none.
We recognize the problem; it causes us pain, and we struggle with this challenge. I do see intentional efforts to change the status quo. During the year-end meetings I met Josué Hernández, a fourth-year theology student and student leader from Pacific Union College. He was one of 11 student leaders from Adventist universities attending the meetings as a delegate with voice and vote. Participants welcomed their presence and their contributions—yet they represented a small minority. Quotas alone will not invert the trend. There must be something more intentional.
When I turned 17, I experienced a difficult family crisis. I had grown up in secular Germany and had gone to a public school. I had a loving and a supportive home church. It was small, like most Adventist churches in Germany. When I was faced with an existential crisis, here is what kept me in church: I got involved in ministry—and my church trusted me. My local congregation had started a creative cutting-edge ministry to people who wanted to drink a cup of tea on a Saturday night and were hungry for fellowship and community. We called it Teestube, a “tea room,” and spent Sabbath afternoons inviting strangers in town to join us in our church home. People came and enjoyed a wonderful variety of (herbal) teas. Many returned week after week. Some became part of the family.
I got involved in ministry—and my church trusted me.
It was also at that time that I started writing and performing music in a newly established music ministry. We (generally) did not do special items during the worship service. Rather, our concerts focused on mission—to our own age group and those who were unchurched and disconnected from Christ and His body. Churches who invited us were committed to reaching their town or city with a Christ-centered message that spoke in a way that people living outside of “Canaan” could understand. Our music was fresh and included syncopation, even though we had consciously decided not to use drums, because we wanted to communicate—not to distract. Lyrics were important in our concerts, as were testimonies and humor and skits. The next seven years we spent touring Europe and were privileged to record six albums (first records and tapes, later moving to digital productions and CDs) as an official Voice of Prophecy music ministry.
What kept me in the Seventh-day Adventist Church during difficult times beyond the prayer curtain that friends and family provided? Personal involvement. Even though, at times, we faced critical voices concerning our music or style, generally my church (both local and the larger church) told me to move forward. They trusted me because they saw my passion for Christ; they patiently provided counsel and guidance and continued to cheer me on. That’s why I stayed.
Look around you. Can you see the passion and commitment of youth and young adults in your congregation? If we want to reverse the trend of the graying of Adventism, we need to trust those who come behind us. We may not agree with everything they do; we may not always like their style or approach; we may even feel concerned about long-cherished traditions. However, if we will not trust them, the pews will continue to empty.
Considering how God has entrusted the biggest mission on Planet Earth into our feeble hands, my sense is that trusting our youth and young adults is just a little repayment of God’s trust in us. I see only two options: either we positively mentor, nurture, and trustingly let go and give responsibilities to the next generation, or—well, you do remember what happened to the dinosaurs.
* I am indebted here to data provided by Monte Sahlin; and David Trim, director of the Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research.