I’m going to start by saying something controversial. I don’t think we should evangelize people who have chosen to leave the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
I know that might ruffle some feathers, but hear me out.
In Luke 15 Jesus tells three brief stories in response to grumblings by the Pharisees and scribes, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (verse 2): the parable of the lost sheep (verses 3-7); the parable of the lost coin (verses 8-10), and the parable of the lost son (verses 11-32). We know these stories well.
The value of the lost item increases with each story; so does its scarcity. The sheep is one of 100; the coin is one of 10; the son is one of two. The rarer the lost item, the more it is cherished. The sheep may have wandered off or suffered an injury beyond its control; the coin became lost because of the owner’s neglect; the son made a calculated choice.
Some of our church’s “lost” have become so because of things outside their control. Abuse, neglect, or trying life circumstances were just too overwhelming, so they left. Others make a calculated choice to leave. In some cases we have a spiritual and familial obligation to search for them, to tend to their wounds, to help them find their way back. But sometimes we need to let them have their journey.
The real challenge as a pastor, parent, sibling, and friend is to know which type of lost person we’re dealing with. As caretakers and protectors of the first two, the shepherd and woman go in search of that which was lost. The father in the third parable waits. When the son finally comes to his senses, knowing who his father is and where home is, he turns his life around. The father sees him coming from a long way off because he has been waiting, ready to embrace him.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church has an embarrassing amount of data on this issue. We know who is leaving, for what reasons, at what point in life they choose to leave, and what the church’s/pastor’s responses were. Our church has been studying the phenomenon of people leaving the church since at least 1965.
During the past 55 years, 40 million people have become members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Of the 40 million new Adventists since 1965, 16 million (40.1 percent) chose to leave the church, and 63 percent were young adults when they left. One study indicates two primary reasons for leaving: (1) “I just drifted away” (28 percent); and (2) a “lack of compassion for those hurting” (25 percent). While most (56 percent) have happy memories of being a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, only 8 percent of those who left claim to be active in any congregation.1
The Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape study in 2014 took an in-depth look at the change of demographics in what they call “nones,” those with no religious affiliation.2 When Pew first began looking at this segment of religion in the United States in 2007, the “nones” made up 16 percent of the population. The revised 2016 study saw an increase to 26 percent.3
Pew describes the situation: “The Christian share of the population is down, and religious “nones” have grown across multiple demographic groups. . . . And although the religiously unaffiliated are on the rise among younger people and most groups of older adults, their growth is most pronounced among young adults.”
No one usually comes to Jesus because they lost an argument; they come because His love draws them.
The increase in the number of people with no religious affiliation does not mean that they are outsiders to religion. In fact, the “vast majority of these religious ‘nones’ (78 percent) say they were raised as a member of a particular religion before shedding their religious identity in adulthood.”4 This group of former members has become disenchanted with their religious tradition. They dislike organized religion; they are anti-institutional but highly educated regarding religious traditions and spiritual things.
If someone has left the church, they did it for a reason. They already know who we (Adventists) are, what we believe, what we stand for. It’s not the depiction of a crimson-clad woman riding on a sea monster that’s most likely to change their mind. The question has to be asked: Do we have anything new to offer?
As a pastor, “Don’t chase after the ‘nones’” is a difficult thing to say. My initial impulse is to try to drag prodigals home, convince them that this is where they belong, and reassure them that this body and building is what Jesus wants for them. But I also must acknowledge that individual spiritual journeys are far more complicated than that.
In a Barna report, researcher David Kinnaman observes: “Younger Christians tend to be more personally aware of the cultural temperature around spiritual conversations.” When it comes to younger generations, “the data show enormous ambivalence among Millennials, in particular, about the calling to share their faith with others.”
Kinnaman goes on to say that almost half of Millennials (47 percent) agree at least somewhat that it is inadvisable to share one’s personal beliefs with someone of a different faith in hopes that they will one day share the same faith. This is compared to a little more than one quarter of Gen Xers (27 percent), one in five Boomers (19 percent) and seniors (20 percent). Though Gen Z teens were not included in this study, their thoroughly post-
Christian posture will likely amplify this stance about evangelism.5
As a pastor, what I get wrong about evangelism nine times out of 10 is the desire to make another person more like me, instead of helping them develop a deeper relationship with Christ. In Barna’s report “Reviving Evangelism,” Craig Springer and David Kinnaman point out that 71 percent of “nones” say they’re not on a quest for spiritual truth, but they are open to spiritual conversations if their conversation partner “listens without judgment” (62 percent) and “does not force a conclusion” on them (50 percent). Their research stresses the importance of one-on-one relationships that lead to spiritual conversations.6 This makes sense, because no one usually comes to Jesus because they lost an argument; they come because His love draws them into a relationship.
Barna’s “Reviving Evangelism” points out that the common barriers for evangelizing “nones” are things such as their knowledge of religious beliefs, their prior negative experiences with religious people and institutions, their skepticism of one’s motives to change them, and their fear of not being heard or respected in a mutual conversation. All of which is best resolved with nonjudgmental, knowledgeable, and sincere friends or family members willing to engage them in conversations and support them.
Back to Luke 15: the older brother grumbles with judgment and distances himself from his brother—“this son of yours,” he says to the father. The story concludes with the older brother standing outside to savor his own good works. It’s easy for faithful Seventh-day Adventists to sit in their favorite pews, pay their tithe and offerings, and reflect on how faithful they are to God’s Word, while neglecting to be the types of people lost sons and daughters need if they ever decide to return home.
One of the takeaways I’ve witnessed firsthand from the Growing Young Adventists initiative7 is the sincere desire to change local church culture into places that people never want to leave in the first place. To transform churches into warm and empathetic church families that prioritize young people and their families. To cultivate church families that give young people actual leadership opportunities and an authoritativ
e role at crafting church culture. A church family that has an impact on its local community and the world around it. These are churches to which lost sons and daughters want to belong. These types of churches don’t see their young people leave in the first place.
Lost sheep and lost coins are out there, people we’ve neglected and hurt. They are our responsibility to help heal.
But I don’t think we should try to evangelize people who have made calculated choices to leave the Seventh-day Adventist Church. We need to let them journey at their own pace, knowing that Jesus is in control still. We can be listeners. We can mourn when they mourn; celebrate when they celebrate; cheer them on from where we are. We can be consistent and safe for them to fall back on. We can make “church” places they want to call home when they’re ready. But it must be in their time; we do not dictate the pace of their journey.
The last thing we want is for older brothers to meet them at the edge of the property, prohibiting their entry into the father’s house. We must rally safe church family members to engage in dependable relationships with our lost, to be that force of the Father’s love.
Timothy Floyd is director of youth and young adult ministries for the Kansas-Nebraska Conference. He is one of the certified Growing Young speakers/trainers for the North American Division.