As a father of a teenager and two young adults I’m concerned about the increasing number of young adults leaving our congregations. As a faith community, we’ve struggled with this issue for many decades. Data suggest that nearly half of Seventh-day Adventist teenagers in North America leave the church by their mid-20s.1 The 2012-2013 Twenty-first Century Adventist Connection Study Report engaged with 1,153 young adults who graduated between 2001 and 2012 from three major Adventist universities.2 A large majority of these graduates had gone fully or partially through the Adventist educational system. Some of the findings of this important research are encouraging; others are troubling and disturbing.
Here are some insights straight from the executive summary of the report.
The study showed that there is a large group of connected and active young adults in the Adventist Church. I’m glad to know that. There’s also a clear correlation between one’s devotional life and one’s acceptance of Adventist doctrines and lifestyle. Adventist young adults also prefer to attend medium- to large-sized churches.3
The next insight is more troubling. The authors of the study reported that a number of key Adventist doctrines (including a literal six-day creation, the heavenly sanctuary, the pre-Advent judgment, the remnant identity, and the inspiration of Ellen White) lacked strong support in this age group.
The study’s insights are helpful. But we need to remember that it did not represent the reality and perceptions of a growing majority of Adventist teenagers and young adults who never attend an Adventist secondary or tertiary educational institution. How would they respond to the questions asked in the research? Whether we like it or not, the graying of Adventism in North America (and increasingly in other parts of the world) represents a major challenge.
I grew up in an Adventist family in Germany. In fact, both of my grandfathers were Adventist pastors, and prior to a health challenge, my dad also served for nearly a decade as a pastor.
I spent my formative teenage years in a small town in southern Germany. The nearest Adventist church of our four-church district was located about 10 miles (16 kilometers) from home. These were small churches, ranging from 25 to 120 members—on the books. Sabbath afternoons we met as district youth in the largest church.
In the entire country of Germanythere was one Adventist boarding academy, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) from home, but my parents didn’t want to send their two sons to a boarding academy at such an early age. Besides, finances were tight. Consequently, I went through the public school system. I had great teachers, but always knew that I was different, for I didn’t go to school on Sabbath on the two out of four Sabbaths when public high schools scheduled classes.
When I think back, I realize that I was a prime candidate for leaving the church during my late teen and early young adult years. Right at that crucial period, my parents separated (and later divorced). That experience shook my world, and I wondered about the God of my parents. What made me stay? What kept me coming back week after week? Here are four key elements that stand out as I look back.
First, my church cared. Two pastors served our four-church district. One was considered the “youth pastor.” I remember his weekly visits to our home and his ability to help me work through topics that challenged my faith. These were not just typical Bible studies in which we read a number of Bible texts and reached a firm theological conclusion. We talked about evolution and worldviews, world religions and ethics. We read apologetics. We prayed together. He took time and became a mentor.
But there was more. Our youth group leadership was very active. Church members knew my name and greeted me on Sabbath morning. A caring church goes a long way to help keep young adults in our congregations. And just in case you think that we had the perfect church—we didn’t. I remember sitting through boring sermons, and occasionally a member would weaponize Ellen White. But my church experience wasn’t reduced to these more negative experiences.
Second, I was a member of a small Bible study group in our home. Early in my teenage years my mother started a small-group Bible study at our home that helped me navigate the storms and tempests of those years. Intriguingly, many of its members were not Adventists, but classmates from school, mixed together with older church members who lived nearby. I played guitar or piano when we sang together, and our weekly deep dive into God’s Word offered a viable balance to other influences in my life. This was a truly priesthood-of-all-believers affair. Every member was able to contribute. I was introduced to prayer journaling during this time—and have continued that practice until today.
Third, I was engaged—and stayed engaged—in mission. Mission helped me stay connected with Jesus, especially considering the strong secular influences in my life. As a family, we were involved in a weekly café-like outreach, inviting people to sample dozens of healthy herbal tea options and enjoy an evening of conversations, music, art, or focused discussions.
Later my brother and I, together with some friends, began a music ministry geared toward the nonchurched that lasted for nearly 10 years. We wrote our own songs, created advertising packages, and spent 15 to 20 weekends each year touring and doing concerts. The German Voice of Prophecy offered us sponsorship, and we were able to record several albums (first in vinyl and cassette, later moving into the brave new world of digital media and CDs). Engagement with mission kept me in the church.
Finally, I was blessed with a number of important mentors who offered support, wisdom, at times critique, but always lots of love. These mentors continue to enrich and bless my life—even today. Mentors are real-life influencers whose commitment and concern offer a window into God’s love for us.
I am grateful for the creative, engaged, and God-fearing young adults who have found a home in our congregations. But my heart bleeds for the many who have left for one reason or another—and for their parents and families who daily plead for God’s Spirit to do the seemingly impossible.
I stayed because I was blessed with a local congregation that cared about me—warts and all—and for a mother who fed many hungry teenagers during our weekly Bible study, offering a way to connect personally and deeply with God’s Word. I also stayed because I was needed and was allowed to participate creatively in God’s mission. I was blessed with mentors who influenced me in ways my parents or family could not.
Looking back, I have one wish: I want to be part of the reason that helped someone to stay.
Gerald A. Klingbeil serves as an associate editor of Adventist Review.