What are you going to do when Seventh-day Adventist young people move to the big city to pursue university studies and stop attending church?
Church leaders in Mongolia have hit on a solution after seeing 70 percent of its university-age students disappear: a dormitory.
The church’s Mongolia Mission squeezed all its operations into one floor of its newly built headquarters in the country’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, and turned two other floors into men’s and women’s dormitories with rooms for up to 50 students.
After opening for a trial run in the 2014-15 school year, the dormitory is now operating in full swing with 23 students — and the initial results look promising, said Bold Batsukh, executive secretary of the Mongolia Mission.
“About a dozen students in the dorm come from country churches,” he said. “Without the dormitory, maybe we would have lost them.”
The problem of disappearing young Adventists surfaced after the church was established in Mongolia some two decades ago and a large contingent of new members started heading to the city to study. No Adventist universities operate in Mongolia.
“Our church basically was a new church,” said Batsukh, 40, himself a young convert in the 1990s. “When the missionaries came, the first people who were attracted to them were young people. I was in my first year in college, wanting to learn English, so I ended up in that group.”
Batsukh, who said he never felt any temptation to leave the church, noted that young people in rural areas were especially receptive to the gospel but faced many difficulties when they moved to the city. Some students, he said, struggled find a place to live in full or costly dormitories. Others settled in with relatives but when their faith became known were told, “If you are a Christian, we don’t want you in our home.”
Other big-city realities also tested their faith. Some young people, eager to earn money, took jobs washing dishes or working as security guards at establishments where Adventists would not enter as customers.
“That kind of atmosphere distanced them from church,” Batsukh said.
At the same time, Adventist students made new friends. A faithful few tried to bring their classmates to church, but many others were influenced to stop attending church.
“There are many ways that these people disappeared,” Batsukh said. “As a church, we were not able to do anything. So the idea of the dormitory was born.”
The idea was the brainchild of Jairyong Lee, president of the church’s Northern Asia-Pacific Division, whose territory includes Mongolia, China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, and Taiwan.
Lee said his heart was touched when he visited a church in Ulaanbaatar a few years ago and saw seven or eight Adventist university students living in a cold tent on a freezing December day.
“There was no kitchen in the tent. They did not have money to rent a house,” Lee said.
So he spoke with local church leaders about the possibility of opening a dormitory for Adventist students as well as for a few non-Adventist students for mission purposes.
The result is the new dormitory, where four to six students share a room and pay the equivalent of $50 a month in rent, a bargain in a city where comparable housing goes for $90 to $100. The students are required to attend Sabbath worship services, held in a church sanctuary in the same building. They also can attend Adventist courses in the evenings and participate in missionary work on weekends.
“I am sure they will become strong and faithful lay church leaders in the future,” Lee said.
Mongolia is not the only country in the Northern Asia-Pacific Division to see Adventist young people leave the church after moving to the city. In China’s capital, Beijing, an Adventist pastor noticed the problem and now rents out affordable apartments, said Billy Liu, executive director of the Chinese Union Mission’s media center in Hong Kong, who has worked with the pastor.
The only rules to rent an apartment are to wake up at 5 a.m. daily to listen to an hourlong morning devotional broadcast live by the pastor via social media and to observe the Sabbath, Liu said.
About 50 young people currently stay in a dozen apartments controlled by the pastor.
In a related program that targets non-Adventist foreigners rather than students, the church operates a dormitory with small apartments for up to 30 families in Ansan, South Korea, Lee said.
“They are all foreigners working in Korea,” Lee said. “Most of them are suffering financially.”
The church provides housing, food, legal services, language studies, kindergarten, dental services, and Bible study. About 25 to 30 foreigners are baptized every year through the dormitory, Lee said.
“These are very effective centers of Christian influence,” he said. “We help people with their humanitarian needs, and at the same time we introduce the gospel message to them. This is truly Jesus’ method.”
Back in Mongolia, the dormitory plan took eight long years to come to fruition. The idea was first proposed in 2005, but construction only started on the Mongolia Mission headquarters in 2013. The next year, the dormitory opened for the trial run to 43 students, 80 percent of whom were of other faiths.
“The makeup of the church drastically changed from 2005 to 2014,” Batsukh said. “The fact that 70 percent of young people who came from the countryside had disappeared had a huge impact on our church.”
The Adventist Church now has 2,168 members worshipping in 30 congregations in Mongolia, a country of 2.8 million people. Some 1.3 million people live in the capital alone.
This school year, church leaders have focused especially on attracting dorm students who are church members. Most of the 23 residents are Adventist.
The dormitory atmosphere seeks to bring the students together in fellowship and spending time together, to nurture them, and to help them own their beliefs, Batsukh said.
“We have reclaimed at least four or five students who had been staying away from church,” he said. “It’s a humble beginning, but we think this momentum will build up. Before we had nothing. Now we have the dorm.”
Bold Batsukh shares his personal story in this short 2013 video from Adventist Stewardship Ministries.