March 6, 2015

Why You Really Left the Church

Editor's note: Commentaries are intended to express the richness and variety of informed and responsible Adventist opinion on current issues. They do not necessarily convey the viewpoint of the Adventist Review editorial team or the General Conference.

, communication director, and religious liberty and public affairs director for the South Pacific Division

Most of my best friends from Far Eastern Academy in Singapore have left the Seventh-day Adventist Church. So have most of my friends from grade school in Australia, my friends from Andrews University in Michigan, and a bunch of my friends from Newbold College in Britain.

And it isn’t just my friends. My generation — Generation X — has left the church in droves.

We were, it turns out, a little foretaste of what was to come.

Today, Christian literature is littered with articles about Millennials abandoning church, with various hobbyhorses being flogged to explain the exodus. So let’s look at a few of them.

That old chestnut suggests “someone said something wrong.”

Now let’s get real here. No one could hold down a job, stay in school, or have a relationship if they were so sensitive that they left as soon as they bumped into a grumpy person.

Of course people at church should be kind, pure, and true. In my experience, Adventists generally are, although not always and not everyone. But outside of extreme circumstances, people don’t reject things they value simply because they come in contact with real human beings, warts and all. They walk out because they don’t value the underlying substance.

A second explanation popularized by U.S. author and columnist Rachel Held Evans is that Millennials are abandoning church because it focuses on sexual morality rather than social justice.

But this doesn’t work on two counts.

First, the denominations that are biggest on talking social justice and the smallest on biblical sexual morality are the ones shrinking the fastest.

Second, it turns out all those traditional evangelicals are hardly indifferent to poverty. World Vision, one of the largest aid and development outfits in the world, is an evangelical initiative. The Salvation Army? They’re evangelicals too. And you would be hard pressed to find a community that does more, pound for pound, to provide health and education to the poor around the globe than the Adventist Church.

So if it isn’t grumpy people, unfashionable views on sex, or cold indifference to the poor, it must be dull and uninspired worship services!

Apparently not. Perhaps no community has embraced contemporary worship more enthusiastically than U.S. evangelicals, and yet they are losing Millennials left, right and center. Pastors in black T-shirts, churches with espresso machines, and Daft Punk-style praise bands just aren’t packing ’em in.

This leaves a superficially profound answer: Organized church is directly opposed to the authentic Christ.

The problem with this line of reasoning? It was Jesus who set up the church, and He began it with 12 very imperfect people. So if the real Jesus set up a church full of real people, how could disassociating from a real church be consistent with loving the real Christ?

But there’s an even more fundamental problem: All these explanations rest on age-old phenomena. There is, for example, nothing new about Christian teachings on sex or flaws in organized churches. If the rate of defections has increased, the underlying reason for the drift away must also be increasing. New events require new explanations.

So what’s new? One of the most profound changes in our culture is the explosion of media consumption. Back in the early 1990s, the average Australian, for example, watched about 17 hours of television per week. According to McCrindle Research, Australians today spend close to four hours online every day, and about three hours a day watching television, for a staggering 49 hours of media consumption per week. The figures are even higher in other countries.

As mass media has become more heavily entwined with our lives, the content has simultaneously become increasingly incompatible with, and even hostile to, Christianity. Our media consumption profoundly impacts the way we see the world. Ellen White comments on a popular truism this way: “It is a law both of the intellectual and the spiritual nature that by beholding we become changed. The mind gradually adapts itself to the subjects upon which it is allowed to dwell. It becomes assimilated to that which it is accustomed to love and reverence” (The Great Controversy, p. 555).

Could the answer to the spiritual malaise infecting society have little to do with the inadequacies of everyone and everything else, and all to do with how we choose to invest our thoughts? Is the exodus from church the inevitable, natural result of our media consumption patterns? The solution could be as simple as spending less time watching “Game of Thrones” and more time focused on the Throne of Grace.

This commentary is slightly adapted from one that appeared in the South Pacific Adventist Record in 2013.