S A RECENT COLLEGE GRADUATE, I’m one of many young adults who feel their debt and other money problems separate them from the church. I’m not alone in believing that previous generations in the Adventist Church don’t seem to relate to the money troubles young adults face today, such as mounting credit card debt, ever-increasing cost-of-living expenses, and student loans. Older church members and leaders might offer spiritual solace, but what my generation needs is relevant, real-world advice about finance.
According to the University of California, Los Angeles, 2003 College Students’ Beliefs and Values Study, 52 percent of college students attended religious services before going to college. By their junior year, however, only 29 percent still attended regularly. These results indicate that many of our most vibrant young adults steadily trickle out of the church and into the secular mainstream, absorbing the skewed values of popular culture. This includes seeking financial counsel from sources outside the church.
Part of the blame for this needless departure from church falls on the shoulders of my generation. We have a tendency to blindly enshrine anything that’s unique, whether or not it has any merit. We assume that our circumstances are drastically different from those of our parents’ generation, and we thrill at the thought. We say such things as, “No, Dad, that was your generation. I would never be racist, one-dimensional, and closed-minded; or support an unjust war or manage my money unwisely.”
But some of the blame also rests on older shoulders, people who have unthinkingly adopted the trappings of society when it comes to discussing—or, rather, not discussing—money matters such as credit card debt, tax nightmares, and living beyond their means. Society says these issues are kept personal and not talked about with others, whether you’re conversing with your boss, your neighbor, or the teenager at the end of your kitchen table. Could it be that because the older generation has kept so quiet about financial challenges that many of us young adults believe our money problems are so singular? If we have no monetary role models—older adults who share with us openly about their financial struggles and how they resolved them—many of us will repeat age-old mistakes.
A Lesson From History
The early Christians weren’t secretive when it came to money matters; they were, instead, scandalously straightforward, laying their resources at one another’s feet and living in community with one another. Although total resource sharing is impractical today, that kind of first-century financial honesty and accountability remains viable.
Your mission as the church body, then—should you choose to accept it—is to open up and talk about money.
Several barriers stand in the way of practicing such candor. Although today’s churches strive to segregate no longer by race, many often divide by age instead, clumping college students in one corner and older adults in another. The result is that young adults are left with a very limited pool of experience from which they can learn life’s lessons, including those involving financial matters. Instead, church leaders should be stirring the two groups together, cultivating an environment of honesty and authenticity.
Then there’s the mental barrier to intergenerational learning, which is often harder to overcome. I’ve found that many older adults are actually fearful of our age group, convinced we’re not interested in adult friendships and their financial insights, and that we would reject any overtures of friendliness they might make.
My friends who long for intergenerational friendships wouldn’t agree. In reality, it would be in the best interests of both college students and older adults to make strong efforts to extinguish these fears and come together in social and spiritual events.
Question . . . Care . . . Console . . . Congratulate
So how do you begin to build a multigenerational church that embraces college students and other young adults as part of the body and allows us to glean financial wisdom? The first step is to build relationships. One super-easy way to do that is to show an interest in what we’re becoming buried in debt to achieve—our education. Although it’s tempting for older adults to dismiss assignment due dates and upcoming exams as irrelevant to the “real world,” for students no other reality exists.
I can think of no faster way to alienate college students than to act as if what we spend the majority of our time working on is unimportant. Instead, older adults should question, care, console, and congratulate. When you recognize the importance of young adults’ work and achievements, you legitimize their right to personhood, their importance to the world, and the significance of the gifts they can bring to the church body.
I remember a time in high school when I didn’t think it mattered whether or not I went to church. No one seemed to notice me, and I felt invisible. When I was forced to attend, I took a novel along and nestled down in a corner of the balcony to read it. Although friends my age also attended church, I didn’t realize at the time just how important community was until a few years later while attending college. I then had a “home” in my multigenerational Sabbath school class. Not only did those people show an active interest in my life; they allowed me to see when they were struggling financially—whether they were having trouble selling their homes, keeping their businesses afloat, or settling lawsuits with former spouses regarding alimony.
Sure, this type of interaction allowed me to see their shortcomings, but this didn’t leave me disrespectful or disillusioned. As I watched them rise above troubled circumstances with Christ’s help, I was, instead, inspired.
Before meeting these people I couldn’t relate to the older generation. After meeting them, I realized I had finally found role models worth imitating. It’s helpful to hear a pastor preach an inspirational sermon, but it’s the church body that keeps me coming back.
Let the Sharing Begin
Once older adults build relationships with the college students and other young adults in their local church and community, honest sharing can truly begin. In the body of Christ we have no reason to be ashamed of past financial mistakes, especially if honest discussion can prevent the next generation from unwittingly repeating them. Don’t hold back—young adults want to know the reasons some struggled to make their first mortgage payments, how their credit history was damaged, why their first budget didn’t quite work out. It’s often far too easy for older adults, especially church leaders, to breeze over these financially difficult years because of embarrassment, a desire for confidentiality, or even a need to pretend the hard times never existed.
In today’s culture, carefully chosen debts such as school loans, a car payment, and a home mortgage are not taboo. We need to know older adults understand that. If a church has the resources to offer financial management classes, it needs to do so—or even partner with another area church to offer seminars or workshops on how debt can be part of a person’s budget and used advantageously in the governmental tax maze. But these classes should not be segregated. Offering them to all ages provides another venue in which the collective wisdom of college students and older adults can mix.
After all, if you’re aiming to enrich and fortify your church body, what people learn in a class is secondary to the relationships they form there. A financial management class might introduce students to the church and secure them for an evening, but authentic relationships will reel them in for a lifetime.
Angela Ford Baerg wrote this article in 2006 while a senior at Southern Adventist University. She is now marketing and communications coordinator for the Samaritan Center, a Seventh-day Adventist thrift shop and social services agency in Ooltewah, Tennessee.