i. I’m Jimmy. I’m a recent college grad with a new job, and I just moved 1,500 miles from everything I’ve ever known.
I grew up a Seventh-day Adventist. I pinned felts in Sabbath school and recited memory verses on Thirteenth Sabbath. I worked at summer camp and did literature evangelism. I led out in academy prayer conferences and spoke at my college graduation. For the past 22 years—whether chosen by my parents, preference, or proximity—church has been an integral part of my life. And both logic and tradition say it will continue to be.
But right now, logic and tradition are getting whipped by reality.
Reality says that as I search for a new sanctuary, I’ll only attend a given church three times before I decide whether or not it’s capable of meeting my needs.1 If it’s not, I’ll go elsewhere . . . or nowhere.
Reality says that one in every five Adventist churches in North America doesn’t have a single child or teenager—much less anyone my age. In fact, the median age in these churches is nearly 60—20 years older than the average American.2
Reality says that as a baptized Adventist since my midteens, there’s a 50 percent chance that I’ll drop out of the church completely by the time I’m 25.3
A quick interpretation of these devastating statistics yields this: today, our church is growing old. At the same time, through lack of cultivation, engagement, and meaningful relationships, tomorrow’s church is leaving . . . like water between our fingers.
Isolating the Issue
We can all agree there’s a problem. Now, the question begs: Why are young adults leaving the church at such an alarming rate?4
In the fall of 2008 a group of the sharpest Adventist minds from North America, Australia, and Europe descended upon Andrews University for the 2008 180˚ Symposium. The topic? Reclaiming and retaining young adults in today’s Adventist Church.
Out of the collective research and discussions emerged a synopsis containing the top five keys to keeping young adults passionate about their church:5
They must have a strong identity with which to shape their faith.
They must be intentionally engaged by church leadership.
They must be cultivated through authentic spirituality based on a connection with Jesus Christ.
They must be actively empowered in service through evangelism opportunities in both church and community.
The fifth key—tied unequivocally to the other four—is quite simple, yet remains the single most important factor in retaining young adults and reclaiming those who have drifted away: whether with a middle-aged couple or spirited pastor, energetic peer or elderly grandma, if they are going to stay, young adults must have genuine relationships inside their church family.
Notice something about these five points. Nowhere to be found are the often blamed “big issues”—music style and service structure—causing the constant clashing that often creates the generational divides in our church. Go ahead; try to find young adults connected to a church through healthy, spiritually fulfilling relationships arguing over stylistic worship preferences. You won’t.
Worship style is only an issue when meaningful relationships are lacking.
In an effort to understand the wishes of young adults, the Center for Youth Evangelism (CYE) conducted a study that asked respondents to rate the importance of 28 variables in determining their desire to attend a given church. Participants were given a scale of 1-3 with which to rate each category, with 1 meaning “Not Important” and 3 meaning “Very Important.” The top score, with an average of 2.88, was “accepting atmosphere,” while the third choice was simply “community.”
It’s all about relationships.
In his analysis of reasons why young Adventists drop out of church, Roger Dudley found that one “major theme shared by dropouts was that they felt unaccepted.”6 Further-more, a study by Rainer and Rainer of 1,000 young adults who left the church yielded the second highest motivation for leaving: “church members seemed judgmental or hypocritical.”7
This isn’t a new phenomenon. Even Ellen White observed this in her day:
“Christian sociability is altogether too little cultivated by God’s people. . . . By social intercourse, acquaintances are formed and friendships contracted which result in a unity of heart and an atmosphere of love.”8 “If we would humble ourselves before God, and be kind and courteous and tenderhearted and pitiful, there would be one hundred conversions to the truth where now there is only one.”9
Young adults want to be accepted as they are and unreservedly included in a community.
So how do we make it happen?
As the Israelites neared the Promised Land, God knew that safety and security—especially for those least deserving—was of the utmost importance. So, He directed that six cities of refuge be established, where individuals who had accidentally killed another Israelite could escape revenge through the shelter of an intentional community.10
Another example of the Bible’s practicality, this Old Testament infrastructure has ignited a flame at the Center for Youth Evangelism—one that is starting to burn bright. It’s called Church of Refuge (COR).
The mission of COR is to “help churches provide meaningful and relevant young adult ministry with the goal of keeping Adventist young adults in the church while also reaching out to those who are not currently participating
in an Adventist congregation.”11 This support ministry is dedicated to helping Adventist churches better meet the all-around needs of young adults.
“Churches of Refuge care about the spiritual needs of young adults,” said Ron Whitehead, executive director for the Center for Youth Evangelism. “But they also care about their physical and social well-being.”
In one church, a young man without health insurance was in desperate need of a root canal. Instead of simply praying for a solution, this church found a dentist in the congregation willing to perform the procedure for free. Like the old adage “Don’t give a hungry man a Bible,” this church understands that spiritual wholeness is connected to all facets of life. This is what being a COR is all about.
In order to become a COR, a church must go through the certification process by first registering on the COR Network (www.churchofrefuge.org). The next step is for the given church to provide a written description of how they are performing in nine key areas instrumental to engaging young adults.12 Once the certification team is convinced that the church is “truly a safe, supportive, and engaging community” for young adults, it will receive COR certification and be listed on the Web site. To ensure constant credibility, churches must submit an updated annual recertification report.
“Imagine if upon college graduation or a move, young professionals had access to a site where they could see a list of churches geared to take care of their needs,” Whitehead said. “This won’t solve all problems, but at least it gives young adults a place to start.”
The new Web site (launching in early spring 2009) provides more than a reference for young adults and a marketing tool for churches. With forums, blogs, and updated news, the COR site is a vital asset in providing pertinent information and connecting local churches to the parent organization, pastoral leadership, and each other.13
“Churches cannot presume that college students and young professionals will choose to spend their free time at church simply because it’s the right thing to do,” Whitehead said. “I love evangelism—but somebody has to start talking about the back door.”
Luckily, the Center for Youth Evangelism is doing a lot more than talking.14
As she approached the young pastor, her heart raced to warp speed. And why not? After all, she was nothing more than a worthless prostitute. Walking toward Him through the church foyer, she felt the cold stares and raised eyebrows.
I don’t belong here.
Then He saw her. With a kindness in His voice she’d never known, He asked her name.
“It’s nice to meet you, Mary. I’m Jesus,” He replied. “Are you hungry? We’re having potluck today and you’re more than welcome to join us.”
* * *
Did Jesus agree with Mary Magdalene’s life of harlotry? Absolutely not. But for Jesus, agreement was not, and is not, a prerequisite for acceptance.
It doesn’t have to be for us either.
For too long we’ve allowed differences in age, dress, diet, music, and vocabulary to trick us into thinking we can’t exist as a cohesive community. Struggling over these petty preferences has shattered relationships, lessening our effectiveness where it really matters.
Losing half our young adults might seem like an uphill battle.
But this isn’t about statistics; it’s about salvation.
Just like the little boy throwing starfish one by one back into the sea; accept unconditionally, love enthusiastically, and your impact will be felt—one life at a time.
Oh, and free food never hurts either.
1According to Ron Whitehead at the Center for Youth Evangelism.
2As cited by A. Allan Martin, Ministry International Journal for Pastors, July 2008.
3Roger Dudley, Why Our Teenagers Leave the Church (2000).
4Young adult defined as ages 18-35.
5A book containing all the papers presented at the symposium will be available this spring from AdventSource.
6Dudley, op. cit.
7See note 4 above.
8Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 6, p. 172.
9White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 9, p. 189.
10Numbers 35:9-15; see also Deuteronomy 19:1-10.
11Ron Whitehead and Jeff Boyd, Church of Refuge: A Support Ministry for Youth and Young Adults (2008).
12As supported by biblical teaching, pastoral experience, writings of Ellen White, and CYE original research. See www.churchofrefuge.org for a list of the nine areas.
13Whitehead and Boyd, op. cit.
14For more information on becoming a Church of Refuge, go to www.churchofrefuge.org or call the CYE at (269) 471-8380.
Jimmy Phillips is Marketing and Communications Coordinator for San Joaquin Community Hospital. Forever a Nebraskan, he writes from Bakersfield, California.