Recently I stumbled across some disturbing statistics that confirmed a gnawing suspicion that had been brewing in my mind. I believe that my generation of Adventists is increasingly an endangered species:
There’s a 50 percent chance that a teenager who gets baptized in his or her mid-teens will leave the Adventist Church completely by the time he or she is 25.1
One in every five Adventist churches in North America doesn’t have a single child, teenager, or young adult. In fact, the median age in our churches is nearly 60—20 years older than the average American.2
According to a survey, seven in 10 youth (ages 18-30) who attended church regularly in high school reported that they stopped attending by age 23. Of that group, 34 percent said they never returned to church, even occasionally, by the age of 30. Translation: 1 in 4 protestant youth have left the church for good.3
Added to this, consider the results of various Barna Research Group polls showing that this generation of youth and young adults (including Adventists) reads the Bible less than previous generations. They spend less time in prayer and are less likely to attend church.
It looks to me that the situation has become a crisis. It is all too obvious that, in general, Adventist young adults lack a sense of identity and personal calling. We’ve settled for lowered expectations in our personal and public lives.
The norm has changed. What was normal in the past is no longer normal. The level of dynamic Christian experience that was normal in early Adventism would likely be considered fanatical today. In my generation it’s perfectly normal for a young Adventist to have a sketchy knowledge of the Bible. It’s normal for young people to be incapable of defending their faith from Scripture, or not to have a meaningful prayer life. It’s normal for a young Adventist not to be intentional about sharing their faith.
Yes, the norm has definitely changed.
This is not the kind of culture, or atmosphere, in which Adventism was birthed. If we could travel back in time to the nineteenth century and pull a handful of Adventists out and just drop them into our generation, what would happen? Our version of Adventism would not be familiar to them. And conversely, if you were to drop one of us into their generation, what would happen?
Just think of Luther Warren and Harry Fenner, who, at ages 14 and 17, launched the first-ever Adventist youth society back in 1879. The purpose? Missionary service, of course! In 1844 many of the pioneers of Adventism were young people: James White was 23 years old. Ellen G. Harmon (White) was 17. Annie R. Smith was 16. J. N. Andrews was 15, and Uriah Smith was 12. And what of their commitment and caliber? By age 24 J. N. Andrews had published some 35 articles, had the New Testament memorized, and had mastered Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. By age 23 Uriah Smith had become editor of the Review. Today these types of young people would be considered weird; that is, not “normal.”
Doesn’t it bother you that what was normal then isn’t normal anymore?
May the Rebels Please Stand!
The sad reality is that cultural Adventism in the twenty-first century has produced a different kind of youth. The current wave known as the millennials, born after 1980, are the product of the cultural climate in which they bloomed. We are victims of the zeitgeist, the defining spirit or mood of the age. Yet God has given a radical call to every generation of Christians since the apostolic days. And it’s a bombshell of a challenge. Notice Romans 12:2: “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (NKJV).4
What is it about “this world” that concerned Paul? Plainly, he’s worried about us getting sucked into the cultural vortex that swirls all around us—into the mind-set of the world in which we live; bound by the conventions, standards, philosophies, and perspectives of our generation. The status quo. “Do not be conformed” is a call for nonconformists, for rebels. That’s right, the Prince of Peace wants my generation to rebel. It’s a provocative paradox.
So the message we should be communicating to our young people is: REBEL! Not against authorities or institutions, but against a certain mind-set. Here’s what the Phillips translation says: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold, but let God re-mold your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity.”5
Christians are expected to defy any aspect of their culture that is not in line with God’s ideal of true maturity. Remember Peter’s closing remarks after his fiery sermon on the day of Pentecost (and I really like the wording of The Message paraphrase here)? Before anyone jumped into the baptismal tank, Peter had one last thing to say: “Get out while you can; get out of this sick and stupid culture!” (Acts 2:40, Message).6
So before people joined the early Christian movement, they understood that they were making a statement that their lives would be radically countercultural. They would be swimming against the prevailing current of their day.
The Myth of Adolescence
What are we swimming against? The flavor of modern Christianity is reflected in the statistics we read. And here is the central predicament, especially for young adults: society expects very little from young people. We are expected to be immature, lazy, and irresponsible. These low expectations, in turn, begin to impact the way we think about ourselves.
This generation has been distinguished as unique because it’s the first in history to identify the group of people from early teens to 20-somethings as adolescents or teenagers. This is something new.7 It’s a modern, twentieth-century, Western invention. Historically, there was no such thing. The idea of adolescence basically says that an individual is not a child, but not an adult either. In previous generations there were but two periods in the development of a person’s life: childhood and adulthood. We have inserted a third, calling it adolescence, and have effectively prolonged the process to maturity, which, by extension, means we have prolonged the period of immaturity.
Here’s how the authors of America in So Many Words put it:
“In the first part of the twentieth century, we made a startling discovery. There were teenagers among us! Until then, we had thought of people in just two stages: children and adults. And while childhood might have its tender moments, the goal of the child was to grow up as promptly as possible in order to enjoy the opportunities and shoulder the responsibilities of an adult. The girl became the woman, the boy became the man. It was as simple and significant as that. . . . The reforms of the early twentieth century . . . lengthened the pre-adult years. In earlier times, a person reaching adult size at age thirteen or fourteen was ready to do adult work. Now adult size was achieved as soon as ever, but preparation for adult responsibilities lasted until eighteen or later. Thus, the years ending in –teen became something new and distinctive. . . . The teenager remade our world. . . . With the discovery of this new age, ours has been the century of the teenager ever since.”8
This phenomenon has affected the quality of young people in my generation. We have been delayed in our progress and development because of certain cultural assumptions and expectations that we’ve been taught. It seems that these assumptions and expectations have also influenced the mind-set in the church and is reflected among our young Adventist population.
Different from our culture, people in the eighteenth or nineteenth century considered a 15- or 16-year-old ready for marriage or capable of learning and working a trade or studying at university. How many parents today would consider their 16-year-old ready for marriage? What about university-level education? In past generations that would have been “normal.” What has happened? It seems as if the caliber of young people the world over is deteriorating. Someone might say, “That’s crazy—our teenagers are way too immature to marry!” I agree. It is crazy. But that’s precisely the point. We are the weird ones.
A Biblical Perspective
When we look at Scripture we begin to notice the difference between God’s perspective on the life of a young person and ours. Our modern concept of adolescence is absent in the biblical record. Some have suggested that there are really three distinct periods of life: childhood, young adulthood, and senior adulthood. The time from infancy to about age 12 we can call childhood; the period between 13 and 30, young adulthood. Everything above 30 could be described as senior adulthood (not to be confused with “senior citizen”).
Does this sound familiar? When we look at the Gospel of Luke, it’s exactly what we see. If Jesus is our example in what it means to be human, would that apply to the development of a person from childhood to adulthood? Luke gives us these three stages. Jesus comes into the picture when He is born, but then He disappears from the scene and we don’t hear from Him for a while. When He reappears into the picture He is 12 years old and then He disappears again. Finally, He pops back into the picture in Luke 3 and is now about 30 years old.
It is interesting that, at age 12, Jesus is at a pivotal stage in His life. Both Scripture (Luke 2:42, 46-50) and Ellen White9 suggest that at age 12 He is coming to terms with some serious stuff, including the purpose and calling of His life. He is not some wild, immature, superficial, antiauthority teenager! He’s in the Temple reasoning with the theologians. Ellen White states that His questions were deeper than their answers.
When Jesus returns home, He returns as a young adult, not an adolescent. He reappears on the scene about age 30 and is now ready to launch into His senior adult life and begin His ministry. I wonder why the Bible didn’t insert another stage called adolescence? Why the omission? Perhaps following Jesus’ pattern would be the most responsible approach (cf. 1 Peter 2:21). To this day Jews all over the world practice the bar mitzvah ceremony. When a young man turns 12, he is told, “Welcome to manhood, son.”
Remember Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13:11: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (NKJV). What if we were to ask Paul, “What about when you were an adolescent?” He would look at us blankly. For he was a child, then he became a man. Young man, yes, but a man nonetheless.
Notice Lamentations 3:27: “It is good for a man to bear the yoke in his youth” (NKJV). So is the text talking about manhood or youth? The answer is yes. It’s both. Biblically speaking, when you look at a youth, you’re looking at a man. Again, a young man, but a man nonetheless. And that has certain implications that will impact the way we live our lives. Imagine the impact this concept would have on the caliber of young adults we see in our church.
The Holy Spirit slipped two documents into the New Testament that were specifically addressed to a young man, namely the letters to Timothy. These letters contain information that reveals how God feels about young people. So what God tells Timothy is representative of how God views young people in my generation. Here are two key thoughts from 1 Timothy 4:12: “Let no one despise your youth”—in other words, “Don’t let anyone underestimate you because you are young.” And then Paul adds: “But be an example.”
The idea is that Timothy is to be at a higher level. If someone’s going to look up to him, he’s got to be “up” there to be looked “up” to. Read both letters and notice that Paul left out excessive flattery. He doesn’t kiss up to Timothy just because he’s so young and yet so spiritual. One gets the impression that Timothy, being a young man, is expected to be a great Christian! There is nothing abnormal about that. According to God, that should be normal! Timothy was empowered by lofty expectations, not truncated by low expectations.
In the words of Ellen White: “If we wish to do good to souls, our success with these souls will be in proportion to their belief in our belief in . . . them.”10 Do our young people believe that they are believed in?
Here is the bottom line: God expects greatness from us. Our movement began with young people who had a high-caliber Christian experience. It was “normal.” And if this is going to be a useful generation of Adventists who are worthy of their name, then we’d better ditch these low expectations and bring back some raw, biblical Adventism. It’s likely that Jesus will not return until we expect greatness from the current generation. Remember, Adventism is never more than one generation away from extinction.
This is a call for a radical cultural revolution within Adventism.
Let the Rebelution begin!
1Roger Dudley, Why Our Teenagers Leave the Church (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald, 2000).
2A. Allan Martin, “Reaching Out: Making a Difference With Young Adults,” Ministry, July 2008, pp. 5-9.
3LifeWay Research survey of 1,023 Protestants, conducted April-May 2007.
4 Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
5 Texts credited to Phillips are from The New Testament in Modern English, copyright J. B. Phillips 1958. Used by permission of the Macmillan Company.
6Texts credited to Message are from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
7Thomas Hine, The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager (New York: Harper Perennial, 2000), pp. 4, 8, 9; Diana West, The Death of the Grown-Up (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007), p. 1.
8A. Metcalf and D. K. Barnhart, America in So Many Words (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), pp. 233, 234.
9E. G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 78.
10 E. G. White, Fundamentals of Christian Education, p. 281.
Jeffrey Rosario was converted at age 17 and has been involved in ministry ever since. He is an evangelist with ARISE Institute and lives in the San Francisco Bay area. This article was published February 17, 2011.