Adventist values

Adventist values: flying high?

Most Adventists, young and old, affirm basic Christian beliefs and such ethical values as love and justice. But what about the lifestyle values distinctive of Adventism? How effective have our churches, schools, and families been at transmitting these values? The authors report the findings from a survey of 712 individuals in 247 families across the United States and comment on the implications.

Roger L. Dudley is an associate professor of church ministry at Andrews University. 
Margaret G. (Peggy) Dudley is a Ph.D. candidate at Andrews University.

A recent television commercial features a fisherman who has been miraculously granted three wishes. He spends the first re questing a can of the sponsor's beer, the next on a second can, and the final wish to bring back a whole truckload of the brew for his buddies. Even those who do not believe alcohol is evil might protest such a prodigal waste of "wish power." How could anyone be so short sighted?

Not only commercials and fairy tales offer to grant wishes, however. Psychiatrists and clinical psychologists regularly ask, "If I had the power to give you anything you desire, what three things would you choose?" This question helps them discover the concerns their clients consider truly importanttheir values.

We develop our values through a process that begins in early childhood and continues throughout our entire lives. We are constantly assigning relative worth to beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, and objects. We do this not in abstract terms but as these values are called into action in everyday living, particularly when we must choose between them and some alternatives.

Christian parents, teachers, ministers, and youth leaders know that values lie at the very heart of all education and character development. They are rightly concerned that young people will adopt values that lead to service and fulfillment now and that will prepare them for eternal life. And the Bible is filled with value statements that challenge us to put high priority on those things that really matter (e.g., Joshua 24:15; Matt. 6:31- 33; 16:25, 26; Heb. 11:25,26).

Today we frequently hear the lament that society at large has abandoned basic values. But what about the Seventh-day Adventist family? Do parents still cherish traditional denominational values? Are youth adopting them? In an attempt to answer some of these crucial questions, we surveyed American Adventist families.


We constructed and piloted a twenty-six-item questionnaire, the Intergenerational Value Survey (IVS). It consisted of four demographic items and twenty-two value statements that impinge on the beliefs and behaviors of Seventh-day Adventists. (The demographic items: age, sex, church membership, and years spent in Adventist schools.) The respondent could select one of five responses to each value statement: strongly disagree, somewhat disagree, undecided, somewhat agree, or strongly agree. By assigning a number (from one to five) to each response and totaling the individual numbers, we arrived at an overall value attitude scale (VAS) score for each respondent.

Our survey does not cover ethical values that most thoughtful people would affirm, such as love, justice, and honesty. Neither have we surveyed such basic Christian beliefs as the existence of God, the deity of Christ, and the reality of an afterlife. Rather, we looked for values that are, for the most part, more specific to Adventism. While we believe that the former should have priority in our educational efforts, the latter are more useful for determining what is happening to the uniqueness of Adventism. Here we are more likely to find differences of opinion, changes in thinking and lifestyle.

To be more specific, we wished to include items about which Adventists might differ, depending on their position on a traditional to nontraditional continuum. We also recognize that this survey measures only stated values, not behavior. People may not do as they say. However, the affirming of a value is a first and necessary step to translating it into action. So we believe that our survey provides a useful look into the value systems of typical Adventist families.

From a list of Adventist churches in the United States with a membership of more than five hundred, twenty were randomly selected. We asked the pastor of each to give packets to 20 high-school-age youth in his congregation. Each packet contained three envelopes; these, in turn, each held a copy of the IVS and was marked for Youth, Mother, or Father. Each individual was to fill out his/her survey privately and seal it back in the individual envelope. Then the three envelopes would be sealed in the larger packet and returned to the pastor, who would return it to us. Since the pastor would see only sealed envelopes and since no names were required on the surveys, confidentiality was guaranteed. We obtained usable surveys from 712 individuals in 247 families from 21 churches. Of these, 247 were youth, 244 were mothers, and 221 were fathers. The random selection of churches from all over the United States makes it likely that this sample accurately represents Adventist families in this country.


The table accompanying this article displays the wording of the items and the responses of the youth, mothers, and fathers. We have combined the "strongly" and "somewhat" choices into "disagree" and "agree" columns (though we have preserved the original data in other analyses). We added the "dis agree" and "agree" responses and then subtracted that sum from 100 percent to tabulate the "undecided" category.

We wrote most items as positive statements, and so the "agree" column most closely reflects traditional Adventist teachings. However, for items 11, 14, 17, 19, and 21, "disagree" is more traditional, so we reversed the scoring on these items when we computed the overall VAS scores. Items 7 and 9 appear to be in a class by themselves. Their content seems to harmonize with Biblical and church principles. Yet some very traditional respondents reject them, while some nontraditional family members affirm them. For this reason we did not include them in computing the VAS.

This effect is masked in the table for item 7, racial harmony, since respondents overwhelmingly affirmed this statement. It is seen more easily in item 9, the equality of women. While the majority in all three groups favor it, the greatest support comes from the youth, who are the least traditional on most items.

An inspection of the table reveals that the youth are loyal to Adventist teachings on the majority of items. Two thirds or more take the traditional position on most of the twenty-two statements. Agreement is high on doctrinal and personal piety issues. As to lifestyles, however, the picture is mixed. Temperance advocates will be pleased that 90 percent reject alcohol and tobacco, and 84 percent turn thumbs down on drugs. Further, 83 percent regard homosexual behavior as sin. In other lifestyles areas, though, we find a definite drift from traditional Adventist teachings.

For instance, only 62 percent of the youth believe premarital sex to be wrong under all circumstances, while 19 per cent would allow it if the couple really love each other, and another 19 percent are undecided. Slightly more than half see vegetarianism as a preferred lifestyle (58 percent), and most would not condone killing under any circumstances (51 percent).

On five items, less than half concur with the traditional position. While 49 percent agree that premarital petting is wrong, 20 percent disagree, and 31 percent are undecidedthe largest pro portion undecided regarding any item. Only 48 percent oppose decorative jewelry, and 46 percent would not accept divorce as a valid option if the marriage is unhappy.

While these three items have only a minority on the traditional side, the traditionals still outnumber the nontraditionals (undecideds making up the difference). But on two items the nontraditionals actually lead. Only 35 per cent agree that abortion is never an option, while 38 percent believe it is, and 27 percent are undecided (second highest proportion of undecideds). Least traditional of all, 62 percent believe it is all right to attend the movies, and only 21 percent disagree.

When we compare the youth percent ages with those of the mothers and fathers, it is apparent that the parents are generally more traditional than the young people. On the VAS, where the higher the score, the more traditional the person, mothers averaged 85.7, fathers 82.6, and youth 77.2. However, mothers and fathers reject movies by only a slight margin, and a plurality of both mothers and fathers would allow abortion under some circumstances.

We might summarize the table by saying that typical Adventist families still strongly support many traditional values, but that our standards on marriage, family, and social purity are in real danger. (We recognize that the church has no official teaching on abortion but believe that majority sentiment has historically been against it.) Most serious, the Adventist stand on movies appears a lost cause, with only a fifth of the youth in harmony with it and less than half their parents supporting the traditional view.

Does any relationship exist between values held and the demographic items? We asked each respondent, "Are you a baptized member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church?" Eighty-seven per cent of the youth, 91 percent of the fathers, and 98 percent of the mothers replied Yes. On twelve of the items and on the VAS, youth who had been baptized were somewhat more likely to be traditional than those who had not. The strongest relationship, not surprisingly, was on item 2, the true remnant church. We found moderate relation ships on the VAS and items 3 and 22. Items 1, 4, 6, 7, 8, 12, 13, 15, and 19 showed a weak relationship to church membership, while other items exhibited no significant relationship with it.

Years the youth spent in Adventist schools were not significantly related to their overall VAS and were only weakly related to four of the items: 1, 5,16, and 19. Item 18 showed a slightly stronger relationship, but in the wrong direction: Those with fewer years in Adventist schools were a bit more likely to agree that abortion is never an option for terminating a pregnancy.

Among the youth who responded, 47 percent were male and 53 percent were female. However, gender made little difference in the values held. Only three items had even weak relationships: Females tended to agree with item 9 and to disagree with items 17 and 21 slightly more than males did. But on the overall VAS, female youth were not significantly more traditional than were males.


We would like to suggest three implications that may be drawn from these findings, and include a few suggestions for future action.

First, it seems evident that some Adventist lifestyle values are a bit mushy. This is because they have never been clearly defined or because they have remained as general statements while changing mores have left them largely ignored. We have, for example, never developed clear theological positions regarding abortion and premartial petting. And as to divorce, jewelry, and the movies, our historical positions simply do not correspond to our members' general practice. Our historic stand against theater attendance becomes increasingly hard to maintain in the face of the widespread availability and use of cable TV, videocassettes, and campus-approved films. It seems that our standards have not kept step with technology.

Perhaps the church needs to reexamine what it means to be an Adventist Christian in 1985. In recent years we have struggled with doctrinal issues. We set up research committees, sought new scriptural support to meet the challenges raised by the scholarship of our critics, and solicited wide input for the reformulation of our fundamental beliefs at the 1980 General Conference session. We may need to do a similar probing of our standards. We are defined by what we do just as much as by what we believe. While we should not attempt to draw up detailed codes of behavior, our members need to have a clear picture of what the church stands for in 1985 and the Biblical basis for that stand.

A second implication is that we have not been particularly effective in teach ing some of these values. Once we decide what we really stand for, we must carefully develop a program to transmit the essential lifestyle to the younger generation. Research shows that legalistic preaching is largely ineffective in values education. Instead, we must confront youth with value issues and engage them in principled reasoning. This is especially vital for the children in our Adventist homes. We need to provide materials that will assist parents in transmitting values from an Adventist Christian framework. *

The third implication is a measure of concern that the Adventist educational system has not had more of an impact on value outcomes. We are not attacking Adventist schools. Both authors are products of Adventist education, and the first has taught for many years and at all levels of the system. We understand the difficulties; we know that the school must be supported by both home and church to make any real progress. Nevertheless, we are disappointed that years in Adventist schools railed to make any real difference in value attitudes.

We suggest that this calls Adventist educators to reexamine current methods and approaches in facilitating moral development. After a period of supposed "neutrality," public education has elevated values education to a position of importance. Surely Seventh-day Adventists must consider it even more vital. We will need to emphasize this area more in our teacher preparation curricula. We also need to seek ways that home and school can cooperate more closely in instilling values.

We have not attempted to judge the tightness or wrongness of the various value statements incorporated in this study, or to decide on their relevance to contemporary Adventism. This the church at large must do. We have only described how the Seventh-day Adventist family relates to these values today. We believe that this description suggests an important agenda for ministers and church leaders. The success or failure of God's people ultimately depends upon the values that they build into their characters. To guide in this value formation is our highest work. Ellen White's appeal targets our task:

"Make an honest reckoning. Put into one scale Jesus, which means eternal treasure, life, truth, heaven, and the joy of Christ in souls redeemed; put into the other every attraction the world can offer. Into one scale put the loss of your own soul, and the souls of those whom you might have been instrumental in saving; into the other, for yourself and for them, a life that measures with the life of God. Weigh for time and for eternity." Christ's Object Lessons, p. 374.

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Roger L. Dudley is an associate professor of church ministry at Andrews University. 
Margaret G. (Peggy) Dudley is a Ph.D. candidate at Andrews University.

April 1985

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