How Adventist teenagers perceive their church

A recent survey reveals what Adventist youth think of their church, whether they plan to remain in it, and why.

Janet Leigh Kangas, Ph. D., was a research assistant at the Institute of Church History when she collaborated on this article with Dr. Dudley. Dr. Kangas is now editor of Mission.
Roger L. Dudley, Ed.D., is the director of the Institute of Church History, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

The story is told of three young Cub Scouts who were fishing on a riverbank when one of them fell in. The other two jumped in to save him, and after they had pulled him out, one of them ran to inform the victim's mother. "We're trying to give him artificial respiration," he sobbed, "but he keeps getting up and walking away!"

In spite of the church's best efforts, many youth are getting up and walking away as we try feverishly to save them. The questions are, How many? and, What is the problem? Are we initially using artificial inspiration? And when the problems develop, are we using irrelevant methods to draw them back?

To answer these questions, the North American Division has commissioned the Institute of Church Ministry to conduct a 10-year study of randomly selected 15- and 16-year-old Adventist youth. The study will focus on what factors con tribute to young members' choosing to drop out of or remain in the church. A total of 1,511 respondents are included in the survey. Only the first year of the study has been completed, but the results reported have revealed some fascinating facts about the youth of our church.

Baptism and membership

More than half the respondents felt positive about Seventh-day Adventism. Fifty-nine percent were positive about their baptism, and 53 percent regarded themselves as active members. Regarding the future, 77 percent indicated that they intend to remain Adventists when they are on their own.

Of the 41 percent who wished they had not been baptized, 19 percent already identified themselves as inactive Adventists. Twenty-one percent ex pressed feelings of rebellion, and perceived restraint from parents and other authority figures as contributing to their rebellion.

Some youth felt they needed rebaptism although they were but a few years beyond their baptism. Typical statements were, "I want to get rebaptized, but I need further Bible studies first," "I want to get rebaptized, I feel so sinful," "I was too young to know what baptism means," "I want to get rebaptized, but I must first find my way back to the Lord and I don't know how." These statements reveal a lack of understanding of the developmental nature of sanctification and the purpose of the Lord's Supper. Perhaps these youth have been prepared more for baptism itself than for life after baptism. When the realization settles in that they have lost their "once holy" state, they conclude that they have "blown it" and must start over. Some deal with their problems by explaining, "I was too young to understand the significance" (19 percent). Others admit, "I find myself bucking the system sometimes, or wishing I could" (10 percent), or "I question some Adventist teachings or practices" (7 percent). These responses indicate that youth need continued guidance after baptism.

Eight percent indicated that they wished to compare Adventism with other religions someday. It seems significant that all of the half dozen or so who volunteered the information that they were interested in another religion specified Pentecostal churches.

Several youth wrote that they would like to see more expression and spontaneity such as clapping, joyfulness, and singing in the services. Others responded voluntarily in their free-response answers that their church is "boring," "unexciting," or "dead."

Attitudes toward attendance

One of the strongest objective indexes of the teenagers' intentions to remain Adventists was their frequency of church attendance. Those who attend regularly now are almost twice as likely to say they plan to remain active in the church when they are on their own (see table 1).

These statistics do not, of course, prove that teenagers' dedication to Adventism can be doubled by forcing them to attend church. Attendance as used here is merely an index as to whether the youth are church enjoyers or church avoiders.

The importance of church attendance as a measure of religiosity was recognized by Davidson in 1975 when he suggested replacing the classic 1962 "Glock model" with its complicated measuring of the ideological, ritualistic, experiential, intellectual, and consequential dimensions with a simple index: two years of regular church attendance. 1 And Hartman, who conducted a Methodist study, reported a year later that Sunday school attendance was the best predictor of whether youth would stay in or separate from the church, and that the motivation to separate was failure to feel accepted, loved, wanted. 2

The importance of the social element to youth had been recognized earlier by Strommen, a Lutheran, when he made observations relating the absentee and "irreligious" youth: These youth have the same basic longings and aspirations as those who are active, he said. "The principal barrier lies in their feelings of not being wanted, their suspicion of the church, and their lack of confidence in the church's ability to give help."3 In 1972 Strommen elaborated that the "best predictor" of whether a youth will remain in the church is the degree to which the youth "belongs, fits in."4 Consuela reported in 1979 that Catholic youth slip away from the church for "lack of identity with it, lack of roots. "5 And a follow-up study six years after a 1962 New York Billy Graham crusade revealed that the most important influence bearing on the teenage retention factor was the "acquisition of new friends."6

Church's fulfillment of spiritual and social needs

In our study a total of 41 percent agreed or strongly agreed that the church meets the spiritual needs of its youth. Another 25 percent were neutral. Thus only one in three was negative. It cannot, however, be assumed that a neutral response means that a youth sees no deficiencies. It may just mean that he or she has no expectations. And we must not take lightly the fact that the remaining third of the respondents indicated that the church did not meet their spiritual needs.

When the regular church attenders were distinguished from irregular, the regular attenders expressed greater satisfaction with the church's ability to meet their spiritual needs than the irregular attenders. We did not determine whether the church attenders attend because their spiritual needs are met or whether their spiritual needs are met because they attend.

Forty-four percent of those surveyed also felt that their social needs were being met in the church, while 23 percent were neutral. Thus only one-third responded negatively. As could be expected, regular attenders were more satisfied than their less frequently present counterparts.

The teens' impressions of certain church-provided spiritual and social activities are shown in Table 2. Only those who actually engaged in these experiences were included in the evaluation.

Perceptions of pastors and members

Our survey provides some interesting data concerning which groups of people have the most influence on teenagers. Respondents weighted their closeness to their mother highest, giving her an 83 percent rating. Peers were next at 70 per cent, then fathers, 68 percent; sister(s), 56 percent; brother(s), 55 percent; Adventist teachers, 36 percent; Sabbath school teachers, 35 percent; and church leaders, 30 percent.

A corresponding set of data called for weighting of those perceived by the teenagers to be religious role models. These proved to be: parents, 45 percent; pastors, 40 percent; adult members, 35 per cent; teachers, 32 percent; grandparents, 28 percent; peers, 27 percent; miscellaneous others, 18 percent; siblings, 15 percent.

An interfacing of the two sets of data reveals that although teenagers reported being close to peers and siblings, the people who have the strongest influence on their ideals are adults. They do not typically look to age mates as spiritual role models.

It appears significant that although pastors were among the lowest category in closeness of relationships, their spiritual role modeling is second only to that of parents. It seems appropriate here to recall the words of Dann Spader of Moody Bible Institute, "Teens determine what's true based on what they experience in relationships. If you want to influence a teenager, you've got to establish a relationship with him."

A religious role model is not enough. A close relationship is not enough. The study revealed that mothers come the closest to bringing the two qualities together. We suggest that the pastor's (and father's, as well as other adults') spiritual role modeling might have more influence if they were to develop close relationships with teenagers.

One happy youth described the kind of relationships teenagers prefer to have with spiritual leaders: "I'd like to tell you about my Sabbath school leaders. They are so incredible. I don't know anyone who can make religion so fun. Without them I might have stopped going to church. They don't stand in front of us with a Bible in one hand and chalk in the other. They sit with us in a circle, and we just talk. We discuss things rather than listen to lectures. I think it's much better for us to be asked things and talk about them, rather than to just be told 'This is right,' 'This is wrong,' 'Do this to go to heaven,' etc."

Table 3 reveals the teenagers' perceptions of Seventh-day Adventist members overall. Sixty-eight percent agree that Adventists are God's chosen people and 67 percent believe that Adventists ex press love, but only 36 percent responded that Adventist lifestyles are superior and 39 percent that there is harmony among church leadership.

More than half expressed disagreement with the negative statements that Adventists are hypocrites (51 percent), that they serve God through fear of being lost (56 percent), or that good Adventists have less fun than worldly people (57 percent).

Perceptions of members varied. A very representative feeling expressed was "The people have to go. Some of them come so they can find out who did this and that and what happened during the week. See who has the best, newest fashion, and which cost more, and who paid the most tithe." Another summarized the other end of the continuum: "I enjoy church mostly because of the extended family it brings to me; I am so happy with our church. I hope all Seventh-day Adventist churches are like ours. I am totally satisfied." It cannot be overemphasized that teenagers' attitudes toward the church are based on their perceptions of the members.

Attitudes toward church standards

In the entire study the strongest influence on teenagers' intentions to remain Adventists proved to be the degree to which they agree or disagree with the church's standards. (This, however, is an internal, unobservable criterion--an attitude--that is not so objective an index as the measurement of church attendance.)

Even if the alienation-prone teenagers slide through Bible classes without paying attention and sleep through Sabbath sermons, they will still squarely face some practical indoctrination by the church's lifestyle restrictions, or standards. Here the rubber meets the road.

As shown in Table 4, movies, rock music, dancing, and jewelry, in that order, seem to be the four standards least accepted by the teenagers. The fact that one-fourth of them were willing to disclose (anonymously) their disagreement (8 percent) or strong disagreement (17 percent) with the church's position forbidding premarital sex will be alarming to many.

Adults may take heart, however, that not all youth have rejected the standards. One youth wrote, "Our church is one of the better, more loving, caring religions with high standards. And I'm for high standards." Several mentioned that they felt the church's spirituality is slipping and that many members no longer live up to church standards.

Many who wrote about the standards did so in the context of confusion rather than conflict. Some wanted clarification regarding why the church condones wedding bands while forbidding other types of jewelry. Differing adult interpretations of the standards also lead to confusion for the youth.

One rather new trend in free thinking was discovered, but in regard to a doctrine rather than a standard. Several youth lamented that the Sabbath begins at sundown Friday instead of at a time that would not interfere with Friday evening activities such as football games. They proposed that the Sabbath hours be reckoned from midnight to midnight. Most Adventists would probably view this development with alarm.

Many youth seemed to feel that their relationship with the church doesn't really matter, and that all that does matter is their personal relationship with Christ. This was usually expressed in the context of disliking the members. One youth, who did perceive the church body as essential to salvation, wrote, "I wish we could form a new congregation at our church because I want to live with Jesus someday."

One articulate youth wrote, "The church has me closed into a box with many exits, but none that pleases me." Another elaborated this same feeling, "I love it, and I hate it. It holds me back. But if it didn't, things would get out of hand. So then again I like it." Some wrote that although they intended to remain Adventists, their Adventism would be different from the Adventism they experience today.

In summary, Adventist youth perceive the church through the people and perceive the rules through the people who make them. If the people are warm and accepting of youth and the talents of youth, teenagers view the church as a fine place to incubate their religious experience. If the rules are understandable, consistent, and fair, the people are viewed as spiritual role models. If teenagers believe the relationships and rules represent the caring and justice of God, their perceptions of the Seventh-day Adventist Church are positive.


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Janet Leigh Kangas, Ph. D., was a research assistant at the Institute of Church History when she collaborated on this article with Dr. Dudley. Dr. Kangas is now editor of Mission.
Roger L. Dudley, Ed.D., is the director of the Institute of Church History, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

October 1989

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