I can sum up the whole problem of keeping the youth in the church with three words: lack of attention! The church has something for every age group except the youth. I think the older members of our churches need to be aware that there are youth and that we are looking to them for leadership. If a person can't find his shoes in one room, he goes to another room to look, right? Well, if young people can't find leader ship and guidance from our older church members, then we look for it elsewhere. Hence so many youth are leaving the church. Maybe the church as a denomination should help us youth 'find our shoes.' "
So writes one of our teenage correspondents in the North American Division Youth Retention Study. By now the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America is aware that the division's Education and Church Ministries departments have commissioned the Institute of Church Ministry (ICM) to conduct a 10- year study of Adventist youth with special emphasis on the factors that are related to young people's decisions to drop out of or remain in the Adventist Church. Earlier reports have appeared in the Adventist Review (Dec. 15, 1988), Ministry (October 1989), and the Journal of Adventist Education (April-May 1990).
ICM has now collected data for the third year of the study. This time we heard from 1,083 young people, 17 or 18 years of age, scattered all over the United States and Canada. While we will be providing statistical information on a regular basis, much can be learned by reading the write-in comments. In addition to filling out the questionnaire, hundreds of young people took time to pour out their hearts concerning their experience with the Adventist Church. They did it be cause they sincerely hope the church will listen and then act. They invested their effort on the chance that it might bring about change. While we cannot begin to include all of the comments, we have selected some that we believe to be typical.
Importance placed on youth
Many of the teens told us that they don't believe the church really cares about them. "As I grow older," writes one, "I am beginning to feel that I'm not important to the church. Our Sabbath school is a joke, because it's the department that gets leftovers for teachers. When I'm home from school, I just skip Sabbath school, because it eliminates the frustrations I feel when I try to lead the teacher into topics that really matter, but to no avail. Then when I walk into church, instead of receiving a normal bulletin, the lady reaches into the bottom of the pile and hands me one with no cover on it. The next people (adults) who come in get normal ones. Sometimes I don't get one at all. She says, 'If no more people come in, I'll give you one.' I know this sounds very silly and it is, but it is those little things that add up and make people feel just a little less important. Maybe it is a lot of 'little' reasons that make people want to leave the church. I'm an adult, and I just wish my home church would treat me like one. Is that too much to ask? And is it too much to ask to have a meaningful lesson study?"
Some young people complain that the church talks about the importance of its youth, but that's all it is—just talk. Listen to this cry: "The problem with the church is with people. You see, these people are really all for the youth program, but their interest is so artificial, it's ridiculous. During the program they'll all be riled up and say, 'We support our youth.' But after the meeting we don't exist at all', We come to them with our problems and they ignore us, or give us the classic line 'It was a lot harder when I was a kid.' They couldn't be more wrong! We youth have so much thrown at us today it's almost unbearable. Drags, alcohol, sex, and gangs are just the tip of the iceberg of what we face every day, 365 days a year."
Many of the young people really do want to be involved and are genuinely concerned for the future of the church. Here's a typical one: "I see discontent and boredom among those in our age group, and I wish so badly the youth and I could find enthusiasm. But it's very difficult to want to be involved when our ideas and opinions are considered to be too radical and not important. Everyone tells us we are the church of tomorrow, but millions of others and I are trying to tell you and anyone else who will listen that there will be no church of tomorrow if we are not recognized, accepted as we are, and allowed to put our youthful energy and new ideas into effect. Time moves forward, not backward, just like science and technology."
Hypocrisy in the caring church
Many youth are turned off by the hypocrisy they perceive in older church members. Says one: "I think the church is tied up in too much politics. The last SDA school I went to, I was picked on and laughed at, etc., because I wasn't as well dressed; Almost all the SDA people (adults included) rate other members by whom they are related to pastors, school principals, conference officials, etc. If you're not in tight with these people, you're either ignored or frowned upon. SDAs are hypocrites, too. That's why I don't go to church anymore."
Hypocrisy is often associated with favoritism. Two young people comment: "Our church is so hypocritical. I feel our church is the most snobbish church I've been to. They judge everyone. Something needs to be done." "I feel that Adventists on the whole really turn a lot of people away from God if they don't have a lot of money. I feel this is wrong, and I'm disappointed because I feel my parents are doing the best they can for me. I think we are well-to-do, but because we are not rich, the other students are not as friendly because I am not in the same class as they are moneywise."
What the teens are really looking for is evidence of caring. "You adults out there would be surprised if you knew how much we youth follow your examples. So don't be hypocritical. Don't ignore us when we come to you for help. Don't treat us like we were unintelligent subhuman life forms. But most of all care. Don't be afraid to show a little love once in a while." "I wish that SDAs would love one another for what they are and not destroy their fellow members with hatred and criticism."
Legalism or Jesus
Adventist young people seem to be reacting against the legalism they have experienced in the church. "I support the SDA Church completely, but I also have some problems with it. I think that the reason the SDA Church loses so many youth is that the youth see the church as not inviting. The reason for this is that they don't realize that they need to have a relationship with Christ. They see the rules as legalistic and something they have to do instead of realizing that they keep the commandments because of their relationship with Christ, not so that one can be an SDA."
The subject of rules raises in youth the issue of principles and open-mindedness. Here are two letters: "Our church has so many unnecessary rules. The leaders become so concerned about petty little things. Our religion has become too legalistic!" "Older members of the church tend to blindly follow picky rules, rather than study the underlying principles. This often leads to closed-mindedness and rigidity. One reason that I am attending a non-Adventist college is that I wanted to be able to think for myself, not be told what to think by someone else. I wish the church were more open and flexible."
What we have may be good, the youth say, but perhaps we don't have the emphasis quite right. "The Adventist Church carries its legalistic approach to Christianity a bit too far. All these rules, regulations, and other stuff are good, and yes, they are helpful in life. Being an Adventist all my life, I've grown up accepting all these things. But! for that person who is looking for a church home, Seventh-day Adventism can be a very scary ordeal. The first thing he/she learns about our church is not the love of God and how special it is to have a close relationship with Him. No. Instead, he/she hears: 'Well, we Adventists have 832 rules. We don't eat all sorts of stuff, we don't smoke, we don't drink, we don't wear jewelry. Oh, I see you're wearing a ring. Well, you are definitely going to have to take it off forever when you join our church, or else you'll go straight to hell. Have a happy Sabbath.' Naturally you know that I'm exaggerating, but it is true that we emphasize our legalism and frown upon anyone who breaks one of the commandments. It's no wonder that so many people are scared away, not only those who are considering membership but also those already in the church."
Perhaps what we need is more of an emphasis on a personal relationship with Jesus. Says one correspondent: "I believe that the SDA Church is 'right.' But it seems that there is a certain element lacking in regard to youth and their inter est in the church. I would say a large majority are not interested in church or Christianity. Why? I don't know why. Maybe there is a problem with church activities, or the lack of interest for the church is just a passing phase in the lives of teens, or maybe it has to do with Adventist thinking in general. I think that just possibly there is too much emphasis placed on doctrines and practices rather than on a personal relationship with Christ." Writes another: "I feel very confused and frustrated with the SDA Church and my religion right now. I've seen, heard, and understood all the whys and hows of our church doctrines all my life. I even agree with 99.9 percent of them. But what is bothering me now is the lack of love, unity, and honest people trying to live like Jesus seven days a week instead of just on Sabbath. Of what meaning are our doctrines if we don't show God's love unconditionally to everyone!"
Trials and temptations
One of the most moving experiences involved in this research is reading the responses of Adventist youth who share the pain of their personal trials and temptations. "I don't quite know what to say, but one thing is for sure: it is getting harder every day to be a Seventh-day Adventist Christian. Other things seem so much more appealing. I pray that the leaders of our church will someday be able to make our religion more attractive than worldly pleasures." "I like the church and I love my Lord. But these days it comes hard for me. I feel I have wandered away from the Lord. I struggle to come back, but I feel lost. None of my friends understand. I have no real friends who attend church. I've talked to my girl friend, but she doesn't understand how I feel about the Lord. For a while I forget about the Lord, but now I want Him back in my life. I pray to the Lord to show me the way back. I want to serve the Lord and dedicate my life to Him."
With the youth the Christian life often becomes an up-and-down struggle be tween the desire to do right and the pull of the world. "My relationship with Christ is like this. Jesus is a medicine, and when I get sick I take a dose of this medicine. But as I get better, I feel like I can recuperate the rest of the way on my own and quit taking the medicine for a while. So I end up getting sick again. This is repeated over and over, and I end up never getting well." "I want a good relationship with God really I do. But I find myself always 'playing with fire.' I seem to test everything, have urges to go out on Sabbaths (to concerts, parties, etc.), and I feel empty. The only way I can fill the emptiness is to accept God as number one in my life. For a while I do, but then some sort of temptation will come along, and God seems to come in second. I don't like putting Him second, but I guess I just don't think. I guess that's only human. I love God. I have every possible reason to love Him. I have so many blessing from Him. I need Him."
In the midst of trials young people look wistfully to the church for under standing and support. Sometimes they are disappointed. "I was kicked out of the Adventist academy I attended and then from my home. I haven't attended church since then and would like to go back, but I feel the members would make me feel uncomfortable with their churchly concern and questions. I am also worried that my appearance will startle them into thinking that my weight loss and somewhat gaunt appearance suggests drug use instead of truth stress and little money with which to buy food. With my luck they'll try to put me in some sort of substance-free class that will only make me angry and for which I've no time or need. After I was kicked out of home, not one church member called me or visited me to see if I was OK or to give me any support, not even to baby-sit their children like I always had. Even my academy friends have pulled away from me, probably feeling that they have little in common with me. They are right, I suppose, since my concerns of what to wear to vespers and of being 'put on social' have now been replaced by rent payments and groceries. For now I guess I don't have much need for the church and their social circles, but I still pray often, and God is truly after all my best friend."
Happiness and satisfaction
Not all youth are disappointed. Some have found their faith to be satisfying and fulfilling. Here are some comments: "Overall I feel the SDA [faith] is the closest thing to the truth. We are a group of people who have a lot of faith in God. I am happy with my religion and plan to stay with it throughout my education and my life." "I love my church and the fellowship we have." "I am very satisfied with my religion. I want to become so much more in life, for myself and for Christ. I'm fighting to be more like Him for my sake and for His."
Often that satisfaction is related to belonging to a local congregation that is warm and caring. "My church is very interesting. When anyone has problems, everyone helps each other out. They respect everyone. They take everyone for who he or she is. My whole family from both sides goes there." "I was recently rebaptized. I found that I loved the church. Church now is something that I look forward to and enjoy. I have joined the collegiate choir and am also volunteering some time in a youth center, working to set up a program to aid pregnant teenage mothers. Though money is tight and the loss of my mom's job has put pressure on the whole family, I can still 'turn it over to Jesus' and smile the rest of the day! Church and a new relationship with God have given me a new life, and I am eternally grateful! Our religion is wonderful!"
Jesus did not countenance sin, but He loved sinners and drew them to Him. Sometimes a teenager is fortunate enough to find a local congregation that models such an attitude. The effect can be very poignant. "Recently my boyfriend and I had a baby boy. While we love each other very much, I myself don't feel I'm ready for marriage. My boyfriend and I have been together for two years, and I feel we have grown together both mentally and physically. We are giving our baby all the love and security we can until the time comes when we feel we are ready for marriage. While our church does not fully agree with our decision, they are standing beside us and helping us out where they can. It has helped to go to church and still be welcome. Even though I've made a lot of mistakes, I want my little boy to grow up with the knowledge that Jesus is his Saviour too."
We have selected only a sample from our large collection of comments. This sample helps us get a feel of what North American Adventist youth are saying. The cry of youth! A cry for significance, a cry for genuineness, a cry for relation ship, a cry for understanding and support. Our young people are at risk. A whole generation could be lost to the church. And yet it is a generation of promise and idealism, a generation that might lead the church on to final victory. The loving, supportive attitudes these youth find in their local congregations could spell the difference between failure or success.