How mature? How involved?

A study of faith maturity and congregational involvement among Adventist young adults

Roger Dudley, Ed.D., is director of the Institute of Church Ministry, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

The Institute of Church Ministry (ICM) has reported already on the first four years of a 10- year study of Adventist teenagers and their relationships to the church, 1 sponsored by the North American Division, particularly the Church Ministries and Education departments. This article reports the findings of the fifth year of the study.

In 1987, the beginning year, ICM received usable surveys from 1,523 youth distributed among nearly 700 churches in the North American Division. The young people were either 15 or 16 years old and baptized members of the church. By the end of the fifth year, questionnaires had been returned by 887 members of the original sample and form the basis of this report.

Adventist Youth Survey 5 contained 61 questions. ICM updates material on personal religion and church connections and keeps in touch with changes in such personal matters as educational plans and marital status. The bulk of the questionnaire, however, was devoted to the replication of two major areas of the Valuegenesis questionnaire that surveyed approximately 11,000 Seventh-day Adventist young people in the autumn of 1989.2

The Valuegenesis research included youth from grades 6 to 12 (ages of about 11 to 17), while the young adults in this Youth Retention Study ranged from age 19 to 21. What similarities exist between the younger and older groups in the two major areas of faith maturity and attitudes toward the local congregation?

Connection to the Church

The survey found the person's present relationship toward the Adventist Church as follows:

Enthusiastic member                         29%

So-so member                                   47%

Officially a member, but not in heart 15%

Have dropped out                               9%

These figures are very close to those reported a year ago. The 24 percent choosing the last two responses may be essentially lost to the church unless a drastic turnaround occurs. The 9 percent who have dropped out account for 76 young people. The 15 percent who are inactive represent another 137 respondents. Actually, more than 76 persons have indicated that they have dropped membership. Over the three years that this question has appeared, a list of about 130 has been compiled, but only 76 of these returned surveys this year.

And what about the 582 youth who filled out the first-year survey but who did not respond this year and who did not claim in past years to have dropped church membership? It can be assumed that many of them are inactive or have officially dropped out. If this were true of even half (a conservative estimate), that would be 291 added to the 130 dropouts and the 137 who claimed to be inactive this year, or a total of 558 who have left either officially or in heart. That would be over 36 percent of the group who began. A 36 percent loss in just five years is probably an underestimation.

In assessing connection to the church, researchers might ask not only about what has happened but about what these young adults expect will happen in the next few years. One of the most important questions on the Valuegenesis study was: "When you are 40 years old, do you think you will be active in the Adventist Church?" This question was also included on Youth Survey 5. Possible answers are listed below along with the percent age choosing each answer on both the Valuegenesis study and the present research.

Response No Chance Small Chance Fair Chance Good Chance Excellent Chance
Valuegenesis 2% 7% 19% 45% 27%
Youth Survey 5 3% 9% 19% 36% 33%

While Valuegenesis was looking at adolescents in grades 6 to 12 and Youth Survey 5 dealt with college-age youth, the two groups were very close except that they divided be tween "good" and "excellent" some what differently. But if "good" and "excellent" are combined, the totals are 72 percent and 69 percent respectively---differences too small to be significant.

About seven out of 10 are planning to remain in the church. Of course, it may not turn out that way. Some of these may later give up. Nevertheless, it does present an encouraging picture. On the other hand, the church cannot afford to write off the 12 per cent that already see little or no chance of a future as Adventists. Remember also that many of those who are most vulnerable to dropping out have already been removed from these statistics by not responding to the survey.

Faith maturity A major portion of the questionnaire was given to replicating the mature faith scale from the Valuegenesis study. In this conceptual scheme faith maturity is not simply a set of right beliefs. Rather, it is conceived more as a way of life, as a set of priorities, dispositions, and behaviors that evidence that faith is deep, vibrant, and life-changing, and it embraces two overall themes. A person of mature faith experiences both a life-transforming relationship with a loving God---the vertical theme---and a consistent devotion to serving others: the horizontal theme.

Thirty-eight representative statements of mature faith were constructed for the Mature Faith Scale. In the comparisons between Valuegenesis and Youth Survey 5 (see box on page 17), the percentages are the combined responses of those who chose either "often true," "almost always true," or "always true" for each item.

Those items labeled "reversed scoring" are stated negatively as far as the concept of faith maturity goes. Thus, when they were calculated into the Mature Faith Scale, the numbers were reversed so that choice number 1 (never true) received the highest rating and vice versa.

On a number of items the percent ages are quite close. However, the young adults are at least five points lower (after reversing negative items) than the Valuegenesis subjects on the following items: faith shaping every day actions, faith helping to know right from wrong, seeing evidence of God's activity in the world, seeking opportunities for spiritual growth, time for prayer, efforts to promote world peace, responsibility for reducing pain and suffering, a changing understanding of God, God's presence in relationships with others, meaning and purpose in life, churches becoming involved in political issues, and creating international harmony. They are at least 10 points lower on caring for physical health, speaking for equality for women and minorities, obedience to God's commandments, and a sense of God's guidance. Furthermore, they are at least 20 points lower on efforts to promote social justice and commitment to Jesus Christ.

By contrast, the young adults are at least five points higher than the Valuegenesis subjects only on protecting the environment, self-acceptance, and handling their responsibilities and obligations, and 11 points higher on harmonizing a loving God with the presence of pain and suffering.

The young adults in this sample are thus lower than the younger students on this measure of faith maturity. Percentages seem especially low on such items as time for Bible study (22 percent), efforts to promote social justice (21 percent), efforts to pro mote world peace (12 percent), and time and money to help others (16 percent). Moreover, these respondents are the 58 percent of the original random sample that have chosen to remain in the study probably more dedicated than those who have dis continued participation.

When the scores on the individual items are summed into a Mature Faith Scale, about 1 percent of the sample fall into the low faith maturity category, about 90 percent can be categorized as having moderate faith maturity, and about 9 percent evidence high faith maturity. In the Valuegenesis study 22 percent of the students fell into the high faith maturity class a statistic that was widely decried as being too low. This must make the present 9 percent a cause for real alarm.

Congregational climate

The Valuegenesis survey asked the youth to think about the local church that they attend and indicate how true of that church were each of 16 statements. A five-point response format ranged from "not at all true" to "very true." Youth Survey 5 employed the same items but made available the additional response: "I do not attend church." An average of 9 percent selected this last option. The list below shows the combined percentages of those who answered either "quite true" or "very true" and compares the responses of the Valuegenesis subjects with those from Youth Survey 5.

The first four statements have been combined into a scale called warm church climate. It measures the ex tent to which the young perceive their congregations as warm, friendly places where people, even those who are different, feel at home. Unfortunately, not even half could give a wholehearted endorsement to the individual items. The average for the four items was only 41 percent. The Valuegenesis average was 54 percent, and that was considered unacceptably low. Another scale was formed from the fifth through the ninth statements (see page 18). These five items were labeled the thinking church climate scale. As can be seen from a study of the content, it seeks perceptions as to whether the church climate encourages reasoning and exploring new ideas rather than mindless conformity. In other words, do you have to park your brains to be a good Adventist?

Unfortunately, important as it is to any system of nurture and development, such a climate seems to be scarce. While an average of only 45 percent of the Valuegenesis respondents saw their congregations as places that respect and foster thinking, the young adults in the Youth Retention Study had an even lower opinion, with an average of 28 percent.

Learning to think for oneself is an important part of achieving responsible adulthood. If young people come to feel that the climate of the congregation is antagonistic to that purpose, the church will likely lose them.

The last seven statements in the list on the previous page consist of two that are negative and five that are positive. It seems particularly alarming that only a little more than a fifth saw the church as open to new ideas and that no more than half believed that their congregations emphasized grace and forgiveness, were caring, or accepted them as they were. On four of the positive items the young adults were even lower than the Valuegenesis group. Slightly more went to things at church because they wanted to, but this probably reflects the increased independence that ac companies entry into young adulthood.

Conclusion The findings of the fifth year of this Youth Retention Study reveal that Adventist young adults are only moderate in faith maturity, even lower than teenagers, and that they generally have negative attitudes toward their local congregations, especially in the areas of warmth, challenge to thinking, and relevance. An estimated 36 percent have already essentially left the church, and others are soon to follow. The future of Adventism in North America depends upon a careful, intentional response to these challenges on the part of church leaders and those who minister to youth and young adults.

1. For a complete report on the first two years, see Roger L. Dudley and Janet Leigh Kangas, The World of the Adventist Teenager (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1990). See also Dudley and Kangas, "How Adventist Teenagers Perceive Their Church," Ministry, October 1989, pp. 4-7; Dudley and Gan-Theow Ng, "Adventist Youth Cry Out!" Ministry, April 1992, pp. 9-11.

2. Roger L. Dudley, Valuegenesis: Faith in the Balance (marginal notations by V. Bailey Gillespie) (Riverside, Calif.: La Sierra Univer sity Press, 1992).

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Roger Dudley, Ed.D., is director of the Institute of Church Ministry, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

September 1994

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