Youth apostasy and recovery

Understanding and reaching out to young people estranged from the church.

Barry Gane, D.Min., is director of the Master of Arts for Youth Directors, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.
Steve Case, D.Min., is president of Piece of the Pie Ministries, Sacramento, California.

Let's face it: Many of our young people are leaving the Church. The questions are: How many are leaving? Why? and What can we do about it?

The first serious attempt to truly discover on a large scale how many youth are inactive was a ten-year longitudinal study undertaken by Roger Dudley at the Institute of Church Ministry at Andrews University (1989). Funded by the North American Division, Dudley obtained names and addresses of 1,523 baptized young people ages 15 and 16. Approximately half attended Adventist academies with the other half attending public schools.

At the end of this longitudinal study, when the original 15- and 16-year-olds were 25 and 26 years old, self-perceived standing with the Adventist Church showed approximately one-fourth as enthusiastic members, one-fourth as so-so members, and the remaining one-half divided between being on the books but not in heart and dropped out.1 Even this most accurate statistic to date is still quite nebulous.2

The Valuegenesis study included a projection of one's intention for future church participation. The results indicate that 28 per cent of today's 12- to 18-year-olds are not planning to be in the Church when they are 40 years old.

Figures for those who leave the Church in many congregations and conferences range between 35-65 percent. One congregation claimed that generating a list of the names of youth that had left the church would be easy since they didn't lose many of their youth. After two sittings the youth committee had compiled a list of 135 names of youth who had once attended the church but no longer did. This figure represented 40 percent of the youth who had left over a five-year period. The time that a young person leaves varies from culture to culture and country to coun try, but some believe the critical period is at the end of high school as youth either enter the workforce or begin tertiary study.3 As young people assert their independence, one of the ways they do it is by questioning and often rejecting the values and beliefs of their parents.

The crucial question is: What can we do to stop this hemorrhaging of one of our most valuable assets?

Reasons that youth leave the Church

In just the last five years a number of studies have given us an insight into what encourages youth to sever connection with the Church. The Young Adult Valuegenesis Results from the South Pacific Division gave us the following reasons. They appear in descending order from the reason most given down to the response that occurred the least.

  • Adult members are living phony lives.
  • The Church places too much emphasis on nonessentials.
  • Attitudes of older members are critical and uncaring.
  • Church leaders are preoccupied with organization, not concerned with people.
  • Worship services are dull and meaningless.
  • Do not want to be a hypocrite.
  • Church is too restrictive.
  • Attracted to a different lifestyle.
  • Do not have any real friends at church.
  • Church does not allow me to think for myself.

Many youth cite the fact of a lack of friends at church as a major reason for not wanting to attend. Others speak of the irrelevance of the Church to their daily lives and also of the meaningless worship rituals. Others experience trauma or crisis and feel that the church did not respond to their needs. Still others cite the family as being such that they do not want to belong to the church. Many use any or a number of these reasons as an excuse to experiment with the world.

Some studies highlight the family as a key in understanding why young people leave or stay in the Church. Brad Strahan has surveyed over 200 college students in an attempt to see if there is a connection between the relationship a young person has with their parents and their images of God. He is convinced that the quality of the parent-child bond is a more powerful predictor of whether or not there will be a positive faith in the child than the religiosity of the parent. The young person's understanding of God is greatly enhanced when they have a model of God's love demonstrated to them. The most effective parenting style for building the faith and the psychological and emotional health of the youth is one that is high on care (shows affection and warmth) and at the same time allows freedom and empowers youth to be independent.

Many Adventist homes are seen by young people as restrictive and not caring. Their parents' faith is viewed as more important than they, the children, are. Even the temptation to be protective or overly protective if balanced with warmth and love can make youth more dependent and less able to make decisions and affects sons more than daughters. Strahan is convinced that if the parents use religion to control, the young person will use religion to assert his/her independence.

The attitude of the local church

John Savage has studied what happens in the church when someone leaves:

Out of a youth's personal anxiety, and perhaps even from events separate from the church, there comes a "cry for help." This can be obvious and audible, but it is often indirect. If the church fails to recognize and respond to the cry for help the hurting youth begins a predictable dropout track that ultimately leads to a self-protective decision to leave the church. If the church responds at this stage it may avert the loss; however, the church frequently screens out the cry and the young person. Because of this rejection the young person stops coming to church.

The church begins to feel the pain of rejection when the young person continues to skip church. In reaction, the church may punish the young person for rejecting them. When this occurs the young person becomes angry, only feeling further rejection, hurt, and misunderstanding. In the next step the young person goes into denial where s/he says that it doesn't matter and acts as if s/he doesn't care.

This whole process can happen in as quickly as six weeks and end in permanent withdrawal. If the young person is not visited or if the problem remains unresolved during this time, he or she feels that the decision to leave the church is a correct one. Savage has shown convincingly that visitation by a person with good listening skills any time in this first six weeks can facilitate the return of the youth to the church family.

How do you make a friendship visit?

Roger Dudley's study, mentioned earlier, has revealed that only about 15 percent of youth who stop coming to church ever receive a follow-up visit or even a call from anyone at church. That means that 85 percent never have anyone who visited or said that they cared. Some who decide to return to church find it difficult, if not impossible, to break in.4

Before your visit spend time in prayer for the person you are visiting.5 You could explain that you have missed the person at church and that you and the youth team have decided to visit all the youth who haven't been at church for a while. Your approach may not make much difference if you are praying for the person and if you are sincerely friendly. One important step you must not forget is that sometime before leaving you should let the person know that you have enjoyed the visit and that you will be back. Try to work out the best time to get together.

The visit at first should never be more than 30 minutes, and it is much better to make it 20 minutes. Do not do all the talking yourself. Discuss what the youth is interested in and you will be surprised how soon he or she will bring the conversation to things that have to do with Christ. This isn't a "green light" to initiate a Bible study. The purpose of your visit is to create an interest by your friend ship so that the youth will want to come back to church for consistent spiritual involvement.

Listening skills

Because parents and church leaders do not always understand what is happening, youth feel rejected and take their questions elsewhere to be answered. For those involved in reclaiming youth, one of the major skills needed is the ability to listen, and to listen with empathy.

The place to begin is where the young person is. You will need to understand his or her thinking, world, and dilemmas. Good communication is dialogue. Often youth leaders want to do all the talking. To reach youth that have severed their connection with the church you must:

  • Have a genuine desire to listen.
  • Be willing to read and accept feelings and emotions.
  • Not have the need to always be right.
  • Be accepting, noncritical, and nonjudgmental.
  • Let the young people know you feel honored to share their story.
  • Be open enough to share some of your journey and even some of your struggles.
  • Be prepared to keep in touch and sacrifice enough to support.

It is essential to build a relationship, and this will take time and commitment on your part. Relationships are built on understanding, empathy, and nonjudgmental attitudes. Warm, kind, genuine, and trustworthy peo ple build relationships.

Empathy is of extreme importance in seeking to understand what is being said. Empathy is not sympathy. "Empathy is the capacity to imagine the teen's experiences ... as well as to express those experiences to show understanding. "6

You must be prepared to speak the language of the young person and deal with areas of interest to him/her. Listen for his or her concerns and be prepared to explore them a little. Demonstrate that you have high esteem for people, and don't put any one or any faith down. At the same time don't be afraid to challenge the young person's thinking.

When you win trust and youth place confidence in you they will begin to share, and this sharing will become deeper and more intimate as the relationship grows. Keep a high level of confidentiality, for if you break the person's confidence, you may destroy the relationship and hinder the process of his or her return to the church.

Friendship evangelism

All young people are searching for meaning or endeavoring to make sense of the world in some way. For some it is the pursuit of pleasure. But for many there is the desire for relationships and spirituality. They want to know where they fit in the scheme of things.

The atmosphere and the attitude of the church is important in bringing youth back to church. There must be a spirit of inclusion as opposed to exclusion. You must be willing to take a risk and know that sometimes these young people will let you down. You must be willing to meet their needs.

Meeting the needs

What are some of the youth needs that we already know? David Stone, looking at youth needs, highlights what he regards as the five major needs:

1. Self-esteem—an innate need to be important in the eyes of others, especially peers and parents.

2. Self-confidence—a need to know that "I can handle it, you don't have to wipe my nose for me." A sense of knowing that he or she can use his or her ability well.

3. Self-regard—a need to care about how he or she looks, feels, and thinks in relation to everyone else.

4. Self-worth—a need to know that his comments, feelings, and thoughts really do count and can make a difference.

5. God awareness—a need to have a power, a force, or authority which is ever present or available to eliminate the caustic, inevitable encroachment of loneliness. A need to believe in a God who is loving and forgiving and always with him. Youth need a God who is not a magician, but a constant companion whom he can turn to not only in an S.O.S. situation, but who also walks beside him or dwells with in him as a friend, confidant, and guide.7 Individual needs will only be discovered in a relationship where youth trust you enough to tell you what is happening for them.

Church climate

Valuegenesis results showed that with academy teens, only 54 percent considered their churches to have an atmosphere of warmth and caring, significantly lower than all six other Protestant denominations who con ducted similar studies. When Roger Dudley used the same questions with the 20- and 21-year-olds in his study, the number dropped to 41 percent. The issue of a warm and caring environment is problematic not only of adult attitudes to youth, but also the way young people relate to each other. The cliques among Adventist youth isolate them from caring for people, including their peers.

A similar negative trend could be noted in regard to a church thinking climate from the teens into the twenties. Valuegenesis showed a paltry 34 percent of Adventist teens consider their congregations to have thinking climates. With Dudley's 20- and 21- year-olds, the number again dropped, this time to 28 percent. This means that while a questioning mind characterizes the collegiate-age category, less than 30 percent of Adventist young people find their churches to be a place conducive for their approach to truth. When they question existing truth, they easily could encounter reactionary insecurity. In reality, they are beginning to internalize their faith, not to give it up. Questioning is misunderstood as unbelief rather than the pathway to belief. Faced with such options, most young people opt for the integrity of growing in their faith and discovery of truth, even if they are squeezed out of their religion.

Programs to attract and incorporate young people

Many seek that all-encompassing program that will attract and keep young people in their church. No such universal program exists. In fact, what works with one church or one community may fall flat with another. It would be wise to program variety for those within the church and to attract those outside of the church.

Overtly religious programming such as Friday evening vesper pro grams and weekend retreats will reach some. In North America, recreation in the form of volleyball and basketball seem like favorite activities for many, including those wary of religious activities. The need for social activities continues to be strong, especially when young people graduate from Adventist school programming and an increasing number marry later. Service activities are "in," and will continue to have appeal to a number of youth since these are years of heightened horizontal expressions of spirituality.

Have the young people provide input on specific programming ideas. Be prepared to do something traditional or something totally out of the ordinary. In general, the three F's tend to attract people Friends, Food, and Fun. Involvement is a key to maintain interest, but remember that young people, especially collegiate age, flee commitment. That means that their involvement must be in manageable amounts and backed up by more stable leadership.

A final word

If a person has been inactive for a while, realize that to get involved again requires battling a number of fears. Of course there will be a fear of acceptance. If their current lifestyle isn't completely in harmony with Adventist practices, there may be a fear of behavioral changes, which the person may or may not want to be changed. There is also a fear that should they become involved with the church again, there will be a loss of most of the friends they've made outside of the church. At the same time, being fearful that the church hasn't changed much since they left, they probably expect a fair amount of criticism for being away as well as possibly not fitting in if and when they return.

While no environment is germfree, a congregation's overall attitude and behavior towards returning young people must be primed periodically. Featuring young people, including returning inactives in the church newsletter or on the platform for various duties or sharing church life can serve as reminders of the church's ongoing ministry to young people. Frequently some of the young people remain in contact with inactive youth. Knowing the church will welcome them back and having something to invite them to equips them to restore the inactive back to the life of the church.

1 Roger L. Dudley, Why Our Teenagers Leave the Church: Personal Stones From A 10-Year Study (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2000).

2 For a more complete review of the first two years of this ten-year longitudinal study, see Roger Dudley and Janet Kangas, The World of the Adventist Teenager (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1990). Reports for each subsequent year may be obtained from the Institute of Church Ministry, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, MI 49104, U.S.A.

3 Sharon Parks, TheCritical Years: The Young Adult Search for a Faith to Live By (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986), sees this period as crucial in the development of a faith that is owned and lived by.

4 Roger Dudley shared this part of a letter with me that illustrates this point on visitation. "I wanted to write and thank you for allowing me to participate in this survey. I think it is wonderful that people at Andrews are concerned about Seventh-day Adventist youth. Being a participant in this study has meant a lot to me, and I look forward to filling out the questionnaires. So far, you are the only person who has responded to me and my decision to leave the church. I have never been visited by a single person from my SDA church here, nor have I ever been encouraged to return."

5 The missing youth should be an ongoing part of your prayer list.

6 Ibid., 410.

7 J. David Stone, "Youth Ministry Today; Overview and Concept," in Complete Youth Ministries Handbook, 2 vols., ed. J. David Stone (Nashville: Abingdon, 1979), 1:9

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Barry Gane, D.Min., is director of the Master of Arts for Youth Directors, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.
Steve Case, D.Min., is president of Piece of the Pie Ministries, Sacramento, California.

June 2002

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