Making a difference with young adults

Reaching out: Making a difference with young adults

What can we do to keep our youth in the church?

I first learned the term, the bystander effect, in my undergraduate social psychology class. Wikipedia defines it as "a psychological phenomenon in which someone is less likely to intervene in an emergency situation when other people are present and able to help than when he or she is alone." The article references a variety of horrific incidences in which dozens of bystanders "stood by" and did nothing as homicides occurred before their eyes.

A. Allan Martin, PhD, CFLE, is associate professor of discipleship and family ministry, Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

Editor's note: This article addresses a critical issue from the perspective of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and primarily in the context of North America. We believe, though, that similar challenges exist in other denominations and in other parts of the world.


first learned the term, the bystander effect, in my undergraduate social psychology class. Wikipedia defines it as "a psychological phenomenon in which someone is less likely to intervene in an emergency situation when other people are present and able to help than when he or she is alone."1 The article references a variety of horrific incidences in which dozens of bystanders "stood by" and did nothing as homicides occurred before their eyes.

I am still appalled by the bystander effect, but in another way. I found myself perplexed by how it may be impacting the church, allowing us to "stand by" and do nothing as a whole generation disappears from our ranks.

Disengaging, disenfranchised, and disappearing
In light of his landmark study of Adventist adolescents, Roger Dudley of the Institute of Church Ministry at Andrews University noted, "It seems reasonable to believe that at least 40 to 50 percent of Seventh-day Adventist teenagers in North America are essentially leaving the church by their middle 20s. This figure may well be higher."2

"This is a hemorrhage of epic proportions," warned Dudley and he suggested that, "the decline in membership of many mainline Protestant churches has been shown to be largely traceable to the shortage of young adults in the congregations."3 Demographer George Barna noted that across Christianity, "the most potent data regarding disengagement is that a majority of twentysomethings-61% of today's young adults-had been churched at one time during their teen years but they are now spiritually disengaged (i.e., not actively attending church, reading the Bible, or praying)."4

David Kinnaman of the Barna Group elaborated, "The current state of ministry to twentysomethings is woefully inadequate to address the spiritual needs of millions of young adults. These individuals are making significant life choices and determining the patterns and preferences of their spiritual reality while churches wait, generally in vain, for them to return after college or when the kids come."5

This disengagement threatens the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America (NAD), Don Schneider, said, "We must [also] concentrate on the young adults of our Church. . . young people need to become more fully integrated into the Church. . .
Is there some way of allowing young people to worship in a way that is meaningful while making it safe for them to do so? Young adults must be heard at leadership levels, and their feelings must be given validity."6

Paul Richardson of the Center for Creative Ministry, with headquarters in College Place, Washington, United States, reported that the median age for the Seventh-day Adventist community in North America, "including the un-baptized children in church families, is 58 . . . Among native-born White and Black members the median age is even higher."7 The frightening implications of this figure are seen when that median age, 58, is compared to the median ages of the United States and Canada respectively-which are 36 and 37!
These trends are serious. There are more than 1,000 local churches (out of a total of about 5,500) in the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America that have no children or teens at all. Fewer and fewer congregations have enough teens, young adults, or even young couples to provide "the critical mass necessary to conduct a youth group and other activities that have always been the life beat of Adventist churches."8

The departure of young adults from the local faith community has not gone unnoticed by the Seventh-day Adventist Church General Conference president, Jan Paulsen, who has over the past several years entered into broadcasted conversations with this younger generation ( Paulsen noted: "They [young adults] have perspectives, they have hopes, they have dreams, and they have visions for the church which need to be considered seriously. If we don't, they will feel disenfranchised, as many of them already do."9
This trend would not be as perplexing if we have promptly identified it and addressed it with all the immediacy it deserves. Yet, the fact is, we haven't.

Over a decade ago in research on Generation X, I found comparable statistics of young adults disappearing from local faith life.10 Dudley's research reflects more than three decades of scrutiny regarding the departure of new generations from the church. His book, Why Teenagers Leave Religion, was published back in 1978.
Beyond the statistical analysis, most of us know young people who have parted ways with our church. Many could exchange stories of peers or grown children and grandchildren who no longer participate in Adventism. We've known that young adults have been leaving our church for some time now and have been nothing but bystanders. Hence, the terrible "bystander effect."

Why they leave
The first question is, Why do they leave? Dudley found that young adult perceptions of the quality of relationship with religious authority figures played a significant role in their departure.11 Leadership across Adventism concurred, stating that the reasons most frequently cited by persons who leave local church fellowship are found "in the realm of relationships, the absence of a sense of belonging, and the lack of meaningful engagement in the local congregation and its mission."12

Young adult Kimberly Luste Maran noted that "too often the negative words and actions of more mature church members push the younger set to feelings of anger, resentment, bitterness, and fear. . . Satan will employ any methods, including the use of church members, to tear us away from our loving Father."13

As part of the Let's Talk broadcasts hosted by Pastor Paulsen, 25-year-old Kadene said, "I think the best thing that church leaders can do for the youth of our church is get acquainted with them. Too often, church leaders sit on their high horses and judge our youth without having the slightest idea of what they are going through."14

Paulsen added, "We [church leaders] need to hear and understand what they [young adults] are saying, for it comes across clearly and strongly from those who are under thirty in our church. The point they are making is this: being included, being trusted, being considered responsible, for elders to be prepared to take some risk with inexperience, are sentiments and attitudes which senior leadership must be willing to show, or we are gone! We are gone simply because we have no ownership responsibility in the life of this church."15

Robert Wuthnow, professor of sociology at Princeton University, noted various trends that are impacting young adults and contributing to the fading American religious landscape. "My view is that congregations can survive, but only if religious leaders roll up their sleeves and pay considerably more attention to young adults than they have been."16

Why are young adults leaving? Although the responses may be as diverse and personal as each young adult, clearly the lack of mutually valued relationships that engender trust and shared support have left both parties, young adults and Seventh-day Adventism, at risk of going under.

Pointing out heroes
So what is the solution? The Wikipedia article on "the bystander effect" made a fascinating recommendation. "To counter the bystander effect when you are the victim, a studied recommendation is to pick a specific person in the crowd to appeal to for help rather than appealing to the larger group generally. If you are the only person reacting to an emergency, point directly to a specific bystander and give them a specific task such as, ‘You. Call the police.' These steps place all responsibility on a specific person instead of allowing it to diffuse."17

To burst through the bystander effect, I am pointing TO YOU as a potential hero in the lives of young adults:
Parents. During the important transitional years of young adulthood, you play a vital role not only in the life of your child but also their sphere of friends. Make your home and your presence one that engenders hospitality, safety, and wisdom.18

Connie Vandeman Jeffery shared a simple formula of food, friendship, and follow-up that made her home a safe harbor for young adults.19 If you are an adult without grown children in your home or don't have children of your own, make the simple effort of building an authentic relationship with a twenty-something. It's as simple as a lunch invitation, for starters.
Pastors. If the statistics are correct, your influence and impact on the climate of your church is desperately needed. Setting the culture of young adult inclusion is heavily dependent upon your vision and leadership.

Bill Bossert described how his dying church recognized their fate and took heroic steps to turn the tide. With careful self-analysis, practical research, and courageous yet inclusive change steps,20 the Shepherd's House reversed the attrition tide, resulting in a 60 percent increase of young adults in their church.21 Change does not come without challenges and discomfort, but in order to break through the bystander effect, pastors need to be heroic so as to inspire their congregations to be likewise.

Professors/Teachers. There is a profound influence that educators have in the lives of young adults. Beyond academic or professional prowess, you are called upon to invest in young adult spiritual development as well.

While teaching at Spicer Memorial College, Falvo Fowler found that his simple initiative to start a Sabbath School with his students made a profound impact on what was once a "nominal" Adventist experience in the lives of many students.22

Jimmy Phillips noted the "invisible majority"23 of coeds are in schools outside of our Adventist system, and I suspect many Adventists are among their faculty and staff. Thousands of Adventist young adults will benefit from your efforts to collaborate with local churches and your respective college to establish student groups, faith fellowships, and discipleship communities.24 Adventist Christian Fellowship ( is a great resource to support your initiative. Your advisement and mentoring are keys to battling the bystander effect, so rampant on these campuses and in the churches adjacent to these colleges and universities. The journal Dialogue, published by the Education Department of the Seventh-day Adventist Church,25 is also another great resource.

Leaders. Vision-casting leaders offer momentum towards constructive change. You are pivotal heroes with the ability to rally the crowd to action.

Mike Cauley, president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Florida, challenged his constituency, "Do we care enough to learn the language of kids [young adults]? I'm as serious as a heart attack. We have a broken world. We have a society of Millennials [young adults] who are hungry for the gospel, and we aren't cutting it. . . . But I'm going to be asking them [Conference Executive Committee] to begin to plant churches to reach kids under 25. I'm going to be asking them to help us figure out how to become churches in the biblical, New Testament sense. . . . Somehow we have got to bring those kids, not to a place of entertainment, but to be fully committed disciples. . . . We need to give them the Church."26
Not only your endorsement, but also your conspicuous actions27 as a leader will serve as a catalyst to transform young adult attrition statistics into retention trends.
Peers. There are stellar young adults who have not only remained in the church but are faith activists.28 You are among the most influential and powerful-not only in taking heroic action with your drifting peers but also in rejuvenating Adventism and fostering a movement that will draw new generations.

"Many of the Adventist pioneers first began their work when they were teenagers. Pioneers such as Ellen Harmon White, John Loughborough, J. N. Andrews, Uriah Smith, and John Harvey Kellogg were teenagers and young adults when they began making an impact in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. They were young, vibrant, and on fire for God!"29 Other denominations also were started by youthful leaders.

In fact, it was the same age group (young adults) that was passionate about the early Adventist movement. "J.N. Andrews was 22 when he started on the publishing committee. 22! He was a kid. . . Uriah Smith was 21 when he joined the publishing work, and James White was 21 years old when he came upon the scene and began to preach the Advent doctrine."30
We need a movement of that caliber right now. Those heroes from our Adventist heritage took valiant steps to save a drowning world. Today, young Adventists are just as essential in the embrace and encouragement of their peers. Peers, as well as parents, pastors, professors, and presidents must build restorative relationships with young adults.31

Bystanders no longer
If the principles of social psychology hold true, you may have come to the end of this article and are now saying to yourself, That's a fine article. I'm glad that the issue of young adults leaving the church is being addressed. It's good that someone is doing something about it.

That sentiment is the tragic reality of "the bystander effect." It's a phenomenon that has already seen generations of young Adventists fall away, while potential heroes have been spectators. We must no longer be bystanders. So I am pointing you out. If you've read to this point, I am pointing at you: take a step today to begin an authentic relationship with a young adult. Become a mentor. Have lunch with them. Listen carefully. Open your home. Offer your heart. There are as many options as there are young adults. Start with one action with one young adult today.32

We're horrified when we hear stories of "the bystander effect" when someone is being murdered. Yet, what are we doing when we stand by and do nothing when young people, perhaps right in front of our eyes, are leaving us and, as so often is the case, leaving the Lord who died for them?

1 Wikipedia, "Bystander Effect," December 18, 2007, effect (December 19, 2007).

2 Roger L. Dudley, Why Our Teenagers Leave the Church: Personal Stories From a 10-Year Study (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2000), 35.

3 Ibid., 22.

4 George Barna, "Most Twentysomethings Put Christianity on the Shelf Following Spiritually Active Teen Years," in The Barna Report, September 11, 2006,  Page=BarnaUpdate&BarnaUpdateID=245 (September 12, 2006), paragraph 6.

5 Ibid., paragraph 8.

6 North American Division, "2005 Year-end Meeting #3," Friday Fax [Electronic Newsletter], November 1, 2005, paragraph 6.

7 Center for Creative Ministry, INNOVATIONewsletter, 12(19) [Electronic Newsletter], November 11, 2006.

8 Ibid., paragraph 2.

9 Jan Paulsen, "Paulsen Sermon: Service-An Attitude," in Special Report: Annual Council 2006, (December 20, 2007), paragraph 1.

10 A. Allan Martin, "The ABCs of Ministry to Generations X, Y, and Z," Journal of Adventist Youth Ministry, 5(1&2) (Winter-Spring, 1995): 37-46. [Also posted at]

11 Roger L. Dudley, Why Our Teenagers Leave the Church, 2000.

12 General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists Executive Committee, "Conserving Membership Gains-An Appeal," April 10, 2007, (December 19, 2007), paragraph 5.

13 Kimberly Luste Maran, "Where Is the Joy?" in Adventist Review, November 16, 2000, (December 26, 2007), paragraph 23.

14 Let's Talk, "Have Your Say," (December 21, 2007).

15 Jan Paulsen, "Paulsen Sermon: Service-An Attitude," paragraph 14.

16 Robert Wuthnow, After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 230.

17 Wikipedia, "Bystander Effect," paragraph 5.

18 North American Division Family Ministries,, offers an array of resources and support to parents in the discipling of new generations.

19 Connie Vandeman Jeffery, "My Starbucks Kids," in Adventist Review, January 16, 2003, (December 24, 2007).

20 Bill Bossert outlined the steps his congregation took at offering further specificity to their strategy.

21 Bill Bossert, "The Wausau Church Story," in Adventist Review, August 9, 2007, (December 24, 2007), paragraph 27. See also B. Bossert, "Frantic Plans and Desperate Measures," Ministry (August 2007): 9-12.

22 Falvo Fowler, "Real," in Adventist Review, July 18, 2002, (December 24, 2007), paragraph 16.

23 Jimmy Philips, "The Invisible Majority," in Adventist Review, September 20, 2007, (December 24, 2007).

24 Ron Pickell, North American Division Adventist Christian Fellowship Coordinator, offers some insights as to what college students are looking for in a church at

25 For more information, go to

26 Mike Cauley, "2007 Florida Camp Meeting Sermon" [MP3 audio file], June 2, 2007, (December 25, 2007) (also available as transcript from, paragraph 48.

27 It is conspicuous actions of leadership that reveal their most important values. A couple of local conference presidents have already instated young adult ministry directors at the conference level. The Christian Leadership Center,, recently endorsed the development of young leadership training, challenging presidents and all church officials to mentor new generations of leadership.

28 Kimberly Luste Maran, Wilona Karimabadi, Omar Bourne, "Adventist Review's Top 20 in Their 20s," Adventist Review, September 14, 2006, (December 24, 2007).

29 Lynette Frantzen, "Young Adventist Pioneers," Adventist Review, May 27, 2004, (December 24, 2007), paragraph 2.

30 Mike Cauley, "2007 Florida Camp Meeting Sermon," 2007, paragraph 11.

31 For over a decade, dream VISION ministries,, has offered training and resourcing in building authentic relationships with new generations. I offer a theological model for young adult ministry, .html, challenging young adults to see their role as ministers to their peers.

32 A. Allan Martin, "Won by One: What if I Did Just One Thing. . ." Adventist Review, 175(36),  September 1998, 20, 21.



Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus
A. Allan Martin, PhD, CFLE, is associate professor of discipleship and family ministry, Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

July 2008

Download PDF
Ministry Cover

More Articles In This Issue

The power of relationships in evangelism

Why is relational evangelism still the best way to introduce people to Christ?

The ministry of the deaconess through history - Part one of two

In this first of a two-part series, the author examines the role of deaconesses in the New Testament and early church.

Achieving the mission of the church

Why self-denial, self-sacrifice, and total commitment of church members is required to grow the church.

Grief and faith

Christianity reveals to us a God who understands our pain and shares our sorrow.

A few things I have learned

A physician shares insights from his ministry that can assist pastors in caring for the infirmed.

View All Issue Contents

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up
Advertisement - RevivalandReformation 300x250

Recent issues

See All
Advertisement - IIW-VBS 2024 (160x600)