Embracing those who reject religion

Embracing those who reject religion: An interview with Roger Dudley

A foremost authority on youth ministries reflects upon 50 years of research to understand the spiritual experience of teenagers.

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: Dr. Roger Dudley is the director of the Institute of Church Ministry at Andrews University as well as professor emeritus of Christian ministry. For more than 50 years, Dudley has devoted his ministry and research to understanding the spiritual experience of teens. Considered an expert in the field of youth and young adult ministry, Dudley is well known as a best-selling author. While his research focused on Adventist youth, his findings will be helpful to other denominations as well.

Allan Martin (AM): We’ve come to the thirty year anniversary of one of your seminal works, Why Teenagers Reject Religion and What To Do About It1 As you look back over this period of time, what are some of your reflections on youth ministry?

Roger Dudley (RD): I was actually involved in youth ministry quite a while before I ever started writing. I began as a teacher and principal of a school, and was also a youth ministries director. In that capacity, I traveled all over the conference and interacted with young people, so I got to really know them.

After I eventually wrote my dissertation, quite a few people said to me, “You really have a lot of good material, but nobody is going to read that.” So I started to work on a book. Then one day, I got this letter from the Review and Herald Publishing Association, “We like your book and we’re going to publish it.” That’s got to be a high point—my first book. This was far more successful than anything else I have written.

I began my job directing the Institute of Church Ministry at Andrews University in 1980. This gave me the opportunity to do research as part of my work. In fact, research is our work here. My wife was working to get her master’s degree, and we worked together on her thesis, showing the comparison of teens and their parents.

Then a ten-year study was requested by the youth director of the world headquarters of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In a cross-sectional study, we get a picture at one given point. We know from this that some young people said, “I intend to stay an Adventist.” We don’t know if they really stayed because we only know what they intended. But if we could do a longitudinal study, we could show where they were and then after some years passed, what happened. So we began to put our heads together and see if we could do something like this.

Obviously, we found this to be quite complex as we began to research the literature. We couldn’t find any other denomination that had ever done anything like this.

Although I wasn’t doing youth ministry “out there” any longer, I was corresponding with teenagers and young adults through the study. Over this ten-year period, we were dealing with their issues asking, “How do you feel about this?” And we were getting letters—hundreds of letters.

I did write one more book on youth attrition; I thought it would be good if I could pull everything that I’ve studied together and put it in a book. The Complex Religion of Teens2 looks more at the philosophical, theological, and psychological aspects of youth ministry.

AM: Drawing from your vast experience and expertise, have young people changed over the years?

RD: I’ll start off by saying that human nature tends to stay the same. I do see that there are problems today that are probably worse than those we had to struggle with—for instance, drugs. When I was a teenager growing up, we didn’t hear anything about drugs. Nobody ever offered me a drug. I never knew anybody who took drugs. And now they’re all over. That has been a particularly negative aspect.

On the other hand, as I see young people today, I’m impressed by the many dedicated young people. I think about Andrews’ students, who every Sabbath afternoon for years now, load up in a bus and go down to reach out in Benton Harbor, [Michigan, United States]. I think about the student missionary program and the dedicated young adults who go to spend a year of their lives in a mission field. Obviously, when I see these young people, it really warms my heart. So I know there are many young people who are just as spiritual and dedicated as young people everywhere. It’s hard to make a blanket statement. We older people have to recognize that young people are different than we are. They dress differently, they listen to different music, they have a different way of doing things. But it’s important for us not to jump to judgment. You try to be as helpful as you can.

AM: In your book you quote Roland Hegstad.

“Sometimes resentment originated from another seldom recognized source, the trauma of aging. As we grow older we need assurance that our life, our example, our values are worthwhile. But twentieth century culture makes such assurance difficult to achieve. Today’s emphasis on change seems to challenge enduring values. Another source of adult resentment is the tendency of the young to challenge cherished traditions. With the passage of years, adults turn to ritual and tradition, the values of the past, while young people turn adventurously to innovation and experimentation.”3

It was intriguing to hear what adults felt toward younger generations in the twentieth century. What about the twenty-first century?

RD: I still agree with that. I think that one of the problems, and this comes out of all these interviews and letters I’ve had, is that oftentimes adults feel threatened by young people in the church and they don’t know what to do with them.

After the book came out, I was invited to speak at a number of places. One place I went was a college church. A group of people actually picketed the church, but we went ahead anyway. People wrote to me saying, “Why don’t you just tell the kids to shape up! Get them to straighten up. We’re doing OK; it’s their fault.” So you do meet those attitudes. They may not be as blatant, but there’s often an undercurrent of that sentiment.

I concluded that while there are many factors in retention, I really think that the congregational climate is perhaps the most important thing of all. Young people, when they think about Seventh-day Adventists, they don’t think about the denomination as a whole. To them, Adventism is that congregation. If that congregation is a warm, accepting place, then Seventh-day Adventism must be a good thing. If that congregation is a place that is struggling, then they wonder, What’s the matter with Adventists? I guess adults do that too, but young people do it particularly.

I’m convinced that all youth ministry is local. I have story after story of that kind of thing—people who were offended because of the congregation, as well as stories of people who love their church because of the warm way they are accepted.

AM: Your research indicates young people are departing from faith life at a rate of forty to fifty percent. George Barna’s work cites sixty-one percent.4 Is there an element that has not been implemented that could change the current attrition statistics?

RD: One thing you learn in a denomination is that what happens in higher levels of administration isn’t necessarily what happens down in the local church. It’s therefore so dependent upon that local congregation—or that local school or university or whatever it is—on what they can do. You’ve got to be intentional about this thing; you can’t just take it for granted.

I once read an article in a magazine about what a church did right. It was so warm and moving. The author talked about how she comes from this little church out in the boondocks and how the members all made the young people feel like they were really important. They made her Sabbath School secretary when she was in seventh grade, which was an adult thing to do; she was collecting the money and all that. Then, when she was about in eighth grade, they made her the press secretary for the church. And they had kids teaching the younger kids in Sabbath School departments and all that kind of thing. It was so ideal that I said, “I’ve got to get this in the book.” I put this story in my latest book as an appendix. To me, the described church situation is ideal. I think this is what the churches need to do.

AM: You have said that not only are we to look for and to redeem the individual that has had a prodigal experience with the church, but also let’s not forget the ones that have stayed with us all along. What do you think would help the church to be an attractive, embracing place that young people would gravitate to?

RD: We asked this question at the end of the ten-year study,5 “If you did stay with the church, why did you do it?” And we devoted a chapter in that book to those responses. They found a place of belonging there, they felt like they were a part of a family, they felt like they were needed, they felt like the church depended on them, they felt acceptance there, they had friends there, and it was a pleasant experience for them.

People will not continue for very long doing something they don’t like. So we have to make the religious experience a good, happy, joyful experience. Again, I think helping young people find tasks where they can use their various gifts is really important. If you take this whole idea about wanting to be an adult— wanting to grow up, as it were, wanting to make that change that you need to do in your life—then being really useful doing an important job becomes one of the things that makes you feel most like an adult. If a young person says, “You know, I’m really a pillar of this place, they really need me here, this place would probably collapse if I wasn’t here,” then those people will be there. I think the dedicated young people that have various tasks do them so well because they’ve been able to buy into it.

AM: Now that we’re in the twenty-first century, what would be your word of encouragement to young people, as well as the church? What would be your encouragement to the many people who follow your legacy of loving young people?

RD: I’d like to help young people see that religion is not a list of don’ts—things you can’t do. It’s not some kind of behavioral code, some complex theoretical experience. I want them to see it as a relationship experience. I want them to see that it is first a relationship with God who is a friend, and a relationship with their fellow human beings where they help and support each other. At the center of true religion is this matter of relationship. I think they need help to see that.

To the youth and young adult ministry workers, that’s the way we need to try to work. We can’t simply preach to people and tell them what they ought to do; they probably already know what they ought to do. We have to help them find that relationship with Jesus Christ and with their fellow humans that will lead them to actions.

AM: Any final comments?

RD: We have to develop the capacity to see beyond the outward shell, to look inside. I’ve seen all kinds of young people, some of whom apparently are very secular and have no religion at all, but if you really get to know these kids, they may be a little different from ours, but they have aspirations. I can hardly ever remember a time where I didn’t find something good in them.

1 Roger Dudley, Why Teenagers Reject Religion and
What to Do About It
(Hagerstown, MD: Review and
Herald Publishing Association, 1978).

2 Roger Dudley, The Complex Religion of Teens
(Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing
Association, 2007).

3 Dudley, Why Teenagers Reject Religion and What to
Do About It
, 65.

4 George Barna, “Most Twentysomethings Put
Christianity on the Shelf Following Spiritually
Active Teen Years,” The Barna Report [Online],
retrieved September 12, 2006 from http://www

5 Roger Dudley, Why Our Teenagers Leave the Church:
Personal Stories From a 10-year Study
MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association,

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

January 2009

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