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Columbia Union Leaders Discuss Young Adult Attrition
Whole Church Solution Needed, Speaker Says

Story by Taashi Rowe
Published 5/17/13

A 2011 book reveals that 59 percent of young adults are leaving the church.

A. Allan Martin, PhD, didn’t mince words. A former professor at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University (Mich.) and a current young adult pastor at a thriving church in Texas, Martin hit the members of the Columbia Union Conference Executive Committee with stark numbers: some 60 to 70 percent of young people leave the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Yesterday Martin gave a nearly two-hour long presentation to committee members meeting at the Columbia Union headquarters in Columbia, Md. Using the David Kinnaman book You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church ... and Rethinking Faith as his primary reference, Martin brought the gathering up to speed on the whys and wherefores of persistent young adult attrition from churches across North America. For his book, Kinnaman, president of the Christian research firm the Barna Group, looked at the Christian community as a whole.
However, Kinnman’s findings may not have been exactly news to the committee members. “We’ve heard the sirens in regard to young adult attrition for years,” Martin said. He then referenced Roger Dudley’s 2000 book Why Our Teenagers Leave the Church: Personal Stories From a Ten-Year Study, which had similar findings as Kinnaman. Dudley who led the Institute of Church Ministry at Andrews University, tracked hundreds of young North American Adventists from the late 1980s through the late 1990s, and, found that between 40 and 50 percent of teens end up leaving the church.
Martin noted that repeating the information he shared today was important because, “most of this stuff is not intuitive. The Seventh-day Adventist church is about 25 years behind culture and about 15 years behind mainstream Protestantism so the older generation is still trying to figure it out.”
With young adults continuing to drop out, the union's executive committee members have made engaging and partnering with young adults to further the mission of the church one of their six priorities for 2011-2016. Bringing in Martin to address the leadership on this critical issue was one small step in the direction of stanching the exodus of young adults from the church. While Martin gave some familiar reasons why young adults leave the church, which include them finding it repressive, overprotective, shallow, exclusive, anti-science and having no room for doubt, the presentation also left room for discussion and some solutions.  
Beverly Miles said in the urban areas he noticed that those who are leaving the church “feel no need for Jesus in their life and find that answers come from another source.”
Martin was not surprised. He responded that he knew a young lady who became a Muslim because she felt that a greater sense of community and involvement in that religion.

An Intergenerational Solution
Martin also discussed how generational differences impact today’s church including that flattened hierarchical structures have made it easier for young adults to have immediate access to formally distant “authority figures.”
Rubén Ramos, assistant to the Columbia Union president for Multilingual Ministries, wondered if a child’s early education and relationship with their parents impacted their future relationship to their church.
Martin said while he could not fully answer that question, he did know that a child’s relationship with his parents does impact what kind of adult he will become. He also said more youth pastors alone was not the answer. “Kids are smart enough to know that the youth pastor gets paid to be their friend,” he said. “Not having a significant relationship with another adult makes young adults two times as likely to drop out of church.”
He continued, “Older adults are missing from young people’s lives. They are going to their friends [for moral centering] not their parents who have dismissed themselves from young people’s lives.”
Dennis Austin, a Pennsylvania Conference pastor, admitted, “There are some churches that want nothing to do with young people. Sometimes we demonize young adults by telling them we don’t have a place for them so we give them their own spaces. But we need each other. We need to find ways to encourage our congregations to become intergenerational.”
Martin agreed, “It is our responsibility to interface with the next generation of the church. I’m all about church planting but if it’s done to segregate, then the church will become anemic especially if it is done to accommodate a preference for a certain worship style.”
Martin then detailed the ABCs and D of building young adult relationship, which included authenticity, belonging, compassion and discipleship. He especially stressed longitudinal relationships or what he calls reverse mentoring.  “We used to look toward the ‘sage on the stage,’ but this generation is more interested in the ‘guide on the side,’” he said. Finally, he asked committee members to write down the names of 10 young adults who have varying connections to the church, pray for them and reach out to them. 
Following the presentation Dave Weigley, Columbia Union president, promised to procure copies of Kinnaman’s book for committee members. “I hope this presentation was beneficial to all of us,” he said. “If we are serious about engaging young adults, we must realize that this was just one step in the process of intentionally reaching them.”  

COMMENTS POLICY: The Columbia Union Conference Visitor encourages quality conversation and welcomes your thoughtful comments. All comments are subject to approval but will not be edited. Please limit your comments to 500 words or less. Only one comment per person will be published.

Hugh Rowe
2013-05-20 6:02 PM

Young people are looking for relevance of the church's teachings as it pertains to their lives today.  With so much information, literally, at their finger tips they have more questions than answers regarding, not only what they are taught but by what they see.  The behavior of the adults do not necessarily correspond to what they preach and teach.  As they grow older young adults relate more to actions than they do to words.  The results a research carried out by The National Study of Youth and Religion summarized seven major findings that have direct importance to youth ministry.  Two of the seven findings showed they thought that (1) "organized religion doesn't matter"   and (2) they "mimic the religious devotion of their parents."  Young people today are looking for leaders who can relate and show a deep sense of caring.  Jason Dorsey, renown expert as it relates to the generation of this millenia (GenY), sees our young people not as "rebels" but as individuals who are looking for something they can relate to and a cause they can fight for.  Let us therefore seek to understand if we wish to be understood and be leaders of or young people and not mere preachers.  

2013-05-20 6:15 PM

The first problem is that our Church thinks it needs to keep up with the culture and follow after mainstream Protestantism.  We have blueprints in the Bible and SOP that we are supposed to be using.  Let us have the real gospel preached and a people who are living what they believe.

Has anyone done studies on the other 41% of young adults that have remained in the church and find out what keeps them around?  Instead of trying to create a new wheel let's find out if there is anything "right" going on and dupliate that.  

I did not grow up SDA or with any noteworthy religious exposure.  When working during high school I accepted the inviation of a co-worker to attend Friday night vespers (at the home of church memebers).  About 2 years later I was baptized after the Net '99 meeting.  I was 18 then and I have not left the church in the 14 years since then.  I don't need gimmecks to keep me in either.  It's a daily personal relationship Jesus and studying His Word that keeps me here, despite the icebergs all around our ship.  Praying daily for the unity that will bring the Latter Rain. 

2013-05-22 8:38 PM

Well said, both of you!  The Bible teaches us over and over again that the only way to keep people (kids or adults) in the church is to make Jesus front and center.  Even in this article they said that kids who leave "feel no need for Jesus."  And as long as we try to entertain them and compete with the world, they won't know Jesus and thus won't feel any difference in their lives when they leave Him.  The sad irony is that the very thing that is pulling kids away from God (the world/gimmicks/stimulation) is the tool we try to use to bring them back in or keep them in.  Few today seem to believe that a good old fashioned introduction to Jesus and the Word will hold the attention of our youth.  How sad.  If we are fulfilled in Christ then the most natural thing in the world would be to show them our Best Friend.  But if we are not then we must resort to the stimulation to do the trick (and it doesn't work).  If kids could truly get to KNOW God and see the mission of the SDA church they would be on fire and not want to leave.  Pray for our leaders!

2013-05-23 12:11 AM

Let’s save time and money of expensive studies on why youth leave the church.  An honest look at cause and effect implicates us.  God’s word is true and can be trusted completely, else it is completely useless! “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.  Proverbs 22:6.

Reason from cause to effect.  Here’s a realistic picture, this actually happened.  In Scandinavia children faithfully preached when their parents were arrested. GC 366.2  What made these young people faithful even in the absence of their parents?  Why weren’t these youth leaving the church?

“The Waldenses had sacrificed their worldly prosperity for the truth's sake…”  They taught their youth purity, simplicity, fervency, humility, gratitude, perseverance, patience, discipline, hard work and to memorize and internalize and preach “large portions of both the Old and the New Testament.”  “Parents, tender and affectionate as they were, loved their children too wisely to accustom them to self-indulgence.”  GC 67-68.

We need to return to true Seventh-day Adventist Christian education in the home and school!  Read Education, especially chapter 6, The Schools of the Prophets.

“In both the school and the home much of the teaching was oral; but the youth also learned to read the Hebrew writings, and the parchment rolls of the Old Testament Scriptures were open to their study. The chief subjects of study in these schools were the law of God, with the instruction given to Moses, sacred history, sacred music, and poetry. In the records of sacred history were traced the footsteps of Jehovah. The great truths set forth by the types in the service of the sanctuary were brought to view, and faith grasped the central object of all that system--the Lamb of God, that was to take away the sin of the world. A spirit of devotion was cherished. Not only were the students taught the duty of prayer, but they were taught how to pray, how to approach their Creator, how to exercise faith in Him, and how to understand and obey the teachings of His Spirit. Sanctified intellect brought forth from the treasure house of God things new and old, and the Spirit of God was manifested in prophecy and sacred song.

“These schools proved to be one of the means most effective in promoting that righteousness which "exalteth a nation." Proverbs 14:34. In no small degree they aided in laying the foundation of that marvelous prosperity which distinguished the reigns of David and Solomon.”  Education pp. 47, 48.

The solution, among other changes:
  1. Consistently say and do; no more hypocrisy,
  2. Return to abandoned and distinct truths, avoid worldliness and worldly standards (accreditation); return true Christian Education,
  3. Not entertain, but engage youth in solid, biblical ministry,
  4. Put away rebellious music and politically correct but biblically unsound practices,
  5. Challenge youth to lead reformation, not join and encourage rebellion
  6. Get our kids out the cities and the city out our kids

andre clarke
2013-05-26 10:55 AM

I am speechless at the wisdom shown by your comments.  I know there are people in our church who "get it".

One point I would like to piggy-back on is NOT to look at mainstream Protestantism or mainstream anything.  For instance, the NIV is probably the mainstream Bible now.  Until I watched Walter Veith online, Battle of the Bibles and Changing the Word, I was under the impression that the 20th century versions were legit.  I am now convinced they are ecumenical Bibles and that we all better keep a copy of the KJV close by.

I have grown up in this church I love.  I have gone to SDA schools from Kindergarten (circa 1976) through College (1992), not missing a year.  It is an experience for which I am grateful.  Unfortunately, some of the young people, whose parents were SDA, I was in school with, don't have anything to do with the church.  I happen to believe it is because they did not internalize the message and they weren't walking by faith.  Fast-forward to today.  I teach 12-14 year-olds in public school and the issues and challenges they face are very much like the ones kids of SDA-parents face.  Each group wants boundaries set for them.  And they want boundaries to be enforced with a loving and caring hand. They also want some adult to spend quality time with them. They will never say these things outloud but that is what I have witnessed and experienced.  Everyone cannot interact with children in a loving and caring way while still holding to a standard.  Therefore, as a church we have to be careful not to lower our Biblical standards in order to retain young people, but we also have to protect children/youth from acid and acrid personalities/adults.

Finally, young people (ages 12-18) in our church need a rite-of-passage.  Very few churches, if any, have some challenge (beyond Pathfinders) that youth have to face before they arrive in "adult-hood".  It is my firm belief that every youth in every SDA church in North America should have to go on a journey, a mission journey of some sort for a summer.  Youth want to do and they will do. But without guidance from the right people and the resources, many times what they end up doing does not lead them closer to Christ. A mission trip may cause them to have to walk by faith and not by sight, and as a result return home with their religion not on the outside, but on the inside.

Let's not drop this topic of conversation.  Let's take it up in our individual churches.  Jesus is coming sooner than any of us could imagine and we need an army of Youth rightfully trained and equipped!

A. Allan Martin, PhD
2013-06-01 8:43 AM

Commentators, I am inspired by your passionate responses and insights.  Let me offer some additional resourcing to address some of the important ideas and questions you've brought up.

Distilled from Barna Group's recent national "You Lost Me. Live!" tour, we've developed a resource to help local churches build redemptive relationships with young adults. Please share with your leaders and church members wanting to nurture next generations.

Download the video FREE at Download the companion talksheet FREE at