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Part 2: Adventists Discuss Bringing Back the “Nones”
An increasing number of young Americans appear uninterested in being part of a church. In this August Visitor cover story, we ask, how can we reach them? This is part two of the two-part feature.
How can we bring back the growing number of Americans unaffiliated with a faith community? It may not be easy, warns Adventist sociologist Monte Sahlin. According to the Pew study, “Only 10 percent of ‘nones’ are looking for a religion that meets their needs; 88 percent aren’t. The nine out of 10 who are not looking have lost all interest in the possibility that religion might be helpful.”
What these new generations want isn’t church as usual, or they’d already be worshipping with us. Jennifer Deans, pastor of Potomac Conference’s Community Praise Center-Dulles church plant in Dulles, Va., thinks, “young adults have little tolerance for tradition for tradition’s sake,” she says.
“They are in search of the journey, not dogma,” observes Rajkumar Dixit, who for the past 11 years helped pastor Chesapeake Conference’s New Hope church in Fulton.
How comfortable can we make them, then, in a faith community that guards our orthodoxy so carefully? Ohio Conference president Raj Attiken suggests that, for this group, churches will need to create “spaces where young adults can safely explore their questions, doubts and concerns;” where no conversation is off limits; where believers listen as well as teach. Because churches are by nature inertial organizations that struggle with change, that will be difficult for some congregations. Adventists are accustomed to asserting certainty and defending the truth, not to discussing doubts and uncertainties—much less hearing truths they hold precious be regarded as irrelevant.
Rubén Ramos, assistant to the Columbia Union Conference president for Multilingual Ministries, believes securing their interest in the church starts before children reach young adulthood. “Immigrant parents have such a financial struggle when they come here that they may neglect some of those early spiritual lessons, like prayer, Bible study and church participation,” he says. “The children are influenced more by school than by their family and the church.” Ramos feels it’s about setting priorities in the new cultural setting. “Hebrews says that ‘Noah built an ark to save his family.’ But, we sometimes work ourselves to death to buy things for our family rather than building religious values in them,” he proposes.
It should come as no surprise to those of us who have studied Jesus’ example that relationships are key to reaching the “nones.” Deans says, “The young adults who stay connected with a church are the ones who have been given a true voice and role to play. They’ve been able to form peer relationships as well as intergenerational relationships and feel that church is an extension of their family,” she adds.
Attiken agrees that churches would do well to make “opportunities for youth and young adults to build and maintain meaningful relationships with adult spiritual mentors who are able to influence their spiritual formation in positive, wholesome ways.”
Participation is the key factor in immigrant churches too. “If the young people don’t participate, if they don’t feel ownership, then they don‘t care,” says Ramos.
Therezinha Barbalho, pastor of Potomac’s Richmond Brazilian Community church in Richmond, Va., attempts to “provide activities that can compete with the activities of the world. That’s practically impossible,” she admits, but with tremendous effort she’s organized a vigorous program of social activities—sports, ice-skating, paintball—to secure strong bonds of friendship in the congregation. “When they’re connected in social activities, they’re more open for the spiritual ones,” she says.
Some in the church have assumed that involvement means congregational leadership, such as sitting on a church board or being an elder. Others have suggested seating our young adults on denominational committees, such as a conference or union committee. These are important functions, but not necessarily where one experiences the church at its most rewarding and functional. While it may be necessary, church leadership is also the realm of power struggles, money problems, occasional harsh discussions and hours spent on mundane organizational maintenance—hardly encouraging to the skittish young person. Because they’re not as interested in
the church as a “brand,” young adults value meaningful service more than keeping the machinery of the church running.
I once sat by a “none” on a flight who told me (upon learning that I am a pastor) that she had no interest in church. But, she did believe in God, and as we talked, she admitted that if she found a church that was doing serious work to lift up her community, she’d want to take her children to participate in that. She wanted the experience of happy, meaningful involvement without a lot of religion.
“The world is becoming increasingly secular,” says Sahlin. “We can’t continue to operate on the assumption that, if we give them Bible studies from a King James Version, people will get it. Yet, we can’t give up trying to reach them either, if we’re to be faithful to the gospel commission.”
That leaves a challenge for us that we’ll only be able to meet with prayer, creativity and dependence upon God’s promises.
Loren Seibold is a pastor in the Ohio Conference.
What Do You Think?
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