It’s been 15 years since Roger Dudley’s book Why Our Teenagers Leave the Church became available in every Adventist Book Center, warning that our church is losing 40-50 percent of our young adults (p. 35). Church leaders have heard more recently from professors such as A. Allan Martin who say that our churches are actually losing 60-70 percent of the young people.
But not all the statistics are dismal! The Seventh-day Adventist Church Young Adult Study recently conducted by the Barna Group reveals that only 17 percent of young adults who are unengaged from church say that they plan on never coming back. Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) indicate that they are very open to coming back. The remaining 20 percent are in between (p. 29).
The surprising openness of this group gives a lot of hope to those willing to invest in the inactive young. They are more than worth the attention, the food, the phone calls, the text messages, the activities, and the love.
The missing generation can wait no longer. They need the best we can offer to win them back. And we need the best they can offer to make our churches more excellent in every way. The generations need each other’s talent and wisdom working together like never before.
What else could the last verse of the Old Testament be calling for? “And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse” (Malachi 4:6, NKJV). This last-day prophecy first exposes the hearts of parents and grandparents who need healing that they might better love their children’s generation. Thousands who have been excluded and unappreciated by old church cranks would concur on the devastating effect such an attitude can have. Secondly, the Scripture exposes the hearts of children who also need healing that their attitudes toward their parents’ generation might be subdued and healed.
Bring Down the Generational Walls
So what’s worse: a church full of grandparents isolated to themselves without any children in sight or a church full of youth without any parents and grandparents helping? Both violate the heart of God and His beautiful design for His family. We need unity. We need the walls to come down. We need healing and community. Churches segregated by racial hatred do not have a good future, and neither do churches segregated by age.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church Young Adult Study by the Barna Group reveals that healthy cross-generational relationships are more important than we at first realized. Page 48 of the report says, “Intergeneration relationships are a big deal to both engaged and unengaged young adults—and not just in a good way. Those who felt welcome and nurtured referenced older adults, and those who felt judged and rejected also cited older adults. These interactions seemed more important than peer interactions in creating an atmosphere of tolerance.” The report continues with several firsthand testimonies by young people who attribute their involvement in church to older members who affirmed and mentored them in meaningful ways.
In 2013 the Columbia Union Conference Executive Committee discussed young adult attrition. Dennis Austin, a Pennsylvania Conference pastor, addressed the issue: “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.”
A. Allan Martin, a former professor at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University and a current young adult pastor at a thriving church in Texas, 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.”
None are too old or too young to help save each other. If you care about the unengaged, write down their names. Do something meaningful for them. Doing something small will probably accomplish the most. Let them know they’re missed. Check in with them. Invite them over. Play with them. Smile and laugh with them. Put your hand on their shoulder. Affirm their talents. Add in the other things that Jesus did. We are His disciples. They are His children, the ones He died for.
For both fathers and children, we need God to heal our hearts, “that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity,” “that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him” (Ephesians 2:16; 1:10, NKJV).