Research shows that the future of the Seventh-day Adventist church in North America is being shaped by the graying of the Elder generation (born 1900-1940) and Baby Boomers (1940-1960), as well as the losses of the GenXers (1960-1980) and Millennials (1980-2000). 1
Various studies predict that within a decade or two the older generations will begin to die while the younger generations will continue to leave. Unless these trends can be reversed, the result will be a church in North America that is greatly reduced in numbers.
Also, the current lack of tolerance for differing views among generations is shaping a culture of elitism and oppression. Each generation must decide if they will learn and adjust to changes, or resist change– clinging to what they know and have become comfortable experiencing.
At best, generations could come to terms with the differences and live in harmony, or at least avoidance of divisive issues. At worst, this could produce a tendency for older generations to feel superior because their traditions and customs have worked so well. An attitude of “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it” could start to develop, leading toward an eventual hard stance on issues and thus creating more conflict.
The younger generations, on the other hand, might see new and better ways of being more efficient or productive. However, this generation could lean toward a new form of arrogance based on being “more relevant” than previous generations. There is the possibility of all of the generations becoming more fixated on “being right” than developing community.
In the Youth and Young Adult Retention Study, commissioned by the North American Division in conjunction with the Barna Group, researcher David Kinnaman stated that if we as a church wish to keep future generations engaged we have to change the way the conversation is being conducted. Kinnaman concluded the presentation with a simple question:
“Do you care more about your children, or your traditions?”
This is a question every generation must address, and every church must consider. 2
Once this matter is understood more clearly, there is a greater chance that community can be built. However, true unity will only become possible through employing four solutions: education, tolerance, respect and most importantly, love.
Each generation has been shaped by the life events they experience, their values, general approaches to religion, beliefs about God, and views of the Bible and Ellen White. The educating of all generations as to the natures of both themselves and the other generations is essential in understanding these differences. Maya Angelou is often quoted as saying, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” As a church, we have an obligation to do better. Not just for our current church climate, but also for future generations of the church.
One of my professors in college said that “true tolerance is being so aware of what you believe that nothing can shake your core. You become able to discuss openly ideas that may be contrary to your own views or values and yet, no insecurities or oppression will exist.” This type of tolerance is hard to come by these days, but is essential in building an authentic cross-generational community.
The third solution to the current and future condition of the church is to recognize that all humanity was made in God’s image, and that is a pretty big image. Ellen White noted that “every human being, created in the image of God, is endowed with a power akin to that of the creator—individuality, power to think and do.” 3
Because humanity was made in God’s image, everyone is deserving of respect and individuality. A mutual respect and cooperation is essential to authentic generational community in the church. It is only with this cooperation that the church will be able to truly move forward as one body of believers.
This leads to the final and most important of all solutions: love. John 13:35 could not be clearer: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
When the church has love for each other, it will act like it. Respect will flourish, tolerance will bloom, and people will see the Seventh-day Adventist church and know that we are Christ’s disciples.
This article was written by Tim Floyd, a pastor in Kansas City, Missouri. See the article in print in the upcoming October 2015 print edition of OUTLOOK. To download the entire paper:
1. Sahlin, Monte and Richardson, Paul, Seventh-day Adventists in North America: A Demographic Profile (Lincoln, NE: Center for Creative Ministry, 2008)
2. The Barna Group. Seventh-day Adventist Millennials: Up or Out? Youth & Young Adult Retention Study. North American Division. November, 2013
3. Ellen White, Education, 17