Last time we mentioned that the Adventist church are losing about 70% of all the children born to Seventh-day Adventists in North America.  This has nothing to do with skin color, ethnicity, national origin — you name it — if you were born in North America, the Seventh-day Adventist church does not know how to reach you, and is not reaching you, period.

Young adults have a whole series of concerns, many of which are undeniable and valid. Oddly enough, however, when congregations make some of these changes, young adults find this phony and inauthentic. They don’t want to be “sold.” In short, if you read widely among the blogs of these young adults, you discover that — like their parents before them – they don’t entirely know what they want.

What they know is, something is missing. Something is not right. They don’t know what that something is, but they know we don’t have it. And I left with a quotation, “All men want, not something to do . . . but . . . something to be.”  The something is missing comes down to this: when we say we want to retain our young adults, we want them to continue to be Seventh-day Adventists, what is it that we want them to be? What identity do we offer them?

My friend George Knight took this up in a book titled “A Search for Identity.” In that book, George proposes that the first 40 years or so of our history were spent in finding out what was Adventist about Adventism, and the next several decades were spent attempting to figure out what was Christian about Adventism, followed by a quest to understand what was fundamentalist about Adventism. When the last two chapters of the book, he essentially concludes that all three of those questions remain open simultaneously.

“The new era beginning in the 1950s was different in the sense that instead of a single question becoming the focal point all three questions would be asked simultaneously in various sectors of Adventism. The different questions and their answers cumulatively led to the theological tensions within Adventism… As the church moved from the 20th into the 21st century.”

A Search for Identity, p. 160.

And that, as I have discovered, is the something missing that our young adults who identified. As a people, as a movement, we do not have a coherent single identity to offer. Young adults are naturally in the process of individuation, of discovering who they are. But we have very little to offer them in terms of the religious part of their identity.

This is because not only is George Knight correct about the multiple threads of identity still competing for primacy within the church. Even more crucial is the fact that each of these threads of identity is more certain about what they are not, then what they are. As is outlined in his book, this is led to increasing polarization within the church. And again, each of the poles are more adamant and certain about what they are not, then what they are.

On the one hand we have people who are not, absolutely not, going to abandon what they understand is biblical truths. They are not going to be blown about by every wind of doctrine, every fad of worship style, or intellectual fads. They do not believe in evolution, and do not believe in music written after 1920 — you get the picture. “Faithfulness” is their watchword.

On the other hand, we have people who are not judgmental, not legalistic, and not exclusivist. They do not believe in a six-day creation — when ever it might occur in the past, and they will not be deluded by charming folk tales written centuries ago by people who did not have flush toilets. “Compassion” is their watchword.

I could go on at some length, but I think people who are paying attention recognize the two polarities. You can even name publications or websites on each side of the great divide.

And that’s the problem. Paul tells us that when the trumpets give an uncertain sound, people don’t know whether to prepare for battle. Within the heart of this denomination we have multiple trumpets sounding conflicting calls. So instead of serving as an anchor point for young adults who are already casting about to discover their true identity and true purpose, the church is adrift, and only offers more confusion. No wonder they’re leaving.

In fact, it’s hard for them to know that they’re leaving anything. At least one of the two polarities they find repugnant; many find both repugnant. And both poles, like compass needles, point away from the center. In fact, I have seen young adults leave in both directions. In too many of our congregations, and in too many of our conferences, those polar opposites are the only alternatives. Too few of our members live and share a vital, life-changing, energizing faith identity. Our young adults see that for too many of us, Dr. Phil’s question–“How’s that working for you?”– must be answered in the negative.

Rather than analyzing either of the polar opposites any further, while I choose to do is to affirm my understanding of what it means to be a Seventh-day Adventist in the 21st century.

It is my purpose to do that for how long our long it takes in a series of blogs. I don’t mind explaining my beliefs, clarifying what I’m trying to say, but I’m not going to spend any time defending them. For people who want to argue with me about this, who want to tell me where I’m wrong, I have this to say: don’t tell me what you’re not, what you don’t believe, what you don’t agree with. Instead, tell me what you do believe.

Do I claim to have the definitive explanation of what Seventh-day Adventist identity means today? Of course not. But even if I did, the changing nature of society and reality would gladly would bypass it and make it obsolescent. One of my favorite professors used to say, “Christianity is new every morning.” And any people who ever claim to to believe in something called “present truth,” should beware that that keeps changing. No, absolute truth does not change, but how we understand and apply it to the circumstances we find ourselves in necessarily does.

Again, I do not claim to have the definitive explanation of the Seventh-day Adventist identity today. But I do know, because of repeated experiences, that is a definition that resonates with many in the church. If it resonates with you, then I am grateful. If it does not, then it’s up to you to find a better one.

For those who want to hear what I have to say, this will be a journey of discovery we take together, not a series of lectures or sermons. For those who don’t, peace be upon you.

One of the things that I have found, however, is that what I’m about to share with you in future blogs answers questions for many, and renews their faith. That is my purpose.

The theme of the series of talks that I gave at that camp meeting, and have repeated numerous venues, is simply this: if I was 25 years old today, why would I choose to be a Seventh-day Adventist?

The short answer for me is, because I believe this is where the action is. I still believe that it is God’s purpose to pursue his primary agenda through the agency of this movement. Note that I called it a “movement,” not a church or denomination. Individual congregations and even large institutions can abandon their original purpose and look only after their own survival.

But I do believe that the movement which gave birth to the Seventh-day Adventist church is one which still has unfinished business, God’s business, and we need to be about it.

Again, if you don’t agree, that’s fine. But I’m not going to spend a long time or great effort to persuade you otherwise. What I intend to do is set out my understanding, to share that which has encouraged so many others. I hope you’ll take the journey with me.

Read other posts from this series on Adventist Identity.