Within a day or two, my friend Ryan Bell will tell the world what has come of his year of living as an atheist. The outline of what he is going to say is pretty clear, as indicated by several news stories lately. As he told NPR, he simply doesn’t know if there’s a God. I don’t want to dwell on Ryan’s experience one way or the other, because he is a friend, and because he doesn’t need any more people judging or second-guessing him.
I called Ryan my friend because we have significant history, not the least of which is that Ryan and his wife went through church planter assessments with my wife and myself. Not only were the four of us two couples in the first ever Adventist church planter assessment, out of no more than 20 couples, my wife and I were paired with him and his wife in the most intensive of exercises, the simulated church plant.
I also met him at several of the eight SEEDS conferences I attended. He was a pastor in the Pennsylvania conference when I spoke at the Pennsylvania Camp meeting. And to cap it off, Ryan was one of the organizers of the re:Church conference titled “Loving Babylon,” where I was privileged to receive the Issachar Award. And we maintained a Facebook friendship until a couple of years ago. So I’ve known him and followed his career for nearly 20 years.
I grieve for him, and the struggles he has gone through, and where he finds himself now. So although Ryan’s public description of his journey is the occasion for this blog, he is not the primary subject. Instead, I contend that Ryan is representative of a whole generation — two generations, in fact.
Anyone who knows me, knows that I have spoken publicly and written about the hemorrhaging of our young adults for more than 20 years. It is gratifying to see that finally the larger church has become aware of the problem. And when I say the larger church, I do not mean only the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. Virtually every Christian denomination in the advanced world is suffering catastrophic loss of young adults.
In the Adventist church, estimates are that we are losing somewhere near 70% of all the children born to Seventh-day Adventists in North America. Not only is this a demographic nightmare, pointing to a weaker and less well supported Adventist church in North America, but it also highlights the simple fact that we are not able to reach the dominant culture around us anymore.
The growth in the Adventist church in North America is primarily from immigrants, and first-generation immigrants at that. 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.
I have said that the church at large is finally becoming aware of this problem, and it is true. The Barna Association has done very useful work in surveying young adults, and asking them why they leave the church, and what they would like to see the church. Interestingly, in this day of Internet bloggers, many young adults are commenting on the phenomenon themselves.
And if you read these blogs, you find some fascinating things. First, they do 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. I must confess, it took me some time to identify what I believe that something is, from my experience of speaking to audiences of young adults all over North America, with, to me, astonishing reception.
Just one example. At a camp meeting several years ago, I was asked to speak at the young adults tent. I was told that I would speak a total of 11 times during that week. Although I agreed to speak, my thought was, “Well, after four or five times, everyone will get tired and go elsewhere.” As it turned out, the tent, which seated 300, was full every time, and at least 100 sat on blankets all around the tent, for each meeting.
During the week, the conference President came down, and said, “What is going on down here? I’ve had several pastors who were here on the first Sabbath talking about what you said at length. And we usually have about 50 here during the week.”
I replied, surprised myself, “I don’t know exactly. I try to talk about things that matter. I only brought five loaves and two fishes. Someone else must be feeding them.” I wasn’t being evasive. I didn’t know.
Although the numbers vary, I have had similar experiences nearly everywhere I have spoken. I share this not to boast, but to demonstrate that young adults can be reached. And for a number of years, I really had no idea why I was getting such a response.
I’m not nearly as eloquent as Dwight Nelson, or Ron Halverson Jr., or a host of other well-known speakers. It’s certainly not my appearance. Somehow, what I shared with those young adults and with others struck a chord. For a long time, I had no idea exactly what it was. But a friend of mine, whose name many of you would recognize, told me something a number of years ago, which for some reason took me quite a while to understand and internalize.
This is already long for a blog entry, and I don’t have space to fully explain what the missing something is. Nor do I wish to leave the reader hanging. So I will leave you with a quote by Henry David Thoreau which put me on the right track.
““All men want, not something to do . . . but . . . something to be.”