At the peak of the problem

What to do about young adults leaving the Adventist church

Kyle Berg

Last year Carl Dupper, then-ASB President, presented Union’s senators with a question that has troubled most of the North American Division (NAD) for quite some time: Why are the young people leaving the church? Our senators all agreed this was a troubling question and wanted to do something about it.

When the Young Adult Retention and Involvement Committee was formed in February 2014, Natalie Bruzon, Makenzy Jean and Kali Arevalo were its lone volunteers. Together they began planning a summit which would invite two student representatives from most Adventist institutions of higher learning in North America.

This summit would eventually become known as the North American Division Youth Retention and Involvement Summit. From October 23 to 25, student representatives and NAD affiliates gathered on Union College’s campus to join the conversation about youth in (and out of) the Adventist church.

The event consisted of several presentations and “think tank” discussion groups. The think tanks inspired conversation on why young adults are leaving or staying in the church, what we have to offer the church; and what we want from the church. Main objectives of the think tank groups were to come up with six answers for each question and prioritize them. Along with the delegates representing other schools, Union College students were encouraged to participate as well.

During one session, Bruzon and her group discussed what young people need from the church. She summarized their conclusions, saying, “We need to return to Biblical principles; less programming and more time to develop relationships; and provide an atmosphere that motivates others to seek Jesus.”

Michael Paradise, young adult pastor at College View Church, attended some of the think tank sessions and felt that Union students’ participation made a profound impact. He sat at a table of non-Adventist students who kept coming back to one particular point: “It is up to the young adults to get involved—plug themselves in.”

Exploring how students can “plug themselves in,” Paradise offered a few concrete suggestions: work with kids for Sabbath School and church events, enjoy fellowship at potlucks, help out with technical areas during Sabbath services and take advantage of graphic design opportunities. He also mentioned vespers and Bible study opportunities off campus at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

Apart from the think tank discussion groups, NAD representatives Allen Martin, Ben Lundquist, Ron Pickell and Debra Brill spoke with students about the young adult crisis in the church.

One of the most insightful opportunities to pick the brains of these NAD representatives occurred at a post-vespers panel. Speakers encouraged the young adults in the audience to break down the “us” versus “them” mentality through conversation centered on Jesus. The divide between the “elderly” and the “youth” could be bridged if each group shared their stories with each other; maybe it’s time for young adults to set this trend in motion.

In terms of ministry opportunities, the NAD representatives believe that each person’s ministry should be unique. One should not have to feel confined to the positions the church has clearly labeled, such as deacon, deaconess, elder or Sabbath School leader. While they are wonderful positions that need filling, our greatest desire should be where our passions lie—a viewpoint resonant with many young adults.

Talk only takes us so far. Many students are tired of pointing fingers at the church; they believe young adults should be taking ownership rather than casting blame. Kelli Vigil, a senior elementary education major, is one such student. She expressed that the summit was a great conversation starter; however, now is the time to do something about the information being presented.

If another summit were to happen, Paradise and Vigil both shared interest in talking to young adults who were out of college and still in the church. Paradise explained that many of the young adults currently in the church are still in their “Adventist university bubbles.” While this bubble is not necessarily a bad thing, it has not presented college-age students any real challenge to stay in the church.

Paradise would love to see a conference with twenty-somethings about how to stay in the church once they have left college. What do they do when they are the only person their age in the church? How do they successfully bridge the gap? Many graduating students, including Vigil, are eager to hear what their advice would be. Apart from saying “suck it up and stay,” what else can a young adult do to prevent fading into the ever-growing statistic of age disparity in the church? What has worked for young adults outside the university niche?

Ultimately, attendees felt accomplished after the summit concluded. Delegates from all the schools represented left with the desire to create action plans based on the questions and answers formed during the summit.

Bruzon’s hope for Union College is to create unity between young adults and the church. She wants to focus on developing mentorship programs where young adults can explore their passions and get plugged into ministries that grow the church and encourage more young adult involvement.

Thanks to the hard work and open dialogue that occurred at the summit, Adventist colleges across the nation are now better equipped to strengthen the relationship between the church and its younger members—to welcome young adults into the church, to bring them back and to give a sense of belonging to those who have not left.

Young adults may be the future, but they are also the present.

(Author’s note: Ben Lundquist also stated that the NAD is setting aside one million dollars to further young adult ministry research. To participate, email Lundquist at benjamin@younglife.com for more information.)

Kyle is a senior studying language arts education.