Columbia Union Leaders Discuss Young Adult Attrition Whole Church Solution Needed, Speaker Says
Story by Taashi Rowe
A 2011 book reveals that 59 percent of young adults are leaving the church.
A. Allan Martin, PhD, didn’t mince words. A former professor at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University (Mich.) and a current young adult pastor at a thriving church in Texas, Martin hit the members of the Columbia Union Conference Executive Committee with stark numbers: some 60 to 70 percent of young people leave the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Yesterday Martin gave a nearly two-hour long presentation to committee members meeting at the Columbia Union headquarters in Columbia, Md. Using the David Kinnaman book You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church ... and Rethinking Faith as his primary reference, Martin brought the gathering up to speed on the whys and wherefores of persistent young adult attrition from churches across North America. For his book, Kinnaman, president of the Christian research firm the Barna Group, looked at the Christian community as a whole.
However, Kinnman’s findings may not have been exactly news to the committee members. “We’ve heard the sirens in regard to young adult attrition for years,” Martin said. He then referenced Roger Dudley’s 2000 book Why Our Teenagers Leave the Church: Personal Stories From a Ten-Year Study, which had similar findings as Kinnaman. Dudley who led the Institute of Church Ministry at Andrews University, tracked hundreds of young North American Adventists from the late 1980s through the late 1990s, and, found that between 40 and 50 percent of teens end up leaving the church.
Martin noted that repeating the information he shared today was important because, “most of this stuff is not intuitive. The Seventh-day Adventist church is about 25 years behind culture and about 15 years behind mainstream Protestantism so the older generation is still trying to figure it out.”
With young adults continuing to drop out, the union's executive committee members have made engaging and partnering with young adults to further the mission of the church one of their six priorities for 2011-2016. Bringing in Martin to address the leadership on this critical issue was one small step in the direction of stanching the exodus of young adults from the church. While Martin gave some familiar reasons why young adults leave the church, which include them finding it repressive, overprotective, shallow, exclusive, anti-science and having no room for doubt, the presentation also left room for discussion and some solutions.
Beverly Miles said in the urban areas he noticed that those who are leaving the church “feel no need for Jesus in their life and find that answers come from another source.”
Martin was not surprised. He responded that he knew a young lady who became a Muslim because she felt that a greater sense of community and involvement in that religion.
An Intergenerational Solution
Martin also discussed how generational differences impact today’s church including that flattened hierarchical structures have made it easier for young adults to have immediate access to formally distant “authority figures.”
Rubén Ramos, assistant to the Columbia Union president for Multilingual Ministries, wondered if a child’s early education and relationship with their parents impacted their future relationship to their church.
Martin said while he could not fully answer that question, he did know that a child’s relationship with his parents does impact what kind of adult he will become. He also said more youth pastors alone was not the answer. “Kids are smart enough to know that the youth pastor gets paid to be their friend,” he said. “Not having a significant relationship with another adult makes young adults two times as likely to drop out of church.”
He continued, “Older adults are missing from young people’s lives. They are going to their friends [for moral centering] not their parents who have dismissed themselves from young people’s lives.”
Dennis Austin, a Pennsylvania Conference pastor, admitted, “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.”
Martin 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.”
Martin then detailed the ABCs and D of building young adult relationship, which included authenticity, belonging, compassion and discipleship. He especially stressed longitudinal relationships or what he calls reverse mentoring. “We used to look toward the ‘sage on the stage,’ but this generation is more interested in the ‘guide on the side,’” he said. Finally, he asked committee members to write down the names of 10 young adults who have varying connections to the church, pray for them and reach out to them.
Following the presentation Dave Weigley, Columbia Union president, promised to procure copies of Kinnaman’s book for committee members. “I hope this presentation was beneficial to all of us,” he said. “If we are serious about engaging young adults, we must realize that this was just one step in the process of intentionally reaching them.”