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"The church has nothing for me anymore," he stated simply. "The service is stodgy and impractical -- it doesn't help me get closer to a living God, it just feels like an appeasement to the gods of tradition." She joined him heartily and exclaimed, "You go to church and you feel so silly! Why are we doing these things?! Our lives are falling apart, we are seeking God like starving people, and yet we line up in a place to be spectators and chant? Really?!" From the corner, they joined in, a bit softer but still firm, "The church is doing their best. They are just old. They can't help it that we don't like to do things their way anymore." The last comment came from a brave dedicated soul in the front: "I love the SDA church. I am trying to stay in. But I am terribly bored and I'm also very alone. I don't know how long I can last."
Harsh words? My first instinct was to respond to this group of my friends by getting angry and defensive, to exclaim that Adventism is terribly practical and extremely relevant to our times, insisting that our message will ALWAYS be the best way to live...but then I realized something: I see Adventism that way. They don't. Neither do alarming and increasing numbers of the young adult generation today: my generation. My friends. I'm brokenhearted, if I let myself think about it. I love my church -- we all loved it once. We grew up with the same services, went to the same schools, know all the same theology and beliefs -- why are so many of us leaving?
Our knee jerk reaction -- mine included -- is to first lay our criticisms down on these people: Oh, they aren't truly committed, they are seeking a watered-down gospel, they want to be entertained but they don't really want to worship God. They are unconverted and selfish! They have postmodern agendas which they refuse to sacrifice. But when these "people" become my sincere, Christ-seeking close friends and loved ones, the criticisms don't work as pat answers to comfort me anymore. And isn't it about time we honestly stop to realize that we are never going to judge these people back into the church? Our criticisms will never propel them back into our pews. So what can we do?
Thankfully, one giant we still have in our ranks is the fact that it's almost never our beliefs that make them leave. The Adventist message, our fundamentals, and the Bible truth as we see it are usually not where the problem lies. Most still see ours as the correct understanding. Most still believe in the Sabbath, the state of the dead, the second coming, the health message and the three angels' messages. We are so right, yet somehow we are also so wrong. But we knew that! We learned that back in the day when "The Ten Who Left" came out. The problem was (mostly) not our doctrine. The problems were relational -- we are not nice, welcoming, accepting, or forgiving. The way we serve our theology has wounded people. But now there is another giant looming large on the horizon: our "how," our methodology, the way we "do" church. It's not working for people.
If our methodology is truly moving to center stage as our new problem, that's both good news and bad news. None of us want to go anywhere near the idea that we have to compromise our truths to lure people back to church. However, we also don't want to have to change. In our defense, that's actually understandable -- we like church this way. It works for us. Let me be the first to admit that my focus has been mostly on myself -- I want a church service that fits me, that gets me through the week - I want music that blesses me, preaching that connects with me, and an atmosphere in which I can "feel" God. But don't we all want that? Maybe we all are married to our need for church to "feel" a certain way, and because of this I wonder if we are losing our sense of evangelism and our desire to see the lost saved. I guess we better start asking who it is that we are really trying to service here: If we keep doing what we like, we will be happy and blessed but they will never return. And if we give up what we like and create a service for them, they may come back but we might not be happy anymore! Who is more important -- them, or us? Do we have to choose? Is it possible to create a church service that works for all of us and still glorifies God above all? Or should we just sacrifice everything to bring them back into the fold?
Recently I polled my class of 86 high school Juniors -- our young adults of tomorrow -- and asked them if they saw themselves in the church someday in the future. The majority was a resounding NO -- with answers like the opening comments above. They just couldn't see themselves staying here, they didn't belong, they had no ownership and no opportunity to make it something they could relate to. They had been hurt by too many people in the church, they felt judged the minute they walked through the door, and people who were supposed to love them had only let them down. Discouraged and disheartened, I changed my question and ran the poll again: "What would the ideal Adventist church service look like to you?" The results were astounding -- my critics became dreamers who lit up and came to life, and schemed away the entire class period so that I finally had to cut them off when the bell was ringing. What I learned? They know what they want, and they understand why their needs aren't being met. It's time we stop and listen to what they know, that we don't...
The exciting thing to discover was that they wanted things that WE COULD DO!!! The top most desire expressed by every single student in my class was not, as you may be fearing, a change in our music. It was simpler. It was stories. Testimonies, to be exact. That's what every last one of them agreed on. They want to hear personal testimonies about why religion has worked for us, and how we have experienced God, and why we have found Him to be practical in our daily living. It's time we realize that story is the tugboat that pulls the postmodern mind out to the sea of belief and genuine experience. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is something we can provide -- if we are brave, honest, and willing. We can share our stories, yes, even the ugly ones. (Isn't that, essentially, what the Bible writers did?) Someone actually just began a simple story-sharing time on our campus this year, and a revival has exploded. My students now willingly stand in line for an hour for the chance to hear and share. It works!
There are other things, too, that we can continue to wrestle with, and slowly learn or try to incorporate: the second highest desire of my class was to include nature (location vespers, church in the woods, bare minimum a slide show?) They also wanted the service to be less structured and more based around opportunities for fellowship and community -- relationships are the key for this generation. Their vision was an intimate setting of couches around small tables with food, not long cold pews. They want the church to feel like a comfortable family setting -- a safe place to be known and a chance to connect deeply with people. But hey, I really want that too, don't you? They want to be casual. They want to share their own stories. They want to take part in the service, and they want each week to be different. They want us to be kind: people who just love and accept them as they are instead of judging them; people who can see that their modern preferences are actually an honest desire to connect with God. They don't want to have to wake up at 7am to get there on time (somebody say Amen). And yes, okay, they do want music that works for them. But we can fight about that later -- once they all come back.
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