How we made it through the Adventist ghetto
You are a healthy, experienced, and well-liked church employee. You have a deserved reputation for capable management, dedicated service, or inspiring classroom technique.
What you are really passionate about, though, is your kids. Ever since they came into your life, you have made sure to provide them with everything you could so that they might come to know and love this God that you adore.
Your Parents and Your Parenting
Your parents did the same for you, in the ways that they were able. You remember those days well—when your parents joined the church. You were very young, living in a small house with thin walls when a colporteur brightened your doorway and sold your mother a small red book with golden letters and precious words. That’s how it began for your family, and you watched a great controversy unfold as your mother clung to a newfound faith and your father clung to his old ways. You witnessed in that struggle the immense power of faith. And while you didn’t always understand everything that was going on around you, you knew that God was real, that God was present.
Remembering those times—and how your parents, reconciled, sold off their small but precious inheritance to put you through Adventist education—made it a given that you would provide your children the same opportunities. Unlike your parents, though, you were able to do one better: you moved your family to an Adventist university town. In addition to family worships and church activities, you were able to afford them a K-through-12-through-university education, all in the same, safe, loving and supportive Seventh-day Adventist community.
After a While
But that was a few years ago now. Your kids have moved away from that serene, semirural university town to hip, coastal urban centers where they have high-paying jobs in tech and finance. Long gone are the evening family worships, the weekly choir practices, the happy bustle of Sabbath mornings, and the joy of sitting as a family in your spot on that pew.
And for some of your children, long gone is their commitment to Adventism. The passion you had hoped to pass down—that you have been praying for every evening and morning since the day they were born—it isn’t there for them. Lately the thought has begun to occur to you: Could it be, somehow, that raising our kids in an Adventist university town might have worked against everything we had hoped and prayed for?
We’re not sure. We’re not your children. But we’re friends with your children, and we’ve often found ourselves asking a similar question: Is there something about growing up in a tight-knit, Adventist community that can be more challenging than growing up outside of one?
Why, in spite of our many disappointments with and questions about the church, do we still persist?
It’s an idea that we’ve heard come up a bit, and sometimes seems to be an assumption. When, in Boston, our other Adventist friends wryly ask how we survived growing up our entire lives in a place like Berrien Springs, there is in that an acknowledgment that so many who grew up in similar situations to ours no longer attend church or identify as Adventists.
One guess about leavers
Whether or not the retention rate of Adventists who grow up in such a community is actually different than the retention rate of those who don’t is something we’re not actually too sure of (and something the reports we’ve seen don’t seem to get into). Anecdotally, however, it seems true. And while there are certainly many suggestions why such a thing could be the case, one suggestion we’ve become quite fascinated with has been posited by some former Adventist/Adventist adjacent authors:
In their somewhat notorious Seeking a Sanctuary, authors Keith Lockhart and Malcolm Bull (in a bit of high-context wordplay) suggest that the Adventist Church—for all its shut-door and open-door origins—functions like a revolving door: bringing in low-income, uneducated families, and spinning out affluent, non-church-affiliated professionals who feel they have need of nothing.
They suggest that this occurs because Adventist institutions function as an insulated and highly structured alternative society, instilling in members the ideas that health and education are extremely, even religiously, important. Those being major factors in upward mobility, the assertion is that once these third- and fourth-generation Adventists find themselves in more privileged positions than those of the grandparents who first decided to join the church, they outgrow their faith tradition. To these authors, one of the many notable things about Adventism is that it can serve as an incredibly effective program for behavioral change—and the end result of that can lead, in many cases, to its undoing.
Admittedly, Lockhart and Bull are just a couple of really serious journalist/academic types who did a ton of research and have a massive bibliography and a lot of notes, making some not-always-perfectly-backed or flattering observations about their former faith tradition. But as we look around at the dwindling numbers of our peers, parts of their analysis make a lot of sense to us. When we look back across the history of Adventism in our own families and recognize the immense privilege we now have as a result of our Adventist upbringing, it does feel a bit as though Lockhart and Bull have got us institutional Adventists figured out.
Some guesses at why we stayed
So how is it that we survived the Adventist ghetto? Why is it that we remain deeply engaged with and excited about our faith tradition, even after leaving that tiny, unrealistic, potentially dangerous, and beautiful bubble? Why, in spite of our many disappointments with and questions about the church, do we still persist? We’re not entirely sure. We don’t know that we can be sure this side of the thousand-year Sabbath. But what follows are some things that meant a lot to us:
Our parents articulated their faith. We’re both pastors’ kids. In our cases, that meant that we were raised in homes where Jesus was a member of the family and where we learned to love Him ever since we could say His name. Even though our parents spent good money to send us to a school where we’d be taught about God every day, we still had family worship and always prayed together. Throughout all of that, they were honest about their faith journeys and told us so many stories about how God was real in their own lives. Not only did they train us up—they told us why they were Adventist.
Our Bible teachers mentored us. Though everyone going through Adventist education has some religious class requirements, we were the students who lingered in our Bible teachers’ offices, who stopped in frequently just to chat. These teachers gifted us books that grew our faith and encouraged us to lead the morning prayer group, give chapel talks, or run for the pastoral positions in student government—all things that forced us to participate with them in caring about and developing the spiritual life of our school and, along the way, ourselves.
We fell among saints. Throughout high school and college, we happened to meet people whom we really liked and who were similarly wrestling with questions of what it means to follow Christ. On prayer retreats and in small groups and on many late-night drives, we met our people—those people with whom we discovered the most beautiful strain of Christianity, and with whom we hope to work together in the future to expand the kingdom of heaven on earth. This was also how we met each other.
We dabbled in theology. While we both now work in the design and tech industry, we were privileged to study some theology in school. In doing so, we came to understand that there is sometimes a gap between what the theologians of our church understand and what prevails in the pews. When, even from pulpits, we occasionally hear things that sound just a little bit off—whether it is poor exegesis, reductionist arguments, or non-centrist hermeneutics—we remain aware that there is a kind of Adventism where nuance, honesty, and intellectual rigor are valued, one that leads to richer, fuller, and more beautiful views of God.
We went through the J. N. Andrews Honors Program. This is where we learned to ask questions and to be comfortable with questions we couldn’t answer. We learned about critical thinking and citing your sources and how to engage with challenging ideas at their strongest points. We were taught to identify our presuppositions, to keep asking the question “Why do you think that?” and most of all, we learned to be open to the idea that we’re wrong. This made our faith resilient. If indeed Adventism is the truth, it can stand up to questions or doubts or books by non-Adventist (or formerly Adventist) authors. Our faith won’t shatter if we come across challenging ideas; it will only grow.
We learned grace. The Adventism preached at Andrews asserted that salvation is about a personal relationship with Christ and the change that that relationship creates. While we took this for granted, we’ve learned from so many people that this way of understanding the gospel isn’t preached from every pulpit. Friends would tell us of a God that they feared and constantly tried to appease. That kind of a God is so entirely foreign to us. The God we find familiar is one who again and again turns out to be better than we had thought, who continues to grow and transform us along the way.
Why these elements of our time in the Berrien Springs area seem so significant to us—why it is that we were able to make Adventism our own from these things while others perhaps didn’t—is a bit of a mystery to us still. The wind blows where it will, and maybe some of our friends (maybe some of your children) just missed it. And by whose fault?
We’re not invested in labeling or finger-pointing. What we believe, though, is that it is rare for someone to reject the beautiful, life-giving, liberating good news of Adventism properly understood. So we pray for a chance to communicate it well; for a chance to communicate it again.
That passion for God that you had hoped to pass down—that you have been praying for every evening and morning since the day your children were born—we are praying for it too.
Ivan and Olivia Ruiz-Knott live in wedlock in the hip, coastal urban center of Boston. They dream of starting an intentional Adventist Christian community.