Young Adventists and the current reality crisis
Some time ago I was teaching a Sabbath school class comprised of about 20 high school students. Nearly all were “lifers”: baptized Seventh-day Adventist young people who had attended church weekly for the vast majority of their lives. The topic for the day was honesty, and with the wide range of cultures and demographics represented that day, we were soon eyeball-deep in a lively discussion trumpeting widely divergent points of view—divergent, that is, until I asked a seemingly simple question: “If you found a $100 bill on the sidewalk, what would you do?”
The answer was swift, loud, and unanimous: “Keep it!”
I’ve taught a lot of youth and young adult Sabbath school classes throughout the years. But never before had I heard a class answer so quickly, so uniformly, and indeed, so selfishly about what seemed a softball of an ethics question. “You mean,” I countered, “you wouldn’t try to find the owner—maybe ask a nearby store clerk or passerby if someone had mentioned losing some money?”
“No way,” the enthusiastic answer came: “Finders, keepers.”
“But what if you had lost $100?” I probed, hoping to generate some empathy. “Wouldn’t you want someone to ask around and try to find you?” Oh, definitely, came the response. “So why, then,” I asked, “wouldn’t you do the same for whoever lost their $100 bill?”
“Because,” the students reasoned, “$100 is a lot of money, and you can’t risk losing such a generous blessing as free money by searching for its rightful owner.”
They were not joking. As you might imagine, we now had more than enough material to cover for the remainder of our class.
A Crisis of Reality
It’s tempting to see this experience as an interesting, but ultimately insignificant, ripple on the sea of youthful moral development. After all, everyone struggles with various moral issues, and young people sometimes more than others. Besides, the high school students in that class (whom I loved and had worked with for years) generally had high standards in most areas of their lives.
But that’s just it: Why such stark inconsistency? Was it just happenstance that fiscal honesty didn’t merit honorable mention for even one of the students in that class? Or were their answers instead a reflection of a more serious phenomenon affecting Adventist youth culture in general?
After reflecting on my past two decades of working with high school and college students, I think the answer to that last question is most likely yes. And though I readily admit my lack of scientific support, my intuition says that there’s been a steadily increasing number of both fringe and active Seventh-day Adventist youth and young adults who are living a surprisingly stark blend of the altruistic and the hedonistic, the orthodox and the heretical. Their hybrid Adventist lifestyles range from the odd (the young man I know who boasts to his health-conscious friends about the virtues of the Adventist health message—all while downing his sixth cup of coffee that morning); to the ironic (the many young Adventist women I’ve known who frequently sport fishnet stockings, stiletto heels, and skirts high enough to give astronauts nosebleeds while simultaneously complaining about the boorish behavior of “guys these days”); to the profoundly destructive (the young, lifelong Adventists I’ve known throughout the years who still maintain ties with the church while regularly participating in the occult, living sexually dangerous lives, or freely using a variety of narcotics and illegal drugs).
And notice carefully: these young Adventists often do not sense a need to resolve their conflicted lifestyles. They may recognize their inconsistencies, and certainly some do want to get rid of them. But a surprising number do not; they are comfortable with their contradictions. (And as with the $100 bill example earlier, they may even see those contradictions as virtuous.)
How could increasing numbers of young people who’ve been raised in the church and presumably taught sound biblical principles come to live in ways clearly at odds with those principles?
I have a theory: Perhaps for a significant swath of Adventist young people today, Adventism is simply un-real.
The hyphen in un-real is intentional. Many of today’s young people perceive Adventism as being contrived, formulaic, and (believe it or not, given our education system) intellectually vacuous—in a hyphenated word, un-real.
I suggest at least three explanations for this phenomenon:
1. Young Adventists’ worldviews are often dominated by visual media.
I vividly recall nearly 20 years ago telling my first-ever youth group that I didn’t own a TV. After they regained consciousness, several in the group implored me to repent of my sin of media omission—if not for my sake, for the sake of my children. “Seriously, Pastor Shane,” one of them genuinely pleaded, “your kids will be, like, such incredible nerds if they don’t get to watch TV!” Such was their joined-at-the-hip dependency on media, even in the technological dark ages of the 1990s.
Numerous scholars1 have noted that today’s overwhelming dominance of visual media (TV, movies, the Web, video games, etc.) means dramatically less influence for words and ideas, and dramatically increased influence for contrived images. Image is thus regularly winning out over substance. And it’s this defeat of substance that dominates the lives of too many young people, including young Adventists.
Some may argue that Adventist parents are more careful about the media diet their children dine on than nonreligious parents might be. However—and please notice this carefully—such choosiness may not matter in this case, because nearly all mass-produced visual media is by its very nature un-real, inevitably encouraging viewers saturated in it to see the world through un-real eyes.
Think about it. Nearly all visual media productions aimed at children, youth, and young adults—whether fiction or nonfiction, sacred or secular—are usually presented by people (actors) who are pretending to be someone they’re not. Their scripted (and often storybook) endings bear little resemblance to the messy unpredictability of real living. Their special effects can make reality seem unnatural and boring. And their story lines are nearly all—regardless of the complexity of the issues they deal with—resolved in 30 or 60 minutes of viewing time. That, by any definition, is un-real.
I do see positive uses for some visual media in appropriate doses. My children and I enjoy watching selected portions of it (though alas, my old youth group would be embarrassed if they knew we still don’t have cable). I also use visual media at times in my sermons.
But media saturation is another matter. I sadly see an increasingly wide swath of baptized, lifelong Adventist young people whom I love and care for that have grown up saturated with visual media. They often have attention spans the length of a movie scene change; a craving for and even an expectation of the effortless fame they see their media heroes enjoying; and an almost impenetrably cynical edge that, when translated, says: “Everything is contrived. Everything is a special effect. I am a target audience. You’ve got 30 seconds . . . entertain me—if you can!”
Why do they think this way? Kids who month after month, year after year, are saturated with the un-real inevitably develop un-real worldviews.
This leads to a related and second possible explanation for young Adventists’ contradictory lifestyles:
2. Young Adventists today often have a church experience that is un-real.
I’ve encountered many young people, raised on the fabricated reality of visual media, who find the average Adventist worship experience to be less than breathtaking. Some churches (including my own) have tried to compensate for this by having livelier music, a stronger media “feel,” greater integration of young people into worship leadership, quicker transitions, etc. These can be helpful.
But after years of experimenting with these solutions, I’m increasingly convinced there is something deeper that must be addressed: the core nature of many Adventist worship services today. That nature is un-real.
I don’t deny that Adventist worship is meaningful to many people. But this doesn’t erase some troubling realities. For instance, unlike the early Christian church,2 many of our worship services are predictable from week to week, both in order and content. Furthermore, while the Bible speaks of the priesthood of all believers, it’s typically paid clergy who lead out in most facets of our churches and their worship. (And how many of us can imagine or remember it being any other way?) During a majority of the services I’ve either been to or participated in—and again, unlike New Testament era worship (see 1 Cor. 14:26)3—nearly all congregants sit quietly with little interaction with one another (the very design of the seating in most churches discourages such interaction). Few will feel comfortable saying anything other than the occasional “Amen.” Ironically, this is because higher levels of participation are often seen as a distraction from the “atmosphere” of worship. As a consequence, most attendees on Sabbath mornings do essentially nothing but listen during the service. Few worshippers—including young worshippers—seem to leave inspired (much less equipped) to reach someone else for Christ. Yet we claim this is “real”—the real worship of our real God.
Whatever happened to the spontaneous, Jesus-centered, soul-stirring, interactive worship of God that the New Testament boasts of?4 Perhaps your church has it, but many do not. I find it increasingly hard to disagree with young people who see so many of our scripted, clergy-centric, nonparticipatory worship routines as being uninspiring and, yes, un-real.
3. Many young Adventists today have an un-real understanding of Christ.
In addition to un-real worldviews and un-real church experiences, there’s another factor leading to young Adventists’ comfort with contradiction: an unbalanced view of Christ.
I want to be careful with how I word this, not the least reason being that I don’t want to come across as legalistic. I firmly believe that I’m saved by God’s grace, not my works, and that there’s “not one thread of human devising”5 in Christ’s garment of salvation. But I fear that—how else can I say it?—the Christ we often present to our young people asks too little of them. And in so presenting, we’ve unintentionally played right into the hands of their budding “Adventism is un-real” mind-set.
For instance, I’ve heard repeatedly for many years sincere, impassioned speakers unintentionally tell large groups of Adventist youth and young adults that Christ loves them and is, therefore, only marginally interested in what they actually do in their lives. “Just trust in Jesus,” the speakers often say. “Don’t worry about what you watch, wear, eat, etc.—that will all come naturally once the relationship’s in place.”
Forty years ago this message was desperately needed in legalistic quarters of Adventism. But times have changed drastically. I repeat: times have changed drastically. Today most young people I know have absolutely no trouble with legalism. They instead have massive trouble with moral relativism and its natural end, secularism. Thus, there are two things wrong with the quoted statement: timing and balance. The timing of the above speakers is out of step with most young people’s current reality.
As for balance, it’s true that what one watches, wears, eats, etc., is emphatically not the core of a relationship with Christ. But relationship without rules can just as easily lead to rebellion as rules without relationship. And in focusing so much on relationship and so little on behavior, we unwittingly give the unbalanced impression that our behavior is irrelevant to our relationship with Christ—an enslaving proposition that can’t be sustained from Scripture.
Interestingly, many young Adventists today are more attracted to (even if they’re initially leery of) a God who dares to affect everything in their lives—including their behavior—than they are to a God who “loves” them and yet appears uninterested in what they watch, wear, or eat. And when we older adults persist in presenting an unbalanced Christ that ends up asking too little of His followers, we shouldn’t be surprised if more and more young people are saying, “This is irrelevant to my life. This is an un-real relationship. Christ is un-real. I have no need of such a God.”
A Better Way
All three of these factors—an un-real, media-dominated worldview; an un-real church experience; and an un-real view of Christ—can naturally lead to un-real Adventism and thus to profoundly contradictory and harmful lifestyles among Adventist young people. What can we do to help them ditch the un-real in favor of genuine, whole-person relationships with Christ?
1. Cut back on young people’s visual media exposure.
This one’s probably obvious—and probably much easier said than done! But do what you can. Consider dramatically reducing the visual media exposure of the young people you directly care for. And for young adults who make their own decisions, engage them. Get to know them. Care for them as Christ would. Then, when appropriate, talk gently about possible contradictions between what they take in through the media and their relationship with Christ. Don’t condemn; be sensitive, be honest—and let them decide. Some will reject your counsel, as is their right. But I’ve been amazed at how life-changing and liberating such simple conversations can be as the fog of contradiction that’s clouded a young person’s view for years is removed.
2. Transform Sabbath mornings into New Testament worship experiences.
As our reference from Acts 4 clearly shows, two hallmarks of New Testament worship were orderly spontaneity, and engagement with God.6 The scripted, sacrificial worship system of the Old Testament did not immediately vanish, but for the Pentecostal community of believers Christ had become the Christian’s all-sufficient sacrifice. They came to understand that all Christians were now priests of God. Even the holy buildings where God had lived were eventually set aside,7 because every Christian (and the Christian fellowship itself) was now God’s holy temple. New Testament worship was thus personally engaging, unscripted, and usually done in small groups.8 The latter attribute helped all worshippers who wished to directly participate by selecting songs, testifying to God’s love, requesting prayer, actively sharing in Bible study, etc. Christians grew to know Jesus and each other well, and were thus inspired and equipped to disciple others. It was a revolutionary change compared to how worship had been conducted for the previous 4,000 years. And, oh, was it real!
New Testament worship is profoundly challenging to implement today. But one way we’re pursuing it with the church I serve is by starting “house churches.” These are church groups with real members, most of whom will no longer attend services at our church building on Sabbaths. They will worship and reach others for Christ by following New Testament principles mentioned. It’s an unpredictable venture—but there’s no question it’s real. And unsurprisingly, the largest age group pursuing membership in these house churches is young adults.
How should you implement New Testament worship features in your church? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer—and I’m not implying that you discontinue your Sabbath morning church service. That you pursue it is, in my book, nonnegotiable. Consider finding creative ways to have smaller worship gatherings (10-20 people, perhaps), either on Sabbath or at other times. Reduce your dependence on clergy. Provide for orderly spontaneity in your worship, such that any attendee can add to or even alter the content of worship within mutually agreed-upon guidelines.9 Such worship is high-octane fuel for knowing Christ and becoming equipped to reach others for Him.
3. Teach young Adventists to know and defend the real Jesus. This calls for at least three things:
First, we must let Jesus speak for Himself—that is, get youth and young adults to read . . . wait for it . . . the Bible. This would represent a radical step for most young Adventists (and most older Adventists, for that matter), most of whom do not read their Bibles on a regular basis.10 Some young people simply won’t take this step. But others will.11 Take advantage of natural opportunities, such as Sabbath school discussions, reading and discussing the Bible on its terms, not ours. Get into the Word so that young people can know the Word, Jesus.In letting Jesus speak for Himself, they can see Him as He is, for real. And by His grace, they can then—at least—have a foundation for living consistently, with ever-decreasing aberrations, with and for Him.
Second, teach Adventist young people apologetics: the biblical and philosophical defense of the Christian faith. I’m dead serious about this. This is especially urgent for the 70 percent of Adventist college and university students attending non-Adventist institutions, where secular teachers and curricula are cutting the un-real Christ to ribbons. Apologetics, rightly learned by our young people,12 can help them see that Christ is real, that He makes logical sense, and that He’s more than a warm fuzzy or imaginary friend. They can not only successfully defend their faith, but, as a side benefit, also keep their lifestyles liberatingly Adventist, even in hostile territory.
Third, and most important, we adults must be real ourselves. We must fight against the faux in our own lives, doing whatever it takes to be real Christians, real Adventists, engaged in a real relationship with our very real God. Such living is essential and attractive, even to young people raised in an un-real world.
Years ago my Sabbath school class provided a small taste of how un-reality can invade young Adventists’ lives. Today I believe that invasion is spreading. But un-reality is no match for the real Jesus. Let us be real for Him, and may God bless us abundantly as we diligently help our young people do the same. n
- Drawing on the influential work of scholars such as Neil Postman and Marshall McLuhan, Arthur Hunt in his book The Vanishing Word: The Veneration of Visual Imagery in the Postmodern World argues persuasively that current society has moved from a word/idea-based culture to a strongly image-based culture, representing a major and ominous shift toward paganism.
- “Christ’s work was to establish an altogether different worship” for His church, one free from the cold scriptedness that characterized the religious observances of the previous centuries (see Acts 4:23; Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages [Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn. 1898], p. 157; see also John 4:20, 21; Gal. 4:8-11; Heb. 10:11, 12, 19-25).
- 3 Note Paul’s balance in 1 Corinthians 14—he opposes confusion in worship while supporting every member participating in worship.
- 4 Paul’s criteria for New Testament worship is both inspiring and intimidating: it must be so real that even unbelievers in attendance exclaim, “God is really among you!” (1 Cor. 14:25).
- 5 Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1900), p. 311.
- It’s sometimes forgotten that in all of the New Testament there is no script for Christian worship. No script by definition equals spontaneity (see 1 Cor. 14:24, 27-32). This change was according to Christ’s design (John 4:20, 21). Spontaneity, coupled with orderliness (1 Cor. 14:33, 40) and transforming engagement with Christ (see Heb. 10:1-25; E. G. White, The Desire of Ages, pp. 36, 157), were instead to be the church’s guiding worship principles, with implementation details left up to worshippers.
- It’s easy to forget the starkness of Acts 7:48: “However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands.” This may well challenge our inclination to elevate a human-made structure as a uniquely holy receptacle of Christ.
- Up until the fourth century A.D., Christians rarely built large meeting places. Instead, small groups meeting in homes were the norm (see Acts 2:46; Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Philemon 1, 2).
- Consider searching Ellen White’s writings for the words “social meeting.” It can be surprising to discover what Adventist worship looked like for the first 60-70 years of our history: no settled pastors leading churches, full membership engagement, etc. We were a different church then.
- Informal surveys conducted by others and me usually indicate that less than 25 percent of young Adventists regularly study the Bible.
- Witness 6,000 young people—6,000!—descending on Seattle at a recent GYC conference, a conference dedicated to the exposition and real application of the Bible.
- To get a young Adventist you know started in apologetics, check out works by Ravi Zacharias, Timothy Keller (his book The Reason for God is a great place to start), Norman Geisler, William Lane Craig, and our own Clifford Goldstein. (The authors from other faith backgrounds are recommended for their general approaches to Christian apologetics. No general endorsement of their specific theological perspectives is intended.)