What perceptions do Millennials have of the Adventist Church? If someone feels excluded, underestimated, stifled--if they perceive the church as superficial and simplistic--these experiences could leave a lasting impression on anyone. Especially for young people, experiences in church and perceptions about the church can have a significant impact.
In a Ministry Magazine interview with my friend and colleague, Dr. Roger Dudley, Professor Emeritus at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, he shared what his research revealed about the perceptions of next generations:
"I really think that the congregational climate is perhaps the most important thing of all. Young people, when they think about Seventh-day Adventists, they don’t think about the denomination as a whole. To them, Adventism is that congregation. If that congregation is a warm, accepting place, then Seventh-day Adventism must be a good thing. If that congregation is a place that is struggling, then they wonder, What’s the matter with Adventists? I guess adults do that too, but young people do it particularly.
I’m convinced that all youth ministry is local. I have story after story of that kind of thing—people who were offended because of the congregation, as well as stories of people who love their church because of the warm way they are accepted."
Young adults [those post high-school through pre-parenthood] have many perceptions and attitudes, and when asked to characterize the local Adventist church, there was no lack of responsiveness. In a recent study of Adventist Millennials, we took a look at their perceptions, and here’s what the research revealed, as summarized in Ministry Magazine:
Based on their responses to various questions in the survey, [Adventist young adult] respondents were categorized as either “engaged” or “disengaged” from their local congregations. Engaged respondents were those who attend services at least monthly and indicated that church is relevant for them. Disengaged did not meet one or both of those criteria. Then, key differences between these two groups were extracted from the data.
Compared to the engaged young adults within the Adventist Church. . . disengaged young adults have much stronger negative experiences with their childhood church. The largest differences were for the statements “leaders are repressive of ideas” and “the church is overprotective of its young people.” Disengaged respondents were also much more likely to agree with the ideas that their childhood church “seemed like an exclusive club” and “the teachings seem shallow.”
Both groups were later asked about similar experiences with their current church; if anything, the differences observed here became even more pronounced as they answered questions about their current church.
It would be easy enough to dismiss the "disengaged" Adventist young adults as "bad seed" stemming from their teen years--the one's whose behaviors clearly gave evidence to their not being with the church program. The easy assumption would be that "we knew all along," based on their behavior, who would leave the church. Presumptions would lean, "Good kids stay, bad behaving kids leave when they become young adults." Interestingly the research revealed some significant findings to challenge such notions [as cited in Ministry Magazine]:
...There were no significant differences between the behaviors of the engaged and disengaged young adults when they were children and teenagers. In other words, we cannot look at the level of activity among the children and teens and then predict which ones will disengage from the church as young adults. But negative experiences with their childhood church (specifically with the leadership and adult members) are strong predictors of such disengagement.
Dr. Clint Jenkin summarizes well this finding in his interview with Young Adult Life:
Dr. Jenkin's nudge toward the importance of relationships is further endorsed by Dr. Dudley's Ministry Magazine comments:
"I’d like to help young people see that religion is not a list of don’ts—things you can’t do. It’s not some kind of behavioral code, some complex theoretical experience. I want them to see it as a relationship experience. I want them to see that it is first a relationship with God who is a friend, and a relationship with their fellow human beings where they help and support each other. At the center of true religion is this matter of relationship. I think they need help to see that."
Relationships offer us a peek into the heart of next generations. To the degree there are positive relationships for next generations could very well be a key to their engagement with their local congregation. Dr. Dudley summed up well the challenge for local churches who wish to love young adults better:
"We have to develop the capacity to see beyond the outward shell, to look inside. I’ve seen all kinds of young people, some of whom apparently are very secular and have no religion at all, but if you really get to know these kids, they may be a little different from ours, but they have aspirations. I can hardly ever remember a time where I didn’t find something good in them."
For more Adventist Millennial research commentary and suggested solutions, check out Best Practices for Adventist Ministry. For the complete interview with Dr. Roger L. Dudley, check out Ministry Magazine.