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The year 2011 ended in Houston with a visit by GYC (Generation of Youth for Christ). Thousands of enthusiastic young Adventists converged on the George R. Brown Convention Center (One of the 10 largest in the U.S.) for several days of teaching and fellowship, ending on New Years’ Day, 2012.
As my family and I were leaving Saturday night, surrounded by young believers in their best Sabbath attire, we passed crowds of revelers on their way to the city’s New Years’ Eve celebration at Discovery Green, the park across the street. Some were in jeans and t-shirts, but one unique group was attired as pirates, with tricorn hats and long coats. One group prepared to party, the other poised for piety.
That jarring contrast between the young Adventists in the convention center and the young Houstonians outside got me thinking. These days of GYC were a study in contrasts. While traditional hymns were sung to piano accompaniment, a young person next to me listened to contemporary music on her iPod. On Thursday night, GYC's president Justin McNeilus urged the attendees to be involved in their local churches and conference, yet their only contact with the local pastors was to ask us for zip codes where they might pass out literature.*
Some see GYC as reinforcing a legalistic and retrograde version of Adventism, a repristination of Adventism of the 1940s and 50s. Yet large numbers of the young adults who attend and dress in suits and ties and sing traditional hymns here also go to the North American Division’s youth and young adult conference, “Just Claim It,” where they wear t-shirts and enjoy contemporary Christian music. They eat vegetarian at GYC, and talk politely to the folks from Wildwood and Oak Haven at their booths, yet go to McDonald’s on the way home. They enjoy traditional Adventist teaching and preaching, and yet post photos of themselves on Facebook at clubs.
Some (within and without) look at GYC as demonstrating how different the attendees are from other young adults, but I concluded they are pretty similar, after all. Despite the fact that some of the speakers (and many of the books and CDs offered for sale) denounce postmodernism, the majority of young adults at GYC are living examples of postmodernism. They don’t see the above dichotomies as hypocrisy—they see the Christian life and doctrine as a cafeteria from which they pick and choose from past and present those things that give meaning and comfort to them. Its leaders’ resistance to engaging with local and conference leadership is emblematic of the postmodern distrust of institutions and authority figures. They include famous preachers like Doug Batchelor and Dwight Nelson, not as authority figures, nor as representatives of the official church, but as celebrities, headliners to help attract a crowd.
Had we stayed on Saturday night we probably would have seen some blurring of the lines. I don’t think all the attendees stayed in the convention center to pray until midnight. Some, I am sure, traded their suits and dresses for t-shirts and jeans and joined the party across the street, enjoying the bands and the electrical parade and the light show projected on the convention center’s façade.
George Knight has written that Seventh-day Adventism has been influenced by a variety of movements, including Rationalism, Methodism, Puritanism, and Restorationism. All were on display in the talks, in the halls, in the discussions, and in the exhibit hall. The church, to the Rationalist mindset, is not a mystical body with a divine hierarchy, but a group of people who believe a certain set of intellectual ideas (so why bother working with certain people in certain offices?). The sets were devoid of art or environment, to give focus to words and ideas. The prayer room, a normal breakout space full of chairs and with normal lighting, was a place to have conversations with God, and with one another. As in historic Methodism, speakers made appeals for the filling of the Holy Spirit, and conversion, and sanctification. As in caricatures of Puritanism, emphasis was placed upon right behavior, with books for sale warning against cosmetics and jewelry; some women demonstrated their attention to modesty attired in floor length dresses with long hair neatly tied back in buns. As in Reconstructionism, other books and comments from the floor warned against “Catholic” and “Jesuit” spirituality, urging readers to ignore any spiritual developments in Christian history and to use only categories found in the Bible.
These comments may sound in a cynical key, but I was comforted by the fact that these thousands are just like the young adults I know—real people, living in a real world, looking for meaning and spirituality. And I found a number of hopeful signs in the gathering. One was the talk I went to on Sabbath afternoon by Ron Clouzet on the subject of how to deal with false doctrine. He asked the audience what false doctrines concerned them. “Spiritual formation!” “Pantheism!” “Trinitarian errors!” His masterful talk urged charity, due process, following Matthew 18, and a recognition that all issues are not black and white. Another was Justin McNeilus’ opening address urging young adults to be involved in their local church and community. He affirmed that Christianity is not solitary, nor is it practiced only in special gatherings, but must begin at home, in a specific community, and must make a real, practical difference.
Though I heard denunciations of “spiritual formation,” these young adults and their leaders desperately need genuine spiritual formation. And they know it. That’s why they go to GYC. They want to be formed in a spirituality that will give them sustenance. They want help in their prayer lives. They want to understand their faith. They want to make a difference. But if they are not formed by mature Christians with a healthy spirituality, these cravings may cause them to be vulnerable to those who would lead them into false paths of narcissism and legalism and sectarianism.
A number of representatives of the institutional church were present—pastors, conference officials, and representatives of North American Division and General Conferences offices and ministries. Their presence said, “You are an important part of this charge; despite differences we may have, we will come to you, and we will meet you where you are, and we will seek to befriend you, and engage you, and challenge you, and guide you in your spiritual life. That’s what our pastoral responsibility demands.”*
*These sentences were changed after publication at the request of the author in consultation with GYC leadership.