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Young (Ex)Adventists and Their Stories

Photo by fancycrave1 from Pixabay

In a 2011 survey of former Seventh-day Adventist Church members, 62.5 percent of respondents reported that they were young adults when they left the Adventist church. The issue has been the subject of countless debates, articles, sermons, and initiatives. For this story, Spectrum interviewed 16 young adults who left the church and 5 who are still in the church. In an attempt to listen beyond the statistics, some of their stories are recounted here.

* * *

Grant Wareham is a skilled musician who enjoys making his talents available to churches. As an organist with music degrees from Rice University and Yale University, his skills have been tapped by numerous houses of worship across the United States, including Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Catholic congregations.

At one time, Wareham, 27, would have described himself as a devout “conservative” Seventh-day Adventist.

He grew up attending the Kettering Seventh-day Adventist Church, and during an evangelistic series in Dayton, Ohio, he once served as a Bible worker. Three or four GYC (Generation. Youth. Christ.) conventions line his past travels. “My parents tended to be more toward the conservative side,” he told Spectrum. “Alcohol was of course a big no-no, and Sabbath was very strict.”

Wareham was homeschooled, and outside of rehearsal for a youth orchestra and music groups at his church, he didn’t have much unstructured time to socialize with his peers as he grew up. “I didn’t really have many friends my age. I’ve taken the Buzzfeed ‘How Strict Were Your Parents?’ quizzes just for the heck of it, and half of the questions didn’t even apply to me because it was like, ‘When was your curfew?’ Well, I didn’t go anywhere, so I didn’t have one.”

After Wareham turned 18, he enrolled at Rice University, a secular institution. And he had a plan.

He’d attend the Adventist church on Saturdays and use his skills to earn money at “work” church on Sundays. Soon though, “I found myself rolling my eyes at most of what I was doing and seeing on Saturdays and enjoying what I was seeing on Sundays,” he said. It begged a question: what do other denominations have to offer?

In this fresh environment, he began to hear ideas that challenged the worldview that had insulated him for so long. “If I heard something I thought I disagreed [with], I needed to be able to quantify to myself why I disagreed with it without mental gymnastics, or I had to change my opinion,” Wareham explained.

This simple, unassuming method teed off a “long, slow process” in which his most cherished tenets were challenged. “Suddenly, I couldn’t justify to myself why I believed what I believed.”

It wasn’t until his sophomore year of college that Wareham thought to himself that perhaps the earth is more than 6,000 years old. Or maybe other denominations offer good things, too. “The whole Adventist mindset of ‘this is the church’ was so ingrained into me that it was a long process to admit that this wasn’t something that I felt I identified with.”

Now, Adventism lurks in his distant past, like an old hymn forgotten by the saints.

* * *

While an initial glance at official statistics tells us that the Adventist church is burgeoning with 22.23 million members, a closer look tells us that the church has also lost over 17.59 million members since 1965.

To put that into perspective: if everyone who had been a church member since 1965 were still on the books, the Adventist church would have 42,294,215 members.

In 2019 alone, 1.1 million people called it quits with the church. Official membership statistics from the past five years show that, on average, between 500,000 and 600,000 people have their church membership withdrawn every year. That equates to a net loss rate of 42 percent, or four out of every ten members.

A crisis looms over the future of the Adventist church. “If we conceive of the church’s mission as keeping as well as adding members, then the Adventist church faces a challenge, for we experience significant, heavy losses,” General Conference statistician David Trim told delegates at the General Conference Session in June 2022. “And we know that there will be more to come, as membership audits, which we are now calling membership reviews, are implemented around the world.”

The Adventist church’s members, particularly in North America, continue to age. In a 2018 survey of global church members, 58 percent of respondents in the North American Division were aged over 55, and the average age of respondents was 57. Additionally, in a 2011 global survey of former Adventist church members commissioned by the General Conference Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research, 62.5 percent of respondents reported that they were young adults when they left the Adventist church.

A cavernous question lingers: what pushes young adults to consider abandoning the belief system they were once enmeshed in?

The question is not by any means new. Yet, new voices have emerged and reshaped the issue in innumerable ways.

* * *

Ann S. has a complicated relationship with the Adventist church. If she still considered herself an Adventist, she would be the third generation in her family to enjoin her life to the church.

But she doesn’t. So, the 29-year-old from the Dallas-Fort Worth area has traversed another route to spiritual fulfillment: deconstruction.

Ann requested that she only be identified by her first name and last initial to protect her identity. “It’s a little complicated because I still attend Adventist churches, but I don’t consider myself Adventist,” she told Spectrum.

Deconstruction, a term she uses to describe the process of questioning inherited religious beliefs, runs in Ann’s family. Her father intensely studied doctrine and questioned Adventist theology, such as the “investigative judgment” and the “sanctuary doctrine.” In return, she remembers that “he’d be called a heretic.”

But while her father was questioning, he also encouraged his children to decide for themselves what they believed.

Initially, Ann didn’t stray far from the Adventist church. She went to an Adventist academy for high school and pursued higher education at an Adventist university. She eventually became a music teacher and worked for several Adventist schools.

Later, Ann began to teach in public schools—“the real world,” she called it. She prefers working in the public school system to employment in the parochial system she grew up around. “When I was out in the working world outside of Adventism, I discovered how much of a bubble I had been raised in and that I’d put myself in, having only gone to Adventist university and only worked in Adventist spaces.”

Following in her father’s footsteps, she started studying. “I got to the point where I was criticizing every sermon I listened to,” she said. “I realized that a lot of what I had grown up believing wasn’t true. So, I felt I had to leave the bubble.”

Ann’s local church wasn’t meeting her needs, either. Sermons included blanket statements, such as “If you don’t believe in this, you’re already lost.” For her, these statements felt ingenuine and hostile. “I think that was the point, where I was like, ‘This isn’t something I want to be associated with anymore.’”

It was a pivotal moment. Now, Ann attends a different Adventist church—but only for the social aspect and not because she professes faith in the doctrines. Still, she added, “I don’t go around telling people, ‘I’m not actually Adventist anymore, by the way.’”

She’s considered altogether leaving the church over the past few years but hasn’t committed either way. She appreciates the concept of the Sabbath, and many of her friends are rooted in Adventism. “The times that I’ve allowed myself to not go [to church] are more refreshing for me, because it helps me recenter and focus on what I actually believe and actually think about what God wants me to do outside of this organization that I already know is a bubble,” she said. “I don’t really know how to function completely without it.”

* * *

The reasons why people leave the Adventist church are as diverse as the church itself.

Some, like Nicole Potgieter, 26, from Douglas, Arizona, point to a culture of discrimination within the Adventist church against people who identify as LGBTQ. “I couldn’t understand how I’m exactly the same person that I was five minutes ago, . . . but now all of a sudden I’m going to hell.”

For Potgieter, who identifies as queer, this is a significant reason why she no longer identifies as Adventist. “I have to believe in a God who’s going to love me irrespective of who I love and who I don’t love. The Adventist church doesn’t accept that.”

Madlyn Albertson, 26, from Sacramento, California, said that the Adventist church’s focus on Ellen G. White as a prophet has pushed her away.

In 2020, Albertson researched White’s writings and the basis of their status within the Adventist church. What she found left her feeling quite betrayed. “It’s not about our theology from the Bible,” she said. The disconnect between what she discovered while reading about White and what the church believes is difficult for her to qualify. “Once you take her out of the picture . . . there’s not a whole lot left.”

Michael Bamberg, 24, from Keene, Texas, agrees. “I really don’t know how anybody can believe in Ellen White. There’s, in my opinion, not very good witness reports of her miracles. I think she’s a severe persona anyway, and that doesn’t tend to gain much traction among young people,” Bamberg said. “She’s too theologically unique to disbelieve in and still call yourself an Adventist.”

Bamberg also believes that the Adventist doctrine of a “recent six-day creation” plays a role in why young people leave the Adventist church. “If you’re going to insist you have to believe in creationism and be an Adventist, I don’t think that’s going to gain purchase among young people.”

Wareham, who identifies “somewhere between agnostic and atheist,” said that the church is insular and anti-intellectual by nature. “A lot of the positions of the church don’t stand up to reason when challenged. There should be no scary ideas or things that you don’t want to watch or read about because they’re supposedly ‘bad.’ If a position is the most logically defensible one, it should stand up when challenged.”

Only some people who leave Adventism stop identifying as Christians.

Brad Cooper, 31, of Louisville, Kentucky, considers himself a progressive Christian and attends a non-denominational church. “My theology is a little of a bit of everything,” he said. “You can argue about the reliability of the Bible from here ‘till kingdom come, but I think [about] the story of Jesus himself and what he calls people to do.”

“There are ways you can keep your faith and keep your mind as well. It doesn’t have to be an either/or,” Cooper added.

Albertson concurs. “Just because you might not love a church or you might not love what they think is a prophet, it doesn’t mean that your whole faith has to go out the window,” she said. “I think for a lot of people, maybe it does, but that’s not how it feels for me.”

“I know I’ve heard a lot of pastors say things like, ‘The youth leave because the world is more attractive to them,’” Ann said. “I don’t think that’s true at all. I think a lot of people leave because they want to find this thing that the church is selling them, which is that Jesus loves you, and Jesus cares for you, and full acceptance. Then, the church gives them conditional love. So, they go somewhere where love is going to be unconditional.”

* * *

Young adults who stay in the Adventist church tend to have had their own profound experiences testing their beliefs.

“I was a rebel, but a rebel on the inside,” said Pia Irizarry, a 19-year-old from rural Knoxville, Illinois. “I really didn’t have a choice. I was scared of ever sharing my real thoughts to my family because at the end of the day, I knew that this would hurt them.”

Irizarry is a fifth-generation Adventist from her father’s side. Her mother converted from Catholicism when she met Irizarry’s father. Growing up, the contrast between her father’s side of the family (which Irizarry described as “ultra-conservative”) and her mother’s (not “ultra-conservative”) was striking.

“I was homeschooled and vegan, which makes you really weird,” she said half-jokingly. “My parents are the kind that, it doesn’t matter, rain or shine or sickness or health or whatever, you’ll always go to church on Saturdays.”

She spent most of her childhood in the suburbs of Chicago, deeply embedded within the Hispanic Adventist community her parents were a part of. “I never thought too much about it because it was just so second nature,” she said. Going to church on Saturday and praying before meals was another part of her DNA.

Shortly after she turned 11, Irizarry’s parents decided to quit their jobs and move to Knoxville, Illinois (population 2,852) to run a nonprofit lifestyle institute.

This was exciting for Irizarry. But this move also isolated her from her peers. At the small rural Adventist church, Irizarry and her sister were often the only youth that regularly attended. Going from a vibrant Hispanic congregation to what she called “a very American church” was extremely challenging. “It was a cultural shock for me, and it was a complete change.”

Then, with adolescence came more knowledge and anger at God. “I became very anti-social, and my parents were strict,” she said. “It all came together with me realizing that there are other things in the world. I was done with whatever God had to say.”

For a large portion of her teenage years, Irizarry identified as agnostic. Yet, she continued to play a role in her local church as a leader. “I still prayed, and I still performed all the things, but I didn’t really believe in it.”

“If you’re different, you’re not accepted anymore. And I was like, this doesn’t make any sense,” Irizarry said. “If God is real, then he would be better than this. We believe in such a great God. He would be better than this, and this is not better. I didn’t like it.”

Her perspective changed after spending a week at Camp Akita, the Adventist summer camp in Illinois, when she was 17.

It was a completely new experience for her. “It was hope and happiness and fun and God. Seeing God as like, whoa, you can worship and have fun!”

“Sometimes the ‘conservativeness’ of church can really be a damper, at least for me in my worship,” Irizarry said. “We’re obsessed. Jesus coming was a scary thing. I might be idealistic, but I want to know that God loves me. I want to know that God is here for me. I want to have hope. I want to look into the future and feel peace. And I don’t feel peace when I’m thinking about the world just burning into ashes.”

The following summer, Irizarry was baptized at Camp Akita. Now, she works at the camp and volunteers as the Pathfinder director at her local church.

“I don’t like to fight the details too much,” Irizarry said of her current beliefs. She is firmly Adventist but prefers not to identify with a specific set of doctrines. “Sometimes people are really into that, and maybe that’s growth for them. But for me, my growth is just knowing God is there.”

* * *

Irizarry’s challenges are similar to those of other Adventist young adults that Spectrum interviewed. Those that never leave still grapple with the Adventist church’s place within an evolving society.

Jennifer, 27, from Dallas, Texas, also grew up attending a Hispanic church. (She requested that Spectrum only share her first name.) She recalls that her local church seemed welcoming but wasn’t a space open to input from the youth. “Whenever any person around my age would have any suggestions on how we could make church better, . . . there was a lot of pushback from the older generations. We were told, ‘We care about you.’ But in reality, they didn’t care about what we had to say.”

When she started college at the University of Texas in Arlington, she left that church without a plan to return.

Then, a few months later, a relative invited her to attend the young adult service at a local Adventist church. She liked what she saw there and kept returning. “I started learning more about the character of Christ and who he really is. It opened my eyes to how growing up, I had never really seen that,” she said.

“Why are we putting up boundaries to get people to experience the love of God?” Jennifer said.

“There was a fair share of issues after reaching high school, coming at odds with a lot of the conservative upbringing that I had, and realizing that there is a different way of doing things,” said Francisco Campos, 25, of Lincoln, Nebraska.

Campos decided that he would stay in the church, but it was not an easy decision. “Some of our official stances on things—legacy messages from the GC and from Ted Wilson especially—a lot of it feels very archaic, old-fashioned, and just not bringing across a good message of love.”

Yet, for all the “flaws from a leadership standpoint,” the core message of the Adventist church—the Sabbath and the Advent—still resonates with Campos. “There’s hope that it won’t stay like this forever. I hope it’s within my lifetime that new people come in who have decided to stick around and want to see some change to properly reflect how people my age feel.”

“The feeling is that [the church] is a manmade place of hatred, where people can justify bigotry,” Campos added.

Some, like Emily, 20, a Southern Adventist University student, say their church experiences have been primarily positive. (She, too, requested that Spectrum only share her first name.) Emily carefully noted, though, that she still questions herself about her beliefs. “Sometimes I feel like we don’t know why we believe what we believe. If we don’t know, then why do we still believe it? That’s something I’ve been working through—figuring out why I am still a Seventh-day Adventist.”

Emily said she gets frustrated by people living the Adventist “lifestyle” but not doing anything more. “I want to be doing ministry. Sometimes you go to a church, and they’re just benchwarmers.”

In her view, Adventism itself is not the crux of the issue. Instead, it’s “having a personal relationship with Jesus.” A strong relationship with God is more important than church membership, she said. “Sure, they might not be a Seventh-day Adventist, but that doesn’t mean they’re not saved.”

* * *

“I have a feeling that if we could count everybody who has been born to a member of this church, we could have a much larger church if we kept everybody. But, for some reason, we haven’t,” said Jose Cortes Jr., Associate Ministerial Director for Evangelism at the North American Division. “And I doubt that we will be able to, if we keep doing the same thing that we’ve been doing.”

Cortes, a former union conference youth director, sees the issue of youth retention as a relational one. “A lot of it has to do with relationships—a lack of compassion,” he said.

“Jesus was known for being inclusive. Jesus was known for standing up for the little guy, for the people that were mistreated, and for the people that needed help,” Cortes continued. “When our church does not reflect some of those characteristics and moral traits that Jesus reflected, then we’re in trouble.”

North American Division Youth Director Tracy Wood agrees. “It’s a measurement of the friendship, care, and support at the local church level,” Wood said. “They leave because they don’t find community.”

While acknowledging that local churches can “grow into themselves,” and make things “all about us,” Wood stopped short of agreeing with those who contend there are systemic issues within the Adventist church that push people out.

“The church concept is a whole generalization that makes no sense. You have to define it and break it down.” He said the problems people face in the church are usually local issues that don’t represent the broader Adventist community. “Most people leave the church because of what’s happening at the local level, not at the conference, union, division, or GC,” he continued, noting that “maybe their theology or their thinking” also contributes to their decision.

Wood said that the statistics are “sobering,” but that they’re just that—statistics. And they only point to a local church’s health, and not necessarily the reasons why people leave. “Statistics don’t show relationships. Statistics are important . . . but they don’t substitute for relationships.”

Cortes said that work is being done to address issues important to young people, such as social justice. Yet, “in order to address these issues, you have to be very courageous,” he said. “The moment you start dealing with these issues, people who are more traditional in their approach to Adventism begin to see you as an antagonist to Adventism. What we need to realize is that if we are the ‘last day church,’ we should be able to deal with last day issues.”

Cortes specifically singled out LGBTQ issues. “Are we going to say, as a church, that we cannot deal with this? Are we going to leave them to the Catholics, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, or to the Methodists, and push them away? Are they not sons and daughters of God as well?” he asked. “As a church, we should be able to find a way to minister and have conversations to see how we can better reach [those] who are going through this.”

Furthermore, “it is okay to get new light,” Cortes said. “The Holy Spirit is still here with us. Therefore, we should not be afraid to study further. We should not be afraid to discuss further, and we should not be afraid to improve.”

Differences in ideology shouldn’t be a catalyst for people to leave the Adventist church, Wood said. “Ideally, if we could stay in a relationship, then we could probably stay in community, even if we don’t think the same way. We’ve got a bigger calling and a bigger goal of ‘Jesus loves me, this I know for the Bible tells me so.’”

At the same time, Wood said that some who stop attending church regularly may feel a calling elsewhere. “Just because they didn’t show up on Sabbath morning, that doesn’t mean they’re not Adventist anymore.”

Wood references the “Growing Together” initiative and “intergenerational church transformation” as methods local churches are trying to retain young members. “It takes revitalization of the Holy Spirit in leaders to realize, . . . ‘I’ve got to let people grow in Jesus, in their rate, in their time, in their space,’” he said. “The second thing is, ‘I am not going to be judgmental.’ If these happen, a church’s culture can take a turn.”

“Growing Together” is touted as a “learning journey for local churches and leaders to build faith communities that will not only survive but thrive in the years ahead.” The initiative seeks to create a movement that “nurtures relationship building and cultural transformation that embraces all generations in the Seventh-day Adventist Church,” according to a Google form that allows those interested to sign up.

What does the future of the church look like, then? Well, he said, that is a loaded question. “God’s people are bigger than who shows up on Sabbath morning.” He continued, “The last day message has nothing to do with denominations. It has to do with God’s people getting inspired by the Holy Spirit. The church is not a building, the church is his people.”

Cortes has a slightly different take on the future. “Once younger generations and older generations are able to work together, traditions that hold us back are set aside, and we go with the principles of Scripture, I see a church that is loving, a church that reflects Jesus, a church that is inclusive, and a church that is more concerned about people than the message,” he said, specifically citing Mark 2:27. “Our message is not meant to be a burden, but a blessing. It’s not intended to be a wall that keeps people out, but a bridge that draws people in.”

“I see a church that is happy, a church that is enthusiastic, a church that is dynamic, a church that is charismatic, and a church that is biblically sound,” he continued. “If we’re not able to have younger generations included in our life, leadership, and in everything that we do as a church, then we’re in for very difficult times.

Title image by fancycrave1 from Pixabay.

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