It was 1998 when I was dedicated to the Adventist community at the Loma Linda University Church. Eighteen years later, after spending the entirety of my general education in an Adventist school, I decided to be baptized. Now, I am in my junior year at an Adventist university, still very much immersed in this community. The older I’ve gotten, the more aware I have become of the ongoing problems we are facing. One of the issues commonly found at the forefront of this community as of recently is as follows: why are young people leaving the church? With the countless articles written by older members of the church, published to journals with an older audience, this question is still unanswered. The reasoning behind this could be that, though we are taking a step in the right direction by thinking to ask this question, we are asking the wrong question, to the wrong demographic.
As a writer, a twenty-year-old, and a member of the Adventist church, I feel I have been given an opportunity to speak on an issue frequently brought up, though rarely addressed by someone directly impacted. To begin answering the question of why young people are leaving the church, it is important to ask why some young people stay. For myself, the Adventist community has been so ingrained in every aspect of my upbringing that I find it difficult to imagine a time when I would not be connected to it. In many ways, my own church has greatly influenced who I am today. Regardless of the problems, controversies, or hardships the church may face, I remain a member because of who I have seen God to be through my personal Adventist community. That being said, I can easily understand why it is difficult for many young people to maintain or build relationships within the Adventist congregation, because in many ways, there is a level of exclusivity and stagnation surrounding the church.
We, as a congregation, have created a community built on making sure nothing is ever “too” anything. We can wear make-up, but never too much. We can play music, but not too contemporary. We can grow, but never too large. Today, young people have put a positive emphasis on being oneself, without apology, and it can be hard to remain a part of a church that wants members to be themselves, but not too much. While I appreciate the awareness from older groups in the church that has led them to recognize the decline in the attendance of young adults, I am not really convinced that, should the question be finitely answered, anyone would be ready to hear it.
This question is one that is larger than me, on my own. It directly addresses an entire demographic, and while I have a responsibility to speak on something that I am a part of, I have to consider the voices of those alongside me. In an effort to gather some insight from a few of my fellow young people, I decided to interview John Del Valle, a twenty-year old who also grew up in the Adventist community.
“Adventism can be kind of intimidating,” John began, pushing his black, square glasses up his nose. “We follow a lot of rules, like not eating pork, not drinking, not having tattoos, things like that.” He went on to explain that while that is found in many religions, ours can be particularly specific and extensive, creating a certain degree of exclusivity, while also creating a strict environment with little room for error.
“Exclusiveness makes it hard to come into the church, and sometimes even to stay. A lot of people our age have this idea that if you can’t keep the laws, why keep the religion?”
In addition to this, John pointed out that there is a lack of understanding around what it means to be Adventist, and young people often can’t find answers.
“There are not too many places younger adults can go for answers, outside of attending church weekly.” I found this interesting, as it brought up a new question: how can we expect to keep a demographic we do not cater to?
In following the idea of exclusivity, I turned my attention to how young people in general view Adventism as it is today. To gain an outsider’s understanding of the church, I interviewed Chris Ibarra, a twenty-two year old husband to a member of the church. He does not conform to a specific religion, but maintains belief in some sort of higher power, and has been able to gather his own opinion surrounding the Adventist environment.
“My wife has made me appreciate the study of faith, but hasn’t pulled me to the religion.” Chris, who was raised Catholic, grew towards a different relationship with religion and God. “While I don't practice a specific religion, I do have faith in a higher power, like a lot of people our age.” After asking what he saw to be the pros and cons of Adventism, as it pertains to young people, he gave me an interesting answer.
“I thought the diet was interesting, and also hearing everyone's specific exposure and interaction with Adventism,” he began, saying we seem to have our own little club. “I think experiences shape beliefs, and I didn't feel like I would meet Adventist expectation.” He went on to explain that he felt it was difficult to be oneself in an environment that seemed to be closed off to progression.
The recurring idea that young people didn’t feel like they could fit into the “mold” of an Adventist is saddening to hear as a member of the church, but definitely understandable. I still find myself feeling like an outsider of the church from time to time, as my beliefs don’t always match up to those of older members within the community. I have quite a few piercings and tattoos adorning my body, and I have many beliefs that could be considered quite liberal. When considering the conservativeness of the church, these things combined occasionally make it hard for me to feel completely welcomed, even having been a member from the start of my life.
Church is supposed to be a welcoming, warm environment where one can freely be themselves. Considering that young people are the ones that will eventually lead the church, building it for the next generation, it is important that we, as a church, create an open conversation with young people, and make a continuous effort to create a feeling of inclusivity around our community. Rather than asking why young people are leaving, it is our responsibility to ask what we as a congregation can do to get them to stay.
Alyssa Garcia is a current student of La Sierra University. She is an English Literature major with special interest in writing.
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