In his article “Do We Know Why Educated Adventists Leave the Church?” Matthew Quartey highlights many issues that have created an exodus from Adventism. The one I will speak directly to, as he pointed out through the story of his son’s book report on Harry Potter, is our Church’s strong protectionist DNA factor that turns to quick-fix forms of schooling in an attempt to fortify students against leaving church membership. This concern with creating Adventists can easily override both the educational goal of developing lifelong learners and the call to make Jesus-centric disciples. My personal experience includes seeing friends graduate from SDA high schools and go onto public post-secondary where they start to doubt their entire faith structure after taking a science or philosophy course. Or, as with my pastor friends, go to an Adventist university and come out the other side still feeling uncomfortable with talking to other denominational Christians, let alone non-Christians.
I fully agree with Quartey’s assessment that these issues stem from middle and high school experiences. The biblical curriculum focus for secondary students does not start with the needs of students in their own faith journeys. Rather, the focus is rooted in turning out Adventists by having students know more about church doctrine than being Orthodoxically engaged. With such an approach, students develop “theological blinders” that keep them from fully expressing their faith and even causing undue harm toward non-Adventist from a trained stance of ignorance.
C.S. Lewis provides a worthy point of orientation to help start correcting our need to produce Great Controversy-quoting teens. He described Christianity as a large mansion with many hallways and corridors filled with even more rooms. Among all of these spaces we find the many, many different branches of Christianity. The focus for new believers, or in this case, students, is simply getting them into the foyer of the mansion. To provide an overview of Christian essentials so that then new believers/students may go down the various hallways while being able to discern why and how they all connect. The SDA Church’s current method of faith education skips the front door and tries to bring students in the back door to just “our room.” Don’t get me wrong, Adventist schools should teach Adventism and have guided practice of rituals. However, as Lewis suggests, the greater calling is teaching faith in a manner that ignites passion for exploring the whole of Christianity, not just one part of it.
Through my training to become a teacher, along with now my practice thereof, I have come to engage in three principles. These seemly simple ideas help me focus on students and their spiritual capacity while walking them through the front door of Lewis’ mansion. The first two came from my theology professor at Columbia Bible College, namely don’t teach more than they can handle and don’t teach things that have to be unlearned later on. Teaching students more than they are able to understand is overly obvious as a bad idea. What is not often seen is the inversion of that: teaching students what they can actually handle. Children and youth are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. The diversity of how youth learn can be quite daunting, but this is not a reason to oversimplify faith-building curriculums. Teens need to learn how to explore and be comfortable with the large breadth of biblical and theological sources. By buttressing Adventist beliefs alongside differing points of views, students will learn to discern among the vast array of Christianity’s dogmas while feeling more at home in Lewis’ mansion. Bible teachers should encourage imagination by having lessons that are not answer-based but rather honest and open-ended searches. By treating high school students as actual emerging adults we will instill in them a sense of trust and worthiness.
Second is the idea of not teaching something that will have to be unlearned later. As my professor pointed out, many times well-meaning teachers over simplify or leave out parts of the Bible and theology they find difficult to teach. Then when students from such settings come to their college classes, they realize how far off they have been truly led, from not knowing there are different forms of creationism to misunderstanding what Trinitarian Theology really looks like. At least in a Bible college setting, students have Christian professors to fall back on, but what about youth who go elsewhere for post-secondary? Or those who don’t go to college?
When we subject a student’s entire biblical knowledge to only a single set of denominational thinking in an effort to keep them “safe” they become theologically stunted and brittle. If one area of their belief structure becomes shattered, that fault line does not just stop within one topic or idea, it spreads to all sorts of places in the student’s interpretations. I have had former high school students say to me, “I learned this was wrong, it got me wondering what else I was taught wrong.” Noticed they now presuppose that something else must be wrong? That is the danger, because now the student will look for something to disprove rather than build up and grow.
The third principle, which came from my own former high school Bible teacher, is to never try to be faithful for students. Many Adventists’ faith-forming practices in school involve forced attendance at vespers or seemly arbitrary yet mandatory Sabbath rules, among a host of other mandates. This leads to youth hating the church and worse, God Himself through the rule-based example we gave them. By recasting students’ needs as the center of spiritual schooling, teachers can allow space for the Holy Spirit to be part of their classroom. Of course, this means a certain level of risk, that students may choose to reject Adventist views. But what is maintained is the respect of students’ spiritual agency, which in turn creates a safe school environment. This means schools should still create moments of encountering the living God, but it also means we have to be open enough as a school and church community to allow these up-and-coming young adults to say no and disagree without criticism (or bad grades). Søren Kierkegaard would wisely remind us of the need for patience in the transformative work of the Holy Spirit. Knowing, of course, that we cannot stuff all of life’s spiritual growth into high school nor shove it down teens’ throats.
What these three principles — not teaching more than students can learn, while also teaching them what they can know, not teaching something that has to be unlearned, and not being faithful in place of students’ own faith — leave us with is teaching as C.S. Lewis suggested: faith in searching. To place the student back at the center of religious schooling means equipping them with spiritual experiences and theological tools that may indeed take them beyond Adventism. But like me, they may still choose to remain part of the Church that has given them a sense of community and belonging without scorn of difference. I love our Church, however my spiritual journey had to find new sources of guidance because Christianity and faith expression are far bigger than one denomination. Let us seek to find better ways of defining success in our students’ spiritual growth as a community of hope guided by the Holy Spirit, not fear of membership statistics.
Kevin R. McCarty is a graduate student in Indigenous & Interreligious Studies at the Vancouver School of Theology and Educational Leadership at Trinity Western University.
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