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Eat Right. Take a Day Off.

Herb floated the idea at Sabbath school a few years back. As we often did, the class was reflecting on the future direction of our church. Our worry was about the youth and their apparent detachment. But we veered off the gloom and doom and soon found ourselves discussing ways to make the church welcoming again. That’s when Herb suggested we should reimagine a church packaged for our era, one that appeals to young adults. He even had a slogan: “Eat Right. Take a Day Off.” I’ve thought of possible implications of Herb’s notion, off and on, since that discussion. Then a few weeks ago I came across Gallup’s most recent survey on church membership and attendance: “U.S. Church Membership Falls Below Majority for First Time,” which had some unwelcome news about America’s continued alienation from institutional religion. And again, I thought of Herb’s catch phrase.

Every three years, since 1937, the Gallup organization has polled Americans on church membership and attendance. At its inaugural sampling, over 70 percent claimed to be members of a church they attended often. This number held fairly sturdy for 60 years, until the 1990s, when the trend turned negative. In its 2020 survey, for the first time in its almost 90 years of conducting this study, the report showed only 47 percent, a net minority, belonged to and attended church. Dig deeper and the findings paint a demoralizing picture concerning church growth. The situation seems intractable because the key drivers of the downward trend are generational changes in the population that seem to harden with time.

The church’s population share, in every generational category, from Baby Boomers to Millennials and in between, keeps shrinking. For example, over the last 20 years there has been a marked increase in Americans who express no church affiliation, from 8 percent to the current 21 percent. And of those who still profess to belong, there’s a steep drop in church attendance. This drift, and the depth of its acceleration, should concern all U.S. church establishments, because we’ve seen this picture before, in post-World War II “Christian” Europe.

Before the two world wars, European church affiliation and attendance there were high, durable, and correlated well with America’s. The European church’s decline since could be partly traced to the aftermath of those wars, whose epicenter was Europe. Later European generations could not understand why their nations, most of them self-proclaimed Christian, could stomach the human carnage that characterized these wars. Ninety years later, Christianity has not recovered and, just considering the many closed and repurposed European churches, it is unlikely institutional Christianity will return to its former strength.

It is not entirely clear what specific event(s) started the U.S. decline, though Generation X and Millennials might point to the many scandals that have rocked Christianity over the past 40 or so years. Whatever the conspiring factors, the church’s share of the American population is declining, and unless something is done to arrest the situation, the American church seems to be on course to repeat what has happened in Europe.

The foregoing is background that brings us to the focus of this essay: mitigating the apparent or impending stasis of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the United States. Like all other religious denominations, the Adventist Church exists in, and is affected by, macro trends in the larger society. Thus it is not immune to the growth challenges identified in the Gallup survey. Also, certain decisions championed by our denominational leaders over the last two decades, such as forestalling women’s ordination, or its hostility towards alternative sexuality, might have worsened our growth prospects among the youth.

The American Adventist Church is rapidly greying and experiencing the same difficulty retaining and attracting younger members as evidenced by Gallup. Revisiting rural Adventist churches, which used to dot the North American Division landscape, corroborates the perception of decline. Twenty to 30 years ago many of these countryside churches were more functional. Now, those not boarded up often have only a few retiree members, and hardly any young adults or children, in attendance.

Even in our urban churches the telltale signs of stagnation are often evident, if we look for them. There is evidence that even where there appears to be growth, we mainly have Adventist immigrants, and the predominant ethnic churches, to thank for it. The available data is, unfortunately, anecdotal. The General Conference Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research doesn’t provide a robust analysis of this dynamic, likely because it lacks adequate funding to conduct such studies, and/or is disinclined to research a negative trend. But such information would be crucial for proper assessment of the church’s future.

Ordinarily, the proliferation of these ethnic churches should be celebratory, especially if such advancements happen in tandem with a corresponding growth in “local” or “native” churches. But when ethnic churches replace established ones, we have a problem. Some of the first casualties, when there is a precipitous fall in native church membership, even if there is a corresponding increase in immigrant churches, are that established institutions like schools, hospitals, and printing presses suffer.

This has happened in some European countries where the church’s native base has buckled and morphed into a completely new character. For example, in the United Kingdom, Newbold College is now a shell of its former self, as is Stanborough Press. And much of the contraction there could be attributed to a decline in Anglo membership. So, if we don’t examine the American Adventist membership totals to understand the shifting demographics, we might not appreciate the seismic changes taking place right under our noses.

The depressing bottom line is that church membership and attendance are decreasing in the United States, and the Seventh-day Adventist Church is not immune. For Adventists, the group that seems most at risk, fleeing the church at higher rates, are its young adults. Since the church’s future without its youth is bleak, it makes sense to identify a few things that are important to this demographic, to serve as points of engagement as we seek ways to slow the downward spiral.

The current 28 Fundamental Beliefs don’t generally work for young adults. The Fundamental Beliefs list has too many positions that this group unfortunately views as creedal. Some of the doctrines—the Heavenly Sanctuary Ministry (FB 24) comes to mind—address issues almost alien to the contemporary youth mindset.

It isn’t that today’s young adults are irreligious, but they are into a different kind of spirituality, one that discounts platitudes and esoteric beliefs in favor of human connectedness and helping one another. Religion to this group is defined by the things that bind us as humans: kindness, impartiality, empathy, especially to those our church leaders deem too sinful to be invited to Jesus’s presence. The young adults are shunning the institutional church because it no longer models Christ’s ideal of unconditional love.

So, let’s return to Herb’s “Eat Right. Take a Day Off” construct as an example of how to connect to a group fed up with unimpactful, pretentious, and flowery beliefs. In a society built on junk food and the fast life, a conversation about food choices and the value of slowing our frenetic pace is likely to get a better hearing for young adults. Especially if the alternative is the beasts we serve up in our Revelation seminars.

If we instead emphasized the benefits of eating well and stepping back from the “rat race,” the youth and young adults might see a reason to give religion another look. It is important, however, that this approach be untethered to salvation. It should not be marketed as some new “commandment,” like veganism, which when “obeyed” puts us in God’s graces or becomes a stepping stone to gaining heaven. This group has already figured out that we can’t eat or “Sabbath” our way to heaven. The church could be on to something then, if our youth see us as honest brokers for their well-being in this life. Eating right and taking a day off then could become the door opener to a healthier religious experience.

To paraphrase Thoreau, we seem to have acquired the expensive luxury of voluntary poverty by refusing to learn from our mistakes. We have been clinging to that which no longer works, as a lifeline, then we wonder why young adults are reluctant to stay. We lose integrity in their eyes when we fail to address what we know isn’t working, because it is not expedient, or doing so would deviate from tradition. If we continue to approach our youth in the same way as our founders did, we will lose them. Maybe, if we simplified our approach in this one area: “Eat Right. Take a Day Off,” religion would no longer be seen as cumbersome or something to take flight from.

Image Credit: Tyler Nix on Unsplash

About the author

Matthew Quartey was born and raised in Southern Ghana and obtained graduate and postgraduate education in Ghana, Nigeria, and the United States. His academic interests center around post-independence African literature as well as British/American literature of the 19th century. Quartey works in healthcare management and lives in Berrien Springs, Michigan, with his wife Sophia. More from Matthew Quartey.
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