Junior, University of Michigan
What are some things that can help youth stay?
One of the most alarming trends in the North American Seventh-day Adventist church is that an escalating number of young people are leaving. Whether they are Adventists from birth or recently converted, the church seems to have a problem retaining them. I know of no single clear-cut reason for this emigration, but in looking at my own life and experiences I feel that I can identify some of the reasons. As a current 21-year-old junior biochemistry major with a history minor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, I have been able to view our church from a public school standpoint.
1. My Relationship with God
The first and foremost reason why I have stayed in the church is my personal relationship with God. This is the most important aspect of life, and I feel that many young people today are missing it. Daily prayer and study of the Word have made a huge impact on my decisions. However, this is definitely easier said than done. As a student at one of the most prestigious and liberal institutions in the country, I have had to balance work, school, music and sports with God. For me, it is a daily struggle to keep up with my Bible study. Even when the Bible study has faltered, however, daily prayer has gotten me through the tough times. I have seen direct answers to my prayers, and this has given me the conviction that my faith is true.
I feel that the church must stress daily prayer more in its youth ministries, but let it be presented in such a way that it does not sound like a burden or a duty. It is a proven fact that if you pray, God will answer. I am convinced that if we can get more youth to pray daily, God will make a difference in their lives. The Bible says, "Ask, and it shall be given to you," and thats a promise.
2. My Parents
Second, my parents have played a role in keeping me in the church. I believe that strong, spiritual parents are needed in most cases in order for a child to become spiritual. Going home every weekend to have spiritual discussions about various topics with my parents has kept me sharp and focused. Whenever I have a problem with something, they always point me first to God. Communication between parents and children about spiritual matters is something that may be lacking in many Adventist homes today. Parents do not seem to know whom their children are associating with, or what they are doing. Either that, or they are too restrictive, fostering rebellion. Some just do not seem to care. Keeping kids in the church starts with parenting.
3. A Strong Youth Group
Third, a strong youth group is essential to keeping young people in the church. This may sound like an obvious statement, but it is not as obvious as it sounds. In many churches today a strong youth group is non-existent, mainly because many Adventist youth leave their home churches to go to Adventist boarding schools and universities. Adventist education is important, but at what expense?
There are many good things about the Adventist education system, some of which I will mention in a minute. But there is a major problem that needs to be addressed. Because of the relative rarity of Adventist schools, many Adventist youth end up having to leave their homes to attend a boarding academy. That may be a problem in itself, but it is especially unfavorable for the youth left at home with no other youth in their church. It can be devastating to the youth left behind. It was for me. All my church friends suddenly got up and went away, and I was left with no Adventist teenagers to fellowship with.
There is no easy way to correct this problem, but I venture to say that at least for high school, staying home to go to school, whether it be to a public or a private high school, may be better. Obviously this differs on a person-to-person basis, and I am asking only that parents and children alike approach this major decision with prayer, instead of automatically assuming that the child will go away for high school. This, however, is my opinion, mainly because I went through the experience of being left behind.
Influences. For the first eight years of my educational career I attended the Metropolitan Junior Seventh-day Adventist Academy in Plymouth, Michigan. In a small school of 50 (there were two students in my eighth grade class), I was able to make close friends. Those eight years shaped me into the person I am today, and I can honestly say that I truly enjoyed my time at Metro. My teachers, from Mrs. Arvidson, Mrs. Steward and Mrs. Marla Haynes to Mrs. Yount, gave me one-on-one attention and developed me as a person and a Christian. My teachers were an inspiration to me, as were the people around me. I am very grateful for that Adventist school.
After I graduated, however, a huge decision awaited my parents and me. We had to decide between my attending public school and my attending Great Lakes Adventist Academy in Cedar Lake, Michigan, a boarding school. All of my church friends were either at GLAA already, or were planning to go there. After much prayer and thought, my parents and I settled on public school. All of us felt it would be better for me to be living at home while attending school, despite the fact that it was a public school. Looking back, I believe this was the right decision for me.
4. I Reaffirmed My Convictions
Up to that point in my life, I had been sheltered from the "real world," so to speak. Metro was small, isolated, and very tight-knit. I knew that smoking, drinking, and drugs were bad, but that was about it. I could attend all of my schools functions, because, obviously, it was an Adventist school. Sabbath was an integral and important part of my life.
Because I knew I had been sheltered, I went into public school with a very set mentality. I imagined the things that I would face in high school and prepared myself the whole summer to deal with them. For instance, I knew going in that I would not be able to attend any Friday night functions, and I set my mind on that. I knew that there would be drugs and alcohol, and I told myself I would not do any of that. I knew there would be evolution, and I reaffirmed my belief in Creation. Basically, I imagined it all before it would happen, so that I could deal with it.
What It Takes. All it takes to "survive" public school is a strong conviction in your faith, and a strong will. In fact, getting your beliefs challenged will strengthen you. It was not hard for me not to participate in the Friday night football games and dances, or the Saturday soccer games or tennis matches, because I believed in the Sabbath and its sacredness. Many youth are afraid to stand up for their beliefs, because they think people will look at them differently, and that it will be embarrassing. People do look at you differently, but in the end they respect you much more for standing up for your beliefs. There are almost overwhelming pressures, conscious and unconscious, assailing todays young people. Adventists are different in many ways even from other Christians. For youth, this is a hard fact to deal with, but I believe that a daily walk with God will help; in fact, I know it will help. A daily walk does not suddenly appear, it is a daily struggle. It is possible, however, and worth every effort. After all, it is eternal life that we are dealing with.
Then college came, and with it came another big decision. The University of Michigan, Andrews University, Harvard, or Yale? I did what I always did with hard decisions, I prayed for God to show me the way. Two days later He gave me an answer in a form I could not argue with: Michigan. For me, it was shocking, because Andrews had been my first choice. I had many friends who were going there or were already there. But God had another plan for me. I did not simply assume that I would go to Andrews just because I was Adventist, for "the Lord works in mysterious ways."
5. Seventh-day Adventist Campus Ministries
Unbeknownst to me, on the campus of the University of Michigan there was a group forming that would change forever the way Adventists think about public universities. Headed by Dr. Samuel Koranteng-Pipim, the first-ever Campus Ministries program was starting. I had not known about it, but God knew; and He sent me to Michigan to help with this movement that I am sure will sweep the nation. I let God lead, instead of going with my instincts.
The Campus Ministries program has provided me with a strong Adventist group on campus that is based solely on the Word. The extremely diverse and multicultural student group Adventist Students for Christ, of which I am currently the vice president, boasts approximately 45 members, while the campus church is about 50 members strong. We are multicultural, and yet we have no problems that way. How do we worship with all the "different" worship styles? We focus on the Word, and the Word alone.
The question of making church more "entertaining," or that church is not entertaining enough is one problem that may not go away for a while. As long as youth do not realize that church is a time to get closer to God, no change in attitude will occur. As for "entertainment," church should be a place that a person enjoys going to. At the same time, the danger in making church purely entertaining is that people lose their focus on the big picture. God is not found in celebrations, He is heard in the "still, small voice." Once people and youth realize that the Bible is the most important part of our worship and daily lives, everything else will fade in importance.
Hymns. Was I a person who grew up singing only hymns, listening only to "kosher" Christian music? Absolutely not. Our youth group was among the most progressive youth groups in the Detroit area in terms of non-hymn Christian music, from Vineyard to Jars of Clay. But after a while we realized that although these songs sounded good, if one were not careful to focus on the words and, instead, got caught up in the music, one could have difficulty finding spirituality during song service.
Emotion and spirituality are not the same thing, contrary to popular belief. Hymns may not be the most exciting way to go, and one can absolutely get caught up in hymns also; but there should not be a large-enough problem with it to warrant complaint. What we youth did was to combine hymns and regular praise songs into worship.
6. Strong Role Models
Speaking of my youth group, for me, the Detroit Korean Adventist Youth (DKAY) has been a huge blessing. My best friends are my church friends, and we do everything together. Comprised at times of 35 people, and at other times 20, everyone is included in everything, whether it be a Christmas program, dinner on Sabbath, or a walk in the park. There are age gaps, but everyone hangs out together, regardless of being married or not. The older youth provide advice, support, and an example to follow. Very rarely is there a Sabbath when we do not gather for fellowship in the afternoon or go to someones house for dinner.
DKAY may be an exception to the norm, but it is not impossible to build a tight-knit group like ours. And there is no doubt in my mind that this helps keep youth in the church. Even though their parents may stop coming to church, our youth still come to church. A strong youth group does not mean a large youth group. A strong youth group is one that does not have cliques, is spiritually motivated, and gets along. A strong youth group is one in which you make your best friends. Its a group that makes you look forward to going to church on Sabbath.
A strong youth group provides role models for young people, and it also provides opportunities to get involved. The importance of good role models is something that I cannot stress enough. Being around spiritual people is bound to make you more spiritual. Consequently, being around those who strive for academic excellence in addition to spirituality only pushes you harder. DKAY in the last five years has produced four valedictorians, 11 varsity letter winners, and a 100% college attendance rate. In addition, 10 of our members have gone on mission work, and everybody (I mean everybody) plays at least one musical instrument. Being in this kind of environment pushes you to become the best Christian you can be, first and foremost, but also pushes you to excellence in other areas. Not only that, but a strong youth group provides leadership opportunities.
7. Church Involvement
One of the things I have noticed on my visits to other Adventist churches is that often the amount of youth involvement in programs is not substantial. Either the youth worship with the adults, which means that they do not participate at all in the church program, or only a few people participate in the service or in after-church programs. This, I believe, is a very serious problem. Youth will not stay in churches if they do not feel that they have ownership. Getting youth involved in leadership is a very important step in ensuring that the youth stay. What if there are very few youth who are of leadership age? Get them involved anyway.
8. Know Your Church
Finally, I encourage the youth to take a critical and Bible-based look at the Adventist church and its beliefs. What they will find is a church truly based on the Word, and the Word alone. Even if church may not be "entertaining" enough, the fact that the Adventist church has the present truth should play a big part if the youth of today will take the time to search and meditate.
At high school and university I have walked into the parties and smelled the weed, smoke, and alcohol. I have been faced with the senior prom, Homecoming dances, Saturday football games, Friday night parties, bars. I am a huge sports fan, so not being able to go to the largest football stadium in the world on Saturday has not been easy. Though I am a sportswriter, I am not able to attend Saturday events; Saturday events in general are out. Not being able to socialize on Friday nights has hurt me in terms of friendships I might have made. I have experienced the side that students who go to Adventist schools do not experience. It is not easy, but it is very satisfying. Being able to stand up for your beliefs, to know that you are different and that you know the truth is priceless. To be able to know that you are on the front lines, working and witnessing for God, is a privilege. It is a duty.
The reason I stayed in the Adventist church? I can see that I am making a difference, however small, every day. Whether it is in my youth group, or my student group, or through the newspaper, or talking to a friend, I am making a difference. You can make a difference, too. Just pray, and God will show you the way.