You’re reading this, so let’s assume you already have a connection to Adventists online. From wherever you are- still in bed reading through a cell phone, at work sneaking a peek at Facebook, or standing the endless line at your favorite burrito restaurant- you’re being exposed to the thoughts I cemented into existence through writing.
Growing up, I did not have internet access. My exposure to the Seventh-day Adventist faith came primarily through attending my local church and Adventist schools. From first grade all the way through my high school graduation, I had the same pastor, attended school in the same town, and operated within the same core community. To me at the time, the way Adventism worked in that area was “Adventism.” The little exposure I had to other churches came from visiting relatives or stopping through on music tours. While the community made sense to me as a child, being the only one I knew, I do not believe it would have held me in the church as an adult. But there are many places I feel would have been able to.
A short skim through some different thriving Adventist churches reveals that there are, in fact, several places countering the rapid loss of Adventist Millennials. Movements like “Growing Young Adventists,” and the Center for Secular and Postmodern Studies, and platforms like That Christian Vlogger have managed to push back hard against the decline of Adventist youth attendance. So why are the numbers still looking dismal?
NEXT STEPS: Young Adult Ministry Training
In my own ministry, Humans of Adventism, I speak with hundreds of different people who still consider themselves SDA. Among many others, one concern I often hear is that, while there are many ministries that my peers would like to be involved in, the landscape of Adventism in their area is drastically different from the things that draw them in online. Their local churches are not sending the messages that successful youth ministries are. They can be excited about movements in Adventism all over the country, but still feel stranded if their own physical community is not willing to participate in those movements. The result is a lot of young people who still hold the basic beliefs of Adventism but have lost hope and motivation to attend church.
Many times I’ve been pointed to as an example of what a Millennial “should” be doing in this situation: I came back, took a leadership role, and began preaching and teaching Sabbath school in a senior-dominated church. I’m thankful for the experience I’ve had, but I recognize that this change in my attitude had very little to do with me. I was always Adventist, but I haven’t always felt that church attendance was necessary. In fact, I had many times where I felt it actually harmed my relationship with God. When I didn’t see Christ represented in church, I didn’t go to church to find him. But what truly made the difference in my story was the willingness of my local church leadership to change, to get to know me and my peers and try to find a better way to reach us. I began preaching because my church wanted to hear from me. I began teaching Sabbath school because my elders encouraged me to do so and enjoyed the experiences we had together during our lessons. When I began sharing what was taking place in the Orangeburg church, my church, I received a lot of messages from friends saying “I wish I could go where you go.”
Online presence is a powerful, necessary link between many Millennials and Adventism. It’s an opportunity for us to see on a broad scale how our denomination operates. Even those of us who feel trapped in a community we can’t relate to can find hope in other places, but the attendance statistics will never be changed by relying on digital ministry alone. We have to start that in person.