Some might wonder, aloud or otherwise, what business a man in his fifties has writing about youth-related issues. The answer may lie in the timeless wisdom of Solomon’s pronouncement that “the thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9).
James Rowe, who served as an aide to U.S. President Lyndon Johnson, was present at the Democratic National Convention of 1972 when the youthful legions of George McGovern took control of the party. He spoke of how “the young bulls have driven the old bulls out” (1), but then wisely observed that “the young bulls eventually become old bulls too” (2). U.S. presidential historian Theodore White, speaking of the cultural upheavals of that same time, remarked that “most fathers and mothers have revolted at some point against their own parents” (3). In other words, while generational clashes may be natural and inevitable, one still retains the hope—faint and fleeting perhaps—that when the young advance in years they will remember their own youthful angst and struggles, and thus show wisdom in dealing with those now experiencing the same stage of life.
Indeed, one of the few advantages of getting older is the experience imparted by years of living and—hopefully—the capacity to learn from such experience. Tragically, as Barbara Tuchmann notes in her account of political folly through the ages, “Learning from experience is a faculty almost never practiced” (4).
But when it comes to the issue of Adventist youth and young adults and their relationship to the church, experience and length of years can be especially instructive. At least I have found it so.
My Own Story
I am a fifth-generation Seventh-day Adventist, born and bred in the culture and ways of the church. I came of age during the 1970s—ancient history to today’s youth and young adults, when Amazon was just a river in South America, blackberry was just a fruit, and twitter was something only birds did. But when I hear people today talk of how to keep the young interested in the church, and why many eventually leave, I not only get a disturbing sense of déjà vu, but am painfully reminded of Barbara Tuchmann’s dour words about the rarity of learning from the past.
When I was growing up, I heard the same mantra about youth and the church that I’m hearing now—that the young, supposedly, found doctrine irrelevant, had no interest in Bible prophecy, were turned off by talk of obedience, presumably finding such topics “boring,” “outmoded,” and cramping to their personal style. But what I found particularly strange about such observations back then is that most of them came, not from the young themselves, but from older ones trying to be “hip” and popular by saying what they thought the young wanted to hear.
Even during my formative years, few if any youth-focused gatherings to which I was exposed in the church dwelt on the classic doctrinal, prophetic, and lifestyle witness of the Advent movement. Though this trend was nowhere near as conspicuous then as it is now, any close observer of youth ministry in those days could clearly see where its accent and focus were being placed. The young, so the assumption went, wanted a personalized, relational, subjective faith, not one focused on the doctrinal certainty, end-time charts, and prescribed behavior of their Adventist heritage. But time and again I found myself wondering, even in those tender years of comparative innocence, how those guiding the youth could be so sure what the youth did and didn’t want, especially when the youth were rarely given a chance to hear the church’s distinctive message, much less to ponder or internalize its meaning.
The dearth of doctrinal instruction among Adventist youth and young adults of my generation became especially obvious when the Glacier View controversy of 1980 struck the Seventh-day Adventist Church. For those who remember, a theologian by the name of Desmond Ford had publicly attacked the Biblical foundation of the classic Adventist doctrine of the sanctuary, 1844, and the investigative judgment, and was eventually removed from the ministry for his denial of this core teaching of the church. As a junior theology major at Pacific Union College, where Ford had recently taught, I witnessed firsthand the reaction of so many of my fellow students to the church’s handling of this crisis. I remember hearing students speak as if this was all “a big fight over nothing.” At first that made me angry—how could any Seventh-day Adventist, young or old, make such a statement about what Ellen White called the “central pillar of the Advent faith” (5)?
But then I stopped to think. How much instruction had I myself received, in my formal Adventist education, regarding this central pillar of our faith? How many youth rallies, academy Bible conferences, and religion class discussions had focused on this unique contribution of Adventists to Christian thought, and why it mattered in the larger scheme of the great controversy between good and evil? How many Bible classes in academy had made a point of underscoring the significance of this doctrine? Or were they more focused on lively discussions about hair length, music preferences, and how far to go on the first date?
Shattering a Paradigm
One of my closest friends in college, who did task force work in the youth department of a local Conference, described to me some of his meetings with youth pastors in the territory he served. He spoke of how their mindset, as it came across to him, was that God’s love was on one side, doctrine was on the other, and “never the twain shall meet.” Whether due to the perceived irrelevance of the latter to the spiritual experience of the youth they sought to lead, or to the youth leaders’ own indifference to such topics, this perspective seemed to be their settled view. And in the two decades that followed, little appears to have transpired in the church to have altered the outlook of so many with that particular focus in ministry.
Then came the turn of the millennium, and a major shattering of a popular paradigm.
It is truly difficult to exaggerate the impact on Western Adventist youth ministry of the movement known as Generation of Youth for Christ (GYC), initially known as the General Youth Conference. First, the movement was led by youth and young adults themselves, not by pastors, chaplains, theologians, or departmental directors presuming to speak for the rising generation. Secondly, the young who launched and organized the movement were mostly students who attended secular college and university campuses, and had emerged from the intellectual climate of such settings devoutly committed to distinctive Adventism. For most thought leaders of a non-conservative bent in the church, that simply is not supposed to happen.
Had GYC been primarily the product of homeschool kids from a few rural settings, its impact may not have been as great as it has proved to be. This is not in any way meant to disparage homeschooled young people or their upbringing, only to say that the endurance and prosperity of one’s faith in a secular, intellectually hostile environment is much harder for critics to gainsay than a faith nurtured and established in what some might call a sheltered setting. The experience of a majority of those who founded and have furthered the GYC movement has offered a decisive counter-argument to the assumption that intelligent, educated young people in this postmodern age, schooled at the world’s most prestigious universities, can’t possibly find meaning or purpose in the plain reading of Scripture and its articulation in the teachings of classic Adventism. It might be one thing to hear a teenage homeschool girl who has never had a boyfriend speak publicly of the dangers of dating outside the church. It is quite another to hear a young woman with a Harvard degree stand before thousands of fellow Adventist young people and warn of the same danger. (The latter actually occurred at GYC a number of years ago.)
The third paradigm-shattering feature of GYC has been the movement’s numerical strength. Numbers and self-motivation are the Holy Grail of youth ministry. For thousands of youth and young adults to spend large sums of money year after year to attend an annual conference during a season generally set aside for rest, leisure, and time with friends and family, demonstrates a passion and staying power that is likely unprecedented in denominational history. The present writer has had the privilege of attending every one of the annual GYC convocations since the first one in 2002, so what is written here is shared with firsthand awareness.
One of the most treasured vignettes of GYC for the present writer occurred at the movement’s 2005 conference in Chattanooga, Tennessee. One evening I stood with a group of young people whom I had met at a church in the Pacific Northwest, where I had previously conducted a weekend revival series. They had driven all the way from the Seattle suburbs to Chattanooga to attend the conference. One of the group’s leaders, attending his first GYC, spoke in wonderment at what he saw there. He mentioned how every year he attended a particular camp meeting in his territory, and how “young people this age are usually found outside the tent playing football.” He marveled at how at GYC, youth and young adults of the same age were seen praying and studying God’s Word together, taking careful notes on their laptops as speakers pointed them to Scripture as their supreme authority.
He had never seen anything like it.
The opposition to the GYC movement by so many conventional youth ministry types in First World Adventism can be attributed in large measure to the shattering of the paradigm we have described here. When you’ve convinced yourself that educated, intelligent young people can’t possibly have an interest in certain religious topics, then find thousands all of a sudden—many more than those coming to your own events—exhibiting precisely the interest you assumed wasn’t possible, that can be seriously disconcerting. When contingencies arise that one hasn’t programmed into the system, hostility and outrage are often the results.
The mantra of theological “progressives” that “times have changed” starts to ring hollow when one considers that this same excuse for the marginalizing and watering down of distinctive Adventism was offered decades ago—and then, as now, less by the young themselves than by those presuming to speak for them. Tragically, most of my peers during my younger days who were exposed to the non-doctrinal, subjective spirituality which was then becoming fashionable in so much of Adventist youth ministry—and which has persisted in the same direction ever since—are out of the church today, with no religious life to speak of. Moving away from the Bible-focused, classic Adventist paradigm merely served to leave them at the non-existent mercies of a pitiless world—to be scarred forever by failed dreams, disappointed hopes, shattered relationships, and the bleak prospect of a great unknown beyond.
Wise voices in youth ministry from across the theological spectrum have always recognized that the young cannot be treated as the church of tomorrow, but rather, as the church of today. Many, however, fail to consider exactly what this means. Those among the youth who take up this challenge will recognize that it not only means enjoying the privileges of total church involvement, but also the responsibilities. The latter, of course, include the realization that when mistakes and bad choices are made, there will be consequences.
To those who seek to tailor their spirituality and that of others to generational change, the Word of God counters with the following:
The counsel of the Lord standeth forever; the thoughts of His heart to all generations (Psalm 33:11).
For the Lord is good; His mercy is everlasting; and His truth endureth to all generations (Psalm 100:5).
Hearken unto Me, ye that know righteousness, the people in whose heart is My law; fear ye not the reproach of men, neither be ye afraid of their revilings. For the moth shall eat them up like a garment, and the worm shall eat them like wool; but My righteousness shall be forever, and My salvation from generation to generation (Isa. 51:7-8).
1. “Is It an Era? Or Only an Hour?” Newsweek, July 24, 1972, p. 16>
2. “Introducing . . . the McGovern Machine,” Time, July 24, 1972, p. 23.
3. Theodore H. White, Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon (New York: Atheneum Publishers, 1975), p. 332.
4. Barbara W. Tuchmann, The March of Folly From Troy to Vietnam (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984), p. 383.
5. Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, p. 409.