On March 24, 2018, hundreds of thousands of high school students, in America and throughout the world, marched in memory, solidarity, and protest as they honored their peers and mentors slain a scant five weeks earlier in the massacre at Marjory Stoneman-Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. In certain places, like Wisconsin, the march would continue into the days to follow.
Since the April 20, 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, mass shootings at schools and workplaces have become tragically, horrifically frequent in the United States of America. But the youthful response throughout America and beyond to the Parkland shooting will be remembered by history for its unique strength and maturity. Whether it will prove a game-changer in the course of national or world events is a chapter yet to be written.
Children Acting Like Adults
It is not the purpose of this article to invite a debate over gun control or similar questions involving the safety of schools or other public facilities. As the regular readers of our site will surely know by now, it is not our policy here to address or nurture division among Seventh-day Adventists regarding strictly political issues. But it is in fact our policy to draw analogies between notable contemporary developments and the spiritual challenges facing God’s people as we near the climax of history and the great controversy between good and evil.
In his in-depth chronicle of the French Revolution, Harvard historian Simon Schama writes, “Revolutions are the empire of the young” (1). And so it has been throughout the human story, whether in the sacred or the secular realm. Like those who stormed the Bastille and proclaimed the French Republic, the minutemen who led the charge for liberty in the American Revolution were largely a youthful movement (2). In later U.S. history, such endeavors as the campaign for civil rights and racial justice led by such as Martin Luther King Jr, as well as the movement soon thereafter to end the war in Vietnam, were largely empowered and driven by the young.
American presidential historian Theodore White, in his account of the 1968 U.S. presidential campaign, would write of the student activism of that year: “With their young bodies, limitless energies and mature drives, student activists lead the kind of raw manpower which in other generations of history caused great and hostile nations to tremble” (3).
In the story of God’s people through the ages, this has also been true. Evidence from inspired and other historical records suggests the disciples of Jesus were largely a group of young men, as were many of the Waldensian missionaries and Protestant Reformers of later centuries. And certainly those who survived the Great Disappointment of 1844 and went on to establish the great Advent movement were primarily a group of young people.
History has shown that it wasn’t without cause that the apostle Paul admonished young Timothy, “Let no man despise thy youth” (I Tim. 4:12). The young who have dared to inspire, lead, or participate in history-altering movements have frequently suffered revilement by opponents on account of their age. The 1968 presidential primary campaign of the late U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy, with its predominantly youthful following, was derided by some as a “children’s crusade” (4). Those leading and participating in the March for Our Lives this past weekend are presently being ridiculed by some as having “little more than a junior high level of education under their belt” (5). (Kind of like those who scoff at Ellen White as not being a “theologian” and for having less than a third-grade education!) Robert Brinsmead, in his infamous critique of Adventism several decades ago titled Judged by the Gospel, dismissed the early Adventist pioneers as “mostly youngsters physically as well as spiritually” (6). How he presumed to know the latter, one is permitted to guess!
Van Jones of CNN, speaking on “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” during its March 4, 2018 broadcast, placed the aftermath of the Parkland tragedy against the background of other recent events: “For a year we have seen adults acting like children. Now we see children acting like adults.”
It isn’t the first time, nor will it be the last, when the young have arrested the conscience of the world. Certainly a good deal of the history of Adventism during the past two decades has been written in this script.
Youth on the March in Adventism
Since 2002, the movement known as Generation of Youth for Christ (GYC)—first called the General Youth Conference—has gathered to its annual convocations thousands of youth and young adults seeking a return to the fundamental beliefs and standards of classic Adventism as set forth in Scripture and the writings of the Spirit of Prophecy. It is no exaggeration to say that no grassroots Adventist youth movement since the 1844 saga has so dramatically inspired the church’s rising generations. The thousands of employed and aspiring young professionals who each year sacrifice means and time during a demanding season to attend these gatherings have pointedly put the lie to the claim of certain ones that educated, intelligent young people with an eye on the future couldn’t possibly find identity and meaning in the doctrinal, prophetic, and moral challenge of the original Advent faith.
U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt once said, “Judge me by the enemies I have made.” The history of Seventh-day Adventism will certainly judge the GYC movement accordingly. One of the more perverse attacks on this movement, featured several years ago on a website notorious for attacks on the Bible, Ellen White, denominational leadership, and classic Adventism in general, offers a glimpse at a worldview meriting as much pity as indignation:
I’m a survivor of the Missionary Volunteer and Youth Congress movement of the 50’s and 60’s. We too were assured by evangelists and charismatic youth leaders that they were preaching THE TRUTH, that we were living in END TIMES and that our generation was THE ONE THAT WOULD FINISH THE WORK and usher in the return of Christ. Only three of the graduating class of my Adventist high school and less than a dozen of my college companions at Pacific Union College are Adventists. And by no stretch of the imagination would any of us be comfortable at a GYC convention. Why did the Adventist youth movement of my day fail? Because, over time, irrational doctrines breed cynicism. Because along the way, we met and even married wonderful people who weren’t Adventists. Because we read the Bible rather than the Adult Quarterly. Because calling ourselves “the elect” fostered a kind of egotism that we became ashamed of. Because of the realization that we are going to die rather than “be caught up in the air”. Because of bureaucratic pettiness. Because of the Church’s official misogyny and homophobia. Because we had children and grandchildren whom we loved more than we loved Adventism. Because we could be followers of Christ without being afraid. What I am saying is that emotional, anti-intellectual, conservative movements like GYC don’t accomplish much in the long run in spite of all the hoopla. They are ineffective in achieving their own long-term goals and can be spiritually harmful to the young innocents who blame themselves for delaying the Second Advent (7).
Such pathetic memoirs of spiritual failure pose a greater challenge to the grace than the gravitas of the faithful, so for more than reasons of space I will desist from an in-depth response. To be sure, one can’t resist noting that “the realization that we are going to die rather than ‘be caught up in the air’” is hardly likely to assure anyone that these chronic doubters are genuine Adventists, even Christians, much less likely to inspire youthful idealism. Little wonder that the average age at this magazine’s national conference was reported some years ago as around 65 (8)!
One is interested at how those threatened by youthful outspokenness have a tendency to doubt its spontaneity. One online article attacking the March for Our Lives hinted darkly at wealthy luminaries among the website’s political opponents allegedly funding, even orchestrating the March. Sort of like those theologically liberal Adventists who actually claimed on one of their websites that GYC was likely being funded by a cabal of super-rich conservative Adventists (9). Fear of Jesuit infiltration and the Illuminati might not motivate these critics of youthful revival, but it seems they aren’t beyond resorting to similarly wacky conspiracism in their desperation to discredit a movement that shatters so many of their cherished assumptions about youth and the church.
A Vision of the Future
Watching those teenagers march in the streets of America, hearing their articulate expression of conviction regarding the solutions they seek to offer to the crisis their movement (and America) is being forced to confront, witnessing their courage and maturity in facing off with public officials, I find my thoughts grasping another vision—this one of Adventism’s future and the role the young might play in it should they permit their hearts to be stirred and transformed by the message and passion that stirred and transformed the original Adventists.
As with the Parkland shooting, sometimes it takes a trigger—one too many events or statements of a certain genre to finally arouse a collective conscience. Perhaps an attack by a college or university professor on the Bible or the claims of Jesus that presses the tolerance of youthful listeners one step too far. Maybe an especially revolting case of moral misconduct among faculty or students, conspicuously glossed over by school administrators in the name of “grace” or “diversity.” The proverbial “straw that breaks the camel’s back”—a singular occurrence identifying like no other the dark destiny toward which the spiritual road so many have chosen to travel is obviously tending.
And then, the walkout. Perhaps it begins at a large academy, or at one of our major colleges or universities. Voices silent till now speak with fervor and uncanny persuasion. The movement spreads from campus to campus, bringing business as usual to a standstill in more than a few venerable institutions. The conscience of the church is seized in a manner not witnessed in generations. The Word of God is opened with new interest, the Biblical clarity and Christ-centered beauty of classic Adventism is unveiled for the first time before eager youthful minds, the selfless character of Jesus conquers sins both reviled and fashionable, and the long-looked-for revival of God’s end-time remnant begins—led by the children.
In the words of God’s prophet: “Armies of youth must be raised up and trained under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to preach the Word” (10). It will happen. As with their noble peers of old, they will suffer scorn and contempt as yet another ill-conceived “children’s crusade.” But a fierce urgency born of unanticipated consecration will possess their hearts and usher in the sequence of grand events that will close with the rise of the small black cloud in the flaming eastern sky (11).
1. Simon Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989), p. 8.
2. “Minutemen,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minutemen
3. Theodore H. White, The Making of the President—1968 (New York: Atheneum Publishers, 1969), p. 78.
4. Gerald W. Johnson, “Hurrah for the Children’s Crusade,” The New Republic, April 20, 1968, p. 12.
5. Kevin McCullough, “The Stupidity of the ‘March for Our Lives,’” Townhall, March 25, 2018 https://townhall.com/columnists/kevinmccullough/2018/03/25/the-stupidity-of-the-march-for-our-lives-n2464388
6. Robert D. Brinsmead, Judged by the Gospel: A Review of Adventism (Fallbrook, CA: Verdict Publications, 1980), p. 351.
8. Elwin Dunn, “The Next Adventism: 2004 Conference of the Association of Adventist Forums,” Adventist Today, September-October 2004, p. 8.
10. Ellen G. White, Letter 350, 1906.
11. ----The Great Controversy, p. 640.
Pastor Kevin Paulson holds a Bachelor’s degree in theology from Pacific Union College, a Master of Arts in systematic theology from Loma Linda University, and a Master of Divinity from the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University. He served the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists for ten years as a Bible instructor, evangelist, and local pastor. He writes regularly for Liberty magazine and does script writing for various evangelistic ministries within the denomination. He continues to hold evangelistic and revival meetings throughout the North American Division and beyond, and is a sought-after seminar speaker relative to current issues in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He presently resides in Berrien Springs, Michigan.
Please read our Comment Policy before commenting on the article.