by Lawrence Downing
(What about engaging Adventist Methusialists?)
by Lawrence Downing, June 27, 2014
The May 2014 Ministry magazine, a journal published by the Ministerial Association of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, printed an article under the title “Engaging Adventist Millennials: A church that embraces relationships” (pp 6-9). In the article, authors Clint Jenkin, PhD, vice-president of research for Barna Group, and A. Allan Martin, PhD, the teaching pastor of Younger Generation Church at Arlington Seventh-day Adventist Church, Arlington, Texas, report on a recent Barna Group survey of Millennials. The purpose of the survey was to understand the Millennials’ common experiences and attitudes toward the church.
The authors list six grievances Millennials have toward the church that are enumerated in Barna Group president David Kinnaman's book, You Lost Me. In Millennialists’ view, reports Kinnaman, the church is:
1. Intolerant of doubt
2. Elitist in its relationships
3. Antiscience in its beliefs
4. Overprotective of its members
5. Shallow in its teachings
6. Repressive of differences
The Barna study found that perceptions Adventist Millennials had toward their own church were even stronger. For example, 47 percent of the Adventist Millennials believe the Adventist church is antiscience, compared to 25 percent of U.S. Millennials. For overprotective, it is 36 percent of the Adventist group as compared to 23 percent of the U. S. Millennials. And, notes the article, the Adventist Millennials were those who have at least some contact with the church and in some cases are very active in their congregations.
If further evidence of Trouble in River City is required, the Adventist News Network ANN Bulletin of June 19, 2014, listed several challenges to mission that the May 2014 North American Division (NAD) meeting on self-evaluation identified: “…declining rates of youth attending church, declining membership among the native-born population….”
The NAD findings and the six findings reported in the Ministry article provide significant information. Each of the reported perceptions begs careful and meaningful response from the Adventist church administrators, pastors, church members and others who are concerned with the future of the church in North America. However, I believe the Barna Group survey and the NAD findings have wider implications than the article addresses. It is not only the Millennial group of Adventists who harbor the six grievances against the Adventist church. I believe others, including the segment I’ll label Methusialists, my generational group, the ones born sometime before the Great Flood or before the Dark Ages(?) (Whatever!) are equally distressed by a church that gives every appearance of promoting attitudes and policies that the Barna Group survey found increase the gulf between the church and its next generation of potential adherents.
Should the Barna Group conduct a survey targeting the Adventist Methusialists one might expect to find the following six statements somewhere in the report:
1. Seek for Truth
2. God as Creator
3. God’s peculiar people
4. Keep the Commandments—all Ten, plus others
5. God’s Last-Day Church
6. Possesses the Spirit of Prophecy
Many Methusialists who once held to these beliefs have, to greater or lesser degrees, modified their understanding of the above statements and others that have been part of the Adventist theological package. Various factors brought about this change in perspectives. Some concluded that the pursuit for Truth did not always result in the noblest ends. “Truth” became a battering ram to pulverize opponents who held contrary views. Truth-finders took delight in “proving” them wrong and us right. The “End Time” scenarios became cliché. We discovered that Ellen White was not the original thinker we once believed. Those who led the church were found to have feet of clay. When taken together, we Methusialists find ourselves fitting well under the shadow cast by our Millennialist colleagues. If this be so, and I believe it is, then what the Barna Group learned from Adventist Millennialists has relevance for the Methusialists,
We, like our Millennial colleagues, are suspicious of a church that requires all to walk in lock-step order. Many of us are distressed when leadership promotes views that counter science and our intellectual or spiritual conclusions. We do not welcome those who ask us to call circles “squares” when before us is evidence that contradicts squareness. Why is it important, we ask, that official statements from the hierarchy are identified as doctrine when scripture is silent or ambiguous on the matters? We puzzle over what are essentials and what not. The fallout from a tightening and restrictive atmosphere creates disruption, disunity and rejection.
If we who are the church wish to quiet grievances that Millennialists, Methusialists, and others have toward the church there are responsible ways to facilitate this intent: stop doing what we’re doing that aggravates and alienates. Take a hard look at each of the six identified grievances Barna reports and practice the opposite behaviors and attitudes. Worried about the high percentage of young people who leave the church? Then stop the practices and attitudes that alienate rather than affirm. Why call more study commissions when we know the information already? If we want to impede the slide to irrelevance, the survey results point toward a viable way.
Church administrators and pastors have a role to play if the church is to change its emphasis and practice. One effective response is to be silent. Cease making divisive pronouncements! Become facilitators and enablers rather than blockers.
The most significant participants in creating a welcoming church are the members of the local parish. The local parish has the most direct access to people; it is the local congregation that has the power to create the atmosphere that welcomes or repulses.
Those who opt to perpetuate the established practice can quote the time-worn mantra: We’re in the Shaking Time. This cohort can take some spiritual pride that they are not part of the mass exoduses. It’s to be expected as we move toward the End. What an unfortunate, but not uncommon, response from the people who challenge us to “Finish the Work.” Some have suggested a more accurate term is “Do it In!”