by Lawrence Downing
By Lawrence Downing, November 25, 2013
The November 16-22 “News and Opinion” from Adventist Today reports that the General Conference has taken note that a large number of people who once were church members are no longer. The article reports that groups have been formed to examine this disturbing trend. As I read the article, an informal survey I conducted some eight or so years ago came to mind. A summary of the findings follow. It will be noted that what my academy classmates reported in the survey parallels the GC and other survey findings. It is important for readers to know that this was an informal survey, and the results should be taken within the context of an identified questioner seeking answers from persons I knew. It is to be recognized that this is not a “scientific” survey. It does give a limited insight into how a group of teenagers who once shared a common educational experience, responded to the religious instruction they received.
Survey of the Monterey Bay Academy Class of 1959
By Lawrence Downing
The 109 graduates of Monterey Bay Academy class of 1959 were probably not very different from graduates from other SDA academies across America that year. We did pride ourselves that we were the largest class to graduate from MBA, and we assured one another that we were the best, the most loyal ever, and we pledged to always remain close. The naivety of youth!
In an attempt to gain an understanding of how my classmates now relate to the Adventist Church, I prepared and sent out a brief questionnaire to all classmates whose addresses I had. As reported below, I contacted 75 people and had 63 responses. What follows is a brief summary of the findings.
Number of Graduates: 109
Classmates Contacted: 75
Are Adventists: 33
Are Not Adventists: 30
Summary of Findings from the Thirty-three Who Are Adventists and Attend the Adventist Church
A significant number of our classmates continue to have a strong and meaningful relationship with the Adventist Church. Several of this number responded that they did not understand how anyone could leave the Adventist church and were puzzled why anyone would doubt that this is God's church. Strong affirmations were given by several to Ellen White's role in the church and expressed appreciation for her prophetic guidance.
Summary of Findings from the Thirty Who Do Not Attend the Adventist Church
Our classmates who no longer attend the Adventist church or do not consider themselves Adventist gave a variety of explanations for their break with the church. Several mentioned that people in the church were not there to support them when they went through a personal crisis. One classmate reported that when his marriage ended he was told by the pastor that he could no longer continue as a church officer. The person accepted this information, stopped attending church and never heard from anyone in the church again. (The masculine pronoun may not reflect the gender of the person described.) Others stated that in divorce situations, the church members and leaders were judgmental and did not express care or concern.
Several in our class stated that they now believed that what we were taught about the Bible and Ellen White was not correct and that as students they did not receive information that helped them understand and apply the gospel to their lives. Legalism was emphasized rather than God's grace and salvation through faith in Christ. They did not get to know Christ as their personal savior. They reported that in their view, there was more emphasis on following an Adventist life-style or pattern than with having a personal commitment to Jesus.
Classmates have come to question the spiritual and communal benefits the Adventist church offers. The internal strife and criticism they have witnessed have interfered with spiritual development. Occasionally the time demands put upon church members exceeded reasonable expectation. The nuts and bolts activity necessary to keep a church going seemed to suck dry one's spiritual well.
A few classmates have had experience in church politics. Some served on local Conference and Union boards, and report that their experiences have not been satisfying. They state that they found church officials to be very impersonal, aloof and sometimes greedy in dealing with members. Said one person, "The childhood perceptions of the church—nurturing, caring, accepting—have faded into an adult reality. I found that from the church’s perspective, I'm OK if I ‘dance to it's music' or 'walk the walk.' If not … 'come and see us when you can.’" One classmate said, "It (the church) is not unlike any other organization—meet the expectations or take a walk."
Some of our classmates express that they have found more caring, nurturing, and acceptance in secular organizations than in the church. The church, these people discovered, does not have anything better to offer than its secular counterparts. They found that the spiritual side is weak or absent in the church and that the church did not meet their other needs, either.
SPIRITUAL NEEDS MET
Some of our classmates stated that they have found that they can find their spiritual needs filled in solitude—through reading, meditation and prayer. This frees them from having to deal with the extra distractions brought upon them by the church community. These people state that they recognize other religious organizations are not any different from the Adventist church so changing "brands" is not the solution.
One person told me that he decided from an early age that there is no God. Academy attendance did not change that belief nor has subsequent time and experience caused him to modify this belief.
BACK TO THE CHURCH
A number of our classmates left the Adventist church for a time but have come back. Several of these, and others who have remained Adventists, stated that they are still concerned that the Adventist church finds its center in form and legalism rather than a spirit-filled joy that comes from the assurance of salvation. Despite regular church attendance, some of our classmates expressed that where they attend is not a "good fit" for them, theologically or socially. They are Adventists and have never left the church, but they are not satisfied with how the church operates or what they hear on Sabbath morning. There is too much emphasis on the 27 Fundamental Beliefs and not enough on what it means to be a vibrant Christian.
It is important to note that a strong majority of our classmates have positive memories of their time at MBA.
After reading the responses that came from our classmates who no longer attend the Adventist church, it is my conclusion that one of the major areas where the church can improve is in the response to people in crisis situations. It is not helpful to the person who hurts if all he or she hears is negative. The responses from our classmates who have experienced crisis indicate that the judgmental attitude shown them by pastors and other church members resulted in hurt and withdrawal from the church. It is better to listen and be quiet than to offer unhelpful advice and comments. Several in our class stated that when they stopped going to church, no one called or made contact with them to see how they were doing. A telephone call, note, visit or other communication may well have made a positive difference.
Our classmates believe that it is important for the Adventist church and its leaders to understand and proclaim the gospel. People report that they believe the church has not made a clear presentation of salvation by faith through Jesus Christ alone. Others are clear that it is important to define the role of Ellen White within the Adventist church. Several of our classmates stated they have questions about Ellen White’s role, credibility and authority.
Classmates strongly affirmed that the Adventist church must meet people's needs. Some of our classmates said that their children or grandchildren do not find the church relevant and do not attend. Classmates said it is important that people learn to depend upon God and not the church.
The above is not an exhaustive study nor should it be interpreted as a final statement that expresses what we as a class think. What did come through loud and clear is that many of our classmates are firmly committed to the Christian faith and many are firmly positioned in the Adventist church. It is also apparent that there is a strong spiritual component among our classmates. Not every one attends the Adventist church and some may not count themselves traditional Christians, but they do have a firm hold on a spiritual dimension that serves as their guide and upon which they depend.
It should also be noted that the stronger negative statements are from a minority of our classmates. The strong majority did not express negative feelings. It is also important to note that most of those who responded did not state strong positive feelings toward the church, either. This disparity in the responses is largely due to the questions presented. I requested those who are no longer Adventists or who do not attend church to state their reasons. I did not ask those who are committed to the Adventist church to share why they continued in the church, nor did I ask them to share their spiritual journey.
We as a class evidence a wide diversity of thought. Some of us have gone through highly charged personal experiences. I learned that several of our classmates, while at MBA, went through very stressful situations that most of us knew nothing about. In the years since graduation, others of our classmates have seen relationships shatter and know what failure is about. Several respondents had situations develop in their lives that most of us cannot comprehend. Children and spouses have died. Marriages have broken. Health problems took a heavy toll on others. Fortunately, most of us have lived a relatively calm life with few struggles. For most of us life has been good.