In school, I remember my teacher telling us that we would never carry around a calculator in our pockets, therefore we must know how to do complex math in our heads. Fast forward to 2018, and I don’t know a single person who doesn’t carry around a calculator in their pocket. In a few short years, we have gone from floppy disks to MicroSD cards that can carry mind-boggling amounts of information. We are becoming more advanced in every area, and therefore more connected. As we become more connected, we are able to be exposed to new ideas, thoughts, and information we would have previously never received. For instance, I can simply ask my phone how many stars exist in our galaxy, and almost immediately I’m informed that there over 250 billion, give or take a billion. Whereas even 40 years ago, that information would have been reserved for scientists or people who subscribed to scientific journals. In such a short span, we have developed incredible devices that allow us to instantly message and video chat one another, as well as automate our homes with smart light bulbs.
When I was younger, I remember being handed out tracts from conservative Christian publishing houses that explained that if you watched Twilight or Harry Potter, you were essentially going to hell and must repent immediately by throwing away all modern entertainment and return to the Hymnal and Amazing Facts DVDs. Now, I see pastors of churches that make incredible strides in advancing the Gospel using culture as a way to better relate the message to new members. Successful churches, such as Hillsong, have brought so many people to its churches that it has become its own denomination. Meanwhile, an average of 6,000 to 10,000 churches die each year.
Churches like The Porch in Dallas, Texas have become so big they have campuses all over the state, and one in Tulsa, Oklahoma in which they simply stream the message being preached in Dallas on Sunday morning. This church has a series called “Asking for a Friend,” dedicated to discussing tough topics including abortion and gay Christians. They also have a series called “Lyrics & Lies,” in which they discuss the idea that women are not sex objects. How astounding it is that a church in Dallas has people from Tulsa attending its services, while they live in a state that ranks 12th in the nation as the most religious.
The short answer is they don’t see Jesus in their local churches anymore.
Churches like Mosaic, The Village Church, and Elevation Church have gotten to the point that so many people want to be a part of their services, they have had to install campuses across city and even state lines. If we, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, are the true Remnant and are the proclaimers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, why do so many church board meetings consist of brainstorming methods of attracting young people so our church doesn’t die?
We, as a church, have stagnated. More and more people are leaving the traditional four walls of a church building for sermons streamed on YouTube. At the time of this writing, the Adventist News Network YouTube channel has 6,300 subscribers. Mosaic, the church in the heart of Hollywood, has over 26,000. Mind you, ANN is backed by the General Conference, and Mosaic is one church with several campuses across California. Friends of mine who have grown up, are baptized, and continue to practice Seventh-day Adventism constantly flock to these online churches because every single message they have to share ties back into Jesus Christ and what He did for all of us. These churches are focused on the beauty and poeticism of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, and every single week they act as if it’s an entirely new congregation who have never even heard His name before.
While we as a Church have focused on professing the message of Daniel and Revelation, churches like Mosaic have life-changing sermons like “Why Jesus?” with views of almost 20,000. Imagine one church filled with 20,000 people! That’s hundreds of times larger than the average hometown church. The sermon “Why Jesus?” is filled with sentences like, “When Jesus says ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life,’ what He means is, ‘I am what your soul is missing.” Meanwhile, Adventist News Network’s most popular video is Unity #GCAC18, in which the church uses divisive language to coerce those who disagree with the General Conference decision to not ordain women to the gospel ministry. The most striking line in the whole message is, “Let’s trust the General Conference.” Over 70,000 people have viewed this video. My question now is, which one speaks truer to the Gospel of Jesus Christ? While we debate and argue over whether or not women are seen as equal to men, churches that aren’t even in the same state as us are being filled with members who just want to hear about what Christ did for them. They aren’t hearing it from us.
I believe that collectively, we as a church have lost our core message. While the End Time message is important, what’s more important is the life of Christ. Paul did not say to believe in the Adventist interpretation of the Second Coming to be saved, he said to “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31, ESV). Why don’t we have seminars on the book of John as much, if not more so, than the books of Daniel and Revelation? The book of John was written “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).
When I was in college, I spiritually left the church. I would never have announced that publicly because of the ostracism I would have received from well-meaning church members. I left due to the sense of legalism and lack of study of the life of Jesus. I dropped out of college and felt as though I would not return to higher education or the faith, in my heart at least.
I came back to the faith for one reason, and one reason only: Jesus. I did not come back because our church holds the one true interpretation of the end times. In all reality, I couldn’t have cared less about that. What brought me back was the beauty of the life of Christ. The sacrifice He made on the cross for every single person, and the fact that He would have done it for just one person is what drew me back in. The love of God drew me back to the spiritual land flowing with milk and honey, and along my way back, I did not care about what qualifies the Vatican as the little horn, or the fact that one day in prophecy equals a year. What I cared about was being free in Jesus, I cared that “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). I cared that “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). I am drawn in by the beauty of the life of Jesus, and everything that He gave up to bring me home.
The true message of Jesus has persisted through the ages and will persist long after everyone reading this is six feet under. People have given up their lives for this message, dedicated their lives to spreading it to every corner of the globe, and still do to this day. Why? Jesus. Why do churches like Hillsong and Elevation have such a following? Jesus.
A few years ago at Southwestern Adventist University, a student-run ministry called Elevate was started. It began as a handful of university students singing songs, and playing bits of a sermon, and discussing it afterwards. There was coffee and sometimes mini-muffins. It was scheduled during church service, so not many people were actually predicted to go. The Keene Seventh-day Adventist Church that the university collaborated with allowed them one small room that could fit maybe 20 or 30 people. A few months into it, Elevate was packed out the door. People were standing in the walkway, shoulder to shoulder with the guy in the media chair (not booth, chair). Almost no university students were attending the actual church service. The lead pastor came and asked all of us why we were stuffing ourselves into a cramped space only a little bit bigger than a broom closet, and the answer was simple: we felt Jesus in that room every single Sabbath.
Eventually, the church absorbed Elevate. It’s still supported by the church and university. Its time slot was moved from during church service to just before so the students would still attend traditional service. It was also moved to the Fellowship Hall, which can hold over 100 people.
Millennials (who are all adults in their 20s and 30s now) and Gen Z want to go to church, they want to participate in church service and go to Bible study groups. But they want to learn about Jesus when they go there. Christ brings all people to Himself. “Let all children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:16).
The future of Adventism is found in one thing and one thing only: the captivating name of Jesus Christ. In an age where people can access a message from almost any church anywhere in the world instantly, why would anyone go to a church where there was no spiritual food?
If the Seventh-day Adventist Church wants to know why young people are leaving the church in droves, it must ask itself, is it truly preaching only about Christ? Or is it making sure that the 28 Fundamental Beliefs are studied and memorized, and that we are all found in compliance with the General Conference?
This piece was originally published in Spectrum Magazine.