There is someone everyone in your church knows. Not the pastor, not the secretary, not the piano player, not even the church gossip. Everyone in your church knows someone who no longer attends church.
Recently I asked a room filled with more than 300 church leaders to stand if they had a child or knew someone with a child who had given up on church. There wasn’t a single person sitting down.
As a pastor, but more importantly as a father, I am very interested in the church’s ability to keep young adults engaged in a relationship with Jesus Christ and the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
In my immediate family, I’m a third-generation Seventh-day Adventist. I was also the first to leave the church. I believed in what my church taught. I even believed my church needed me. So why did I leave?
I believe I left for the same reason many if not most teenagers and young adults leave the church. You might be surprised to find out this is actually the same reason many of your church members stay in the church. Selfishness.
That is right; I am selfish. I wanted to get something out of my participation in the church. As a teenager I was surely getting something out of being a junior deacon and out of my performance of special music on a regular basis. I was getting something out of Sabbath School, and I know for sure I was getting something out of potluck.
However, I wasn’t getting what I wanted most at the time. In fact, if you would have asked me, I think I would have said the church did not have anything to offer me, at least not anything of current value to an 18-year-old. So I left.
I left because I was selfish. And guess what? Many of the people setting in church pews and padded chairs today are there for the same reason — because there is something in it for them. Is that bad? I do not think so. After all, doesn’t God want us to get something out of our membership in the body of Christ? Your selfishness may be keeping you in the church, while for many young adults it is leading them away from church.
I disengaged with the church gradually between the ages of 16 and 18. Then for the next 10 or 12 years, I lived what I thought was a pretty good life. I was happy, healthy and successful. I was living the American dream. Yet all the while my family was praying for me because, as happy, healthy and successful as I was, I was lost.
Many people with young adult children are praying that they will re-engage with the church just as I have. Unfortunately, I must warn you. Your prayers are not enough.
Yes, my family’s prayers were enough to eventually get me to step through the doors of the church, so don’t stop praying. However, their prayers were not enough to keep me in church, and your prayers are not going to be enough to keep your young adults in church if they come back.
Why? Because just like you, just like me and just like every other human being, our children are selfish. Your prayers may get your children back to the doors of the church, but it will not get them re-engaged with the church. What will it take? It will take someone in the church they visit making sacrificial investments in their lives. Now there is something new to pray for.
People come back to church because they have a need, even if they do not realize it. For people to become engaged in the body of Christ, churched people must sacrificially invest in their lives and meet their needs. At least that is how it worked for me.
The Holy Spirit led me to an Adventist television ministry, and there I discovered my deepest need. That realization took me to the doors of the Little Rock Adventist Church in Arkansas on the second Sabbath of February 1999.
Over the course of the previous 10 years, I had walked through the doors of a few Adventist churches. However, this time it was different. The investments of the people in the Little Rock Church kept me coming back, engaged me, and eventually led my wife and me to surrender our lives to Jesus.
They invited us into their homes for meals, took risks and got to know us. Almost instantly people made room for us at their family events, set aside their personal agendas and even sacrificed some of their traditions — they were loving us into their church.
Because of their sacrificial investment in my life, three years later, I walked away from a multimillion-dollar business opportunity (and virtually every other material possession I owned) to enroll in the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. Don’t stop praying for the wanderers!
We cannot stop praying for all the people who have walked away from the church, but it is going to take more than our prayers to engage them in the life of the church and a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. It is going to take someone making sacrificial investments in their lives.
If the salvation of the lost is truly a priority of the church, we must change our culture and our attitude toward the wanderer — especially when it comes to young adults. It is going to take members in every church sacrificially investing in the lives of others if we are to engage them in the life of the church and more importantly a relationship with Jesus Christ.
A sacrificial investment means we are going to have to give something up. What are we willing to sacrifice to see your children develop a saving relationship with Jesus and His church? What are we willing to sacrifice to see our children maintain a saving relationship with Jesus and His church? What are we willing to sacrifice to see our friends and neighbors develop a saving relationship with Jesus and His church?
In Acts 15:19, during the Jerusalem Council, the leaders of the early church determined they would not let anything of human contriving stand between the lost and the Savior or His church. They were willing to do whatever was necessary to break down barriers so people could connect and engage. They set aside traditions and agreed to take risks and make sacrificial investments in people’s lives — even for people who looked, thought and acted differently.
As you consider the people you know who have walked away consider this: Is there any tradition to0 important, any sacrifice too great, that you would hold onto them at the cost of someone else’s salvation?
The only way we are going to turn the tide of young adults (and not-so-young adults) leaving the church is by making sacrifices. If we are going to re-engage missing members and keep our children engaged into their young adult years and beyond we are going to have to sacrificially invest in their lives. This will cost us something. The price could be high. It may even cost us some of the things we selfishly think have to be our way when it comes to how we do church. It will be costly, but is any cost too high?
We may have to do some things that are uncomfortable. We may have to give up some human traditions, even some things we think are sacred. But imagine with me for just a moment. ...
Imagine the smile it will put on Jesus’ face to see you and me, people Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice for, demonstrating a willingness to sacrifice of ourselves and our traditions for the salvation of others.
Imagine what could happen, what will happen, when we begin to make decisions that make it easier for young adults, for our children, for the lost, to engage, stay engaged or re-engage with our churches. Imagine us being willing to sacrificially invest in making our churches safe places for young adults to fully participate in the body of Christ.
Imagine the difference it will make in heaven when your children, my children, your friends and neighbors come up to you and say thank you! Thank you for sacrificially investing in my life. Thank you for sacrificially giving up your traditions to create a church we could call "ours." Thank you for sacrificially giving of yourself to create a church we were able to invite our friends and family to call home.
Imagine what heaven will be like if we determine to do that. Imagine what heaven will be like if we don’t!
Gene Heinrich chairs an ad hoc committee for the North Pacific Union Conference (NPUC) on the topic of member re-engagement. The committee hopes to report findings and recommendations to the NPUC executive committee in the spring of 2017.