There’s a tendency to blame disagreements in the Adventist church on conflict between generations. One worship style versus another, one manner of telling the biblical narrative versus a different one—it’s easy for the young to blame the old for being too reticent to change, and the old to accuse the young of disrespecting tradition.
But perhaps, the conflicts of today don’t stem from generations at all.
I spent the two days of the recent One Project with a group of eight students from Portland Adventist Academy, who traveled from Oregon to Southern California for the gathering. There’s so much talk about young people in the church, but perhaps as a result of how the church is structured, there often seems to be more talk about than with; so I wanted to know what the experience was like for these teens, who attend Adventist churches and go to an Adventist school, but in doing so live in a system where decisions are most often made by people several generations removed from their own.
The audience at this One Project was not particularly young. One could even see a preponderance of gray and white hair when looking out across the CrossWalk Church sanctuary at any given time. Cost was likely a factor in the demographics (a donor helped some of the Academy students attend) but the speakers did seem aware of a need to speak across generations. Leonard Sweet, a Methodist theologian who has taught at institutions of many different denominations, was a special guest speaker on Day 1, and emphasized the importance of scripture being accessible in the vernacular of the current culture (Sweet also shared that he had sent his son to an Adventist elementary school).
Many of the students from Portland Adventist Academy were a bit surprised about what the One Project turned out to be. “It wasn’t what I expected,” said Gam, a senior. “I thought it was going to be a lot of sitting down.” Although there were stretches of sitting and listening to the various presenters, there also was plenty of standing up, as a band led out in music before every presentation. Gam, a talented musician himself who often leads out in music at his school, thought the music was “very good.”
He also appreciated the message that David Ferguson, senior pastor at the Collegedale Church, shared on the second day. Ferguson spoke about the dangers of maintaining a doctrine of certainty, and how it is not only acceptable but often necessary to be uncertain about things in order to keep looking forward. “I’m the kind of person that likes to have answers,” Gam told me. “I come to uncertainty and I start to get scared because I grew up with this sort of mentality like we have all the answers. And if you doubt, if you start asking questions, it’s a bad thing.” For Gam, it was both hopeful and challenging to hear the pastor of a prominent church take the stage and admit that he, too, struggled with uncertainty at times. “Part of it is encouraging, and the other part of it is kind of scary,” Gam said. “I still don’t like uncertainty, but not knowing takes up so much of my life.”
The students of Portland Adventist Academy care about asking hard questions to which there aren’t always easy answers. The school sits in the midst of the city. Unlike some denominational schools, it is not secluded in a more rural location or insulated from confronting the realities of the world. Portland struggles with a homeless crisis, and tent encampments sometimes crop up in sight of the campus. It’s also a diverse school, with students from many ethnicities and socio-economic situations; a significant number of the student body are not Adventist.
Keeley, a sophomore, connected especially with the message that Alex Bryan, One Project co-founder and Director of Mission Identity and Spiritual Care at Adventist Health, shared on the second day, as he told the story of Jesus in the context of how Jesus radically changed the culture of his day. “I liked how he had not just biblical sources, but also historical sources,” Keeley said. “I liked what he had to say about [how] we need to be sure we’re telling the Story of Jesus as big as it really is.”
Keeley also felt like the focus of the conference transcended minutia that can become stumbling blocks. “It wasn’t like we were all gathering together to discuss some difficult topic, or some church management issue,” she said after the meetings had ended and everyone prepared to go home. “Sometimes we don’t do [that] as much, because when we meet together it’s because we need to focus on a specific issue. It was nice to just talk about Jesus.”
Some of the older attendees expressed some disappointment that there weren’t more young people at the One Project, but for the high school students, it was an opportunity to interact on an equal footing with those well outside their age range. “When there would be discussion, a lot of the time old people turned around and wanted to talk to us. And they were just really nice and friendly,” Keeley said.
“When you come to a church like that, you’d expect to see a lot of young people,” Gam explained, speaking to the modern looking space and the contemporary music. “But I looked over, and there was this elderly guy, and he was there with his arms raised. I thought it was so cool.”
I had watched on the second day, as that older gentleman sat right in front of the teenagers. It seemed such a contrast at first; he looked old enough to be their grandparent, but when the musicians took the stage and the room was bathed in the colored stage lights, the drums and guitars leading in loud, sincere praise music—there he was, arms raised and eyes closed, singing as loud as anyone, lost in that moment of worship.
Whatever the disagreements that abound in the Adventist church today, they are not only defined by generations. If conflicts are sometimes seen to run along generational lines—disagreements about worship styles, treatment of women and minorities, methods of applying biblical truth to the present day—the same issues can appear within generations as well; young people are not all united about what they want the church to be. But solutions will also never be found through siloed decision making or the occasional name-dropping of “young people.”
The church flourishes when generations come together.
Alex Aamodt is the Roy Branson Investigative Reporter for Spectrum
Image Credit: Unsplash.com
More on the recent One Project gathering:
Jesus Returns, Or, The One Project Is Back (Day 1), February 18, 2019
Lengthening the Table: Day 2 at the One Project, February 19, 2019
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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9445