Do You Really Want to Know?

It was 1998 when I was dedicated to the Adventist community at the Loma Linda University Church. Eighteen years later, after spending the entirety of my general education in an Adventist school, I decided to be baptized. Now, I am in my junior year at an Adventist university, still very much immersed in this community. The older I’ve gotten, the more aware I have become of the ongoing problems we are facing. One of the issues commonly found at the forefront of this community as of recently is as follows: why are young people leaving the church? With the countless articles written by older members of the church, published to journals with an older audience, this question is still unanswered. The reasoning behind this could be that, though we are taking a step in the right direction by thinking to ask this question, we are asking the wrong question, to the wrong demographic.

As a writer, a twenty-year-old, and a member of the Adventist church, I feel I have been given an opportunity to speak on an issue frequently brought up, though rarely addressed by someone directly impacted. To begin answering the question of why young people are leaving the church, it is important to ask why some young people stay. For myself, the Adventist community has been so ingrained in every aspect of my upbringing that I find it difficult to imagine a time when I would not be connected to it. In many ways, my own church has greatly influenced who I am today. Regardless of the problems, controversies, or hardships the church may face, I remain a member because of who I have seen God to be through my personal Adventist community. That being said, I can easily understand why it is difficult for many young people to maintain or build relationships within the Adventist congregation, because in many ways, there is a level of exclusivity and stagnation surrounding the church.

We, as a congregation, have created a community built on making sure nothing is ever “too” anything. We can wear make-up, but never too much. We can play music, but not too contemporary. We can grow, but never too large. Today, young people have put a positive emphasis on being oneself, without apology, and it can be hard to remain a part of a church that wants members to be themselves, but not too much. While I appreciate the awareness from older groups in the church that has led them to recognize the decline in the attendance of young adults, I am not really convinced that, should the question be finitely answered, anyone would be ready to hear it.

This question is one that is larger than me, on my own. It directly addresses an entire demographic, and while I have a responsibility to speak on something that I am a part of, I have to consider the voices of those alongside me. In an effort to gather some insight from a few of my fellow young people, I decided to interview John Del Valle, a twenty-year old who also grew up in the Adventist community.

“Adventism can be kind of intimidating,” John began, pushing his black, square glasses up his nose. “We follow a lot of rules, like not eating pork, not drinking, not having tattoos, things like that.” He went on to explain that while that is found in many religions, ours can be particularly specific and extensive, creating a certain degree of exclusivity, while also creating a strict environment with little room for error.

“Exclusiveness makes it hard to come into the church, and sometimes even to stay. A lot of people our age have this idea that if you can’t keep the laws, why keep the religion?”

In addition to this, John pointed out that there is a lack of understanding around what it means to be Adventist, and young people often can’t find answers.

“There are not too many places younger adults can go for answers, outside of attending church weekly.” I found this interesting, as it brought up a new question: how can we expect to keep a demographic we do not cater to?

In following the idea of exclusivity, I turned my attention to how young people in general view Adventism as it is today. To gain an outsider’s understanding of the church, I interviewed Chris Ibarra, a twenty-two year old husband to a member of the church. He does not conform to a specific religion, but maintains belief in some sort of higher power, and has been able to gather his own opinion surrounding the Adventist environment.

“My wife has made me appreciate the study of faith, but hasn’t pulled me to the religion.” Chris, who was raised Catholic, grew towards a different relationship with religion and God. “While I don't practice a specific religion, I do have faith in a higher power, like a lot of people our age.” After asking what he saw to be the pros and cons of Adventism, as it pertains to young people, he gave me an interesting answer.

“I thought the diet was interesting, and also hearing everyone's specific exposure and interaction with Adventism,” he began, saying we seem to have our own little club. “I think experiences shape beliefs, and I didn't feel like I would meet Adventist expectation.” He went on to explain that he felt it was difficult to be oneself in an environment that seemed to be closed off to progression.

The recurring idea that young people didn’t feel like they could fit into the “mold” of an Adventist is saddening to hear as a member of the church, but definitely understandable. I still find myself feeling like an outsider of the church from time to time, as my beliefs don’t always match up to those of older members within the community. I have quite a few piercings and tattoos adorning my body, and I have many beliefs that could be considered quite liberal. When considering the conservativeness of the church, these things combined occasionally make it hard for me to feel completely welcomed, even having been a member from the start of my life.

Church is supposed to be a welcoming, warm environment where one can freely be themselves. Considering that young people are the ones that will eventually lead the church, building it for the next generation, it is important that we, as a church, create an open conversation with young people, and make a continuous effort to create a feeling of inclusivity around our community. Rather than asking why young people are leaving, it is our responsibility to ask what we as a congregation can do to get them to stay.

Alyssa Garcia is a current student of La Sierra University. She is an English Literature major with special interest in writing.

Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

To a certain degree that’s exactly right, although there are complexities that we should consider. Church itself is a limiting structure, and I don’t think that limits are wrong. Any young person who may complain about limiting nature of the church could also be working for a corporate entity, which would likely dictate the way they dress, would require certain adherence to behavioral practices and time management. Or they went through a public HS setting, which is at least as limiting as church.

But the difference to Christian approach is really observed on college campus which stands to a stark contrast to a typical SDA church. And its largely has to do with how initiative is rewarded or shut down.

On campus it’s a lot more relational than it is “procedural”. It revolves around principles and gives you something to do and something to be a part of, but it doesn’t follow a strict procedure, and as such it’s more organic. You don’t have to wear a suit to give a mini-talk at the local vesper service. There’s no aura of “pseudo-formality” in which liturgy changes are a subject of major contention. It’s much more fluid and organic. There may not be a sermon, people just come together to sing, read a few verses, and then have a voice in what they see as application for their lives. It’s much closed to “You” than it is to some “Standard”. The groups are much more informal. There are no board meetings to sweat through in order for something to get approved or to openly solicit some “pooled funds”.

When one graduates to church, then the part of “you” has to shift into some structure that’s “not you”. You have to dress a certain way to be taken seriously. You have no choice of music you may prefer. You have virtually no voice during the “hour of worship”. Your opinions during the Sabbath school are constantly corrected and shut down by guys who think it’s their God-given job to do so. Your expert advice is ignored. Your efforts go unnoticed. And after a while you simply stop trying, and then you stop caring at all.

The structure itself isn’t conducive to “organic expression of Church” which begins with “individual expression of Christ”. Hence, most of the time you get a limited perspective on the subject matter that comes from the “people in charge”, who think they are in charge because “they hold the truth”, and as such they enforce that “truth” on the rest of the congregation that will not grow beyond the box in which it resides.

Hence, I see friend after friend after friend simply exiting the church because they are tired and would rather focus on something they can actually be a part of.

And I think that’s the biggest reason younger generation is leaving (and by younger I actually include some under 35) … because they don’t feel a part of the team. And they are not a part of it. They are allowed to be “towel boys” and “water boys”, but they are nowhere in position to “play ball”.


This could have been written back in 1965, the year I graduated from an SDA college…

It is a fallacy to think that only those under 30 are feeling this discomfort in the presence of the traditional church membership. At my college reunions it becomes clear that the majority of students I used to rub shoulders with are either, “one foot out the church door” or they have just given up, and settled for the familiar. In all, I see the membership looking tired - uninterested. It also depends what part of the country you happen to visit.

It seems to me that the younger members are more interested in the politics of church governance; and the social outreach, as in aid and comfort. Not too many are concerned about doctrines, and how they have become mostly irrelevant. I’m sure, on campuses there is still some who struggle with the 28.

Much of the country is abandoning “religion” but consider themselves “spiritual”, probably because of all the church corruption in various denominations, including our own; and have decided “enough of this”. Organizations tend to end up defending themselves more than what they espouse. That’s just the way it is.

… back to graduation 1965 - scared to have to return to musty little church where nothing could be “not too anything.”…

We forget -There’s nothing new under the sun.


Young people (and older people) leave the church long before they stop attending. All groups leave for the same reason - they run out of reasons to stay. Everybody has their own manifestation of that, but it is all underpinned by the same lack - a lack of relationship. If you cannot find any meaningful relationships at church, you won’t stay. The problem is not confined by age but it is more noticeable among young people as there is more focus on them - they are the church of the future.


This was a well-written essay and I enjoyed reading it. To be honest, however, I’ve been reading such things since I was a student at an Adventist college in the late 1980s, early 1990s. This means that the problems with members leaving have been around a long time and still are not fixed. The author wrote:

“One of the issues commonly found at the forefront of this community as of recently is as follows: why are young people leaving the church? With the countless articles written by older members of the church, published to journals with an older audience, this question is still unanswered. The reasoning behind this could be that, though we are taking a step in the right direction by thinking to ask this question, we are asking the wrong question, to the wrong demographic.”

There is one other option that the author doesn’t address, although hints toward in her closing comments, and that is that the doctrines developed by a group of largely uneducated people in the 1840s are no longer relevant today. The sad truth is, it’s not just young people leaving the church. It’s older people as well.

Why? I would like to suggest an answer that I have never heard openly suggested: people are studying their way out. This isn’t just a matter of “back-sliding” and becoming “worldly.” People are actively studying their way out. They are thinking for themselves; reading their Bibles for themselves, and what they are discovering is that some of what the Adventist pioneers declared to be truth actually contradicts Scripture.

For example, the author says that she has tattoos and wears jewelry. That’s fine. I’m not judging her for that because, personally, I don’t have a problem with it. However, it IS inconsistent to claim to be an SDA (who believes in Ellen White’s ministry as a true prophet of God) and wear jewelry. It’s inconsistent to be an SDA (who believes in Ellen White) and eat meat. It’s inconsistent to be an SDA (who believes in Ellen White) and read fictitious novels, or watch movies.

So what are people doing? They are studying for themselves and they discover that Scripture does not outlaw wearing jewelry, or drinking alcohol, or eating meat. Ellen White does. And so they study their way out.

The problem of why people are leaving the church is much deeper than a surface reasoning like “They’re not having their ‘felt needs’ met.” It has to do with doctrines that are based on Ellen White, but not necessarily Scripture. That is the problem no one is openly willing to address.


I respectfully disagree. I left the SDA church in my 20’s despite the fact that all of my closest relationships were within the SDA church due to a study of church history and theology that led me to conclude that the SDA church is not what it claims to be.


That was my experience, and the experience of several former SDA’s I know who have converted to Orthodoxy.


Some of the statements that stood out to me:

"That being said, I can easily understand why it is difficult for many young people to maintain or build relationships within the Adventist congregation, because in many ways, there is a level of exclusivity and stagnation surrounding the church."

Yes, and those who tend to be more “individualistic” in nearly any way tend to have problems with the “exclusivity” and “stagnation” (lack of creativity in general). This occurs frequently among the youth and to some extent to the “creative” or less conservative.

"We, as a congregation, have created a community built on making sure nothing is ever “too” anything."

Absolutely. In the quest for “fitting in”, by necessity, things need to be “homogenized/standardized”. Individualizing is not welcomed or encouraged by the church in general. Fortunately there are a few SDA churches or communities that can embrace or tolerate “differences”.

"When considering the conservativeness of the church, these things combined occasionally make it hard for me to feel completely welcomed, even having been a member from the start of my life."

Yes…very few congregations can tolerate “different”. Definitely not the overall SDA church.

"Rather than asking why young people are leaving, it is our responsibility to ask what we as a congregation can do to get them to stay."

I have heard this statement for decades and I don’t believe that the SDA church is ready to change anything. In fact, the current administration appears to be dedicated to returning the church back to the 50’s and 60’s where there will even more lack of acceptance of individuation and creativity. Right question…not sure there will be a good reply.


You made some good points…but I know that according to the last study on why SDAs left the church (that I am aware of)- they were social in nature. Some do “study” their way out but it isn’t the most prevalent reason.


I have an answer for this no one will like :slight_smile:

I think the reasons kids are leaving now are more or less the same as the reasons they left in my generation, only things are amplified. I’m about 50 now, and went through the system from birth attending church and SDA schools from third grade all the way through college. If that matters.

I can make a list of reasons my friends have left. I don’t know statistically how common these things are, or collectively how much these things amount to. But I know that my college age daughters have left for some of these same reasons. As has been pointed out by others here, many people have left long before they’ve actually left. My oldest daughter was baptized into the church and is still on the books. But she shows no interest anymore. My youngest managed to become alienated even before the typical baptismal age and has never joined.

Here’s a short list of reasons. I don’t want to fight over these points. They’re the view of many who leave - factually real or not.

  • There is very little that is meaningful found at church for teens and young adults.
  • They are alienated by what they’re taught in church and sabbath school.
  • Damage to them caused by church employees.
  • Damage to them caused by official church teachings.
  • Absurd claims of the church - such as that all of our teachings are based on the bible.
  • Absurd literal interpretations of the bible - whenever convenient. But not when the literal bible very literally flies in the face of church teachings. Then try to explain it away.
  • The constant “don’t” mantra - usually about things that are extra-biblical but that are taught as if they are doctrine.

Here are concrete examples experienced by people I personally know:

  • At least five boys in my class who were molested by teachers at boarding academy.This had been going on for years and continued for years before the church was sued by victims. Of course the church sought only to protect the teachers and the institution from the ‘threat’ of suit. As if a child pointing out that rape is wrong is attacking the church.
  • Kids are taught fairy-tale versions of the bible stories. This may be fine when you’re 6, but not when you’re in college and you’re 20 years old. Then it’s just dishonest, but is supported by the church.
  • Hard questions from youth are discouraged and even punished. Probably because the true answers point out holes in the house of cards.
  • The ridiculous teachings of a young earth .
  • The ridiculous teachings of a literal global flood.
  • Denial of science while at the same time using the same science in our medical hospitals and schools.
  • Having to endure church leaders who are uneducated in scientific disciplines spout off about and ridicule them because they don’t fit with these leaders’ theological viewpoints.
  • Institutionalized injustice: Unequal pay for women, forcing church employees to pay tithe or firing them, refusal to ordain women, protecting predators, castigating multi-racial married couples, segregated colleges, and vilifying LGBT people all come to mind. I’m sure there’s more.
  • Always yielding to the most conservative position, no matter how utterly nuts and uneducated it is, on any topic: Biblical interpretation, dress, social situations, acceptable sabbath activities, music, diet, addiction (addicts are sinners, right?), mental illness (caused by demons, right?), and so on.
  • Simplistic understanding of biblical texts - which are tortured into saying whatever the church wants to teach instead of being looked at honestly.
  • The 28 “Fundamental” beliefs. Which keep changing. I don’t know one person who has read them that buys all of them.

Many people have personalities that allow them to put such things aside. Many do not.


This is the one and only conclusion that will be reached if one decides to do “a study of church history and theology.” The longer a person belonged to Adventism before doing an in depth study as you did, the more disappointing and scandalous the experience will be. Ones will say,“I was deceived for 20 years,” others will say, “I was deceived for 40 years,” and so on.

After being raised an Adventist, and even graduating in college with a major in theology, about eight years later (age 30, in 1980) I went to that “studying” experience. It was shocking, frustrating, disappointing, and very disturbing.

I since assumed the position that, “I am a Christian, and because of my roots and social network, I attend an SDA Church where I go to worship God and to interact with other people of similar faith.” So far so good because I live in an area where I can do this without violating my conscience.


This is why I don’t claim to be an Adventist but rather a Christian. Yes, I am a member in good standing, but everyone knows that I belong to my LOCAL Church and not to the Denomination that is run by a dysfunctional GC. I can be a member of my church for as long as it allows me to practice my Christian religion there - based not on EGW but on the “Sola Scriptura” principle.


That was my position for about 3-4 years. I found it unfulfilling.


Every person has a different path. If I didn’t live here (La Sierra, Loma Linda, etc) I don’t know if I could find a SDA church that I could really be part of. But I have absolutely no problem here.


I don’t know who they (the ones doing the study) are asking. I know lots of people who have studied their way out. There are tons of them on the internet. Who gets asked, and how do they decide who gets asked? I’ve not known of, nor have I heard of, anyone who has been asked.

At the end of the day, I question the validity of the study. The SDA church has been saying forever that “nobody leaves because of doctrine”. So, I’m not sure they really want to find out differently.


I’m sure this is true for some, but the people that I know who have left (including our family and some friends) is because of doctrine. We had absolutely no problem with relationships in the church.


I believe it came from ValueGenesis…but I could be wrong. I do believe that there are those who “studied” their way out, but I haven’t actually met any except on this site.

Most that I know are those who have had hurtful experiences and then left. My opinion is that people may join for theology but leave for more social reasons.

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Sadly, the Church does not believe that anyone leaves Adventism for doctrinal reasons; perhaps this is why it has not been addressed. Adventism makes a premium of being “right” and “correct” and “The Truth.” It veers toward Triumphalism.

What would happen if Adventism came down on the side of the “New Commandment”: unheard of love for humanity, acceptance, inclusion?


Here is what was reported upon:


Though Monte Sahlin is saying “personal problems”…I know for a fact that most of the people that I know that have left is because of the culture of the church and the poor way that they were treated in the church. However, I don’t think that the list that Tim has is invalid…I have heard a few of them myself.


Bingo! In practice what is perceived is to adapt the interpretation of the Scriptures to what she wrote …