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Why will some Adventist teens remain in church as adults?

European study encourages independent thinking, intergenerational versus peer-to-peer contact; data could shape future ministry

Why will some Adventist teens remain in church as adults?

Manuela Casti is the chief researcher for Valuegenesis Europe. Results will be published in a book scheduled for release this autumn. [photos courtesy Euro-Africa Division]

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A study of active Seventh-day Adventist youth in Europe offers a snapshot of what factors could be associated with young Adventists who foresee themselves in the church in 20 years.

Key preliminary indicators include a congregation that offers a "thinking climate." The study suggests that youth who felt they could develop an original position in their faith by asking questions and challenging church leaders said they are more likely to remain in church compared to youth in congregations that just emphasize conformity.

Other preliminary results from the research involving 6,000 respondents suggest that personal sharing and interaction with a father on issues of faith greatly increases the possibility of young people foreseeing themselves as Adventists in adulthood.

The Valuegenesis Europe study is the first of its kind for the Adventist Church on the continent. Researchers hope the new data can serve as a tool for church leaders shaping management of Adventist ministry in Europe.

Researchers used a 335-question survey in 17 languages to study Adventists between the ages of 14 to 25. About 42 percent of respondents said they were unsure about their future in the church, while another 6 percent said were against the idea of being in church in 20 years.

Results from the 2006-2007 study are now being analyzed by a team of Adventist scholars from Newbold College in England, Friedensau Adventist University in Germany, and Saleve Adventist University in France.

Conclusions are due out in a book this autumn.

Manuela Casti, the study's chief researcher, said high exit rates among youth in Europe motivated her involvement in the study. "Where I was raised in Italy, probably 70 percent have left the church," said Casti, who also lectures at the church's Newbold College in Berkshire, England.

The new data could highlight a need for increased administrative support for the church's Family ministries, said Corrado Cozzi, Youth director for the church's Euro-Africa region, who also serves on the study's research committee. He said a young person's decision to become an Adventist was found to be more influenced in the long run by family, a church pastor and other adults at church than by a youth pastor or peers.

And while researchers said that mothers are usually the "bedrock" of faith in the home, it's fathers who might actually determine a positive decision for church. Survey respondents who discussed faith issues with their father were 70 percent more likely to foresee themselves remaining in the church than those who said their father didn't discuss religion with them.

Research committee member Paul Tompkins, who serves as Youth director for the church's Trans-European region, said data "showed very clearly that as men, some of us are not so good at talking about our faith to our kids. We can talk about cars or sport, but even if we discuss religion, it's often with other men."

The European study builds on studies of Adventist youth in the United States. Two studies, in 1990 and in 2000, also named Valuegenesis, lead to an increased support for youth ministry, said Bailey Gillespie, chief researcher of the U.S. studies. A third Valuegenesis study in the U.S. is scheduled to launch in October.

"Churches are going to need to step it up a bit and recognize the importance of this ministry for church growth," said Gillespie, director of the John Hancock Center for Youth and Family Ministry at the church's La Sierra University in Riverside, California, United States.

In one longitudinal study over 10 years, nearly 50 percent of Adventist youth surveyed had left the church or were inactive members by their mid-20s.

"It became increasingly evident that the congregational climate was a big factor, not what leaders do at the [Adventist Church world headquarters]" said Roger Dudley, author of the book Why Our Teenagers Leave the Church, based on the 10-year study.

"Many people said they loved their church," Dudley said. "Their congregation accepted them, gave them important jobs, they made it feel like a wonderful, safe place. On the other hand many people didn't like [their particular congregation] because they didn't feel part of it. It was easy for them to drop out and stop going."

European researchers said they hope the new study will offer insight on a specifically European viewpoint of a young person's faith. Respondents were older than those in the U.S. and were surveyed at churches, unlike in the U.S., where surveys were mainly conducted at schools. There are far fewer Adventist schools in Europe than in the United States.

Casti, the chief researcher for Valuegenesis Europe, said new data pointed to a need for intergenerational contact both at home and at church. Interactions with peers in person or through social media aren't enough to keep young people in the church, she said.

"When we give responsibility to a young person, it's usually in the youth department, or music," she said. "But an involvement in other areas would allow for more contact with older generations."

Not that youth ministry involvement is a bad thing, Casti said. It can help young people mature and contribute to generational diversity; however, when youth lead other youth, a pattern of generational segregation might emerge. The trend is seen in the Adventist Church and in other denominations, she said.

Many times a young person graduates from youth ministry and ends up also graduating from church, Casti said.

In addition to the importance of family and other adults, researchers found relevance in church programming itself. Respondents who heard preaching that was "helpful to their daily lives" at church were 450 times more likely to want to remain active in their faith than those who didn't identify with weekly sermons.

Whether a young person has supportive parents or church congregation, the key is to provide an environment of "frank, open and transparent exchanges," Casti said. She said she is grateful to adults who allowed her to grow up in such an environment.

"That's why I'm still here."

--Helen Pearson contributed to this story