Saturday, October 6, 2007

What Happened to the Class of '59: A Religious Survey

A Survey of the 1959 Monterey Bay Academy Graduating Class
By Lawrence Downing

The 109 graduates of Monterey Bay Academy class of 1959 were probably not much different from any other class who graduated from academies across America that year. We prided ourselves on the fact that we were the largest class to graduate from MBA. We assured one another that we were the “best”, the “most loyal”, and pledged to always remain close.

What we did not know is that those of us who continued in our educational pursuits were some of the first academy graduates to receive instruction from newly minted PhDs. Nor did we know that the Adventist Church was on the cusp of change that would transform the church.

Ours is the generation that saw the Adventist church become a global religion. When we started our education beyond high school, our church was a North American denomination. By the time we completed graduate school, the majority of our fellow believers lived outside North America.

Our generation also witnessed a loss of innocence. We experienced the fallout that followed from the publication of Questions on Doctrine, when the church moved from a legalistic based approach to salvation to an affirmation of righteousness by faith. We saw the rise of independent ministries, and we experienced the profound influence of Des Ford and Walter Rae. Classmates and others of our generation struggled to apply our new understanding of what scripture appeared to teach. We experienced a drastic change of demographics as the Adventist church in the United States transformed itself into a multi-cultural denomination as immigrants from other countries joined our congregations.

Our generation began to ask questions. We were not satisfied with denominational organization and polity. We were not content to support the Church with our money without knowing how it was spent. Tithe paying for many was no longer considered a moral issue. Adventist education was an option, but not the only one. Many Adventist sent their children to public schools or other parochial schools.

How all of these factors influenced my classmates is unknown. What is known is that a strong majority of my classmates have positive memories of the time they spent at MBA. However, almost half of those who completed my survey no longer consider themselves to be Seventh-day Adventists. I wanted to take a look at what factors may have influenced this decision. The following is a brief summary of what I found.

Number of Graduates 109
Classmates Contacted 75
Responses 63
Are Adventists 33
Are Not Adventists 30

Thirty-three of us continue to have a strong and meaningful relationship with the Adventist Church. We found it difficult to understand how anyone could leave the Church. Several of us strongly affirmed the importance of Ellen White's role in the Adventist Church history and expressed appreciation for her prophetic guidance.

Several classmates left the Adventist church for a time but have come back. These and others who have remained Adventists, stated that they are still disappointed that the Adventist church expresses its central beliefs “legalistically” rather than in terms that reflect the spirit-filled joy that comes from the assurance of salvation. Many who attend an Adventist church regularly, expressed the feeling their church is not a "good fit" for them, theologically or socially. They are Adventists and have never left the church, but they are not satisfied with how the church operates or what they hear on Sabbath morning. In their view there is too much emphasis on the Twenty-eight Fundamental Beliefs and not enough on what it means to be a vibrant Christian.

Classmates who do not consider themselves Seventh-day Adventists gave a variety of explanations for their break with the Church. Several mentioned that people in the Church were not there to support them when they went through a personal crisis. One person said that when they could no longer continue as a church officer, they never heard from anyone in the Church again. Others stated that in divorce situations the church members and leaders were judgmental and did not express care or concern.

Others stated that they now believed that what we were taught about the Bible and Ellen White was not correct, and that as students they did not receive information that helped them understand and apply the gospel to their lives. Legalism rather than God's grace and salvation through faith in Christ had been preached from the pulpit and in Bible classes. They reported that there was more emphasis on Adventist life-style than a personal commitment to Jesus as Savior.

These classmates have come to question the spiritual and communal benefits the Adventist church offers. The internal strife and criticism have interfered with their spiritual development. At times the demands on Church members exceeded reasonable expectations. The nuts and bolts activity necessary to keep a church going was overwhelming.

Some have had unpleasant experiences with Church politics at the local conference and union level. They report that they found people very impersonal, aloof, and sometimes greedy in dealing with members. Said one person, "The childhood perceptions of the church--nurturing, caring, accepting--have faded into an adult reality that I'm O.K. with the church if I 'dance to its music' or 'walk the walk.' If not, 'Come and see us when you can.’" One classmate said, "It (the church) is not unlike any other organization--meet the expectations or take a walk."

Some have found more caring, nurturing, and acceptance in secular organizations. They believe that the Church does not have anything better to offer than its secular counterparts, and they claim that the Church’s ability to meet their spiritual needs is weak or absent. They believe that other religious organizations are not really different from the Adventist Church, so changing "brands" is not a solution. They meet their spiritual needs through reading, meditation and prayer. This frees them from having to deal with the extra distractions of organized religion. One of my classmates decided early on that God didn’t exist. Academy did not change that belief nor has time and experience caused that person to modify this belief.

After reading the responses that came from my classmates who no longer attend the Adventist church, I have concluded that one of the major areas where the Church can improve is in its response to people in crisis situations. In other words Adventist church members should be sympathetic listeners rather than suppliers of inappropriate and unasked for advice. The judgmental attitudes of pastors and church members resulted in hurt feelings and withdrawal from the Church. Several classmates stated that when they stopped going to church no one called or made contact with them to see how they were doing.

Generally speaking, my classmates believe that it is important for the Adventist
Church and its leaders to understand and proclaim the gospel. However, they report that the Church has not made a clear presentation of salvation by faith through Jesus Christ alone. There was unanimous agreement that it is important that people learn to depend upon God and not a church.

Some revealed that their children or grandchildren do not find the church relevant and do not attend. They also believe that it is important to define the role of Ellen White within the Adventist Church. There are questions about Ellen’s role, credibility and authority.

The above is not an exhaustive study, nor should it be interpreted as a final statement that expresses what we as a class think. What did come through loud and clear is that many of our classmates are firmly committed to the Christian faith and many are firmly positioned in the Adventist church. Not every one attends the Adventist church and some may not count themselves traditional Christians, but they do have a firm hold on a spiritual dimension that serves as their guide on which they depend.

It should also be noted that the strongest negative statements came from non-Adventist classmates. This disparity in the responses is largely due to the questions I asked. I requested those who are no longer Adventists or who do not attend church to state their reasons. I did not ask those who are committed to the Adventist church to share why they continued in the church, nor did I ask them to share their spiritual journey.

We as a class evidence a wide diversity of thought. Some of us have gone through highly charged personal experiences. I learned that some of our classmates while students at MBA were experiencing stressful situations that most of us knew nothing about. In the years since graduation, some of us have experienced failure. Children and spouses have died. Marriages have broken up. Health problems have taken a heavy toll on some. Fortunately, for most of us, life has been less dramatic.

From that day in June, 1959, when the Class of '59 bade farewell to one another outside the auditorium, our paths have taken us in directions none of us could have imagined. This limited survey does not support the idea that a young person that receives an Adventist education will stay in the church. My guess is that our class is not unique in this regard.

Our generation witnessed the transition from a North American based Adventist church to a globally positioned church. When we were at MBA, North America was the center for Adventism. This is no longer the case. We also witnessed a theological shift. Adventist Church administrators made a decisive decision that they, rather than theologians, would be the keepers of the Adventist churches' theology. The implications of this decision were not apparent to my classmates and me, but this decision has had profound impact on the Adventist Church. Today Church administrators use their authority to define and defend traditional Adventist doctrines and practices, despite what theologians and more dissenting church members may say. This administration “power grab” turned the church from where it had been--an open, seeking church--to a church that demonstrates its need for security by promoting itself as “fundamental” in formal structure and “traditional” in Christian belief.

Finally, it is clear that our generation has come to have an understanding of righteousness by faith that had been missing or quiescent in doctrine and teaching. Today’s Christian emphasis on the gospel has changed our view of salvation and our understanding of Jesus. We found a new appreciation of what it means to experience God's grace.

No comments: