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The Silent Exodus and Signs of Hope
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The Silent Exodus and Signs of Hope
By John Grys

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Having spent all my years as a child growing up in Chicago and my adult years pastoring in urban contexts, I’ll never forget the time when a local language-specific congregation found itself with a new pastor who demanded that their youth Sabbath school no longer be conducted in English but in their native language. Many of those youth shifted over to our English-speaking church.

This incident highlights a recognizable tension within the framework of both local congregations and various levels of church governance. Described by others as “The Silent Exodus,” these are children raised in immigrant churches who have left the immigrant church of their childhood and ceased attending church altogether.

This article serves as a brief introduction to the question of this sacred relationship between 1st Gen and 2nd Gen Seventh-day Adventists. While both anecdotal and statistical evidence may suggest the validity of this silent exodus of 2nd Gen’s from immigrant churches (and increasingly from any congregation), there are signs of hope.

According to Roger Hernandez, Director of Ministerial and Evangelism in the Southern Union, there has been a division-wide shift in the last decade as it relates to this question. If immigration is the lifeblood of 1st Gen congregations, than perhaps, as Hernandez suggests, the slowing of immigration has contributed to this shift. The realities of a post-911 world have created a tension within immigrant churches. Before 911, it was possible for an immigrant church to baptize four or five people from the neighborhood. This growth of people in the pew would replace (and shield) the reality that the same number of 2nd Gens were no longer sitting in those same seats. Effectively, pre-911 immigration would deflect the reality of the situation.

However, since 911 and the shifting immigration laws, as well as shifting political realities in the world, where these converted immigrants would occupy the pew, their numbers have been diminishing. Thus, with the reduction of immigrant conversions and the silent exodus of 2nd Gens, the patterns of absence are becoming increasingly observable. Monte Sahlin, Director of Research & Development for the Ohio Conference, in a 2007 study of immigrant churches from the New York-Baltimore corridor, documents that approximately 80-90% of 2nd Gens no longer attend church. Possibly as well, pastors of 1st Gen churches have experienced the tension with their own children no longer attending any Seventh-day Adventist church. So, what is that generates this tension between 1st and 2nd Gens living out of their faith in the context of North America?

Perhaps this question can be best addressed from the wider angle of the experience of immigrants and their children living in North America. There is this sense of “exiles in their own country,” as Hernandez shares. The significance of this cannot be underscored when considering the question of faith. In his work, Following Jesus Without Dishonoring Parents, Paul Tokunaga (a 2nd Gen Japanese Christian) describes this feeling in very stark terms: “Schizophrenia and tension result when one goes to school and learns how to talk trash, but upon returning home, all one gets to do is silently take it out.” Closer to home, Pastor Carlos Acosta, himself a 2nd Gen Seventh-day Adventist pastor in Southern California describes the reality of his home life where both parents worked feverishly to provide for the basic needs of life. Often, this led to a life without parents at home. While he was not allowed to speak English at home, he was often asked to be, as a child, the translator for his parents when it came to the necessity of interacting with required social agencies.

This points out a significant factor in their socialization process. Vic Arreola III, North American Division Director of Asian/Pacific Ministries, observes the following. 1st Gens (especially in Asian contexts) tend to seek providing a financial basis for establishing basic life necessities for their children. The goal of 1st Gens is to provide a financial foundation for their children to gain an American education. The goal of 2nd Gens, however, is not only to provide a financial basis for a life for their children but to provide a home where the cultural tension they experienced as 2nd Gens will not be the experience of their 3rd Gen children. Finally, for those 3rd Gen children, their goal becomes to go further financially and culturally then either their grandparents or parents have gone. Often, by this 3rd Generation, the language of the grandparents now is lost.

Perhaps what is important to understand are the dynamics for these 2nd Gens within the various domains of their lives as they are caught between two worlds. The tension they experience through the acculturating processes of North American education can produce varying degrees of tension. As one 2nd Gen interviewed expressed: the 1st Gens handle this tension by remaining locked into their existing subculture while 2nd Gens cannot simply hide away as a means of coping with this tension. While all these dynamics occur during the week, the time of Sabbath hours and local congregational realities may not decrease this tension but in actuality heighten it.

Perhaps for 1st Gens, what occurs Sabbath morning in the congregation becomes a way of reinforcing first their cultural identity. This occurs through reproducing as much as possible the services they experienced while living in their country of origin. Close to this remains the practice of conducting those services in their first language. Also, as a way of continuing this cultural identity, they seek to articulate their belief in a similar manner that reminds them of their experience back in their homeland. All of this serves as a way of keeping their cultural identity intact in the midst of a strange and sometimes threatening new world. Positively, these components serve the immigrant church well in bringing more people into their congregation who have migrated from that part of the world. This, however, also serves to create the dilemma: what attracts immigrants to join 1st Gen congregations can often become the very components that drive 2nd Gens away. A corollary to this remains that most 1st Gen churches are not well-positioned to address the realities of 2nd Gen Adventists. Thus, the resulting silent exodus.

However, all is not lost. In talking with both feet-on-the ground ministry leaders and more strategic leaders throughout the Division, there is much more purposeful attention to this dynamic. Several years ago, Elder Ernie Castillo, Vice-President of the North American Division in charge of Multi-Ethnic Ministries, upon arriving in his position in the Division, along with Jose Rojas, included as one of their five initiatives, a directive toward this North American reality. As Elder Castillo observes, “We’ve always targeted immigrant communities but we have not targeted those who’ve grown up here.” Also, he recognized the shifting dynamics in the wider population, especially in the Latino community. He cited a Pew Research study from 2003 that discovered the following shift: “Births in the United States are outpacing immigration as the key source of growth. Over the next twenty years this will produce an important shift in the makeup of the Hispanic population with second-generation Latinos—the U.S.-born children of immigrants—emerging as the largest component of that population.” In other words, the Latino community in the United States will be comprised more by 2nd Gen Latinos than immigrant Latinos. An emphasis on 2nd Gen Latino ministry is not only good for retention but also for the future of evangelism in the United States.

The response of both local and strategic leaders to this dilemma can be seen as inspiring to say the least. The macro response from the Division-level as mentioned above has put this issue on the map throughout the territory. This optimism, as expressed by Hernandez, flows from the shift he has experienced over the past five years. Whereas in the past, any discussion within some communities related to the issue of 2nd Gens may have been “frowned upon,” now there is much more willingness not just for an engaged dialogue but for action. The creation of Changed, a devotional created for 2nd Gen Latinos, as well as the inclusion of a bi-lingual component to evangelistic programming on Esperanza TV, clearly demonstrate a desire to move the ball forward in reaching 2nd Gens. Just this past February in Chicago convened a gathering of 2nd Gen Latino church planters for one day. Vic Arreola III of the Pacific Institute of Christian Ministry, an equipping ministry for Lay Pastors, will convene in the near future a gathering of 2nd Gen elders from local congregations.

Increasingly, there are congregations rising up purposefully seeking out 2nd Gens for their congregations. It is interesting to note that in some of these 2nd Gen church plants, while their intended targets may have been 2nd Gens of a specific people group, over a short period of time, these congregations lose that central intention and begin to attract multi-racial couples. One congregation-engaged, 2nd Gen businessman interviewed posed, “Why would I seclude myself to one culture in church?” Over time, the congregational name may change as a result of this dynamic. Further, some of the leaders of these congregations no longer identify themselves as 2nd Gens. They see their congregations either becoming multicultural or multiracial.

Most of those who are strategic and involved in addressing this issue are finding most effective the planting of churches rather than seeking to convert already existing 1st Gen churches. Fewer 1st Gen congregational and pastoral leaders frown upon these attempts but welcome them. Yes, resistance can still be present in some communities but the amount of resistance has diminished over the past ten years. The presence of over half-dozen of these church plants sends a clarion message that leaders of faith will not sit idly by and watch the silent exodus occur. More and more the passion found to face this kind of challenge finds its way into the structure of the church, whether it be at the Division level through the initiative to address this challenge, the Union level where this has increasingly been discussed and resources provided, and as mentioned above, the Conference and local congregational level. Who would’ve imagined a decade ago strategic support, local pastoral support, local congregational support, and also educational support all being directed in such a miraculous way to address this great opportunity?