“Church just isn’t doing it for me.”

“I’m not sure anymore that there is a God.”

“There is too much hypocrisy and legalism in the church.”

As a millennial in the church, I have heard disgruntled statements like this from nominal and ex-Adventist youth and even some adults. Many of them grew up in church with me. Those who attended Adventist schools seem no stronger in their faith. Friends who had been active in ministry suddenly lack confidence in their religion. I became genuinely concerned with this problem while I was in college. Why do a vast majority of young people have an unsustainable faith? For that matter, why did older people leave? And new converts?

I studied these questions for my senior capstone project and discovered that the trends I see among my friends are widespread. According to an international survey on Adventist millennials, 37% stopped attending church between the ages of 18-29. I wondered, how could a church so saturated with Biblical knowledge not be preparing its youth for the world?

As always, Jesus gives us the answers. In the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13) Jesus reveals the great dilemma that we live in. He tells of ten virgins waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom. The five wise virgins have lamps and oil, while the five foolish lack oil for their lamps.  At midnight, a cry is heard, “Behold, the bridegroom is coming, go out to meet him!” The virgins with the oil meet the bridegroom with joy; the ones with none are left out in the cold. 

Their light was not sustained by the oil. They are unprepared for the most important event of history.

Many today are unprepared. Secularism and rationalism in higher education bombard young Christians, making it hard to maintain faith. Those who leave complain that the church is: 1) intolerant, 2) elitist, 3) anti-science, 4) overprotective, 5) shallow, and 6) repressive.

We have taught the ABC’s of our doctrine, drilled the truths of prophecy, and thrown out-of-context Ellen White quotes at young people. Yet these important building blocks of our faith have not developed our youth’s spiritual stamina. What is lacking? Why do they walk away? 

The interpretation of the parable reveals the answer. “The two classes of watchers [the wise and the foolish virgins] represent the two classes who profess to be waiting for their Lord” (Ellen White, Christ Object Lessons, p. 406). Two sets of believers are seen in this parable: 1) those who are spiritually prepared to face the world and meet their Savior, and 2) those who are unprepared. The lamps represent the word of God (Psalm 119:105), showing that all have some regard for the Word of God. All are virgins signifying that they profess pure faith (2 Corinthians 11:2). Yet the five foolish virgins’ great deficiency is that they are unprepared for the coming of Christ, the heavenly bridegroom. They lack something extremely important.

They lack the oil of the Holy Spirit (Zechariah 4:6). Without it, they will find themselves missing “The greatest of all gifts” (MB 132).  It is the work of the Spirit of God that, “softens the heart . . . enlightens the mind . . . [and enables] it to discern its own wants…” (Ellen White, 19 Manuscript Release, p. 228). 

This lack is seen in the devotional life of our most vulnerable generation. Research done on the devotional life of young adults showed that in a best-case scenario 53% pray several times a day, 25% read their Bible several times a week and 37% read Spirit of Prophecy once a week. Most young adults have skimpy or non-existent personal devotions. Even if they pray, they are not spending much time personally reading the Bible. 

Our young adults’ spiritual life is weak because they have not developed a personal, balanced, and sustainable devotional life. “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26)

The wise virgins are prepared to meet the bridegroom because they have oil in their lamps. Their light is sustained by the indwelling Holy Spirit. The foolish virgins also have the light of God’s Word, but without the Holy Spirit they exclaim in verse 8, “our lamps are going out”. A Biblical understanding alone will not provide us with the means to reach our Savior. We each must receive the Holy Spirit. 

We are all like these virgins. We have created a church culture that overemphasizes Biblical understanding and underemphasizes spiritual development through the indwelling Holy Spirit. The foolish virgins’ lamps provided a weak flame, one that would not guide them very long without causing them to stumble and fall. An ample supply of oil sustained the wise virgins’ lamps, giving a bright light and preparing them to meet their Savior. They were more prepared to travel in darkness than those that had an unsustainable light.

“The class represented by the foolish virgins are not hypocrites. They have a regard for the truth, they have advocated the truth, they are attracted to those who believe the truth; but they have not yielded themselves to the Holy Spirit’s working . . . It is in crisis that character is revealed… It will show whether the soul is sustained by grace” (ibid., p. 411).

As a church, we cannot continue to create, or be, ill-prepared disciples of Christ. Our knowledge of doctrine will not save us. Only the renewing power of Christ through the Holy Spirit will strength us to walk the path towards Him. I know this from experience. My spiritual lifespan would have been cut short if I had not personally begun to seek the power of the Holy Spirit. Having biblical knowledge prepared me to fall in love with Jesus, but seeking His Spirit has kept me in love with Him.

While we study the Word and go about our daily lives, we must continue to ask for the blessing of the Holy Spirit. For without this gift that Christ has made readily available, we will fail to have productive devotions and fruitful Bible study. We must each receive the gift of the Spirit. Jesus made this process very simple, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). Have you asked for the Spirit today?