The youth leader overseeing more than half a million students for one of the world's largest Christian denominations thinks older generations should question themselves over the movement of millennials away from organized religion. Young people, he believes, are often more turned off by how Christians present Jesus than they are turned off by Jesus himself.
The nonpartisan Pew Research Center reports that millennials (those 18-34) are the generation least likely to identify with a particular religion, while San Diego State University researchers have suggested that the decline in religiosity could be attributed to a self-centered, or individualistic mentality.
"Honestly, I think what we need to do is ask ourselves how did the millennial generation become the generation that they are," Heath Adamson told The Christian Post in a recent phone interview. "Let's look at parents, let's look at pop culture, let's look at media and let's ask ourselves. Who's responsible for feeding the millennial generation what they're living off of? Well, we are."
"Oftentimes," he added, "our studies drive us to analyze 'what's wrong with the millennials? what can we do to fix them?' What I'm finding is that people respond very well to love. I don't think people say no to Jesus as much as they say no to the way Jesus is presented."
"It's our job to find out how did the millennial generation go where they are, and rather than looking at them, we need to look at ourselves first," he said.
Adamson is the national director for the 67 million-strong Assemblies of God's youth ministries, involved with the World Evangelical Alliance Youth Commission and chairs Empowered 21's Next Generation Network. He is also founder of evangelism-oriented The Human Right movement, author of The Bush Always Burns: Jesus in the Unannounced Moments of Life, and a speaker at the national Millennial Tour.
Adamson spoke with CP on the occasion of the Millennial Tour, where he joins main speaker Dr. Rice Broocks, a megachurch pastor, author of God's Not Dead: Evidence for God in an Age of Uncertainty (which inspired the movie) and who oversees the Every Nation organization. "God's Not Dead" executive producer Troy Duhon and Broocks created the Millennial Tour "out of a passion to see (high school and college) students better equipped to have sound, proactive conversations about their faith with unbelievers around them," according to the tour website.
The 37-year-old Pentecostal leader has been drawn to youth ministry since he himself experienced what he describes as a life-changing encounter with "the love of Jesus" after a series of sleepless nights fueled by a drug binge at the age of 17.
Adamson said he, like many others, had been seeking spiritual answers, but was looking in the wrong places and knocking on the wrong doors. Yet, Adamson did discover that "the unseen realm was very real," he told CP, "primarily because of my encounters with the spirit world."
"I was engaged in the occult, in witchcraft and some other things. Without going into a lot of detail, but we would look at candles and make them float off tables and move chairs across the floor with our eyes, things like that," he said. "And I just knew that there was power available, knew that there was a spiritual world available."
But, he went on, because he engaged so frequently with "the demonic realm," he eventually found himself himself abusing drugs and involved in gang violence "and other things."
"Obviously, a lifestyle like that for years, there were many times that I had a lot of close calls," he said.
Following the "miraculous experience" of encountering the love of Jesus, Adamson eventually sealed the deal when he revisited a friend's church for a youth service — that was in 1995, not long after Super Bowl Sunday, he recalled. Clad in a Grateful Dead t-shirt, he responded to an altar call and said "a simple prayer."
The teen, who had been a decent student and athlete despite his crystal meth and LSD use, was "delivered of all of (his) addictions" and "supernaturally healed."
"That was the night I met Jesus," Adamson told CP.
But the miracles did not end there, he said.
The woman he is now married to and parenting two children with, Ali, was the one in eighth grade who responded to what she believed was a prompt from the Holy Spirit to pray for her school mate, who seemed untroubled on the exterior. She was also the one who mailed him a letter in high school, right when he needed it — in fact, the day after he "met Jesus," he said. In her letter, Ali provided answers to all the questions he had asked her about God years prior after she had prayed for him.
It has been 20 years since his "love encounter with Jesus" and Adamson is grateful that his story became God's story.
That is the message he shares when he talks to young people about God: "The next chapter in God's story is yet to be written."
"I believe that the only way to re-write a story is through the grace of Jesus Christ," he told CP. "People don't necessarily need a finger pointed in their face telling them everything they're doing wrong. When I was abusing drugs, when I was engaged in the occult, I knew something wasn't right. What I needed to know is, is there a better way? What is the truth?"
Those are the same questions this generation of millennials are asking, he said, adding that those whom he encounters "are wrestling" with issues like truth, justice and identity.
Of course, he believes "Jesus is the answer" to those questions and issues, but Adamson warned against the "grave danger" of substituting the "truth of Jesus" with behavior modification.
"When it comes to millennials, our job is not to modify their behavior and get them to conform to our standards. Our job is to share the Gospel, to preach the Gospel, to demonstrate the Gospel and let the Gospel do its greatest work. And we must be people of love," he said. "When love is present, love knows how to handle fear, doubt, the tough questions about identity."
Instead of "slamming the Church" or harping on "how horrible modern Christianity is," Adamson said he was focused on finding solutions.
"The first solution is let's be real, let's be authentic, let's create an environment where millennials can ask questions," he said.
"We need to create an environment where people aren't demonized for asking questions. We need to create an environment where people are not labeled as weak in their faith when they have doubts. I thank God for millennials who have courage to verbalize their doubts, rather than putting on a plastic mask and pretending everything is OK," Adamson added.
As a parting question, CP asked Adamson what he would say to a young person who had questions about 65-year-old former athlete and TV star Bruce Jenner's highly publicized transition to "Caitlyn" and desire to be identified as a female.
Instead of commenting directly on Jenner's specific situation, Adamson insisted that everyone has "identity" issues, including pastors who weigh their calling on how well their sermons are received and the successful young athlete who suddenly finds himself injured and his plans for a future in sports jeopardized.
"Who we are is discovered in Christ and apart from a relationship with Jesus, we will never fully know ourselves. We will never fully know our identity. We are created in His image, and when we don't know who He is, we will never fully know who we are," Adamson said, adding a few Bible verses.
"When it comes to millennials and the issue of identity, I would say if we want to see another spiritual awakening take place, what if we knew ourselves and what if we knew one another? What if we dared to love one another for who we are? And rather than trying to get people to conform to who we think they should be, what if we were willing to sit in the dirt with people wherever they are and love them, and go on a journey, a journey that ultimately ends up in looking Jesus in the face? And we finally discover who he is, and ultimately discover who we are — children of God," he added.