Where have all the young adults gone?

Heather Kohlman Olsen is a Doctoral student in the Industrial-Organizational Psychology program as well as a millennial herself. The questions she is investigating are what “barriers” and “on-ramps” to religious participation exist for 20-somethings in the PNW, and what ought we to do about them? 

The last time I was sitting in church, I looked around during the offering and it dawned on me that I was one of the few young adults in the church. I couldn’t help but wonder why. Evidence suggests that approximately one-third of Americans who are under the age of 30 identify as being religiously unaffiliated.[1] So, what are some reasons why young adults are not participating in faith communities? That is exactly what my colleagues and I are trying to shed some light on.

Through our research we are hoping to understand why 23 to 29-year-olds do or do not participate in Christian faith communities in the PNW. More specifically, we are wondering what barriers could get in the way of their participation in a Christian faith community and what aspects of a faith community might attract them to participate. To figure out what might attract or prevent young adults from attending your faith community, go talk to young adults in your church about why they are attending your church and what they think could be preventing others like them from attending. While listening to their responses, pay attention to your reactions to their answers and what information may or may not be surprising to you. Remember to consider their answers with humility and try to listen to them as Jesus would.

[1] American’s changing religious landscape. (2015). The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Retrieved from www.pewform.org/files/2015/05/RLS-08-26-full-report.pdf

Church Differentiators

Gabrielle Metzler is a Doctoral student in the Industrial-Organizational Psychology program but also a millennial herself. Because of this Gabrielle bears her own faith and that of her peers as she investigates the cultures of churches that have thriving Young Adult Populations.

Research suggests that several core values are important to young adults. These values include: purpose/meaning, relationships/belonging, personal transformation, spiritual growth, unique contribution, peace, fun, social transformation, autonomy, stability, and networking. Often times, young adults find that these values are met through many places and communities such as their school, CrossFit group, yoga class, pub trivia group, etc.

Rather than competing with these places for young adults’ time and attention, how can your church meet their values that are not being met already? Is your church a community where young adults can find value above and beyond their already busy lives?

Young adults only have so much discretionary time, and they want to be careful about how they use it. As a young adult, I admit to feeling my fair share of that pressure. Friendship, health, stability, and simply having fun are all among the things young adults value and allocate their time toward. Between work and all the demands on free time, there is often little left over for young adults to devote to church, which has become increasingly optional. Important values-based activities like finding community and exercising take up time that might be spent in church. However, young adults shouldn’t have to choose between living in accordance with their values and going to church, right? Instead of competing with the demands on young adults’ time, how does the church become an essential part of those values? How can the church fill gaps in young adults’ values left by other places or communities?

Pentecostal Birth


Pentecostal Birth as the Key to the Church’s Identity*

“the church is not a religious community of those who revere Christ, but Christ who has taken form among human beings. . . . The church is nothing but that piece of humanity where Christ has really taken form.” –Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest a reason for the dramatic disaffiliation of young adults with the Christian church. Here it is: young adults are smart! They are not easily fooled. They are on to the church. I believe that they have sensed two equally alarming approaches to the work (mission) of the church and want nothing to do with it (and frankly, I can’t blame them). The first approach is a colonialist approach, perhaps more likely to be found in the self-consciously “mainline” churches. The second is a separatist approach, more likely found in self-consciously “evangelical” churches.

Both approaches are premised on the idea that the church is itself a worldview, a culture, an alternative society, and therefore everything about the life of the church must be exclusive and set apart from “the world” in a carefully demarcated way. The difference in the two approaches is that the colonialist approach will sometimes choose to “assimilate” other cultures into its culture, but of course when this “adoption” happens the original culture has to be baptized with a new Christian meaning. In contrast, the separatist approach sees the church as inhabiting an exilic posture and thus must remain absolutely separate and pure.

Both approaches assume that the center of Christian existence is the church. Maybe that sentence sounds right to your ears. But I don’t believe it sits right with young adults. If you agree with me that they are smart, let’s consider why they may be right to not believe the church to be center of Christian existence. To do that we need to ask ourselves what we mean when we speak about the church. In other words, what is the identity of the church? The mission received by the earliest community of Jesus’s disciples was to go out and proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near. These early followers, Christ’s “ambassadors,” were tasked with spreading the good news of God’s saving work of reconciliation, and, perhaps most importantly, they were given the gift of the Holy Spirit to empower them in this work.

Pentecost, then, is the event of the birth of the church. The Spirit is poured out on all people (Acts 2:17), and the disciples of Jesus are empowered to speak in other languages (Acts 2:4). At Pentecost, the “curse” of Babel becomes a blessing. The diversity resident within cultural differences is sanctified by God’s Spirit and seen as having inherent worth. The proclamation of God’s saving work comes to each person in their particular cultural idioms even as all flesh is gifted with the poured out Spirit. Different cultures, nations, and ethnicities are all given the Spirit not as they assimilate to Peter’s Jewish culture (cf Acts 15) but as Peter navigates through his own cultural norms (Acts 10:28, 34-36) in order to proclaim the God who saves all people.

If Pentecost is the birth of the church, then the identity of the church has no one, defining culture as the Spirit of God is open to every form of culture without partiality and without need of appropriation or assimilation. The church is therefore not an alternative society. Neither is it a static worldview. Rather, it is the Spirit-filled location in each society, culture, ethnicity, and nation where the disruptive power of God to save is received.

If the church takes its cues from the Spirit, the identity of the church is intimately linked to its ability to translate the good news of the advent of God’s Kingdom into the multiplicity of cultures and contexts. Furthermore, its existence is inextricably connected with the present interruption of God into our world and lives to save us. Perhaps a reorientation to the Pentecostal identity of the church might resonate on a deep level with the young adults we lament having lost. Maybe their vision and prophetic actions (cf. Acts 2:17-18) are just what needs to be recovered if the church is to reform itself around God’s eschatological inbreaking.

But, even if this is so, we must also rid ourselves of the notion that the end goal is to get young adults back to church. There is no biblical basis for this notion. The end goal for all followers of Jesus is to be the Spirit-empowered means by which shalom is established in our world.

Such a goal requires the church to divest itself of all that does not serve this purpose. It also means a daily reckoning with the reality that a fundamentally different structure may be needed than the day before. Making peace with such continual upheaval is already the daily reality of young adults. They are well-versed in this. It seems safe to say that this is their home turf. So again, perhaps their endowment of the Spirit is the gift the church does not know it needs. To follow after the Spirit necessitates that the church’s identity de-secure itself in order to find its security only in present apocalypse of Jesus Christ.

“The church takes place where people abandon their securities, their positions, their traditions, their missions and so dare to ground their credibility entirely on the credibility of the gospel manifest in the humility, the self-emptying, and the passion of . . . Jesus Christ.” –Paul Gerhard Aring (translated by David W. Congdon)

*This post relies heavily on the constructive work of David W. Congdon in The God Who Saves: A Dogmatic Sketch (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016), pp. 159-98.

Shannon Smythe is Assistant Professor of Theological Studies at Seattle Pacific University and attends Lake Burien Presbyterian Church which is a participant in the Pivot NW research and ministry innovation project.

Pivot NW Statement on Charlottesville

St. Paul's Memorial Church

St. Paul’s Memorial Church in Charlottesville where a multi-faith prayer service was held the night before the Unite the Right Rally. Dr. Cornell West was the featured speaker.

The last few days has seen many responses to the events in Charlottesville this last weekend. From the POTUS to the late night TV comedians; the cable news shows and twitter handles of congress; the mayors, university presidents, and thought leaders from all perspectives.

As social science researchers and theologians we wouldn’t presume to have anything exceptionally prescient to add to this diversity of voices at this time; either wise or unwise. However given our mission we felt it imperative to point out that many of the photos of the events of this weekend (in Charlottesville, in Seattle the following Sunday and around the country since) feature young adults. As you read the reports and reactions it seems the pundits and commentators were surprised that many are in their 20s or have recently left their 20s. And it is clear they are all passionately involved. In order for a generation to move forward with integrity and courage and rightly ordered conviction they will always need mentorship and a community of care.  We hold the bias that young people need to be listened to, empowered, guided and challenged by the church so that they can grow into their full potential of maturity; both in a non-spiritual sense, but also, and mainly, into a maturity of faith.

Theologian Howard Thurman’s comments on the place of fear in the human condition calls us to turn our attention to deep prayer and once again to the centrality of Christ’s place in our collective lives:

“Fear is one of the persistent hounds of hell that dog the footsteps of the poor, the dispossessed, the disinherited.  There is nothing new or recent about fear – it is doubtless as old as the life of man on the planet. Fears are of many kinds – fear of objects, fear of people, fear of the future, fear of nature, fear of the unknown, fear of old age, fear of disease, and fear of life itself.  Then there is fear which has to do with aspects of experience and detailed states of mind.  Our homes, institutions, prisons, churches, are crowds of people who are hounded by day and harrowed by night because of some fear that lurks ready to spring into action as soon as one is alone, or as soon as the lights go out, or as soon as one’s social defenses are temporarily removed.”

The collective fears that have again been ignited by the events in Charlottesville should remind us that the church has a place in the world.  As the hands and feet of Jesus our embodied action at this time is needed especially in the work of calling out fear and bringing the love of Christ to our region. We hope that we can help churches to invite the 20-somethings in their communities to drink from the deep and endless well of faith to keep them strong and wise as they become established as pillars of strength in their neighborhoods and faith communities. We feel more strongly than ever the importance of our goals and the importance of the partnerships we are forming with faith communities from all around the PNW, as we work together to understand how to effectively reach, listen to and support the emerging adults in our communities.

Jeff and Martin from The PivotNW team.

Building a Bigger Table: Explaining the tier modification of the program

Table building seems like an ancient exercise. Like gardening, hunting, and raising children, there is something primal in this practice that seems to tap into our need to build a community of safety and interdependence.

As our team embarked on this quest and invited others to join us, we realized that we couldn’t ignore our call to be inclusive when there was every reason to make that choice. So I am publishing here part of the letter sent to the churches who were not chosen to be fully-funded to implement their ministry innovations:

Dear “Christian faith community,”

We are pleased to offer you a Tier 2 slot in the Pivot NW Innovation program funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. and supported by Seattle Pacific University. Upon acceptance of our offer you will be one of the congregations that we will partner with as a ministry innovator. You will receive all the privileges for your ministry innovation project, with the exception of funding.

You are probably asking yourself “what is a Tier 2 slot?” During the process of soliciting, receiving, and reading the applications our team realized something. While every congregation engages the questions we asked differently, all who are engaged see connecting with 20-somethings as a vitally important issue to tackle for the sake of the ministry in their communities. We did not relish the idea of leaving anybody “out in the cold.” However we only have funding for ministry innovations for 12 churches.

Therefore we have developed a 3-tier system for our grant program:

  1. Tier 1 will be offered all the benefits previously described on the website including funding for your ministry innovation project.
  2. Tier 2 will be offered all the benefits previously described on the website with the exception of the grant funding for ministry innovation projects. Joining as a Tier 2 congregation is contingent upon a completed application.
  3. Tier 3 will be the designation for churches who show interest in our collective ministry innovations or engage our research.”

Making the choice to create a larger table was not easy. It could easily double the amount of communication and coordination our team would be doing and it was not “written into” the original grant ask. But we felt the Holy Spirit’s nudge and we trust God to provide the time and resources to make this expansion a fruitful one. If you are just hearing about our project or were unsure about the commitment of being picked to develop and fund a innovative ministry, please consider filling out an application and joining us as unfunded learning partner. Our learning and community can only be more enriched by expanding our table and adding more curious and hungry voices.

Some technical definitions and explanation:

The 3rd Tier is really a way of telling you we are collecting contact info to document how far interest spreads in our work. The data will not be disseminated except to demonstrate the amount of individual faith communities we connect with and the frequency of contact. This is one of many measurements of success for both our program design and the quality of its execution. This information will be combined with data from other standard data tools such as Google Analytics to create a larger, clearer picture.

The 2nd Tier is permeable and assumes that congregations will join (post-application) and leave this group as they go through various design and implementation processes. We do not believe that grant funding is necessary for successful ministry innovation and can sometimes be a hindrance. However the Incentive of grant money can be a catalyst to help both fund-receivers and non-receivers open their strategic thinking to new possibilities. This is important because it moves “money” from being primary to the grant’s aims to being a tool for creating a vibrant test community to challenge and renew each other’s ministries to 20-somethings.

Indeed, we have already heard reports that even the simple act of applying for this grant had a profound effect on a congregation’s perspective on its own ministry strategy(ies). Our theological assumption is that God is moving in every faith community, and primary among the many important questions to ask is “How is God moving?” and “Are we working at odds with God’s mission in our community or are we working with God’s mission?”

Wrestling in the open: How innovation required Israel to step out into the world as God’s Open Source

Gustave Doré: Jacob Wrestles with the Angel (Gen. 32:24-32), 1866, Woodcut

Gustave Doré: Jacob Wrestles with the Angel (Gen. 32:24-32), 1866, Woodcut

24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered. 28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” 29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.” But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there. (Genesis 32: 24-29)

Wrestling in the open:

How innovation required Israel to step out into the world as God’s Open Source

One of the great egalitarian moves of the internet age has been the democratization of knowledge and experiences through what has been termed “open source.” Drawn from the world of IT and programming, open source denotes a radical level of sharing and engagement where all parties involved can actively participate in crowd sourcing options, solving problems, and share in the outcomes.  No one lays claim nor inhabits the process – it is a free-for-all, all hands on deck, IT version of Amish barn raising.  Activities like hackathons where groups of programmers gather for intense all night problem solving exemplify the culture of open source.  Rather than take private notes in class, many of my students now use Google docs and other open source platforms to take notes together in real time on a singular document where everyone shares what they heard which contributes to a powerful and rich accounting of collective insight that all benefit from.

One of the theological commitments framing the research and work of Pivot NW is a commitment to being open source.  Rather than keep our conversations and data collection behind some pay-for-view firewall, we will be constantly bringing our conversations out into the open for all to see and hear with the hopes that you will add your voice to the choir of insights.  This commitment to being open source is deeply embedded in the Scripture.  Going back to Genesis 32, we find the patriarch Jacob wrestling with a Divine visitor where Jacob is asking for blessing.  The dawn is coming upon this wrestling match and Jacob persists in holding fast to the Divine no matter what the cost, unrelenting in his desire for anointing (the Hebrew for blessing in this case is synonymous with anointing).  This is the epitome of open source: in the full light of the new day dawning, no shade nor cover in sight, Jacob and the Divine grapple with such intention and abandon that Jacob literally loses himself for the sake of the blessing he seeks.  The wrestling brings forth a clarity of sorts. No longer thinking of merely himself or the dark  state of his situation as a renegade on the run from his brother Esau, Jacob finds focus in merely the name of God and the blessing at all costs that can only come from a full body-soul-spirit intimate engagement on the very soil of creation that is formed and sustained by the Lord.  Two outcomes are given in the end: Jacob limps the remainder of his days in that he is forever physically changed by the encounter, and his name is changed to Israel meaning “the one who wrestles with God and overcomes”.

There is honesty and intimacy found in faith communities committed to open source.  Rather than hide behind our walls and privatize our successes and struggles, being an open source church throws open the doors and windows and invites wrestling with hard questions out in the open.  There is risk in open source to be sure.  We could lose control of our identity, others may snap up work we put in, and members of our congregations could make connections at other gathering places and never return.  What gain is there to keeping conversations secluded and hushed, our prayers and petitions quieted, and our doubts and challenges hidden from those whom God has called us to serve?

True, Jacob was never the same again after his open source encounter.  Perhaps this will be the story of your faith community if you take your wrestling out into the open.  But as we learn from Jacob, perhaps losing everything for the sake of blessing is worth the risk.

Applications now being accepted!

We are now accepting applications to be one of the twelve faith communities that we will be learning with. Please click on the apply link above. If you know of others that should be applying feel free to forward our page to them or send us an email to nominate them and we will get into contact.

Upon completion of the application materials, and prior to PivotNW getting in touch with our decision, we invite you into a time of discernment. Whether your congregation is invited to participate or not, we pray that the Holy Spirit will illuminate the path forward for your ministry(ies).

The PivotNW Team,