“Why Aren’t Young People Going to Church?” with Lauren Pattie

Amanda Stubbert: Welcome to the SPU Voices Podcast, where we tell personal stories with universal impact. I’m your host, Amanda Stubbert. Today we sat down with Lauren Pattie. She’s worked in theological education since 2015 and currently serves Seattle Pacific University as content manager for Pivot NW, a team that works with faith communities in the Greater Seattle area, helping them better understand the experiences of young adults and working with them to design, launch, and evaluate new ministries. Pivot attempts to gather, guide, and mentor churches, to help them better understand young adulthood and build relationships with young adults in their communities. Lauren, thank you so much for joining us today.

Lauren Pattie: Yeah, thanks for having me.

Amanda: Well, let’s start at the beginning. What led to the creation of Pivot in the first place?

Lauren: Sure. In 2016, Professor Jeff Keuss, who is a professor at SPU, a professor of Christian ministry, theology, and culture, he applied for a grant from the Lilly Endowment and was accepted along with 12 other hubs across the country, so other colleges, universities, and seminaries that all wanted to take part in this work. And this grant is part of the Lilly Endowment’s nationwide Young Adult Initiative, which is trying to help congregations design and launch new ministries with young adults, which we kind of define as people ages 23 to 29. So since then, we’ve been working with about 10 to 12 congregations in the Pacific Northwest to help them design innovative ministries that support and enrich the faith lives of young adults. One of the unique things about our particular hub is that we’ve partnered with the Industrial-Organizational Psychology department at SPU. So that’s helped us to be able to do some detailed research into questions of who are young adults? What are their perceived needs? How do they view the church? And that’s brought a real unique perspective and richness to our particular hub.

Amanda: Great. And what led you personally to join in this work?

Lauren: Yeah, it was kind of a serendipitous moment, I suppose. I worked at Fuller Seminary Northwest for a few years. And while I was there, I met Martin Jimenez who, he wasn’t working at Fuller anymore, but in the last year or so that I was there, my hours were kind of getting cut a little bit. And so I picked up some barista shifts at a local coffee shop and it happened to be a coffee shop that was associated with his church. So he came into the coffee shop sometime to get coffee and saw me working there and kind of asked me what I was up to. And he said “I might be able to offer you some work that’s more in line with your interests.” And that’s when I started working with Pivot.

Amanda: And do you see yourself as part of the group, one of these young people that are not seeing themselves in a traditional church situation?

Lauren: Yes and no. So when I started working for Pivot, I was kind of at the tail end of the young-adult age range. And young adulthood isn’t a particular number of years necessarily. It kind of has more to do with sort of life circumstances. Young adulthood is a time when you’re kind of discovering your career, figuring out what you want for romantic relationships, partnerships, kind of hitting some of those milestones. And so I think the work that we do has resonated with me because I’ve been someone who hasn’t necessarily had the traditional graduate from college, immediately start a career, immediately get marriage, pop out a couple kids. So I think I’ve connected with the work of young adults throughout the entire time that I’ve been there.

Lauren: And as far as connection with church, I think for me, I am connected to a local congregation. I go to a First Covenant Church Seattle on Capitol Hill. And in general, I have had a pretty good relationship with organized religion and with the church, but I very much resonate with the experiences of those who have not had such a good experience. And I completely understand that the way that we’ve always done church isn’t necessarily the best way to do church moving forward. And I’m really inspired by the young adults that we work with and how they’re seeing church in new ways and wanting to kind of bring new life to this or organization that … we at Pivot very much believe in the importance of the church, but we also believe that the church needs to be able to adapt to the movement of the moment. And so we’re trying to kind of encourage the church to do that.

Amanda: Yeah. I think it’s fair to say a couple things. There’s always been somewhat of a generation gap from one generation to the next, so that’s one thing. But then it feels like the last generation or two, societal change has moved so much more quickly. Therefore, a larger generation gap, but it’s not that the church hasn’t needed to adapt along the way. I know it may seem silly now, but I remember singing choruses versus hymns using guitars and drums versus the organ. In fact, even when I was at SPU as a student, the church I went to had two services, a traditional and a contemporary. And it’s funny to even think of it as contemporary, when you were still singing choruses of pretty recognizable songs. It didn’t seem that different to me, but we’re just not far away from change.

Lauren: Yeah. It’s very true. We live in a time of accelerated change where things are just happening faster and faster. And so it’s just giving a lot of people whiplash.

Amanda: Right, and feeling like it’s enough. There’s been too much change. I’m not willing to change anymore. So as you’re doing this work and trying to bridge that and learn along the way, what have been some of the biggest surprises for you as you’ve dug into these questions?

Lauren: Yeah. I think one thing that’s surprised me and inspired me is how many young adults are actively committed to the church still. We very much think of the church as dying and studies do show that in the upcoming generations, there are fewer and fewer people committed to the organization and the church as we know it. But I kind of think it’s more helpful to think of church as evolving rather than dying. We like to, in our work, reference the verse Matthew 16:18, “And I tell you, you are Peter. And on this rock, I will build my church. And the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” So we have biblical precedent for the idea that the church isn’t just going to go away. Jesus promises that the church is going to be something that is built to last. But what church looks like, as we’ve been saying, is going to change. And it just might be unrecognizable to many.

“We very much think of the church as dying and studies do show that in the upcoming generations, there are fewer and fewer people committed to the organization and the church as we know it. But I kind of think it’s more helpful to think of church as evolving rather than dying.”

Amanda: Right. Much like society itself is changing. And the church has to be somewhere recognizable. Like it might be set apart, but it has to be something that people can enter in with some understanding of what it is that the church has to offer them. Along those lines, what would you say is a common mistake that you see churches making when they’re unsuccessfully trying to engage young people?

Lauren: We’re kind of less concerned with churches or ministry leaders making a mistake, and more concerned with people not being willing to try anything in the first place. So when we talk to our churches about kind of how their innovations are going, we try to emphasize faithfulness instead of success. We talk to them about, what does faithfulness look like to you? It really helps our churches to kind of put this idea of faithfulness as the primary lens, through which they’re doing their work. If your church or your organization is actively seeking to do God’s work and is listening to the movement of the Holy Spirit, then we trust that God is going to be working through you both in terms of what we might think of as successes and failures. It’s kind of like the line, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. We want churches to just take a shot, to just try something and then to learn from that experience.

Amanda: That’s anything in life, isn’t it? You can’t be afraid to try. You need to try something. So let’s talk about these five steps, if you will. I know they’re not like in order, but five ways that your team has pinpointed as positive steps that any church can take to developing relationships with 20-somethings in their community. The first one here: young adults in leadership. Why is that so important?

Lauren: Yeah. The churches that we’ve seen have the most … well here, I am going to use the word success, even though I said that’s not what we’re focusing on. But the churches that have really been able to develop connections with young adults are ones that are willing to share power with young adults. And when we say share power, we don’t just mean, you can decide what kind of pizzas you want to order for your group meeting. We mean churches that value the input of young adults at all levels of leadership. And a way to test this is to ask yourselves, do you let your young adults anywhere near the church budget? So as part of being a Pivot church, most of our churches received $10,000 a year to fund their young adult ministry efforts. And frankly, a lot of our churches and a lot of the young adult leaders had no idea how to handle a budget of that size, which is understandable. But it also shows us that they had been pretty far removed from the budget-making processes of their churches.

Lauren: So a part of it is, are you going to be willing to let young adults make some decisions that involve your church’s resources that might be guiding your church in a particular direction? And are you willing to kind of give young adults that access but also are you willing to walk alongside them as they learn how to do things like this, how to manage this money, how to make these decisions, can you mentor and encourage them without being too heavy-handed? Kind of still giving them autonomy, but on the other hand, not leaving them feeling unsupported. So it’s a fine balance between those two things. Can you walk alongside them, but can you also allow them to have that autonomy?

Amanda: Sure. Sounds like a family. If your children are going to be able to be constructive adults standing on their own two feet, there has to be a balance somewhere in there where they’re being able to make some decisions themselves and yet having guidance along the way.

Lauren: And also learning, recognizing that you have a lot to learn from young adults in a lot of different ways, but the cultural changes that we’re seeing, this is largely their world. They’re living and breathing some of these cultural changes that are a little bit harder for people in other generations to understand. And so they really have a lot of wisdom to bring to the church. And that’s been really exciting for us to see.

Amanda: Yeah, yeah. That sounds great. The next one is right in my wheelhouse. It’s collect stories and it says diversity is imperative. Why is diversity of stories so important?

Lauren: Yeah. So we did a lot of ethnographic research to kind of hear about what different people’s experiences of their churches has been. We tried to encourage churches to listen to people to hear why are people staying? Why are they going? Because, especially if you’re a leader of your church, of course you care about your church and you have a particular view of your church. You might at times look at it through rose-colored glasses, so to speak. It’s really important to pay attention to other people’s experiences of your church. And what does it feel like for a young adult to walk into your congregation? What does it feel like for a person of color to walk into your congregation? What does it feel like for … you have people who have been there for decades, this has been their home church for a long time, and now certain demographics are changing, and what is that like for them?

Lauren: You can’t begin to address the tension points in your church if you don’t really know what they are. And so hearing a diversity of perspectives really fleshes out your picture of what is your church? Where are you at this point? So it was really eye-opening for a lot of these people to see the views from different vantage points.

Amanda: And it can never hurt to collect stories. People want to tell their story. They want to be seen, they want to be heard. I mean, it’s just never going to hurt to sit and listen to people’s lived experiences.

Lauren: Yeah. Pivot has been doing a lot of work, especially early on in the process, of learning how do we gather stories and how do we tell our own stories in ways that will resonate and that will build community? And so we have some resources on our website on story gathering and storytelling. We brought in Mark, who’s a professional storyteller who works in Oregon. And we have, I think, a video of him. I think he spoke at SPU’s Chapel a few years ago. And so we have references to that on our website, too. So if you’re interested in starting to gather stories at your particular congregation or organization, we’ve got some places for you to start there.

Amanda: Perfect. And we’ll visit that again, but the website is pivotnw.org. And we’ll reference that again at the end if you need it. All right, the next one is a mouthful. Sustainable, intergenerational relationship-building.

Lauren: Yeah. Especially as young adult groups became more established at different congregations, there was a greater perceived need by both the young adults and those of other generations that they needed to be in community with one another. It wasn’t enough to have this young adult offshoot group. Young adults wanted to have mentors. Some of our churches talked about having kind of non-biological aunties and uncles of older generations, people who really spoke into their lives and people that they could go to with their problems. And these mentorship relationships are complex and it’s not as easy as just saying like, “Oh yeah, I’ve got some wisdom to share with someone,” but we’ve really seen the importance of these connections.

Lauren: And also young adults are valuable mentors themselves, not just for younger people, but also for the older mentors in their lives. And we call this reverse mentoring or reciprocal mentoring. So older adults have to be open to learning from young adults as part of this process, recognizing that there’s a lot young adults can teach them. So yeah, if you’re just looking to kind of pour your years of wisdom into an empty vessel, our mentorship probably isn’t the right thing for you.

Amanda: But even if you start with just simple things like electronics, like you have to know that you have things you can learn from each other and then it can always grow from there. But yeah, maybe more than ever, I feel like we definitely have things we can learn from each other. I have two children in college age and same. I can’t tell you how often, even on a work question, I think, well, I’m going to go ask one of my children because especially technology-wise, they really kind of live in a different world in a lot of ways. And then obviously we still have a lot in common in other ways, so I can see how it would be actually pretty easy to have that reciprocal relationship as long as you’re willing to be vulnerable and say, yeah, I don’t have all the answers.

Lauren: Yeah. And another note that I will make here is that the upcoming generations tend to be a lot more diverse than older generations, or they’re more familiar with living in context of diversity. And we have noticed that kind of being a pain point in some of our mentorship relationships where there’s not always the sensitivity to issues of race and justice. And so that’s a way that churches can really help guide their congregations, too, is by providing resources around how your church can be better engage in issues of race and justice, things of that nature.

Amanda: Yeah. I feel like that is so important between the generations, because we’ll say it again, the societal change is happening so quickly that I think sometimes there isn’t a safe space for someone of an older generation to simply ask a question. They’re not necessarily complaining about whatever the issue is, but they’re saying they don’t understand. They don’t understand where we are right now and how we got there. Explain to me why this is different than that. Explain to me why we don’t use that word anymore. Because I was taught that we use this word. It’s like, I just need to understand where can I be vulnerable and ask the question. And if not in church, then where? Where can we have those candid conversations where you’re saying, “I literally do not understand. Help me understand?” Well, the next one is create and support a space for young adults to grow in faith together. That seems pretty self-explanatory. Is it?

Lauren: Let’s see. Yeah. I think in some ways it is. Though we were just emphasizing kind of the importance of these intergenerational relationships. There are some things about being a young adult today that only other young adults are going to fully understand. And so being able to have kind of a sacred time and space for them together is really important.

Amanda: And the last one is build a young adult initiative team at your church. How is that different than the creating a supportive space?

Lauren: Yeah. So the young adult initiative team, it’s basically a group at your church that wants your church to be a more inviting place for young adults to come. And so this young adult initiative team doesn’t have to be all young adults. And in fact, we strongly, strongly recommend that it isn’t just all young adults. The young adult initiative teams that we’ve seen be the most successful are ones that have intergenerational connections and ones where the lead pastor or someone in a position of high authority is involved. They don’t necessarily have to lead this team nor should they, but churches where the lead pastor has really come behind the group and given support, they’ve had a lot more success. Again, I keep coming back to that. I don’t want to use that word in this context, but we’ve seen those groups grow and flourish in important ways.

Lauren: And when we started doing this work, there were kind of two methods that we noticed. One was that churches would have these sort of groups of anywhere from three to 10 people or something like that. And then other churches would assign one particular person to kind of spearhead these initiatives. And the churches that developed a team rather than relying on one particular person had more longevity, and they were able to kind of weather the storms that life brings better than the churches that tried to put this all on one person’s shoulders. Because particularly if this person is in young adulthood, one thing that we’ve learned about young adulthood is that transience is huge. Young adults are moving for a myriad of reasons within the city of Seattle, but also in and out. And so if you just had one person who was kind of responsible for this whole thing, and then they get a job out of state, or they have family issues and they have to move home, or whatever it is, then all of the wealth of knowledge and experience that person has gained is now gone.

Lauren: There was a big breaking point that some churches were able to recover from and some were not. Some of that was just lost. But if you develop a team of people working together, then when the constraints of life occur, you’ve got people to pick up the slack and you’ve got more space for creativity and bouncing ideas off of one another and developing better structures of support. So, we really do recommend that you kind of go with the team model there.

Amanda: Yeah. Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. So if you’re listening to this and you’re a pastor or you’re part of a church leadership team, how would they partner with Pivot and find resources from your work?

Lauren: Yeah. So as I said earlier, we very much believe in the importance of the church, but we also know that there are many other avenues for ministry. And so we think it’s important for them, too. So if you see yourself as a ministry leader, even outside of the church, all of this is for you, too. So one place that you can start is by visiting our website, pivotnw.org, and you can read more there. There’s a contact form. You can email me directly, laurenpattie@spu.edu. I’m happy to have conversations with you about this. And another way that you can get involved is that we are launching our new PACE initiatives. So yeah, I don’t even know if this has been mentioned, but we were funded for another 4 years, another full grant period. So that’s very exciting.

Lauren: And so Pivot will be continuing on. And as part of continuing on, we’ve developed this branch of what we do called PACE NW and PACE stands for preparation, activism, church, and engagement. And what PACE is doing is really trying to kind of get the knowledge that we’ve gleaned in the last 5 years of research out to a broader community and to kind of share the wealth a little bit.

Amanda: That’s great.

Lauren: Get more people involved with the work that we’ve been doing. And so there are four initiatives that PACE is creating. The first is PACE Fellows. So we’re going to be convening cohorts of young adults to kind of gather and support each other. And generally around a certain affinity topic such as worship in the arts. I think that’s going to be our first one. Perhaps environmental justice, social justice, entrepreneurship. We’re kind of playing around with what other cohorts we may have.

Lauren: The second is PACE Foundations, which is going to be a way for us to share our knowledge through curriculum development and things like that. We’re hoping to have a book come out in the next year or so. So you can find more information out about that through PACE Foundations.

Lauren: We also have PACE Integration Summits, and these are geared towards denominations and church networks. So if you’re a denominational leader and you want to have Pivot come to a gathering of your pastors or ministry leaders, we can come and do workshops with you and kind of share some of what we’ve learned and help you to develop ways to implement this.

Lauren: And the final one is PACE Mentors. And so we’ve talked a lot about kind of the importance of these mentor relationships and how it can be done well and how it can be done not as well. And so we want to help train people who would like to come alongside young adults and kind of support them in this stage of life. And you can find out more information about all of those at pivotnw.org/pacenw.

Amanda: Well, that’s fantastic. I’m going to take our last question and I’m going to tweak it a little bit for the work that you do and say, so if you’re not a pastor or in a leadership role within your faith community, if you were going to change one thing you do tomorrow that was going to affect this young people in the church question that we’re talking about, what could you do? What could you do better, that’s going to help this integration of a new generation into our church communities?

Lauren: So I think I’m going to bring it full circle and say, just whatever you’re doing, reframe it to focus on faithfulness and not success. Most prophets in the Bible, for example, are not what we’d think of as paragons of success. They were often ignored, ridiculed, but they were faithful to the call that God gave them. And that’s what matters. So if you’re a young adult desperately trying to get your church to look beyond the walls of Christendom, remain faithful. If you are a pastor or someone who has a heart for young adults, but you don’t see many walking through the doors of your church or your organization, remain faithful. If you’re part of an older church that is struggling to keep your doors open, remain faithful. God is going to do something with you and it might not look the way you’d like it to, it might require change, sacrifice, even death, the death of our ideas, our organizations, our traditions. But fortunately, we are people of resurrection. So death isn’t a setback for us. It’s just part of the process of rebirth and renewal.

“If you’re part of an older church that is struggling to keep your doors open, remain faithful. God is going to do something with you and it might not look the way you’d like it to, it might require change, sacrifice, even death, the death of our ideas, our organizations, our traditions. But fortunately, we are people of resurrection. So death isn’t a setback for us. It’s just part of the process of rebirth and renewal.”

Amanda: Amen. What a great answer. So I have nothing to follow that except for our prayer of blessing over you. So let me pray that now: May the Lord bless you and all you put your hands to. May the Lord be gracious to you and all who hear your story. May God bring unity to our community and peace to us all. Thank you so much for joining us, Lauren.

Lauren: Yeah. Thanks for having me, Amanda. This was great.

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