Date of Award


Degree Name

PhD Leadership Studies

Dissertation Committee

Robert Donmoyer, PhD, Chairperson Laura Deitrick, PhD Evelyn Kirkley, PhD


Congregational studies, Ethnography, Leadership, Organizational, Qualitative, Young adults


Christendom in Canada and the United States is in decline, and young adults are leaving the church in considerable numbers. This exodus is especially noticeable in mainstream religious denominations, although evangelical groups are beginning to experience a similar waning. The fastest-growing “religious” group consists of those who identify with no religion.

Simultaneously, young adults are experiencing a far longer entry process into adulthood after adolescence than those who went before them. They also experience the world as unstable and impermanent. Their needs and the church’s needs could converge but instead seem to be antithetical to each other in ways that further contribute to the numerical decline.

This qualitative study focused on two progressive mainstream congregations in the Pacific Northwest. Both congregations were outliers in that they attracted substantial numbers of participants aged 18 to 35. The study focused on how congregations and their leaders created webs of significance and intonations of language (Weber, as cited in Hopewell, 1987, p. 6) that resonated with those seeking a spiritual home.

The research strategy, by design, was emergent. Data were gathered in this focused ethnography by conducting individual and focus group interviews with leaders and members that encouraged storytelling; by observing worship services and other church-related interactions; and by analyzing websites, bulletins/PowerPoints, and documents.

Although both congregations were located in progressive young-adult-filled neighborhoods, they had almost opposite leadership, liturgical, and music styles. Consequently, two case-studies were initially constructed to portray the dynamics within each location. A subsequent cross-case analysis however, revealed that analogous sources of resonance between young adults and congregations emerged when visionary leaders freed and empowered young adults to encounter the divine through tradition, innovation, and questioning. The sources of resonance were categorized under the sociocultural milieu, leadership preferences, and developmental needs of young adults.

Despite the limitations of case-study research, this study provides insight into what aspects of these religious congregations resonated with the young adults who found a home there. It offers new thought categories and working hypotheses for denominations, seminaries, clergy, congregations, young adults, and others interested in religious experience and affiliation among younger people.

Document Type

Dissertation: Open Access


Leadership Studies