By: Jamieson Taylor
Gen Z is different. Maybe you’ve noticed this anecdotally, observing teens and college students in your own life or out in the wider community. They are intelligent, savvy, adaptable, and resilient. They’ve had to be. The world’s largest generation has barely begun to come of age. Still, data is already suggesting that their view of life is taking on its unique shape, including their view of traditional religion.
A new report from Springtide Research Institute entitled The State of Religion & Young People 2021 results from a year of research into the beliefs, practices, values, and relationships of young people ages 13-25 (Gen Z). The study, which included 10,274 surveys and 65 interviews, helps us understand what the religious lives of young people look like today and why they take on such a different form than previous generations. And that form is most like a roundabout. Really.
In the report, Dr. Josh Packard, CEO of Springtide Research, points out that while uncertainty is one of the hallmarks of being young, Gen Z has experienced atypical from previous generations. “This past year has brought unprecedented challenges. Uncertainty has been the air we breathe. For young people, the already uncertain aspects of life have been amplified,” he writes.
Previous generations have sought spiritual guidance from religious institutions as a means of coping with uncertain times, but Springtide’s study found that Gen Z isn’t turning to religion for help. At least, not in the traditional sense.
This isn’t a pattern seen mainly among young people who identify as atheist or agnostic, nor even those raised without any religious affiliation at all. This is true even for young people who attend, believe in, or identify with a particular religious tradition.
Of those who identified as “very religious,” less than half (40%) found connecting with their faith community helpful during challenging or uncertain times, while only 23% of those who consider themselves moderately religious found this helpful. In general, only 1 in 5 young people agree with the statement, “I use faith as a guide when I am confused about things.”
This disconnect flows in both directions. Only 10% of young people told Springtide that a faith leader personally reached out to check in with them during the first year of the pandemic.
Faith Unbundled, Not Lost
Despite this disconnection from traditional faith communities, Gen Z is still surprisingly religious. The majority of young people Springtide surveyed consider themselves slightly religious (71%) or spiritual (78%). And their faith is working for them.
Even without turning to traditional religious practices or communities in times of uncertainty, young people who identify as “very religious” consistently fare better than their “not religious” counterparts in various areas, including mental health, work, and relationships. The report shows that the extent to which a young person says they are religious correlates with how they say they are flourishing.
What it means to be “very religious,” however, requires context if you’re talking about Gen Z. The activities we might link to a vibrant and flourishing religious life—weekly attendance to prayer meetings or services, membership or volunteering—don’t carry the same spiritual value for young people today.
Instead, Gen Z finds spiritual value in many other activities. They are more likely to engage with art as a spiritual practice (53%) than prayer (45%); they are more likely to practice being in nature (45%) or meditation (29%) as spiritual practices than study a religious text (28%). They also find help and support from people in all parts of their wider community—close friends, counselors, and family.
Rather than finding a religious identity, practice, community, and language in one closed system, more and more young people are piecing together their inner lives from various influences and resources. Springtide calls this combination of institutional disconnection and transference to other spiritual practices “faith unbundled”. The faith of Gen Z looks like an open system, one that allows for a constant and beneficial stream of influences, coping strategies, and support to enter into their orbit.
Just like a roundabout.
If You Have Faith Like a Roundabout
Roundabouts are neat. Traffic studies have proven that a typical roundabout is far more efficient at managing traffic flow than a four-way stop. They reduce what traffic experts call “conflict points”—the points where any vehicles or pedestrians might cross each other’s paths—and reduce the rate of accidents by crazy high percentages.
Gen Z has found a way to ease the conflict points they see in traditional religious institutions, the ones they’ve been crashing up against in recent years, issues like a widening values gap or a catastrophic loss of trust. The lack of trust and safety is a significant experience among religious young people. Nearly four in ten (39%) told Springtide that they’d been harmed by religion or a religious leader in the past, and 45% say they don’t feel safe when it comes to religion. Yet this more diversified approach, where Gen Z is able to demonstrate nuanced and flexible thinking, keeps them from conflating any institution with the faith it represents. It is preserving faith and spirituality as a fundamental part of their identity in many ways.
Prescient faith leaders have already noticed this creative solution of open and flexible systems for young religious people, including Ilia Delio, a religious sister and professor of theology. “The 21st-century religious seeker is not bound to a rigid paradigm of ideas,” she wrote in 2018, “[but] a seeker or a quester, one in search of meaning, community, identity, wholeness: essentially, God.”
Integration and Opportunity
It might be tempting to reduce Gen Z and their roundabout faith to a selfish spiritual path: a consumer approach to spirituality, centered around the self, with a marketplace of religious commodities chosen seemingly at random. However, this is not a conclusion supported by the data in the report. The picture is more complex. Casper ter Kuile, the author of The Power of Ritual (2021), explains in the forward of the report that Gen Z is not shopping. They are integrating:
Rather than extracting the elements of faith from different religious contexts, young people are trying to integrate their existing multiplicities. By finding ways to piece together their varying family histories, geographic and cultural contexts, personal interests and sensibilities, young people are attempting to experience wholeness and connection that demands curiosity and flexibility if they are to stay true to the people they understand themselves to be.
Springtide’s 2020 edition of The State of Religion & Young People discovered that Gen Z places a high value on integrity, authenticity, and safe relationships. The shape of their religious lives allows for many influences to converge in one place, but without the conflict points, they’ve experienced in traditional religious institutions and practices. They can examine and test anyone’s influence without the same risks experienced when relying on a single closed system.
Engaging this generation will be challenging for faith leaders and institutions that are used to being the system around which people orient their lives. And yet it is possible for any religious institution or community to become one of these many influences young people integrate into their spiritual lives. As Dr. Josh Packard notes, there is plenty of opportunities to influence young people if faith leaders are willing to see it: “One thing is abundantly clear. This youngest generation, Gen Z, is pressing forward, exploring the boundaries of their faith, constructing meaning, navigating uncertainty, and encountering the divine in new ways. The only question that remains is whether you’ll be there to guide them.”
Jamie Taylor (@JamiesonTaylor2) is a freelance writer and media relations intern for Springtide Research Institute.