Young People Keep the Faith

Religion Isn’t dying with Gen Z

Monthly theme image featuring a young girl holding a growing plant and the December theme Faith and Hope

You have probably heard the news: Religion is dying in America. Pew, Gallup, and others predict a seismic downward trend in American religiosity over the next several decades, propelled in part by Generation Z, “the least religious generation yet.”

At Springtide Research Institute, we’re seeing pockets of spiritual flourishing among young people all over the country, and we’re discovering that the prevailing narrative of religious decline in America isn’t the full story.

Young people are keeping the faith

Springtide has spent the last three years surveying and interviewing thousands of young Americans ages 13 to 25 about their religious beliefs and practices—over 30,000 of them, in fact.

Four major themes in our research stand out. First, many young people today maintain a distanced and distrustful relationship with religious institutions. As of 2022, only 30 percent of young people tell us they’re part of a spiritual or religious community, while a whopping 44 percent say they used to be.

But this isn’t the whole story. A second major theme in our research is that despite the disconnect with religious institutions, a majority of young people consider themselves to be religious—more than two thirds (68 percent) as of 2022—while even more consider themselves to be spiritual (77 percent). This includes a third of atheists, agnostics, and nones (32 percent) that consider themselves religious, and almost two thirds (60 percent) who consider themselves spiritual.

Many efforts to study the religious lives of Gen Z have a fundamental flaw: they bundle religiosity together with religious affiliation or attendance. In other words, Gen Z is religious insofar as they affiliate with a religious institution or attend religious services. 

However, we have found that Gen Z is “unbundling” their religious beliefs and practices from one-size-fits-all, institutionally-arbitrated ways of being a Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, and even an atheist—a third major theme running through our research. As this generation celebrates and asserts their various racial, ethnic, sexual, and gender identities, they bring that same zest for personalization and authenticity to their religious and spiritual quests.

Practically speaking, this means that Gen Z is comfortable placing a religious text next to a political manifesto. They find spiritual expression at local parks, protests, and in the metaverse.

Faith works

Though their spirituality is less appreciated by traditional markers like church affiliation and attendance, a fourth major theme in our research is that their faith is still effective: the more religious or spiritual a young person is, the more likely they are to flourish in every area of life. This is especially true for their mental health—a serious concern in society right now.

Here are a few key findings from our new report, The State of Religion & Young People 2022: Mental Health–What Faith Leaders Need to Know:

  • 40 percent of those who are very religious agree, “I am flourishing a lot in my emotional and mental well-being,” compared to 17 percent of those who are not religious.
  • 61 percent of those who say, “I know a higher power exists, and I have no doubts about it” say they are in “good physical and emotional condition,” compared to just 46 percent of those who “don’t believe in a higher power.”
  • 74 percent of people who pray daily say they are flourishing, compared to just 57 percent of those who say they never pray. 79 percent of those who attend religious services weekly say they are flourishing, compared to 57 percent of those who never attend religious services.

Young people appear to see the positive connection: 66 percent of religious young people agree that their religious or spiritual life matters for their mental health, while 73 percent of religious young people agree that their religious and spiritual practices positively impact their mental health.

In the midst of a national mental-health crisis for Gen Z, faith is proving to be a critical source of hope. I am reminded of the words of John: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

Loving Gen Z

A few years ago, Springtide discovered that young people desperately need older adults to come alongside them as they navigate life, to remind them that God has “plans to give…a hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11).

In 2020, only 50 percent of young people who reported having no mentors also said their life had meaning and purpose, whereas nearly 70 percent of those who had at least one mentor reported that their life had meaning and purpose. This number jumped to 85 percent for those who had two to four mentors. Incredibly, more than nine out of ten (91 percent) young people who had five or more mentors in their life reported that they sensed their life had meaning. The correlation is undeniable.

Yet, church leaders may be unsure how to mentor young people if they aren’t coming through the church doors. In fact, just 10 percent of young people told Springtide that a faith leader reached out to them personally during the pandemic. Clearly, the disconnect between young people and churches goes both ways.

As we engage with church leaders across the country, we consistently hear that churches that create a “third space” for young people to engage with Christian spirituality in ways that promote belonging and engage with their values are successful in catalyzing relationships between church leaders and Gen Z. These are not youth groups or other activities that scream: “This is a church program!” They are in community gardens and kitchens, baking (and breaking bread) together, serving the community and performing activism, painting, making music, and even watching anime.

Religion isn’t dying in America. If Springtide’s findings tell us anything, it is that there is hope for the church. Unfortunately, popular narratives about Gen Z and religion usually bring despair. A new chapter of religion in America has begun, and faith leaders need to develop a new frame of reference for understanding and appreciating where Gen Z is taking their faith. Yet they can do so knowing that with every meaningful experience of engaging with Gen Z, they promote flourishing and kindle their faith at an uncertain time in their lives.

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