Faith as a Roundabout: Religion and Generation Z in an Uncertain World
From: Jamieson Taylor
Generation Z is different. Perhaps you have noticed this anecdotally, observing teenagers and college students in your own life or in the wider community. They are intelligent, savvy, adaptable and resilient. They had to be. the the greatest generation in the world barely started to come of age. Yet the data already suggests 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 Religions and Youth 2021 results of a year of research on the beliefs, practices, values and relationships of young people aged 13 to 25 (Gen Z). The study, which included 10,274 surveys and 65 interviews, helps us understand what the religious life of today’s young people looks like and why it looks so different from previous generations. And this shape most closely resembles a roundabout. Truly.
In the report, Dr. Josh Packard, CEO of Springtide Research, points out that while uncertainty is one of the hallmarks of youth, Generation Z has had experiences that are atypical of 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 magnified,” he writes.
Previous generations have sought spiritual guidance from religious institutions to deal with uncertain times, but Springtide’s study found that Gen Z does not look to religion for help. At least not in the traditional sense.
This is not a pattern seen primarily in young people who identify as atheists or agnostics, or even those raised without any religious affiliation. This is true even for young people who attend, believe in, or identify with a particular religious tradition.
Among those who identified as “very religious,” less than half (40%) found connecting with their religious community helpful during difficult or uncertain times, while only 23% of those who consider themselves moderately religious found this useful. In general, only 1 in 5 young people agree with the statement: “I use faith as a guide when I am confused about certain things”.
This disconnect flows both ways. Only 10% of young people told Springtide that a religious leader had personally contacted them to contact them in the first year of the pandemic.
Faith unbundled, not lost
Despite this disconnect from mainstream religious communities, Gen Z is still surprisingly religious. The majority of young Springtide respondents consider themselves slightly religious (71%) or spiritual (78%). And their faith works 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 “non-religious” counterparts in a variety of 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 thriving.
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 thriving religious life (weekly attendance at meetings or prayer services, membership or volunteering) doesn’t carry the same spiritual value for today’s youth.
Instead, Gen Z finds spiritual value in many other pursuits. They are more likely to engage in art as a spiritual practice (53%) than in prayer (45%); they are more likely to practice nature (45%) or meditation (29%) as spiritual practices than to 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 within a closed system, more and more young people are piecing together their inner lives from diverse influences and resources. Springtide calls this combination of institutional disconnection and transference to other spiritual practices “unbundled faith.” Gen Z’s faith feels like an open system, allowing a constant, beneficial stream of influences, coping strategies, and support to enter their orbit.
Just like a roundabout.
If you got faith like a roundabout
Roundabouts are neat. Traffic studies have proven that a typical roundabout is much more efficient at managing traffic flow than a four-way stop. They reduce what traffic experts call “conflict points” – points where vehicles or pedestrians may pass each other – and reduce the accident rate by incredibly high percentages.
Gen Z have found a way to mitigate the points of conflict they see in traditional religious institutions, ones they have come up against in recent years, issues like a growing values gap or a catastrophic loss of trust. Lack of trust and security is a significant experience for young religious. Nearly four in ten (39%) told Springtide they’ve been hurt 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 diverse approach, where Gen Z is able to demonstrate nuanced and flexible thinking, prevents them from confusing any institution with the faith it represents. It preserves faith and spirituality as fundamental elements of their identity in many ways.
Visionary religious leaders have already noticed this creative solution of open and flexible systems for young religious, including Ilia Delio, nun and professor of theology. “The 21st century religious seeker is not tied to a rigid paradigm of ideas,” she said. wrote in 2018, “[but] a seeker or seeker, one in search of meaning, community, identity, wholeness: essentially, God.
Integration and Opportunity
It might be tempting to reduce Gen Z and their hijacked faith to a self-serving spiritual path: a consumerist, self-centered approach to spirituality, with a market for seemingly randomly chosen religious products. However, this conclusion is not 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 front of the report that Gen Z does not shop. They integrate:
Rather than extracting elements of faith from different religious contexts, young people try to integrate their existing multiplicities. By finding ways to piece together their different family histories, geographic and cultural backgrounds, personal interests and sensibilities, young people attempt to experience a wholeness and connection that requires curiosity and flexibility if they want to. stay true to the people they consider themselves to be.
spring tides 2020 edition of The State of Religion and Youth discovered that Gen Z places a high value on integrity, authenticity and safe relationships. The form of their religious life allows many influences to converge in one place, but without the points of conflict they experienced in traditional religious institutions and practices. They can examine and test anyone’s influence without the same risks as when relying on a single closed system.
The engagement of this generation will be a challenge for religious leaders and institutions that are used to being the system around which people orient their lives. And yet, it is possible for any institution or religious community to become one of the many influences that young people incorporate into their spiritual lives. As Dr. Josh Packard notes, there are many opportunities to influence young people if religious leaders are willing to see it: “One thing is perfectly clear. This younger generation, Gen Z, is moving 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 will be there to guide them.
Jamie Taylor (@JamiesonTaylor2) is a freelance writer and media relations intern for Springtide Research Institute.