How the church can build better relationships with Gen Z

Young people haven’t given up on life’s big questions, says this researcher.
In the Pews

The Springtide Research Institute has spent the past few years studying the religious inclinations and spiritual yearnings of what sociologists call Generation Z, young people born between 1996 and 2008. Many in this age group did not receive a religious grounding from their family, Springtide’s research shows. Still, they express a curiosity about the sacred, a yearning for community, and a willingness to learn about religious traditions.

Josh Packard is the executive director of the Springtide Research Institute.

Generally, though, Gen Z young adults say they don’t find what they are looking for in traditional places of worship. They feel passionately about many social issues such as race and gender equality, LGBTQ and immigration rights, gun reform, and reproductive rights. Yet some of these issues put them at odds with traditional religious teaching. As a consequence, many in this generation say they lack a sense of belonging. In this interview with correspondent Judith Valente, executive director Josh Packard discusses Springtide’s latest research findings and offers some recommendations on how religious leaders—and other people of faith—can build better relationships with Gen Z.

The young adults in the group we are calling Generation Z are 13 to 26 years old. Does it seem to you that they are stepping away from institutional religion earlier than generations before them?

It’s not that they are stepping away as much as not being raised in religious institutions in the first place, unlike Millennials or Generation X-ers. The question comes up from so many leaders: How can we get them back? I have to remind them they’ve not been there in the first place.

What is the reason for that? Were their families not particularly observant?

That’s right. For all the noise that exists in the world, it’s still the adults who live in the house with the young person who remain the single most important influencing factor in the development of their faith lives. That has been the case forever and remains the case today.


For many years now, young people have been describing themselves as spiritual, but they are bypassing religious institutions. How are they defining being spiritual or religious?

Three quarters of young people tell us they are religious. About the same number say they are spiritual. There is a lot of overlap in those categories. One can be both things or just one of the two. Young people are moving back and forth between these categories. In some regard, they are interested in ritual that connects them back across millennia and to communities of faith that they respect and find resonant today. But they are also not interested in accepting a whole faith system to access one ritual. We’re also finding that a lot of spiritual encounter happens through art and nature and engagement with young people’s own personal values and social issues.

I would characterize young people’s spiritualities as a set of practices across religious traditions that say less and do more. Young adults are very skeptical of people who talk all the time. I think they would tell you that from their perspective, a lot of [faith] proclamations just haven’t held up well, especially when it comes to issues they really care about around justice, racial equity, and gender equity. They are looking for a faith that encompasses those elements. So being naturally drawn to engaging with nature, being more contemplative, being drawn to meditation—those are practices that have space for their values and concerns.

One of your key findings is that young people feel a disconnect between what they hear about in church and what they care about in their everyday lives. What issues do they think are important that they believe churches are not addressing?

Many issues, from immigration rights to gun reform, gender equity, LGBTQ rights, and racial equity. I’m not sure any one of those issues is as important as the collective. The big takeaway is that this generation is very values-driven as opposed to being status-driven or conformity-driven or achievement-driven. What we are seeing from Gen Z is that their values are driving them in all their decisions and that those values play on issues around justice and equity. Rightly or wrongly, they perceive that religious communities just don’t care about those issues at the same level they do, and that is where the notion of disconnect comes in.

Many religious institutions shy away from discussions about race, except to issue general condemnations of racism. Do young people tell you they want to see churches and people in the pews get more actively involved in racial justice issues?

Yes, many teenagers would tell you they want religious groups and organizations to be more actively engaged in the front of these conversations. The more important thing is what this priority says about Gen Z. It says that they care so much about these particular issues. And this is where religious institutions generally miss the important conversation. Gen Z is the most diverse generation that has existed in the history of the world.


Diverse in what way?

In every way. It’s the most diverse in terms of gender, race, and ethnicity. It’s perhaps most diverse in terms of political views, which are all over the place. When organizations and religious institutions don’t engage in that discussion, or even understand that it is part of every discussion, then what they are doing is implicitly communicating to young people that they don’t care about them, because their whole worlds are built around these things. When we see that interest in Black Lives Matter and racial justice, as well as in the other issues we listed, what we are really seeing is that diversity matters in some ways it hasn’t mattered for other generations. And it matters because diversity is a fundamental part of what this generation is. It is a key part of their identity exploration, religious exploration, and sense of self. It is all wrapped up in diversity and inclusion.

How are young people getting their spiritual sustenance? You write in your report about “faith unbundled.” What does that mean?

First, it’s important to make clear what young people are not doing. They are generally rejecting the notion that their parents or any other adults are going to hand them a faith system they are going to adopt without question. We don’t see any peripheral indicator suggesting those days are ever coming back. I don’t think they were quite as much a reality as people like to pretend they were. Instead, what we see young people doing is working together to explore elements of their tradition that are useful and figuring out if there are elements they can adopt for themselves.

The way I describe it is that they are at a spiritual “dinner party.” They are seeing a variety of dishes and have to figure out, what am I eating? Where did this come from? Will this fit well on my plate? The details of that metaphor are important because we don’t see young people interested in adopting a whole system without question, on one end of the spectrum. On the other end of the spectrum, we also don’t see them making it up as they go along or picking what suits them best or choosing just four of the Ten Commandments to follow. They are interested in learning where these [religious] systems come from, how their friends are experiencing them, and what they look like in the real world. They also rely a lot on their peers, and there is a lot of discussion going on online, on Instagram and TikTok, where they are learning about different faith systems and how they fit into a modern context.

I can almost hear some pastors complaining that this is a consumer or salad bar approach to religion, where one picks and chooses what one likes. I’ll have a little Buddhism here, a little orthodox Christianity there. But you’re saying there seems to be something deeper going on.

The key to all the exploration young people are doing is this connection with others. So I don’t think the salad bar is the right metaphor. Instead of picking individual ingredients to make up their dish, they are interested in authentically experiencing someone else’s dish completely and then figuring out if it is right for them. But sure, there is fuzziness around the edges.


The other thing I would say is it’s important to remember we’re largely talking about teenagers. The person they are dating at 14 is probably not going to be the person they will marry, and the music they really like at 20 is probably not going to be the music they will listen to at 40 or 50. Their faith life at 15 is not what it will be when they are 35 or 45. This is all part of a process of exploration. This process has in some ways always happened, but now that exploration is happening outside of institutions and can go on indefinitely.

What do young people say they believe about God?

Some refer to the transcendent or the divine. Some say God is spiritual energy. What we do know is that there is a tremendous amount of variance in terms of the certainty with which young adults engage whatever they call the divine or God.

Many young people say they receive no joy out of attending religious services. How can that change, and who is responsible for changing that?

Attendance often feels like an obligation. We have been able to show empirically that there is no longer a link between attendance and a feeling of belonging. Just because young people show up at churches doesn’t mean they feel they belong. This is just as true for sports teams, after-school clubs, and workplaces. There is a real disconnect in general between belonging and institutional attendance. In terms of whose responsibility that is, it is worth religious leaders taking some time to think carefully about what should not be compromised, like beliefs. And I believe young people are not asking them for that. They would rather religious leaders be up front with them when the right time comes to share their faith. They want to know what it’s all about.

There is also a lot of stuff coming from campus ministries and youth ministries [that is just about getting the message across]. Those methods are worth revisiting. Many of those methods are built with the assumption that people trust institutions and organizations. The reality is that we live in a world now where people don’t, and so those methods are increasingly less effective.


This is not just a matter of hiring a youth minister, is it?

The pathway forward looks to be centered around relationship. In this world with low institutional trust, where young people are walking around implicitly thinking there is a disconnect between them and religious communities and thinking those who work in those institutions have their own interests in mind—that calls for a different tactic. The more we lean into institutions, the more we are going backward essentially. So, hiring a youth minister isn’t so much about having one as what they are doing. Anything that is being done that isn’t centered around building and fostering relationships is probably not going to be a very effective or efficient use of resources.

You introduce a concept called relational authority as a way of gaining the trust and respect of young people. What does it involve?

The key thing we are beginning to understand is when adults engage with young people through a lens of what we call expertise, saying here are my credentials, here is my title and position, here is how long [my tradition] has been around, this is the size of my organization—those are all institutional markers of expertise. When we engage with young people purely from that perspective, we disqualify ourselves from the conversation. They are not really going to listen and take it to heart unless four elements are in place: listening, transparency, integrity, and care.


And all of that starts with listening. Listening to understand, not to judge or correct. Listening to truly understand what is going on in the life of that young person across from you. Because young people’s dominant experience with adults is of being dismissed, as they will tell you. It also requires asking follow-up questions, writing down stuff, and coming back and circling around the conversations again and again. Because young people are not inclined to think just because you say, “How are you doing?” that you genuinely want the answer—even if you genuinely do want the answer.

When you combine those things—listening, transparency, integrity, and care—then you get to do the expertise part in a way that will actually impact their lives. If you lead with just the expertise part, you might come away maybe feeling good that, “Oh, we had the hard conversation. We spoke truth into their lives.” But the reality is they are not going to take it to heart. The chance of them taking it to heart is a lot lower.


Has the COVID-19 pandemic significantly affected how Gen Z-ers look at their spiritual lives?

Over the course of the first year of the pandemic, about half say their faith remained stable. One quarter say their faith had increased, and one quarter say it decreased. More than anything, I think the pandemic accelerated many questions that young people are asking about faith and religion. One thing that concerns me is that over the course of the first full year of the pandemic, only 10 percent of young people say a faith leader reached out to check on them, to see how they were doing. My concern then is, as young people ask questions during this sort of flux around their faith, they are often disengaged from the expertise of religious leaders to help them. I don’t think it’s a failure of religious leaders. Every religious leader we talked to, whether a rabbi, an imam, a pastor, or a campus minister, they all care. They are working hard, but we don’t have really well-designed systems in place right now to do the relational kind of work needed.

That seems to be a yearning for community among young people, which many people get from churches. So, if young people are bypassing church, where are they finding it?

Well, they are increasingly not. That is part of the problem. When we become disconnected from institutions, the hope is—and what will ultimately happen, if the past is any guide—that other alternatives will rise up to meet that need. But that is not happening so far. There is a social media story to be told here. A 14-year-old brain is no match for the vast marketing machines behind Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and other sites that tell them all day long they can have every bit of community online and that they don’t have to go anywhere else.

But young people have started to tell us in surveys that this is just not true. Their online connections are important and essential, but they are not sufficient. Social media has only been around for 10 years or so in any real, serious way. It is possible some space will evolve online to meet that need, but so far nothing has. So, what we’ve got is the loneliest generation on record right now. And there doesn’t seem to be a good fix on the horizon.

What is the reaction of clergy and other pastoral leaders to your findings?

Those who are closer to day-to-day workings with young people hear [these findings] and they go, “Yep,” and nod along. By and large, they say our research has been great for naming the things they are experiencing. They say, “I thought I was alone. I thought it was just my kids, my students. I didn’t know this was happening at the societal level.” Without the understanding that comes from the research we are doing, there is no reason to change. You keep spending your time, your human labor, and your money in the places where you have always spent them. And what young people are telling us is there is clearly a need for change. And so, the people who are working with youth on a daily basis are saying, “I can take this report back to my boss so we can stop spending money over there and start spending money over here.”


Another interesting finding from your research is that 23 percent of young adults say they do attend services on a regular basis. That group also seems somewhat better off at coping with uncertainty and loneliness.

These results suggest religion matters. Religion can provide for young people a very protective factor. If the hallmark of youth is change or exploration, anything that you have that provides a constant is important. This is why having a stable home is important, having that teacher you end up taking three classes with and really love throughout your high school career, or having a coach who consistently cares about you. Those relationships are very important. Everything feels up for grabs when you are 16 years old. So, knowing that not everything is up for grabs is a source of comfort. It’s important. Religious institutions have a critical role to play. They should not be dismissed.

Is this trend away from institutional religion going to continue? What can churches do?

We don’t see any evidence that the broad markers we have been seeing are going to shift any time soon. A quarter to a third of the general population currently identifies as having no religious affiliation. That figure is 39 percent for 13- to 25-year-olds. That is just going to keep going. The same thing goes for institutional trust. Gen Z is just as skeptical as previous generations, if not more so. But that decline, I believe, is a bit overblown.

The forecast for what I see in the long term is that it all depends on how institutions respond. And in the near future we are finding some amazing pockets of innovation where institutions are rising to meet the needs of young people in really important areas of exploration. Some are happening online and some in person.

Young people haven’t given up on life’s big questions. They are interested in those questions that are essentially religious questions. They are trying to figure out ways to get them addressed—not necessarily answered—and to find adults who will lend some insight. In the short term [the forecast] is messy and creative and innovative. 

This article also appears in the April 2022 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 87, No. 4, pages 26-30). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Header Image: Unsplash/Josh Barwick

Headshot: Courtesy of Josh Packard 

About the author

Judith Valente

Judith Valente is the author of several spirituality titles including most recently How to Be: A Monk and a Journalist Reflect on Living & Dying, Purpose & Prayer, Forgiveness & Friendship (Hampton Roads) written with Brother Paul Quenon, O.C.S.O., as well as the poetry collection Discovering Moons (Virtual Artists Collective). She is a former correspondent for PBS-TV and guides frequent retreats on living a more contemplative life.

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