Commentary by Dr. Whitesel: I’m delivering Sunday sermons on how to use the #RomansRoad to equip congregants to one-on-one share their faith. The following research indicates that that may be the best way to reach the next generation.
Given the decline in attendance at houses of worship and the so-called rise of nones, it might come as a surprise that the majority of young people say they are spiritual and/or religious. According to those who participated in Springtide Research Institute’s State of Religion and Young People 2020, 78% of people ages 13-25 consider themselves at least slightly spiritual, including 60% of unaffiliated young people (atheists, agnostics and nones). And 71% say they are at least slightly religious, including 38% of the unaffiliated.
The coming generation may be investing more in faith because of stress and loss. After a year navigating the COVID-19 pandemic (March 2020-2021), over a third of young people (35%) said their faith became stronger, while only 11% said their faith became weaker (half said their faith remained steady). Even more, 46% started new religious or spiritual practices during this time, far more than the 27% who stopped some religious or practices.
The caveat for anyone hoping to turn Gen Z into the generation that came back to church is that while today’s young people take what they find useful in faith traditions, this group has significant trust issues when it comes to formal religious institutions. Asked to rate their trust of organized religion on a 10-point scale, 63% of young people answered 5 or below, including 52% of those who say they’re affiliated with a religious tradition.
You read that right: Over half of young people who claim a religious affiliation have little trust in the very religious institutions with which they identify.
Where trust in religious institutions is low, however, trust in relationships with people in those institutions is extremely high.
Faith leaders who want to appeal to Gen Z need to focus on gaining trust through relationship rather than relying on their institutional authority — their title, role or accomplishments. To be sure, Gen Z members respect expertise, so long as it is combined with genuine care and concern for their well-being — an approach Springtide calls relational authority.