Does Religion Have a Future in America?
Yes. The doom-and-gloom narrative of a youth exodus from religious institutions is more complicated than it’s often presented as.
As a young person (I’m 25 years old) who considers myself intentionally religious, I was very excited to hear about Springtide Research Institute’s (SRI) new report, The State of Religion and Young People 2020. To create the report, SRI surveyed 13 to 25 year olds across the United States about religion in their lives. The State of Religion and Young People 2020 (hereafter referred to simply as “the report”) covers much more than just young people’s religious beliefs. The report also dives into their religious/spiritual practices, identities, and relationships.
One of the key takeaways from the report’s data is that the inner and outer religious lives of young people are far, far more complex than the simplistic but common terms “affiliated” and “unaffiliated” can possibly cover. Those two terms are entirely insufficient and deceptively create a false dichotomy.
This report greatly complicates the narratives that surround the growing group of people known as “The Nones.”
Who Are “The Nones”?
The Nones comprise the roughly 56 million religiously-unaffiliated adults living in the United States. All generations are represented in The Nones, but because millennials are the generation with the highest rate of religious unaffiliation they make up a disproportionately large number of The Nones (approximately 36% of “unaffiliated” adults).
In religious settings, this has resulted in a pervasive doom-and-gloom narrative centered around the idea that because religious affiliation is declining, the entire future of religious belief is on shaky ground and at risk of extinction. Now I think there are numerous theological and doctrinal issues with this fear, but setting those aside the report’s data undeniably complicates religious leaders’ understanding of the relationship between religion and young people in a hopeful way. As it turns out (and as is obvious), there is actually a tremendous amount of nuance to The Nones.
First, it’s important to remember that when we are talking about this over-arching cultural decline of religious beliefs and religious institution membership, it is by far most prominently seen in younger generations but this trend clearly exists in all generations. There is no generation where trust or participation in religious institutions is moving in an upwards direction. This trend is accelerated in younger generations but it is not strictly a young people’s problem. This is critical for religious leaders to keep in mind because since this is not just a young people’s problem, it cannot be solved by solutions geared only towards young people. The decline in trust and participation cannot be solved by gimmicks like more modern music selections, less-formally dressed clergy, or the proliferation of singles and college groups. Much more is needed, but this should inspire hope, not doom-and-gloom. This flurry of cultural and sociological movements regarding how we as a society produce meaning and mold our identities present a massive opportunity for institutional reform.
Furthermore, these emerging complexities are indicative that many of us — young people especially — are really wrestling with questions about their identity, community, and purpose. The report shows that a majority of young people who selected either “Nothing in Particular”, “Atheist”, or “Agnostic” on questions regarding religious affiliation in SRI’s surveys also said that they live out religious beliefs on a regular basis, attend religious institutions, and/or have multiple religious practices. In other words, just because they fit into the lump category of “unaffiliated” does not mean that they are not practicing religion or that they do not have religious values. We are simply at a cultural spot where we need to think about religious practices and values differently, and we need to develop new language to match this new reality. As someone on the border between millennial and Gen Z myself, I cannot think of a single peer I have who is not deeply interested in questions about meaning, morality, purpose, and God or another higher power. These are theological and religious concerns, they are just expressed in ways that most existing religious institutions do not have the language to understand. Young people are exploring religion — they’re just doing it in different ways.
When a young person says that they’re unaffiliated, but they’re still exploring ways to be a more moral and ethical person, or they’re thinking about and driven by spiritual questions, or they foster regular practices of spiritual and moral significance, I will adamantly contend that they are still religious. Just because they don’t fit into the old framework of “religiously affiliated” or they don’t attend a church doesn’t make this any less so. The desire for a meaningful and intentional community, the longing to do good, the drive to live a moral life — all of that is still there.
The overwhelming majority of The Nones are not truly unaffiliated from religion. They are just unaffiliated from the cultural religious norms of the past.
What Needs to Change?
One of the main reasons why the affiliated/unaffiliated dichotomy is no longer useful is because the broad culture that the religious culture exists in has dramatically changed in regards to how trust is developed. And because young people are on the front edge of this broader cultural change, it is among young people that this change is most evident (in and out of religious institutions).
The way that young people form bonds, build their identities, and construct communities is different than people did even just a decade ago. In response to these changing cultural realities, religious leaders have to find new methods and frameworks to develop and preserve trust with and among young people.
So, how do religious institutions bridge this growing gap between how they have traditional built trust and how young people are increasingly developing trust? Of course, that’s assuming that the existing and extremely large trust deficit can be reconciled (I believe that it can, with enough hard work and good will). Again, religious institutions have lost the trust of younger generations and older generations; regardless of how some religious leaders might want to pass the buck, this is not at all an exclusively millennial problem and older generations have and still are dealing with the same trust issues. Are there ways that for religious leaders and institutions to rebuild (or initially build) this trust?
Trust and Care
According to the report, young people most feel that an authority figure cares about them before they will be receptive to that figure’s expertise, guidance, wisdom, etc. In the past, trust was much more of a given — people and organizations received trust based on the institutions they were associated with. Now though, an institution’s merry credentials no longer lay a solid foundation to build trust upon. That foundation is now an ethic of caring.
To help understand this, think back to high school. Imagine that you have an absolutely brilliant teacher, an uncontested expert in their field who practices the most verified pedagogies. Then say you have another teacher who is clearly competent (though by no means a genius or expert) and who regularly checks in with you, asks how you are doing, and shows genuine care about your mental, physical, and emotional well-being. This second teacher is consistently and effectively performing the labor of intentional relationship-building that goes beyond communicating expertise or passing along knowledge. Throughout the report, young people indicated that this kind of care — a combination of listening, transparency, and yes, an appropriate level of competence and skill — were the magic formula required to build the kind of trust that then allowed the authority figure to influence them.
Now that example was about individuals and trust on an individual level. How that trust prerequisite formula can be transposed onto struggling religious institutions is a much more difficult question to answer, and one that I certainly don’t have a definite answer to. Nevertheless, that is the elephant in the room, the most important question on the table for anyone concerned about the future of religious institutions. How do institutions build and rebuild trust?
Think back on the influential role models in your life, the people who you can say positively altered your thinking or life because the relationship you had with them fostered something within you or encouraged you to pursue something. These are sort of hinge relationships with hinge moments. When I hear from my friends who have left the religious institutions of their upbringings, it almost always comes down to one or two relationships that utterly failed them. This relational failure almost always came before a change or loss of belief. And for my peers who are still part of a religious institution, it is almost always because of one or two relationships where the authority figure took a humble posture of genuine invitation to belong and developed that relational authority. Whether young people stay or go is almost entirely dependent on the health (or lack thereof) of those relationships.
Religious authority figures must listen to young people. They can no longer offer advice in a sort of prescriptive way, or entering a conversation with an agenda or begging the question. In my mind, this seems like one of the most obvious areas to address on an institutional level. Throughout religious institutions, there is such an idea of a strict hierarchy of authority and corresponding obedience, and sometimes that is appropriate. But institutions must recognize that even when that hierarchy is appropriate, there has to always be room for dialogue and that hard conversations — about doctrine, theology, careers, cultural, anything — can be approached in a way that doesn’t require the experience of authority to be a top-down experience. Religious leaders should strive to be an empathetic and genuine relational authority, and not some infallible prescribing authority.
There are critical distinctions between authority, authoritarianism, and just plain bossiness. Religious institutions have to reject authoritarianism and bossiness in order to gain meaningful, relational authority. This kind of authority is a positive and necessary attribute, but it is difficult for institutions to put into practice. For example, I stated that religious authorities should not enter into conversations with an agenda. But, if they’re not supposed to lead with an agenda then how does an institution which clearly (and necessarily) has an agenda apply that practice of listening first, before coming up with prescriptive advice or commands?
Growing up in church, I often felt a general and condescending dismissiveness towards young people, towards youth. Often it seemed like the religious authorities were frustratingly asking “what do the young people want?” I’ll tell you: young people want to be listened to and we want to have our opinions taken seriously. Don’t take my word for it, the data in the report backs that want up entirely. Unfortunately, when religious authorities and institutions won’t even let many young people in the conversation or seriously consider their opinions, their wants cannot be even remotely met.
Even when young people are given a platform, it’s often in a very tokenized capacity. Institutions and authority figures are not letting young people drive the conversations or approach the topics that are truly concerning to them. What 13 year old can clearly express that internally they are beginning to disaffiliate from their parents’ religion? But as a 20 year old, they can look back and that’s when they can see that something nebulous was occurring with their sense of commitment, in their of feeling of belonging, in their ability to get answers for the questions they had. Unless religious institutions become extremely intentional about inviting young people to serious, non-judgmental conversations about their inner lives, about decisions they’re making for their religious lives, then institutions won’t even be able to know that young people are working out internally. In fact often, the presumption is that young people are apathetic towards religious issues, but they’re not! They just aren’t being invited to talk about it.
I remember in my high school youth group, I had a question. I was unsure as to why it was important that all of the Pauline books were actually written by Paul. It certainly wasn’t pivotal question or a massive doctrinal pondering, but it was something I was confused about. It seemed like something odd for my pastors to be so adamant about, and I didn’t think the specific authorship really mattered all that much. And I remember asking a youth leader about this, and they basically just told me “that’s just what’s taught, that’s just what we believe.” Talk about an unsatisfactory answer.
And then later on, I asked that question of another youth leader, because he specifically asked me if I had any religious or spiritual questions I was struggling with. And again, this wasn’t a critically important question but when I asked it of this person he responded as if I’d asked the greatest question in history and quickly answered my question. I disagreed with his answer, but that wasn’t the point. What mattered was that this was a point in my religious questioning that I felt like asking questions was not the same as expressing doubt and that there are ways to ask questions that are exciting because the religion and faith are rich and deep enough to bear my questions. This was a turning point for me, the realization that question-asking can be positive and exciting.
Unfortunately I think that many young people leave their religious institutions before they truly get a chance to ask their questions about identity, belonging, doctrine, institutional history, or their holy text. If people don’t feel safe to ask that question, then they will either slowly sneak out the back door or dramatically and catastrophically barge out.
To me, that’s why relational authority matters; it’s not about the answer the second youth leader gave me, it’s about the way he responded to me having a question to being with.
Changing Concepts of Identity
One quote from the report that stood out starkly to and resonated with me is that “identity today is increasingly seen as something that each individual personally constructs piece by piece, rather than something handed down from a prior generation or imposed by a community.” This evolving idea of what identity is seems like a more broad conceptualization of the “cafeteria Christian”, or the idea that of people who pick and choose elements of Christianity to religiously identity with. This sort of picking-and-choosing is often viewed negatively, but I think this report helps to shed a more positive light on it.
For a long time — almost all of modern Western history, at least — identity was given, not a choice. Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor wrote a lot about how people who are a part of a tribe are given an identity, but in the modern world of individualism, we’re all constantly constructing them. We’re all alone in the world searching for and stumbling upon pieces of identity and finagling them together into something that makes up who we are, as if we’re some sort of personal identity project manager.
I think all of us some point or another feel like our life is going nowhere or is falling apart, so we pick things to do in order to solve our problem — I’m going to whiten my teeth, I’m going to write a book, I’m going to start running, I’m going to meditate — and then we act as if the composite of these things will make us whole. Now, that’s not really the same thing as constructing an identity, but I do think that as a culture we have generally reached a place where we take our identity from what we do and what’s around us rather than viewing identity as either something internal that we merely express or as something given to us by our ancestors or societal traditions.
Individualism — especially the radical hyper-individualism raiment in America nowadays — rejects the thinking that we are the product of either our nurture or our nature, but rather than we are the culmination of the individual choices that we make. I for one am neither convinced by or attracted to that thinking, but it is the world that we all live and operate in, this world of the externalization of self. In this world, the self is essentially what you present to everyone else, rather than what is internal. This is not to say that if you asked someone “is the real you your presentation or brand on Instagram, or is the real you you when you’re laying in bed at night thinking and reflecting on your life?” that they would say “The real me is on Instagram”, but it does seem obvious to me that in the real-world and the strategies we employ to create ourselves, we are more and more inclined to externally piece-meal ourselves; regarding identity, we’re creating, but not discovering receiving.
This modern sense of identity merges with religion when we talk about how young people are constructing their religious identities, because this is happening in a similar way. So now the question is how do religious institutions that have historically been a hegemonic force in handing down identity respond to young people who view their religious identity as something to be made up of many different parts.
Many religious institutions have been incredibly dismissive of (or even opposed to) anything but all-in or all-out mindsets regarding religious identity. For example, you identify as a Baptist by checking all of these boxes. Realistically, membership as a Baptist is about baptism and personal salvation, and not saintly, moral actions (though of course, those are great). But by and large religious institutions are only interested in handing down a complete identity for a person to take on entirely.
However, the ways that young people are gathering chunks of identity from a myriad of places is essentially a demonstration that don’t believe that a full identity is available to us from a single institution, religious or secular. If young people don’t feel that their purpose is clear or that one or more aspects of their identify is accepted in the space of religious institutions, then they will go look for their purpose and identity somewhere else.
Nothing to Fret Over
Despite the prevailing narratives from religious leaders, I still contend that the declining interest in religious institutions is nothing to be depressed over. One of the main takeaways from the report is that something can still be done to build trust and foster care. I think there is also reason to be hopeful because institutional responses to younger generations’ needs demand creativity, and creative is always a hope-filled endeavor. Religious people will have to let go of some of the things we have been putting our hope in, and that will be painful at times but it is necessary because trust isn’t given just for being a credentialed institution. This doesn’t mean that trust is impossible to create or restore, but that religious institutions must find creative ways to earn trust through care.
The institutional decline of religion is often framed as a loss. Of course, there is something to mourn — religious people are missing something by losing the membership of young people. Some religious rituals will need to change. Some rituals will even need to be done away with entirely probably. However, the things that need to stay — trust, purpose, identity, belonging — those things can be (and must be) re-imagined. Institutions and leaders have a wonderful opportunity to find new ways to express the concept of the common good, something that the report makes it clear young people care a tremendous amount about. The common good is a rhetorical tool that religious institutions have a long history of bringing to the public conversation and there’s no reason why institutions cannot take advantage of this great re-imagining to revitalize this history for the present. We all just have to be more creative regarding how the concept is introduced, how and where it’s modeled, and how care can be the gateway for introducing any and all religious ideas.
Religious institutions must reengage with young people and the common good in healthy, relational,, non-authoritarian ways. Religious institutions provide a unquantifiable good for humanity, and thus they have a responsibility to stay relevant, and the best way for them to do that is by meeting the real spiritual and material needs of real people. And to do that, institutions and leaders must respond to actual real people; not projections of real people or ideas of real people, but the people who show up at their door.