Young Americans don’t believe churches care about the issues that matter to them – by double-digit disparities – according to a new national survey released today.
Springtide Research specializes in data and resources related to the beliefs, practices, values and relationships of youth aged 13 to 25. Its latest annual survey, “The State of Religion and Youth 2021,” was released on October 25, based on 10,274 surveys and 65 follow-up interviews.
Of nine contemporary issues that young Americans say they care about overwhelmingly, the same young person said they perceive the church to care much less. On each question, the gap between the attention young people give to young people and their perception of the importance of the church ranges from 15 to 27 points.
LGBTQ rights and gender equality
The biggest gaps are in LGBTQ rights and gender equity. While 71% of young people nationwide say they care about LGBTQ rights, only 44% perceive the Christian church to care – creating the survey’s biggest gap at 27 points.
On the issue alone, the most young people say it’s about – racial justice – 81% say it’s important. Yet only 60% perceive that the church cares about this issue. After more than a year of racially calculating the police killings of unarmed blacks and Republican-led fear of critical race theory, evangelical Christians in particular have gained national attention in a way that won’t attract young people to church, data shows.
Likewise, more than three-quarters (77%) of young people say they care about gender equality, but only 52% think the church does. It comes as America’s two largest Christian organizations – the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention – continue to hold steadfast women in leadership roles while embroiled in their own sexual abuse investigations.
But race, LGBT rights, and gender aren’t just things young people want churches to care about more. The list includes income inequality, rights of people with disabilities, environmental causes, reproductive rights, and gun reform. For each of these causes as well, young people consider that American religious communities are considerably out of step with their own value systems.
Escape from institutional religion
Consistent with other polls in recent decades, the latest Springtide poll found that young people see themselves as religious or spiritual, but are put off by institutional religion.
About three-quarters of 13-25 year olds consider themselves to be at least slightly “religious” or “spiritual”. Yet only 16% say they turn to someone in their faith community when they feel overwhelmed or unsure about something. Even among those who identify as “very religious,” only 40% found it helpful to connect with their faith community during difficult or uncertain times.
Even more troubling, nearly half (45%) say they feel unsafe in religious institutions such as churches. And more than a third (39%) believe they have been injured by a religious leader in the past.
54% say that “religious communities are trying to solve my problem, instead of just being there for me”.
Main of their complaints: 54% say that “religious communities are trying to solve my problem, instead of just being there for me”.
It’s not just a Christian problem
These gaps do not exist only among young people who have grown up or whose families are affiliated with Christian congregations. Among Protestant youth, 32% said they were not part of any religious community like a church. The same goes for 44% of young Catholics, 44% of young Jews, 44% of young Hindus, 45% of young Latter-day Saints and 54% of young Buddhists.
Nationally and in all faiths, only 23% of young people told Springtide that they attend church services at least once a week. As previously reported, only 10% of young people said that a religious leader had personally contacted them in the first year of the pandemic.
While religious demographers have warned for years that younger generations are increasingly unhappy with the church, few churches have succeeded in changing their views or priorities to close the gap. The most successful mega-churches reaching out to young people prey on the more conservative segment of this demographic.
Springtide uses a new term to describe the religious attitudes of young people today: “Faith unbundled”.
“When we describe the faith as being unbundled, we mean that young religious do not rely on a single religious tradition or organization to form and inform their beliefs and practices. Instead, they mix things up from various traditions, religious and otherwise, ”says the Springtide report.
“Young people with disaggregated faith will participate in religion, including practices, beliefs and communities, to the extent that is convenient for them, without formal or ongoing commitment. “
Think of it like streaming music services Spotify or Pandora, the report adds: “A person can enjoy specific songs without purchasing the entire album. Someone can create their own playlists by “ungrouping” a variety of albums and “bundling” songs from these many albums and artists as they see fit rather than the musician’s original group.
The bottom line therefore is this: “Young people with an unbundled faith will participate in religion, including practices, beliefs and communities, to the extent that suits them, without formal or ongoing commitment.”
For example, Springtide found that more than half of young people (53%) say, “I agree with some, but not all, of the things my religion teaches” and “I don’t feel like I do. ‘need to be connected to a specific religion’ (55%).
So rather than adhering to the prepackaged belief systems of individual religions or denominations or congregations, they mix and match and build their faith.
Springtide reports that young Americans “are no longer religious in the traditional sense.”
How young people group religious practices
This new portrait of faith in young America includes these elements:
- Young people are more likely to engage in art as a spiritual practice (53%) than in prayer (45%).
- Young people are more likely to engage in yoga and martial arts as a spiritual practice (40%) than to attend a religious group (25%).
- Young people are more likely to practice nature (45%) or meditation (29%) as spiritual practices than studying a religious text (28%).
“It is clear from this data that the goal (for churches) is to stay in conversation with young people as long as possible. They are exploring everything, constantly asking questions and seeking guidance, but they will not accept a pre-fabricated faith or religious system, ”said Josh Packard, executive director of Springtide.
None of this should come as a surprise, added Casper ter Kuile, author of The power of ritual. “Just as gender expressions, sexualities and racial identities are now included in a richer spectrum and grounded in intersectionality, young Americans are re-imagining religiosity, spirituality or faith as something that opposes a “inside” or “outside”, “this” or “this way of compartmentalizing,
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