The way religion is practiced is constantly evolving, but maybe not the way most people would expect.
According to the Pew Research Center, younger generations, namely millennials and those from Generation Z, are less religious and spiritual than their Generation X and Baby Boomer counterparts.
Pew defines Baby Boomers as individuals born between 1946 and 1964, Gen Xers between 1965 and 1980, millennials between 1981 and 1996, and Gen Z as those who touched the Earth for the first time between 1997 and 2012.
Data from Pew between 2020 and 2021 reported that nearly half of millennials surveyed (49%) described themselves as Christians, the most of all religions, another 10% identify with non-Christian faiths and four in 10 now identify as religious “nones." These individuals are not religiously observant, and include atheists, agnostics, those who are spiritual but not religious, and people who are “nothing in particular.”
Overall religious participation is falling, and the numbers show many millennials and “zoomers," or members of Gen Z, are behind this shift in America's dynamics.
Millennials, Gen Z and religion: Religion 'isn't an important centerpiece of life'
Ben Toriseva, 22, of Brainerd, believes religion “isn't an important centerpiece of life for our generation, as much as it was with my parents [who are Gen Xers]. Their entire lives were built around religion. That's where they got their community from.”
Toriseva no longer considers himself religious after growing up in a Christian Evangelical family, and he is not alone.
According to the American Survey Center, more than one-third of Generation Z are religious “nones." Part of this is because more young adults are being raised in non-religious households.
“Twenty-two percent of young adults report that they were not raised in any particular religion, compared to only 3% of seniors,” the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) reported.
Toriseva says his sister and parents are all religious, so he often feels “a bit of grief from that,” because he is the only religious “none” in his family.
He also mentioned that he left his family’s church years ago for what he says isn’t a unique reason.
“I think a lot of people feel emotionally damaged growing up in the church. I think that is also a contributing factor and why a lot of people just want to escape,” he said. “There’s a lot of bullying if you don’t conform to the standards.”
Drake Young, 23, a Minneapolis Christian, agrees with Toriseva, and says the interactions he's had with others have shown him “Gen Z really wants to help people” and “shape the future,” but “when we see religious aspects of the church or other religions just tearing that down, and oppressing people or hurting people, instead of showing how the church or religion can be used to help people, they [younger generations] just don't want to associate with that.”
There may be another reason to explain why millennials and zoomers are leaving religion, Toriseva believes. He thinks younger generations are questioning religious authority now more than ever.
However, Stephen P. Ahearne-Kroll, the department chair of the Classical and Near Eastern Religions and Cultures at the University of Minnesota, believes the questioning of religious authority began generations earlier.
“The way [millennials and zoomers] practice their religion is probably different than it was in their grandparents’ generations,” Ahearne-Kroll said. He explained that baby boomers grew up questioning authority, unlike previous generations, such as the Silent Generation, born between 1928 and 1945. The baby boomer generation raised Gen Xers, and “those attitudes sort of spilled over… in terms of how we raised our children [millennials].” He noted that the general trajectory continued with later generations.
These attitudes have changed the way religion is practiced, and some religious leaders and their institutions have struggled to keep up with this evolving world.
Religious leaders' response to the decline: 'It's about really staying relevant'
Imam Makram from Masjid An-Nur Minneapolis says younger generations are “questioning more orthodox or traditional pathways to what we’ve come to know as faith traditions.”
Makram, a religious leader at the Minneapolis mosque, added that his place of worship has seen a trend of younger adults distancing themselves from faith.
The deaths of George Floyd in 2020 and Daunte Wright in 2021 were "like a cloud over our communities,” Makram said, and it affected participation in places of worship, most notably, among millennials and zoomers.
He added that more young people participated in protests and resistance during that time, but they wouldn't always make it to prayer.
"The external environment factored into participation and environment in the religious community," Makram said. In order to bring millennials and zoomers back to faith, he said, “It's about really staying relevant and making sure that our frame space is still meaningful in the lives of our young people."
But more recently, Makram said some young members of the community have started coming back to the mosque. Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church (HUAMC) has reported a similar trend.
Ingrid Nordstrom, the director of marketing and communications at HAUMC, says since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020 – a couple months before Floyd's murder – attendance has gone up due to "a reexamination of core beliefs," and the ability of congregants to "rebuild from that with a clearer understanding of what people actually need from a faith institution.”
Nordstrom added that HAUMC has had consistently high attendance during their hybrid services, and their attendance has climbed even more over the summer.
In order to bring in greater numbers, Nordstrom said her religious institution has had to go in different directions to attract people. She added that HAUMC has doubled down on spreading their message of inclusivity and creating a “safe space,” something she says millennials and Gen Z are seeking out when exploring faith.
And that's exactly what Rabbi Arielle Lekach-Rosenberg and her synagogue Shir Tikvah are trying to do in the South Minneapolis community.
"It feels so important to me that our space is meaningful for people, that there's something there like a resource and a reason for people to come other than habit," Rabbi Arielle said.
But since Judaism isn’t a proselytizing religion, meaning there’s no active effort to convert people to Judaism, Rabbi Arielle explained that her congregation is focused on keeping their community together even in the toughest times.
Whether Makram's Masjid An-Nur, Nordstrom's HAUMC and Rabbi Arielle's Shir Tikvah can stay "relevant" in their respective communities will remain an uphill battle, as millennials and zoomers continue to shy away from religion. But these local religious leaders are optimistic for the future.
The answer: How religious institutions plan to bring back younger generations
Nordstrom says the onus is on churches like HAUMC to search for and meet these "religious seekers" wherever they are.
“I think that the hunger and need... for religious thought and exploration is still there," she said.
HAUMC's Associate Pastor Laura Hannah added that “Gen Z and millennials desire authenticity, honest questions that may not have a clear answer and a clear articulation of what religion means for their personal lives."
In order to appeal to and convert these religious "nones," Nordstrom says HAUMC is trying to focus on its religious virtues and increasing diversity to connect to what is happening in the community.
Rabbi Arielle, who is a millennial herself, says that these faith virtues and traditions "are not yet finding ways to make adequate meaning, or connection with what is happening in our world."
So instead, she says her congregation is focused on "creating a community that is really rigorously welcoming, where people feel like they don't need to leave any part of themselves out to be present."
If Shir Tikvah and other places of worship are able to do that, Rabbi Arielle believes they will be able to maintain participation.
Imam Makram believes his Minneapolis mosque and other faith communities are going to be just fine overall. He said statistics from research centers like Pew are “snapshots in time,” and act as markers that “make us have to pause and think about the things that we're doing.”
If there is going to be any sort of resurgence in the number of religious individuals, Ahearne-Kroll says the way religion is disseminated will “have to be in a different format than what it was 50 years ago.”
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