(RNS) – It’s that time of year for many of us for the shiny packages tied with a bow. But don’t expect the majority of Gen Z, who love their “unbundled” faith, to accept the traditional packages of rituals, practices, and beliefs offered by churches.
One of the most important findings of our new report, “The State of Religion and Youth 2021,” is that young people aged 13-25 are embracing a faith that combines elements from a variety of religious and non-religious sources. , rather than receiving all of these things from a single, unbroken system or tradition.
Although the majority of Gen Zers identify themselves as religious (71%) or spiritual (78%), less than a quarter (24%) counted attending a religious service among “the most meaningful things I do » during winter holidays (e.g. Christmas, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Diwali, etc.).
Whether through tarot cards, acts of protest, or being in nature, Gen Z instead expresses their spirituality in non-traditional ways, outside of traditional religious institutions.
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A Gen Zer who identifies as Muslim might turn to hip hop music as a spiritual exercise more than they seek God in the prayer known as Dua. A Gen Zer who identifies as a Protestant Christian might engage in protesting for racial justice as a spiritual practice more than they read the Bible.
These two young people could also be interested in the political theory of Karl Marx or Ayn Rand, the poetry of Rumi or Saint Francis of Assisi, or the nonviolent philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi when ‘they examine life’s deepest questions.
It’s easy to simply categorize Gen Z as less religious than previous generations, but our results show that Gen Z is simply different when it comes to religion: they don’t conform to traditional definitions of what it means to be Catholic, Hindu , Baptist, Sikh or even atheist.
Most nevertheless feel a thirst for something spiritual in their lives and seek ways to mark the spiritual significance of Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or Rohatsu, even if they are uncomfortable with the traditional ways and institutions to do so.
Even in this rapidly changing environment, their elders can influence their lives this holiday season. Undoubtedly, crowds will attend religious services whether they like it or not, but religious leaders are unlikely to influence young people in these settings.
Rather, the timeless building blocks of the relationship are still relevant: reaching out, expressing curiosity, listening authentically, and pairing expertise with genuine caring. We call this approach “relational authority,” a feature of last year’s “The State of Religion and Youth 2020.” Young people are far more likely to be influenced by adults who care about their lives than those — even experienced religious leaders — who focus on offering traditional rituals and seasonal cheers.
Our survey data confirms this. More than half (53%) agree: “I would like to be able to talk to the people I spend time with about things that are important to me during the holidays”, while 58% agree: “I don’t talk to people I hang out with. time with difficult things during the holidays because it’s volatile.”
Here are three suggestions for faith leaders and others who want to make the most of their time with young people during the holiday season:
Do not hesitate to talk about difficult subjects.
A major theme of “The State of Religion and Youth 2021” is the uncertainty that marks the lives of young people today. The past year has only amplified this feeling. Yet the fact that almost half (47%) of young people told us “I don’t think religion, faith or religious leaders will care about the things I want to talk about or bring up during times of uncertainty” proves otherwise.
Affirm as much as possible the Gen Z approach to faith, which includes allowing room for variation and customization.
Nearly 6 in 10 young people (58%) agree with the statement “I don’t like being told answers about faith and religion. I prefer to discover my own answers”, while 53% agree that “religion, faith or religious leaders will try to give me answers, but I am looking for something else”.
Rather than feeling threatened by the first proposition of each of these phrases, celebrate the second: young people seek to discover answers about faith and religion. They just don’t feel comfortable adopting a rigid system of beliefs and wholesale behaviors. Encourage their imagination and curiosity.
Think about how to make your community safe for young people to be fully themselves.
The majority of young people (55%) agreed that “I don’t feel able to fully be myself in a religious organization”, while 45% of young people agreed that “I don’t feel safe within religious or denominational institutions.”
You might find it surprising that someone feels unsafe in your synagogue, church, or mosque, but consider some of the prevailing identities, perspectives, and political orientations there. Young people frequently tell us that they will not attend places of worship where their friends with marginalized identities would not be accepted, even if those friends are not present. Be bold in sending the message that young people are welcome in your community as they are.
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But know that this is only the first step. Believing this to be true is something that will need to be built slowly over time, through the relationship.
This holiday season may look very different for the young people in your life compared to your own growing-up experiences, but different doesn’t necessarily mean “worse.” These differences provide the opportunity to listen, connect and learn more about others, and it is possible to be the trusted adult that young people desperately need in their lives.
(Josh Packard (@drjoshpackard) is executive director of the Springtide Research Institute and author of “Church Refugees.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)