Dressed in bright orange shirts and standing on a strip of grass facing Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, the small group of young protesters held signs reading, “Love God. Love your neighbor. Act on the climate.
It wasn’t just a Saturday afternoon demonstration; it was also an expression of faith, as the signs suggest. These young people were part of YECA, or Evangelical Youth for Climate Action; their speech was filled with quotes from the Bible – Ecclesiastes, to be precise, said Jenna Van Donselaar, YECA field organizer.
“The ethics of our work on climate action stems from our calling as Christians,” she said, explaining that the Bible obliges people to take care of the environment. But she added that she doesn’t see many churches heeding this order.
“I don’t know how we read the same gospel,” she said of conservative-leaning congregations that ignore climate change and other progressive issues. “My faith is rooted in a call for social justice and a call for social action.”
Many young people look like Van Donselaar, according to a new study from the Springtide Research Institute. Although they still see themselves as religious or spiritual, they are wary of religious institutions. And so, they approach their faith in a way that to an outside observer might not look like traditional worship.
Springtide’s latest survey found that 71% of Americans between the ages of 13 and 25 identify as religious and 78% adopt spiritual etiquette. But they don’t find much comfort within the four walls of a church. Even among those who identify as “very religious,” only 40% said they found solace in connecting with their religious community “during difficult or uncertain times,” the report says.
While nearly half of those polled said they had attended at least one online service during the pandemic, only 13% said they found joy in virtual worship; an equally small percentage said they found hope in online services.
Experts said that because the numbers reveal a deep disconnect between American youth and religious institutions across the country, religious leaders seeking to keep young people in the fold don’t need to think of better programs in their churches, synagogues or mosques. On the contrary, they must think outside the institutional box.
Josh Packard, executive director of the Springtide Research Institute, explained that while young Americans are suspicious of religious institutions, “they express a high level of trust in individual relationships. You will hear the young people say: “I do not like the ministers of the youth but I like my Minister of Youth.
Religious leaders should strive to meet young people where they are and should focus on relationship building, he and others noted.
“Many young people are already expressing their faith through service,” Packard said. “The causes around which they rally intersect with spiritual concerns; the people who are there with them become their spiritual partners.
Religious leaders should come forward with “a learning posture,” Packard added. However, he and other experts cautioned against religious leaders artificially fitting into spaces. The connection has to be organic.
“Younger generations are less inclined to affiliate with institutions and organizations and are more likely to affiliate with people,” said Angie Thurston, former ministry innovation researcher at Harvard Divinity School and co- author of the “How We Gather” report, which offered a deep dive into how unaffiliated millennials express spirituality.
“There is a deep hunger for anything that answers these basic questions: How should I live? Why should I live? And how to ?” said Thurston. Although younger generations are less inclined to affiliate with institutions, she said, they – like all humans – seek the deep sense of belonging that comes from belonging to a community.
The country’s youth yearn for “the experience of being deeply known and deeply loved,” Thurston said. “They want to be connected to something bigger than themselves.”
Pointing to the cycle of the soul and Black girls run As an example, Thurston added that, for American youth, even participation in organizations and events that have no obvious connection to religion or spirituality can constitute a form of worship.
“You can run and just run or you can run as a form of spiritual practice,” Thurston said. What is important, she added, is “intention, attention and repetition.”
Not only do we need to reformulate our ideas about how young Americans worship, but we also need to reconsider how we respond more broadly to the emotional and intellectual needs of young people, said Chris Stedman, writer and professor in the Department of Religion and of Philosophy from the University of Augsburg.
Young people who do not identify as religious or spiritual face many of the same questions as those who do, said Stedman, who also served as a humanist chaplain at Harvard University and founding director of the Yale Humanist Society. . As a society, we have to find a way to meet these needs.
Echoing the point made in Alain de Botton’s book “Religion for Atheists,” Stedman noted, “Whatever you think of religion, it’s this toolkit of resources. Just because someone doesn’t believe claims of truth doesn’t mean that we don’t need practices that reorient us toward a more intentional way of living in the world.
But, even though he himself was part of building an alternative framework, Stedman is not sure now that building additional institutions and programs is key. On the contrary, he reflected, the answer might lie in introducing some of these questions and tools of religion into institutions with which young people already have contact and which they trust – places like schools.
Highlighting the popularity of classes like Yale’s Course of Happiness and the meaning-making that occurs in his own lessons, Stedman postulated that colleges and universities could perhaps be the perfect place for students to grapple with timeless philosophical questions that are also an integral part of religion. .
“Institutions of higher learning that are (a) religiously oriented are equipped to help people think about these questions,” Stedman said, adding that many young people “will not walk through the doors of a church but will enter. a classroom”.
For young people who are religious or spiritual, many approach their faith in a do-it-yourself way, added Stedman, what Springtide called “unbundling.”
Stedman reflected that “going towards freedom has its advantages, but it places a great burden on individuals” to find it out for themselves.
While YECA provides members with much of the meaning and community they seek and does so in an overtly religious setting – “This is my Christian community, ”said Van Donselaar – national organizer and spokesperson Tori Goebel noted that for many of those involved, the organization does not completely replace the church. On the contrary, said Goebel, they hope religious institutions will learn from groups like YECA and begin to reshape themselves to meet the concerns and needs of young people.
“We don’t want to leave the church out of frustration,” Goebel said. “We want leaders to integrate (our concerns) into the life of the church… we want to make the expression of faith (of institutions) fuller and more complete.