Trust in religious institutions is low among Gen Z – but young people are keeping the faith in other ways

By Kevin Singer and Josh Packard

Trust in institutions among Americans in general has dwindled over the years and Gen Z — those born between 1995 and 2010 – are among the most distrustful. They are also the generation most likely to self-identify as “atheist” or “agnostic” according to surveys.

At Springtide Research, we are interested in probing deeper into this apparent disillusionment with religious institutions among young people. In 2019-2020 we surveyed over 10,000 young people between the ages of 13-25 and interviewed 160 more, and what we found is that members of Gen Z aren’t losing their religion so much as they are doing religion differently.

The State of Religion and Young People 2020 confirmed that trust in organized religion could certainly be higher – around two-thirds of young people rated their trust of religious institutions at 5 or below out of maximum of 10, with an overall mean score of 4.5 out of 10. This compares with an average score of 5.3 for banks – suggesting that banks were more trusted institutions among Gen Z than organized religions.

Trust in religion did, however, fare better than that of the media, Congress, Big Business, and the presidency in the survey, which concluded in July 2020.

(Don’t) take me to church

Distrust in religious institutions is prevalent among young people who say they affiliate with a religion or denomination as well as those identifying as non-religious. The survey found that a staggering 52% of young people who claim a religious affiliation – along with 80% who don’t – rated their trust in religious institutions at five or below on a ten-point scale.

Remarkably, this suggests that more than half of young people who claim a religious affiliation have little trust in the very religious institutions with which they identify.

The study also found that young people maintain a distanced relationship with religious institutions. Nearly half of young people (49%) who affiliate with a religion or denomination say they attend religious gatherings once a month or less. After turning 18, this number grows to 65%. This should create pause: Over six in ten young people who consider themselves religious are not in church more than once a month.

This apparent disconnect between Gen Z and organized religion may reflect on one-on-one relationships with religious leaders. At a time when young people continue to struggle with loneliness to a significant degree, just 8% of respondents say there is a religious leader they can turn to. And as the pandemic shutdowns began in Spring 2020, just 1% said a religious leader reached out to check in with them.

Keeping the faith

Despite notable levels of distrust – and distance – from religious institutions, sizable majorities of respondents said they consider themselves to be at least slightly religious (71%) or slightly spiritual (78%).

Notably, 60% of the religiously-unaffiliated Gen Zers – including 42% of atheists, 65% of agnostics, and 63% of those claiming nothing in particular – say they are at least slightly spiritual. Over 30% of the religiously-unaffiliated report that they attend worship services, and nearly the same percentage say they try to live out their religious beliefs in their daily lives.

Gen Z’s faith also showed resilience in the early months of the pandemic, though just 21% of young people attended virtual religious gatherings in the early months of the pandemic. While 47% say they saw no change in their faith, more reported their faith getting stronger (35%) during quarantine than those experiencing more doubt (11%) or losing their faith altogether (7%). Even without contact or direction from religious leaders, 46% of young people say they started a religious or spiritual practice, while far less (27%) say they stopped a religious or spiritual practice in the early months of the pandemic.

Gen Z has been called an “irreligious generation” and an “unreached people group,” but these generalizations do a disservice to Gen Z, whose religion and spiritual impulses are more complex than labels like “affiliated” or “unaffiliated” can possibly represent.

Don’t be a stranger

Rather than understanding Gen Z’s apprehension about religious institutions as the abandonment of religion, it is an opportunity for faith leaders to reevaluate how they are engaging young people.

A major finding of Springtide’s study is that when older adults invest in relationships with young people – whether parents, coaches, teachers, or religious leaders – young people report less loneliness and ascribe more meaning and purpose to their lives. As a case in point, 24% of young people with no adult mentors say they never feel their life has meaning and purpose. But for those with even just one adult mentor, this number drops to 6%.

However, the behaviors shown during interactions with young people are equally important as time spent. Springtide found that young people are more likely to trust adults who practice listening, transparency, integrity, and care – what Springtide calls relational authority – more than leaders who rely on their institutional authority to do the heavy lifting. To be sure, young people are eager to glean from the expertise of older adults – but as the old adage goes, they’ll care about how much you know after you’ve shown how much you care.

The spiritual lives of young people are complex – and these complexities are rich, exciting, and real. To understand them, we should begin by looking at their lives outside the pews.

Kevin Singer (@kevinsinger0) is Head of Media and Public Relations for Springtide Research Institute, professor of religious studies at two community colleges, and a doctoral student in higher education at North Carolina State University.

Dr. Josh Packard (@drjoshpackard) is Executive Director of Springtide Research Institute.

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