Josh Packard: Faith like a spiral: How Gen Z in defying religious norms and starting from scratch

When we think of “spiraling,” we often associate this term with experiences of uncertainty or doubt in life. But for young people, these uncertainties—these spirals—do not indicate doom or dread; they are just the backdrop to daily life.

To be sure, over the last two years, young people have navigated the turmoil and tensions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, which intensified the already common young adult experience of difficulty, change, and upheaval.

However, just as today’s young people are navigating the spirals of sudden and rapid change, spirals also represent a kind of unbounded circle. A spiral moves away from its initial, closed form as a circle and toward a freer structure, one that nonetheless takes inspiration from that original shape.

In this way, a spiral echoes the way today’s young people increasingly resist closed systems of meaning for something more free flowing and organic. Applied to spirituality, we are calling this phenomenon “faith unbundled,” a new way of thinking about this generation’s approach to faith that includes making space for variation, personalization, and uncertainty as they journey through their lives.

Since its inception, Springtide Research Institute has been investigating the spiritual beliefs and practices of 13-25 year olds, which currently makeup Generation Z. Our recent annual report, The State of Religion & Young People 2021: Navigating Uncertainty, draws from thousands of surveys and hundreds of interviews to uncover the way young people are figuring out how to draw on religious and spiritual support to make it through life’s challenges and to celebrate its joys, and the ways they are increasingly doing so outside of formal structures of faith. We discovered that the percentage of young people attending religious services daily, weekly, monthly, or less than monthly each dropped 1-5% from 2021 to 2022, while the percentage of those who never attend religious services rose dramatically from 30% in 2021 to 44% in 2022.

Still, young people need you. They need religious and faith leaders to walk alongside them and provide guidance after the COVID years of grief, trauma, upheaval, and uncertainty. But first, young people need to be known and feel understood. Just 10% of young people say a faith leader checked in with them during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, a number that rose to only 13% among young people who said they were affiliated with a faith community.

Despite their growing distance from religious institutions and faith leaders, Generation Z remains a curious and enthusiastic generation when it comes to spirituality. A whopping 71% of 13-25 year-olds consider themselves to be religious, while 78% consider themselves to be spiritual. More young people told Springtide that their faith became stronger during the pandemic (32%) than weaker (19%) or lost completely (9%). This includes a growing number of young people who feel “highly connected” to a higher power, from 13% in 2021 to 18% in 2022, while the proportion of those who say they “don’t feel connected at all” to a higher power dropped from 36% in 2021 to 27% in 2022.

There was a time when the prevailing assumption was that only religious institutions could confer or facilitate credible spiritual enrichment. Seeking the sacred outside of a church, temple, or synagogue was seen as evidence of a kind of selfish spiritual path, smacking of consumerism with a marketplace of religious commodities, all up for grabs.

Casper ter Kuile, author of The Power of Ritual, writes in The State of Religion & Young People 2021, young people aren’t trying to extract the elements of faith from different religious contexts like a buffet with little concern for questions of appropriation or context. Rather, “Young people are trying to integrate their existing multiplicities. By finding ways to piece together their varying family histories, geographic and cultural contexts, personal interests and sensibilities, young people are attempting to experience a wholeness and connection that demands curiosity and flexibility if they are to stay true to the people they understand themselves to be.”

If you think about it, it's not particularly surprising that young people resist a fixed definition about what it means to be religious today. Casper ter Kuile rightly notes, “Just as gender expressions, sexualities, and racial identities are now understood on a richer spectrum and grounded in intersectionality, young Americans are reimagining religiosity, spirituality, or faith as something that opposes a stark ‘in’ or ‘out,’ ‘this’ or ‘that’ way of compartmentalizing.” Many of today’s young people find institutional identity or whole group cohesion not only unattractive but often untrustworthy.

Enter “faith unbundled,” which we believe captures the way young people increasingly construct their faith by combining elements from a variety of traditionally religious and unconventional sources, rather than receiving all their spiritual resources from a single, intact system or tradition.

Consider these findings from The State of Religion & Young People 2021:

…Young people are more likely to engage with art as a spiritual practice (53%) than prayer (45%)

…Young people are more likely to engage in yoga and martial arts as a spiritual practice (40%) than attend a religious group (25%)

…Young people are more likely to practice being in nature (45%) or meditation (29%) as spiritual practices than study a religious text (28%)

Each year, Springtide talks to scores of young people who defy institutional norms for what it means to be a “Christian,” a “Muslim,” and even an “atheist.” A young atheist might draw meaning from nihilism, crystals, the philosophy of Malcolm X, and protests against environmental crimes. A young Latter-day Saint might draw inspiration from “The Pearl of Great Price,” tarot cards, and meditation.

One thing that is clear: The goal for faith leaders is to stay in the conversation with young people for as long as possible. They are exploring everything, asking questions constantly and looking for guidance, but they're not going to accept a pre-made faith or religious system.

Like a spiral, young people are resisting closed systems of meaning – even religious systems spanning thousands of years – for something more free flowing, organic, and authentic. However, just because many aren’t accepting the whole “bundle” of rituals, practices, and beliefs that religious institutions offer, that doesn’t mean they don’t need the guidance and care of faith leaders in their lives. Leaders who make room for curiosity, wholeness, connection, and flexibility in the lives of young people can be the kind of guides young people trust and turn to in times of uncertainty, or whenever they’re facing life’s biggest questions.


Dr. Josh Packard is Executive Director of Springtide Research Institute, which maintains the largest dataset on young people and their spirituality in the U.S. Josh has a doctorate in sociology from Vanderbilt and he’s the author of several books including Meaning Making: 8 Values that Drive America’s Newest Generations (2020), Church Refugees: Why People are Done with Church but Not their Faith (2015), and Stuck: Why Clergy Are Alienated from Their Calling, Congregation, and Career ... and What to Do about It (2022).


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