The big picture: How young people are reshaping spirituality

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Afternoon sunlight illuminates stained glass windows and benches inside the B'nai Abraham Synagogue building in Virginia.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR 2013

Do you go to church? If not, you’re not alone. The number of churchgoers in the United States has dropped steadily over the past few decades, and the COVID-19 pandemic has curtailed in-person worship.

But going to church isn’t the only way to be spiritual — a fact that many young people are embracing, according to a report on the state of religion and young people from the Minnesota-based Springtide Research Institute.

As we step into a new year, we’re looking to the future of big issues in America. Host Cathy Wurzer talked with Josh Packard, Springtide’s executive director, about the future of religion and spirituality.

Here are three major takeaways from the conversation:

No. 1: For young people, spirituality starts with interpersonal relationships

Young people are turning away from traditional religious institutions and instead seeking answers to the big questions in life through their relationships with other people, Packard said.

Young people have “broad access to a diverse range of experiences” in their online lives, Packard explained, and they’re discovering “what faith looks like through the lens of somebody else’s life … what meaning and purpose look like through somebody else’s experience.”

No. 2: Adults still matter to kids

Some parents, religious leaders and educators are dismayed by the way young people seem to be turning away from established institutions. But Packard thinks the data actually “recenters … the primary importance of relationships with trusted adults” for young people.

“These adults have never been important,” he said.

No. 3: Gen Z isn’t tearing things down, but building something new

Springtide’s research has found that young people believe existing religious institutions don’t care about social issues in the same way they do. That and the decades-long trend of growing distrust of institutions in general are major reasons why young people are turning away from organized religion.

But “This isn’t just about necessary criticism and pointing out flaws,” Packard said. “We see really strong signs that [young people are] actually constructionists — they’re builders.”

And Packard is optimistic of what they might build: new forms of spirituality more reflective of diversity, with fewer institutional bounds.

Do you see these trends in your own life or the people around you? Send us your thoughts at minnesotanow@mpr.org.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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