Sparking Religious Curiosity in Today’s Youth 

 In Religion & Spirituality, Research

Our newest report, The State of Religion & Young People 2023: Exploring the Sacred, presents the ways young people experience the sacred in traditional spaces and throughout day-to-day life. We send our work into the world with a clear narrative on what the data show—and we know that data is open to interpretation. We welcome this public dialogue because it creates space for conversation about the lives of young people. In this post, we invited Lexi Rominger of the Fetzer Institute to reflect on our work. The Fetzer Institute specializes in finding ways to work toward transformed communities and societies where all people can flourish by understanding how spirituality and a shared sacred connection lay that foundation. Below, Lexi shares part of her sacred story, pinpoints the intersections of our report findings with her own daily experience, and poses crucial questions for religious leaders.

No one can prepare you for the type of grief that comes with losing a parent at an early age. Yet, I discovered a silver lining in the process: a deeper understanding of my faith.  

Don’t get me wrong: there were plenty of moments when I was upset with God, and I had a lot to say to him. Yet, that confusion and that pain made me believe in something bigger than myself. I felt comfort in knowing I wasn’t alone, but when I looked around at people my age, I still felt isolated and different. 

The source of my grief separated me from my peers. Most young adults haven’t lost a parent. Those I encountered who had were double my age or more. 

My peers were also all over the map with their beliefs. I had devoutly religious friends—many of whom were questioning and pushing back on their faith, while others weren’t spiritual at all. 

This made me wonder: Where do I fall? Am I spiritual but not religious? Religious and slightly spiritual? What about my friends? Their friends? How do youth see themselves in the context of faith, religion, and the whole world of belief?  

Young People, Spirituality, and Religion 

I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I view organized religion as being very different from spirituality. Every time I hear people’s experiences, it seems that they’re rejecting the former while adhering to the latter. This study seems to reinforce that fact. As today’s teens and young adults open their minds and hearts to concepts that are bigger than themselves, I wonder if they are consciously closing out the messages of organized belief systems, such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. 

Springtide’s body of research, including The State of Religion & Young People 2023 report, reflects pieces of what may be a larger youthful trend away from organized creeds and established religious practices. Springtide interviewed 4,500 young people from America and carefully included a balanced pool of ages, genders, regions, and ethnicities/races. Their goal was to gauge young people’s perspectives on what is sacred to them and how they see the sacred intersecting with human experience. 

The results should be a wake-up call for religious leaders across the globe. Let’s take a closer look… 

Young People Understand the Value of Spirituality 

Springtide’s report is filled with insights into the sacred lives of teens and young adults, particularly in the context of things like technological isolation and public catastrophe, such as increasing climate concerns or the dark conflicts engulfing various parts of the globe. The data reveal that today’s youth are not closed off to the spiritual and can acknowledge and embrace the personal, relational, and mysterious side of spirituality.  

Young adults and teens love to connect and feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves. When asked, 85% of that demographic report believing in a “higher power” on some level, while only 15% of them definitively don’t believe in the concept.  

When it comes to their participation in organized religion, though, the tone shifts.  

Young People Don’t Trust Organized Religion 

In a world marked by increasing violence, hatred, and distrust, it should come as no surprise that the younger generation entering or just starting adulthood does not trust the spiritual infrastructure that has come before them. The separation from organized religion was already underway by the early 2000s. By 2019, Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) CEO Robert Jones pointed out that the disassociation accelerated. In 2006, 54% of Americans were white and Christian. Less than a decade later, that number had dropped to 42%.  

The new data from Springtide continues to reinforce this trend. Fully 27% of young people say they do not trust organized religion at all. The percentage of young people who trust it completely stands at a meager 9%.  

It’s also worth pointing out that while 18% of respondents report feeling “highly” connected to a higher power, 22% feel the same about their natural environment. In other words, more youth are finding spiritual connection in their surroundings. 

Young People Engaging on Their Terms 

Many twenty-first-century religious leaders are looking for ways to recapture the interest of younger demographics. They want to fill up their churches, synagogues, and mosques with those who are sometimes stereotyped as young, misguided souls who have lost their way. 

What if this isn’t the way we should be going about things at all? What if, rather than “saving” our youth from themselves, the goal was to meet our youth right where they are? In the introduction to the Springtide study, licensed clinical social worker Kenji Kuramitsu says, “Young people still see digital space as a potential conduit for the sacred.” If leaders could engage with young people in spaces they’re already occupying, it could open up new opportunities to build faith-based connections.  

“What if, rather than ‘saving’ our youth from themselves, the goal was to meet our youth right where they are?” 

Whether it’s technological tools or the lyrics to the latest Taylor Swift song, where are religious leaders overlooking spiritual connection points with younger generations that speak to them on their level? Finding those points could be the first step to a meaningful connection. 

This report coins a phrase called Sacred Sensibility, which codifies how young people see, appreciate, and respond to the sacred. Adults, particularly religious leaders, can help young people cultivate this. How can we spark curiosity beyond what they can see? How can we make them think about things like faith, hope, and love in their own lives and circumstances? How can we help them find the truths and encouragements inherent in organized religion through their spiritual journeys? Answering questions like these could be the beginning of restoring young people’s faith, not just in spirituality but in organized religion as well. 

No matter how old we are, what we look like, or where we live, we will all, at one point or another, experience similar things in our lives. Regardless of where we fall on the religious or spiritual spectrums, relating through grief or joy, death or birth reminds us that we have a lot more in common than meets the eye. If there’s one thing I’ve learned through my own experience of grief and faith, it is that we have to stop ostracizing one another based on our differences in opinion and perspective. We need to come together where we are, look for those connecting points, and realize that we are never actually truly alone. 

Recommended Posts

Be a part of the path forward.

Subscribe to stay up-to-date on the latest research as we work to build actionable frameworks to care for young people.