Young people are more faithful, less likely to attend religious services

Faith has grown stronger among the nation’s teens and young adults during COVID-19 — even though they attend church services less frequently now than at the start of the pandemic.

They also trust their religious communities more and agree that spirituality is important for their mental health.

However, they are not attracted to virtual services at the moment, despite their heavy use of social media.

These are some of the main conclusions of the Springtide Research InstituteThe recently released report, “The New Normal, Updated & Expanded: 10 Ways to Care for Gen Z in a Post-Pandemic World”.

The data comes from a survey of almost 1,800 people between the ages of 13 and 25.

Main findings

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

More young people said their faith had become stronger during the pandemic (30%) than weaker (18%) or completely lost (8%). This includes a growing segment of respondents who say they have no doubts about the existence of a higher power, 28% in 2022 compared to 22% in 2021.

At the same time, the percentage attending religious services daily, weekly, monthly or less than a month each fell from 1% to 5% from 2021 to 2022, while those who report never attending such services increased from 30% in 2021 to 44% in 2022.

Jana Riess, columnist at the Religion News Service, president of the Mormon Social Science Associationsaid there are no definitive answers as to why this apparent disconnect exists.

One possibility, she said, is that these discoveries are part of a larger, ongoing trajectory in which young adults are less likely to engage with institutional religion and more inclined to create their own spiritual journey.

The pandemic, she added, has simply accelerated this trend.

“On the one hand, yes, it is surprising to see a discrepancy between the number of people who still say that faith is an important part of their life and the number of people who are not active in a religious tradition,” said Riess said. “But that’s just a more explicitly delineated version of what we’ve been seeing for years.”

This trend also exists among older Americans, she said, but not to the same extent. As for what will happen as the world recovers from COVID-19, it’s impossible to be sure, although “I don’t think we’re going to recover as much as we would like.”

Attendance at church services wasn’t the only metric studied by the Springtide Research Institute. Its report also indicates that a higher percentage of Gen Zers report feeling “strongly connected” to a higher power: 18% in 2022 compared to 13% in 2021. Conversely, those who say they do not feel connected at all at a higher power, the power is 27% in 2022, compared to 36% in 2021.

Additionally, about 10% say they found joy in virtual religious gatherings during the height of the pandemic — despite 38% of Gen Zers saying they used social media for five to six hours a day or more. Only about a third say they would consider joining a fully online religious community (35%) or that a fully online religious community is preferable (34%).

Almost 7 in 10 (67%) agree that their religious or spiritual life is important to their mental health. Although 48% of Gen Zers say they are moderately or extremely depressed right now, 73% agree that their religious or spiritual practices have a positive impact on their mental health.

Some 37% now say they trust their places of worship more or completely because of their handling of the pandemic, compared to 20% who trust their places of worship less or not at all. Additionally, 71% agree that their places of worship have done a good job of protecting them from COVID-19 compared to 63% who say this about their school and 43% who say this about their government.

There is less common ground

Patrick Masonhead of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University, said that statistic may seem counterintuitive, given the number of young adults who are leaving organized religion altogether.

But for many people, he said, COVID-19 has had the effect of strengthening the position they already had before the pandemic. Those who were already religious clung to their faith, while those who questioned organized religion hastened their departure.

“What we’re seeing right now in America is much more fractured, where people are choosing whether they’re religious or not,” Mason said. “These become stronger identities, somehow, rather than some sort of squishy middle.”

The report goes on to suggest ways religious leaders can connect with their young followers, including using the arts (such as journaling, drawing or music) and showing empathy.

“Have a conversation with the young people in your life, share your answers and thoughts without demanding answers,” the report says. “Inviting them to comment on your experiences feels less risky and doesn’t require them to dig deep to identify hard-to-name emotions or share those emotions before they’re ready.”

Latter Day Saint Research

The Springtide Research Institute has also studied trends among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“The State of Religion and Youth 2021: Navigating Uncertainty”, conducted throughout 2021, argues that “for a large and growing segment of young people, religiosity is increasingly decoupled from institutions, even as they express high levels of religious belief, practice and identity.”

During the year, more than 10,000 young people were interviewed, including 470 who identified as Latter-day Saints or Mormons. From this group, 134 also received a series of additional questions about their experiences and views.

The report found that Latter-day Saints, ages 18 to 25, reported the highest participation in youth group activities; and 57 percent of Latter-day Saints surveyed said they trust organized religion “completely” or “a lot,” compared to 35 percent of the national sample.

They were the most likely, at 26%, to say they read a scripture to help them cope with difficult times. They were also the most likely, at 25%, to say they went to a spiritual or religious service to help them through difficulties.

More than 4 in 10 (41%) said they turned to someone in their faith community when they were overwhelmed and unsure what to do. It was second highest behind Buddhists at 42%.

And they were most likely, at 27%, to say that spiritual practices bring a lot of meaning and fulfillment.

Young Latter-day Saints, however, were among the least likely, at 36%, to say that spending time with their family gives them great satisfaction in their lives. Only Hindus (33%) and Orthodox Christians (19%) agreed with lower percentages.

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