Is Gen Z the least religious generation?
By Molly Dalzell | @mollydoesmedia
It’s the early 2000’s and I’m sitting in RE class at my small Church of England village primary school. Looking around, the confused faces of the other children tell me that they know very little about how to interpret the Bible or the faith that their school follows.
Fast-forward ten years, and I’m a teenager at Church. As the congregation passes by during Communion, I’m struck by the lack of other people my age. Where are they hiding? It wasn’t always like this, in previous years I wasn’t so isolated. I’ve been thinking about this for my whole life; now it’s time to find out why.
According to Professor Abby Day, from Goldsmiths University, the majority of young people don’t think about religion. “It’s just not on their radar”, she says. One explanation is the shift in how children are being raised. The Baby Boomer generation “stopped [attending church] on a massive scale” and this passed down onto their children through the generations. This involved the parents not socialising their children in Church settings as they had done before and the children became interested in other things.
An answer to why Boomers (and the following generations including Gen Z) stopped attending church, according to many sociologists, is the perception that Christianity is patriarchal. With an increased interest in feminism and women’s rights, many have turned against a religion that they believe perpetuates patriarchal teachings. Young people also have strong beliefs that the Church is against LGBTQ+ ideas, and many have turned away from the Church because of this. One member of Gen Z explained in my survey that the Church should “give more clear answers on accepting people from the LGBTQ+ community. The failure to do so discourages many people from joining the Church, whether they are part of that community or not”.
So why do young people still follow organised religion? A simple explanation could be that they adopted it from their parents and family members. “Religion is socialised [and] religion is transmitted” by the parents, explains Professor Day. Therefore, if the parents have never introduced the child(ren) into the Church, they will grow up separated from it. As she puts it, “where else will children get a view of religion if not initially in their homes?”.
Cory Holas leads the Christian youth group Ignite. He tries to create a relaxed environment where the young people can socialise whilst being taught about the Bible. He believes that young people follow Christianity because it “helps to bring structure, direction and purpose to one’s life”. “It is not a stretch to say that our youth groups have been life saving”, he asserted.
Many Christian families try to combat the turn away from Christianity by teaching their children at home with songs, books and even simple conversation about the teachings of the Bible. Father David Jones, a Catholic Priest from my own church, explains that these families are known as ‘The Domestic Church’. However, he also emphasised that “no one is wholly determined by their parents” with there being many examples of “young people breaking out to find out for themselves” their beliefs.
But many modern households don’t take this approach. In my survey, 75% of the participants believe that they were allowed to independently choose what to believe in when growing up. This could perhaps be another reason for the lack of young Christians in current times as previously, children were born into a religion and were raised according to its teachings without their opinion being an important factor. However today, the Church has seemingly become an outdated idea that young people just don’t gravitate towards.
I spoke to a young atheist named Max who explained when growing up, his “parents were always very clear that they’d support me if I chose to subscribe to a religion so I certainly wasn’t raised anti-religion”. However, he ultimately decided he was an atheist. Max believes that “Gen Z have a pretty poor relationship with Christianity” which could be due to the fact that most of their time is spent online and on social media. “Social media is a really polarising platform and often propagates the belief that Christianity comes hand in hand with traditionalism, misogyny, homophobia [and] racism”.
According to the most recent British Social Attitudes survey, the percentage of people with irreligion now stands at 50%. Ned Newitt from the Leicester Secular society believes that “this means that young people are discarding the beliefs of their parents”. Secularism by definition is rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations, which causes Ned to state that “the majority of young people live secular lives without realising it”. Despite this, the Leicester Secular society where Ned is based, has largely consisted of the older generation “for the last 50 years”.
Cory doesn’t share Ned’s perspective. For him, in the post-pandemic world, many of the young people have returned with some even bringing along friends as he told me “deep down we’ve all got that desire to do good”.
Father David also feels encouraged by the local University students, with “their faithful attendance, involvement, [and] commitment”. Despite these positive takes, the Church cannot deny that Gen Z has their focus set on other things and that if their mindset doesn’t change now, the future of the Church is uncertain.
In the survey that I conducted, I asked a simple beginning question: are you Christian? 29% answered yes with 71% responding with a no. However, the next question is the most revealing: “Do you frequently visit a Christian church?”: 95% of the young people answered that they do not, with only 2% saying yes. This is telling of the mindset of young people and the fact that other things in their life take precedence.
Max, an atheist, stated that despite his atheism, “on an individual level religion can be really powerful and a really great tool”. Yet there is clearly something deterring young people from attending Church on a regular basis.
My survey findings reflected a very common theme in response to “what do you think the church could do to encourage young people?” Many of the responses included an urge to modernise the Church rather than “sticking to traditions”. But how possible is this? A core focus of the Church is passing on traditions and disseminating beliefs expressed in the Bible. Fr David explained that “modern problems” faced by society today have been experienced many times in previous generations and the “Church has no authority to change” the teachings of Jesus in the Bible.
The survey responses provided interesting feedback from the young people, some even explaining that they find it strange for a teenager to be a Christian. The reasons for this are differing, with one young person stating that “when [I was] growing up most people that I knew were not raised to be religious so [I] never became religious”.
But what about young people that don’t follow the Church but are instead involved with spirituality? In recent times, especially on social media, there has been a surge of young people exploring spirituality: Astrology, reading and interpreting Tarot Cards or Clairvoyance. Why is this accepted, but being involved with the Church is odd?
Spiritualitywithtally on Instagram explained that “spirituality is more about getting in tune with yourself and loving yourself” whereas, she believes that religion has too many “set rules” and “places too much shame” on people when they’ve made mistakes. Despite creating spiritual content for social media, Jenny from Queenofcupstarotreadings on Instagram can understand why young people follow organised religion, explaining that she can see “the positive aspects of Christianity in which it gives people faith in something” but she also does not support the “restrictive aspects” that she perceives from the Church.
Professor Day explained that the parents and family members of Gen Z were “quite receptive to ideas of spirituality”. She also noted that interest in Spiritualism has always been present; however, “nowadays people will talk about it more and not see that it is being pushed down by the church”.
Throughout my research, the Church being perceived as restrictive is a common recurrence and usually comes from people that are on the ‘outside’ and have never experienced it for themselves.
Georgina, a young Christian explained that Christianity can even feel restrictive to its followers as growing up she “wasn’t allowed to go to Halloween parties as a child and all my friends were.” She’s also come up against challenges due to her faith, especially from boys that would call her names like “bible-basher”. In the past “I did feel different and as a teenager this felt like a bad thing”. As she has grown up, Georgina has learnt to appreciate being ‘different’ as a Christian young person and she “can’t imagine life without my Church family”.
Even though she has a deep-rooted relationship with the Church, Georgina can appreciate that many young people may see the older, more traditional Churches as “stuffy and cold”. she explains: “where the youngest person is old enough to be your gran, it’s not cool!”
Many young people see the church as unwelcoming and the people unapproachable, with some even telling me that they think that they would be judged by the people there for the way they look. With many members of Gen Z sporting alternative clothing and each having their individual styles, this is a concern for potential young Christians and could put them off joining. So, what is the church doing to try and encourage new members?
People outside of the Church may imagine a Church group where you sit in a circle and sing. There are definitely groups out there like this, but there are also many ways of accessing Church. For example, during the pandemic, Churches were closed and were forced to go online. Many people remain to attend church in this way as it is more accessible and people can go more regularly.
With Church attendance dwindling, what will the future of the Church look like? In my survey, when asked if they care about the future of the church, the answers were varying, however the majority said no, explaining “I don’t think it is spoken about as much as it used to be”.
The Church may not currently admit a problem with the lack of young people, but this is a mindset that will have to change in order for there to be a healthy Church in the future. The Church may not be capable of changing their whole ideology as this consists of traditions and beliefs that are passed down over centuries, however they are making small steps in order to become a more inclusive and modern place for all. One way this is improving is through Pope Francis, the leader of around a billion Catholics, saying “who am I to judge?” when referencing gay Catholics. This may not be changing the world, but it is slowly changing the Church for the future because after all, Gen Z will be the ones to see it.