New study finds values gap between Gen Z and religious institutions

A new study found that Generation Z Americans — defined as those age 13-25 — increasingly distanced themselves from religious institutions like churches, mosques or synagogues in 2020, finding spirituality instead in practices like tarot card readings and sharing fears and musings in online spaces like Tik Tok.

Half of the more than 10,000 young people surveyed said they don’t think religious institutions care as much as they do about issues and movements that matter deeply to them — like Black Lives Matter, gender equity, LGBTQ rights, immigrant rights, reproductive rights, environmental causes, income inequality and gun control — according to a recent study by Springtide Research Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization.

The survey also found that Gen Zers have felt exceptionally alone dealing with increased isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is still present more than a year after the first lockdowns.

Meanwhile, 23% said they attend weekly religious services — below the 31% average attendance for adults in 2019, according to Pew data.

Also, 78% of young people said they were “spiritual” without identifying with a particular religion.

“At the exact moment when young people were looking around trying to find guidance, they were trying all kinds of rituals and traditions — everything from tarot card readings, prayer, rosaries to crystals,” Springtide’s Executive Director Josh Packard told

Packard, who holds a doctorate in sociology from Vanderbilt University, believes houses of worship are more diverse than young people realize, but religious leaders often turn off young people with rhetoric that seems disrespectful or not inclusive of diverse social identities.

In the study, 54% of young people expressed frustration that religious communities want to solve their problems instead of “just being there” for them.

“I’m gay,” said Ethan, a 21-year-old participant. “And I know that the conservative Christian community doesn’t necessarily support people who are LGBTQ+.

And a lot of the beliefs were written by members of the religion who don’t necessarily respect these people.

“And so it’s made me question to what extent can I really trust that this is what I should believe, that it is ethical or proper. And for that reason, I’ve kind of lost faith because I just feel like there’s not a lot of trust I can place in the religion when there’s a lot of hypocrisy and contradictions.”

Gen Z’s saving grace may have been social media spirituality.

On social media platforms like TikTok, teen uploaders shared their collective fears and existentialist thoughts in unprecedented times. Some users even expressed how the pandemic was a time meant for spiritual awakening.

Some Gen Zers are even creating their own religions through unorthodox combinations of beliefs and practices, Springtide reported.

Teens on the web showed videos of themselves practicing Buddhist meditation with elements of Wiccan nature worship.

“Young people are turning to other people of faith to find out what is worthy and valid out of that tradition,” Packard said.

When young people choose spirituality over organized services, they tend to incorporate their values into their practices, Springtide reported.

For example, nearly 4 out of 5 young people indicated concern for environmental issues, and half said that being in nature is very much a spiritual experience for them.

“I like to shut everything off for a moment,” said Collette, a 23-year-old participant. “So I’ll either meditate, I’ll do yoga, I’ll listen to music — like self-care, maybe take a bath or just go on a walk, anything to stop thinking about whatever stressed me out. I know that doesn’t fix the problem, but it does help momentarily.”

Young people who called themselves “very religious” said that they were flourishing significantly more than those who identified as “not religious at all.”

On the other hand, Gen Z respondents who said religious leaders and trusted adults from a religious institution reached out to them reported feeling less anxiety.

But only 10% of young people said a religious leader personally reached out to them in the last year.

Twice as many young people said they turned to family and friends in hardships rather than religious leaders, and 16% said they turned to “no one” when they felt overwhelmed this year.

Half of the young people surveyed told Springtide they don’t turn to faith communities due to a lack of trust in the people, beliefs and systems of organized religion.

Last year, Springtide’s 2020 report found that simply attending religious programs did not increase young people’s trust in religious institutions, but its data didn’t reveal a loss of interest in the depth of religion or spirituality — only a loss of trust.

Packard said Springtide aims to heal generational gaps so that young people do not feel left alone in their spiritual journey. They say want mentors who practice listening, integrity and transparency instead of judgment.

  • Anna Carlson is a student at The King’s College in New York.
  • First published by Religion Unplugged. Republished with permission.
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