May 22, 2024

Why Gen Z’s are running away from organised religion

By Mukami Mwangi

In an era defined by rapid technological advancements, globalisation, and shifting societal norms, it is no surprise that Generation Z, the cohort born roughly between the mid-1990s and early 2010s, is redefining the landscape of spirituality and religious affiliation. Traditional places of worship, like churches, are experiencing a noticeable decline in attendance among young people who often cite reasons such as “I’m spiritual, not religious”, and the preference for a more personalised connection with the divine.

I, for example, was raised in a religious family: I seldom missed Sunday school as a child. My parents (both church leaders) taught us the importance of reading the Bible, praying and participating in church activities. Reciting Bible verses in front of the church every Sunday, reading the word on behalf of the kids, and participating in church competitions… I was that. So now I bet you would understand when I say going to church is normal for me; but not so much for most of my age mates.

In my grown-ish era, I rarely went to church. “It’s about my relationship with God; I don’t have to go to church to maintain it.” “I don’t need a pastor to tell God what I want on my behalf; I’d rather do it directly.” Those used to be my excuses for not attending church.

Now that I’m past that phase, I see the point of church. It’s about having a community, having people who share the same beliefs and who are headed in the same direction. For instance, if you are a programmer, you will be better at it or have an easier journey if you align with people in the same field. You will join LinkedIn groups, go to conferences, and attend workshops; you will want to associate with and be around people headed in your direction.

Back to “I’m spiritual, not religious.” It’s a statement that encapsulates the growing trend among Gen Z individuals to distance themselves from organised religious institutions while still seeking a profound spiritual connection.

This shift can be partially attributed to the perception of religious pride within some faith communities. Religious pride manifests as an excessive sense of superiority, exclusivity, or judgmentalism within certain religious groups. Unfortunately, this perception of religious pride has driven many young people away from places of worship. They fear being judged, feeling inferior, or facing condemnation for not conforming to rigid religious doctrines.

Or, it could be because of the ‘weird churches’ that are cropping up every other day. One will feel safer praying at home and studying the Bible by themselves for fear of being in a cultic group in the name of “church.” The Shakahola massacre in Kenya is still fresh in our minds. It is scary that over 400 people starved themselves to death, believing they will meet God.

One might also argue that most new churches are businesses. The other day, a pastor condemned one of his church members for giving Ksh500 ($3.39). He said, and I quote “Huyu ananipatie mia tano anasema nimuombee, mia tano nitapeleka wapi? Hata mafuta siwezi nunua nayo labda mtu wa bodaboda.”

I wondered, is this what it’s about now? Do you still think a ‘woke’ Gen Z, who constantly questions and criticises things, will attend such a service and fail to shout “cap” in the middle of the service? Ha-ha.

This generation finds solace in shaping their beliefs, crafting unique connections with the divine, and seeking answers to existential questions on their terms.

In their traditional form, churches sometimes struggle to accommodate this yearning for personal spirituality. They may thus be perceived as rigid institutions that demand conformity to specific dogmas and rituals, stifling the quest for individualised connections that Gen Zs crave for.

To bridge the gap between Gen Z and organised religion, churches must address the issue of religious pride head-on. Encouraging humility, tolerance, and inclusivity can create a more welcoming environment for young seekers. Church can be a safe space for the young and those whose faith is still budding, who falter, who question, who are still seeking.

The spiritual landscape among the Gen Z should not be viewed solely as a challenge but as an opportunity for churches to listen, evolve and adapt. While the decline in church attendance may be disconcerting to some, it is essential to recognize that spirituality is not disappearing; it is simply taking new forms. Churches can collaborate with young people to build bridges between traditional practices and evolving spirituality.

Take, for instance, institutions with a main service, youth service, and children’s service that run concurrently; that way, the church accommodates every age group. I attended a youth service once, and the program impressed me. The praise and worship session comprised modern Christian songs, with all the new dance moves in town. The preaching was more of a conversation with the audience, and an interaction session after that was filled with laughter and selfies. This felt real and authentic. As Gen Zs we felt seen.

Another opportunity is with the current digital age. With its vast resources and opportunities for connection, technology is a powerful tool that can either isolate or integrate Gen Z into faith communities. Church leaders must harness the potential of technology to facilitate meaningful spiritual engagement with young people and foster connections by reaching the Gen Z’s right where they are.

Gen Z and Zillenials (which is apparently people stuck between Gen Z and Millennials) must remain open to exploring the rich tapestry of spiritual traditions that older church folk represent. They can grow their faith by standing on the shoulders of those who have been there before them. On the other hand churches must embrace change, humility and inclusivity to ensure that the wisdom of the past resonates with the spirituality of the future.

Mukami Mwangi is a journalist based in Nairobi.

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