Many Gen Zers in WNC explore new kinds of spirituality

WALKING THE WALK: Mars Hill University student Matthew Pacheco says he would describe himself as a "follower of Jesus" rather than a Christian. Photo courtesy of Pacheco

When Marc Mullinax began teaching at Mars Hill University two decades ago, the school’s Southern Baptist roots were still plain to see in the student body.

“I would say eight or nine people out of every 10 in my classes strongly identified as Christian,” says Mullinax, a professor of religion and philosophy. “We had a lot of people who would carry their Bibles around and talk about faith as quickly and as easily as the latest movie. It was just a topic of sharing.”

These days, conversations around faith are decidedly different. Many of today’s college students question the tenets of Western religion and exhibit deep interests in Hinduism and Buddhism, Mullinax says. Some outwardly reject the faith traditions they grew up with.

“They’re very suspicious of a story that starts off with saying that something’s wrong and needs an intervention from God,” he explains. “They’re not tuned to that message.”

Mullinax’s experience is not surprising. About 34% of Generation Z members in the U.S. — those born from 1997-2012 — say they are religiously unaffiliated, according to a recent report from the Washington, D.C.-based Survey Center on American Life. About 18% identify as either atheist or agnostic.

Both figures represent significant increases from earlier generations. For example, fewer than one in 10 baby boomers identify as atheist or agnostic, according to the survey.

“Something’s really changing, and it’s not as simple as saying they’re less religious,” says Rob Field, director of the Center for Spiritual Wisdom in Brevard. “I distinguish spirituality from religion, and I would say as a whole, they are very spiritually minded.”

Field teaches an introductory world religions class at Brevard College, and each semester he surveys students about their beliefs. He found some of this year’s answers revealing.

“I was raised as a Christian, baptized in a church and used to go to one on Sundays with my family,” one student wrote. “But as I grew up, I noticed that I didn’t quite share some of those beliefs. Nowadays, I don’t see a problem going to church, but I don’t see myself as a Christian. I do have a personal faith and spirituality, meaning that I believe in something, but I don’t know exactly how to describe it.”

Added another: “I do think there is one all-powerful thing or ‘god’ that holds us all together, but I just don’t hold myself to a religion.”

A different state of mind

KEEPING THE FAITH: Mars Hill student Haven Bounds grew up in a Southern Baptist household in Tennessee. “I am still a part of the Southern Baptist Christian faith and still attend services every Sunday,” she says. Photo courtesy of Bounds

Asheville’s William Bradley, 25, believes many people in his generation have been turned off Christianity by what they see as the politicization of the faith by right-wing leaders. As a result, he says, spiritually minded Gen Zers have become more open to non-Western ideas.

Bradley didn’t grow up with a specific religious tradition but became interested in Hinduism and Buddhism at an early age. He has incorporated aspects of both faiths, such as a belief in reincarnation, meditation and yoga, into his spiritual life.

“I believe that God is composed of the divine feminine and divine masculine, with the conjoining of both of those energies becoming one entity,” he explains. “I feel like some religions kind of leave out the feminine aspects of God.”

Although not a Christian, Bradley believes Jesus was a saint and that Christianity has worthwhile things to teach, especially about having faith in something bigger than oneself.

Many of the 56% of Gen Zers who identify as some type of Christian, as measured in the Survey Center on American Life’s poll, see value in other faiths.

“I believe that religion does not just help with beliefs but contributes to improvement of mental health problems,” says Haven Bounds, a sophomore at Mars Hill who is a practicing Southern Baptist. “I also believe that any religion makes people reevaluate the importance and meaning in their life.”

Other young Christians are shifting their spiritual lives by leaving the churches of their upbringing. Mars Hill freshman Matthew Pacheco says he was raised Catholic in Florida but had a loose connection with the faith, only attending Mass on Christmas and Easter.

In high school, Pacheco says, he underwent a spiritual awakening and sought to follow Jesus more closely. And after moving to North Carolina for college, he tried many different churches to find the right community, eventually settling on the Brookstone Baptist Church in Weaverville.

Brookstone’s youth ministry, he continues, offered peers for his journey and good spiritual influences. “The college realm for Christians is definitely a hard, temptation-filled place,” Pacheco says.

Off the path

Micheal Woods has worked closely with younger Gen Zers in Asheville City Schools through his nonprofit CHOSEN program. He says many of those students see little value in religion.

“They’re under a mindset that everyone formulates their own good, that there are no absolutes,” explains Woods, who is also the executive director of the Christian nonprofit Western Carolina Rescue Ministries. “And so there’s no moral anchor there.”

The fault for that lies not with Gen Z itself, he contends, but rather with adults who have failed to set an example by living truly spiritual lives. Young people are able to see through folks who merely go to church and mouth platitudes, Woods says.

As one of Field’s Brevard College students puts it: “I grew up in a Christian setting and I just got burned on it and I still struggle to look at it in a positive light after having multiple experiences where followers haven’t been real followers.”

Such skepticism about faith is healthy, Woods says. But he thinks there still is value in trying to get young people interested in organized religion.

“We need to help them get on a path to find true answers without proselytizing,” he says. Without the grounding that a faith tradition can provide, Woods continues, young people are more likely to make rash decisions with lingering consequences, like commiting crimes or dropping out of school.

The Rev. David Eck, pastor of Abiding Savior Lutheran Church in Fairview, agrees that churches have to find different approaches to appeal to this generation.

“Back in my day, basically church was it on Sunday,” he says. “Even the mall was closed when I was young. So it was easy to do things like youth groups, because it was either that or stay at home.”

In Eck’s experience, young people are far more likely to be regular churchgoers if they have a one-on-one relationship with their pastor. He admits that is easier to accomplish at Abiding Savior than at churches with larger congregations.

Eck also tries to get young people involved with community service projects through local nonprofit groups such as Western Carolina Rescue Ministries and BeLoved Asheville.

“When you involve them in caring for something other than just coming to church, I think that is attractive to them,” he says. “Previous generations maybe went because it was out of duty, but I think people in this generation have to have a reason for being there, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

Long-term implications?

Indeed, many Gen Zers say service is an important part of their spiritual life.

Mars Hill student Bounds says church membership has made her more active in the community than she otherwise would be. She has volunteered with food pantries and participated in community gardens and cleanups.

Similarly, Asheville native and UNC Chapel Hill student Andrew Lewis has been involved with the student group International Friends through his church. “There is a Christian outlook to it, but we welcomed people of all religions,” he says. “There were a lot of different faiths represented because it’s international students.”

Those types of community bonds form readily through religion. Sociologists view places of worship as “third places,” or settings where people establish personal relationships outside of home and work. So what are the implications for community if current trends continue and fewer people fill the pews each Sunday?

“I do worry about just what that means for the overall social fabric of our society,” says the Center for Spiritual Wisdom’s Field. “Does that mean there won’t be things that replace it? I don’t jump to that conclusion.”

For all their drawbacks, Field points out, the internet and social media allow young people to create communities based around shared interests. And even as the popularity of their services wanes, churches will possibly be able to continue as community spaces by hosting programs such as 12-step meetings, soup kitchens or English-as-second-language classes.

“Already our churches nationally are having to think outside the box,” he says. “Are we going to close our doors and say we’re done? Are we going to retool as a place where maybe we’re going to be able to meet some community needs, even if we don’t talk about God while we’re doing it?”



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About Justin McGuire
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2 thoughts on “Many Gen Zers in WNC explore new kinds of spirituality

  1. Grant Millin

    I do not believe the MX reporter here is launching an attack on Christianity or is trying to get young people confused about the Christian God, which is in fact a Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

    I cannot address problems like Christian Nationalism right now. However, a response to this article that goes deeper on at least what one Asheville Christian thinks right now within a day of the article going live is important… especially given I am not into Christian Nationalism.

    First, a Mars Hill University professor of religion and philosophy is not a good source for options in practicing the Christian faith in a ’Non-Christian Nationalist’ manner where pledging allegiance to POTUS 45 is part of the doctrine. I think that this MX article doesn’t establish that Dr. Mullinax is aiding in a movement that promotes the idea the young Christians should:

    1) Not feel okay about Christianity, period.

    2) Get on board with an experimental version of faith where you have no idea what faith practice is best… or whether the faith practice is symmetrically masculine and feminine enough at once… because just adopting Hinduism and/or Buddhism isn’t like downloading an app about religion. And while Jesus Christ was in male form in most accounts, the sex of God the Father and the Holy Spirit isn’t the point anymore than Jesus talked about how awesome He was because he came to earth as a man.

    3) Never get a chance to be supported stand up for a version of Christianity that is about nature and loving your neighbor as yourself; because that’s all part of selflessly, humbly, and lovingly putting the Triune God front and center… which is about faith in an Alpha and Omega Triune God versus anything any of us have to force anyone into or oversell or put into law.

    I’d like to add that the Christians that got quoted didn’t have space to expand on ideas like a one-on-one relationship with a pastor can be important; but people in total isolation with all kinds of adversarially situations keep their faith… or come to believe in that Triune God for the first time in super tough situations… versus getting thrown off track by the world.

    Whatever Rob Field, director of the Center for Spiritual Wisdom, promotes… life with Christ can provide all that and much more. In fact, the Center for Spiritual Wisdom builds on Christianity and things Christians already do in any case.

    Luke 7 is about the faith of a Roman cop who is supposed to believe in idols. He ends up being an early disciple of the Christian Way. The Way is fully of surprises and it not about the status quo. So, just running with a mess of assumptions that The Way is something old Christian Nationalist own and has to be cancelled is not going to help GenZers.

    Then further into Luke 7 Jesus talks about wisdom in terms of all kinds of stuff people were already erroneously supposing about Him and the start of ‘cancelling’ Jesus based on tossing around untrue dastardly things He was accused of throughout the Gospels – that He was never actually guilty of doing in reality – but ends up being ‘temporarily’ killed over:

    24 After John’s messengers left, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 25 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear expensive clothes and indulge in luxury are in palaces. 26 But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 27 This is the one about whom it is written:

    “‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way before you.’

    28 I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”

    29 (All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right, because they had been baptized by John. 30 But the Pharisees and the experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.)

    31 Jesus went on to say, “To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? 32 They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other:

    “‘We played the pipe for you,
    and you did not dance;
    we sang a dirge,
    and you did not cry.’

    33 For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ 34 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ 35 But wisdom is proved right by all her children.”

    Jesus is about the least becoming the first. The possibility of global Christendom and American Christendom NOT being strictly about myths and mind games where some scary old crazy white guy’s secret group with guns is actually having control over Christianity, and therefore everyone should try to ‘cancel Jesus’, is part of the GOOD NEWS. Don’t let a group of baddies crush the possibilities of a transformed Christian experience in the United States and around the world. Keeping an open mind means there’s a possibility of these ‘Christian Transformation’ advocates being free to get into contact and form a movement.

    People have tried cancelling the Triune God! It does not work!

    So, there is wisdom to be had in the Word of God and the Christian Way. It isn’t for a nonprofit about a conglomeration of spiritual ideas to own. That wisdom isn’t for POTUS 45 and journalists to own. In a lot of ways it’s not for average humans to own. But non-Christian religious leaders who have some sort of ethics will often tell a Christian who is about to dump their faith that just running to some other ‘spirituality’ isn’t the same thing as taking a stand for what really works.

    Probably – and probably because of the Triune God being super powerful – Christendom can be improved versus abandoning it all. Christendom not just going magically improve when enough people start disliking Christianity or become apostates. The Christian God can intervene when needed as a matter of fact. But the idea that God intervened in creating earth and also in giving us the skills to come up with things like science are paradoxes at times. Those paradoxes and the way Christians also fail are not good reasons for young people, or anyone, to abandon Christianity… or to never try to actually think through what works about Christianity and why it’s a wonderful platform for the kind of transformation so many young folks seem to be demanding these days.

    Because that’s the truth about Christianity: It’s all about transformation and the point after having a discipleship about that Triune God is love.

    Just running away from Christian Nationalism and people who think having dominion over God’s earth and just extracting every dollar possible because they don’t like ‘liberal’ Christianity that uses the ideal of nature stewardship isn’t a spiritual path. The Christian Way is hard because just resorting to hating others and falling in line with the world is not part of this faith practice. Just giving up is also not endorsed and as is trying ‘whatever’ spirituality a person might whip up and hawk to others.

    So, while I like it when MX and other media take a crack at Christianity; young people are not going to get a free pass on the world’s troubles by abandoning Christianity or not doing a judicious examination with some Christians they might actually like hanging out with if they were to search for such practitioners of The Way. It is true Christian transformation is about saving us from sin (intervention as in John 3:16). But just walking around trying a dozen different versions of spirituality between age 15 and 80 won’t serve anyone well.

    Think about the rest of your life and the lives of people you care about; and especially a world in need of… well, basically divine intervention on climate protection. I happen to have developed my BA on Sustainability and Security Studies and while the power of advanced industrial society can and should be organized on climate protection; getting that ethical logic into most political leader’s minds and the minds of average citizens all at once isn’t just happening.

    Whether it’s supposedly sophisticated liberal democracy in a free world, smartphones, social media, most organizations having websites, TV, and other technology… in spite all that we’ve just got Babylon 2.0.

    So, when the Mars Hill professor mentions, “They’re not tuned to that message.” What on earth sort of message of faith, love, and hope are Gen Zers, or any of us, working with… that does a great job in helping us all truthfully deal with our challenges, solutions, and outcomes. This MX article and bad news about Christian Nationalism (which is an actual problem) doesn’t mean young folk and all of us can’t come together and transform the American Christianity platform into something VASTLY more powerful than Twitter, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Google, and Apple combined… for the sake of things like loving neighbors, nature, peace, and shared prosperity.

    But it’s true the path includes the Triune God:

    The Greatest Commandment in Mark 12

    28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

    29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

    “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

    34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.

    There’s a whole mess of confusion out there. Trying to walk into complex climate protection, social justice, and government ethics issues where other players are determined and have their set belief systems might mean you should be strong somehow. We can also be strong as group. Christians call this The Church. Rather just than one church someone may have had a bad experience with; The Meta Church – or Christendom – is something Christian disciples get to influence with their conduct and leadership versus just passively letting bad situations get worse.

    Young people are most unwise if they think just running away from challenges with Christianity or other aspects of civilization is a good practice… whether that’s about spirituality or not. But just denouncing Christianity or somehow cancelling Christianity is just like running away. Being a leader in the Christian Way is a far braver and wiser stance.

    I suggest figuring out if there might be something worth saving about Christianity actually works for you, people you care about, and making the world a better place. Because this MX article should make the reader want to look into that final point of faith exploration versus think the reporter did a great job at pushing people away from the future possibilities of a transformational version of Christendom.

  2. Grant Millin

    Correction: I suggest figuring out if there might be something worth saving about Christianity that actually works for you, people you care about, and that leads to making the world a better place. Because this MX article should make the reader want to look into that final point of faith exploration versus thinking the reporter did a great job at pushing people away from the future possibilities of a transformational version of Christendom.

    There’s probably more possible edits like that in my above comment. I had to write all that fast.

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