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
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.”
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?”