A record number of teens and young adults are forgoing organized religion, so where are they turning for meaning and connection?
A new research institute has been launched in Minnesota specifically to explore this question, focusing on where 13- to 25-year-olds — from all religious backgrounds — are finding the support often offered at religious institutions.
“We’re not aware of any other research institute in the country that is solely dedicated to the religious and spiritual lives of young people, focusing on ages 13 to 25,” said John Vitek, president and CEO of the Springtide Research Institute, part of the Lasallian Education and Research Initiative based in Winona.
While national research groups have clearly documented the rapid growth of young adults leaving religious institutions, young people haven’t been asked to explain where they’re turning for a sense of connection and well-being, he said.
“That’s why we started this research, to fill that gap,” Vitek said. “Our interest is in shedding light on how young people are forming faith, to help inform cultural and religious leaders who care about young people.”
The first batch of national surveys are now circulating among young adults, said Josh Packard, executive director of Springtide and a professor of sociology and religion at the University of Northern Colorado.
A representative sample of about 1,000 responses are expected from across the country, he said. They will come from young people raised in multiple faiths — Christians, Jews, Muslims — as well as those raised with none at all.
“We’re asking them: What groups do they feel most connected to? Where do they feel most like themselves? How did they come to find trustworthy adults in their lives?” Packard said.
In addition, Springtide staff will interview 50 respondents more in-depth to explore where young people turn for a sense of belonging and direction.
“We have some hypotheses,” Packard said. “Sports teams. Athletic groups. Clubs. I don’t think we’re going to uncover some hidden thing. But I think we’ll find that nobody is filling that gap [that religious institutions once filled] very well. That’s why we have that sense of isolation among young people.”
“We know there are a lot of adults who want to bridge that gap; they just don’t know how,” Packard said. “We need to build new frameworks, new pathways, for how to do that.”
Ellen Koneck is among the young adults following the decline in religious affiliation. A millennial herself, and a practicing Catholic, she said she turns to other places beyond the church to enrich her spiritual life and sense of belonging.
She suspects that’s happening with young adults who will be interviewed.
For example, Koneck said she belongs to a writing group whose members are all faiths and none. Although the group meets to discuss writing, the conversations often run deep and are emotionally and spiritually nourishing.
“It creates community … and sustains me through the week,” said Koneck, who lives in Minneapolis and is a marketing manager at a Catholic publishing company.
While much has been written about the growth in yoga and meditation to fill a spiritual need, Koneck believes the arts, music, poetry and even exercise are playing new and deeper roles in society. Political involvement also is filling some of that need for common moral direction, she said.
Springtide Research builds on a 2018 study by St. Mary’s Press in Winona that examined why young people are leaving the Catholic Church. Called “Going, Going Gone,” it found the median age for leaving the church was 13, and the biggest reason cited was disagreement with the church’s teachings.
“The issues of religious meaning, of purpose, are being formed at younger and younger ages,” Vitek said.
Young people are still asking the big questions, he said, such as, what is the meaning of life? What happens when I die? But the longstanding religious framework no longer guides them.
“Our sense is they are still seeking out,” said Vitek. “They still long for places of connection.”