If Faith Leaders Want to Reach Gen Z, Meet Them in the Streets

Several thousand demonstrators gather in Oakland, Calif., on June 1, 2020, to protest the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

(RNS) — Gen Z is the most ethnically, racially and religiously diverse generation in U.S. history. When Gen Zers organize to protest injustice, observers can't help but notice the impressive diversity among participants, which wasn't necessarily as present in the protests and activism of the 1960s.

Gen Zers are also making their voices heard on an impressively broad array of issues. They are at the forefront of marches lobbying for gun control reform, police accountability, environmental protection, gender equity and reproductive freedom.

While previous generations of protesters were well known for being inspired by their faith and spirituality, there is disagreement about the extent to which faith drives Gen Z's acts of protest.

Barbara Reynolds, an ordained minister and activist in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, told The Washington Post that "church and spirituality are not high priorities for Black Lives Matter … and the ethics of love, forgiveness and reconciliation are missing" from this movement packed with Gen Zers.

Others, such as Elizabeth Drescher, author of "Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America's Nones," have said that by organizing in the streets rather than religious buildings, Gen Z is simply engaging spiritually in a way that confounds traditional worship practices. Though a majority of Drescher's students at Santa Clara University identify as nonreligious, she said, they describe experiencing something transcendent  in a "spiritually rich Black Lives Matter movement" along with other social justice initiatives.

New data from Springtide Research Institute's upcoming report, " The State of Religion & Young People 2021," shed light on this. Springtide surveyed more than 10,000 young people ages 13-25 about their spiritual practices, discovering that more than half (58%) say they have engaged in acts of protest as a religious or spiritual practice, with 39% reporting that they engage in spiritually inspired acts of protest on at least a monthly basis. 

When broken down further, Springtide found that acts of protest are most popular among those who say they're "very religious" and "very spiritual" as opposed to moderately, slightly or nonreligious/spiritual. About half (51%) of "very religious" young people say they engage in acts of protest at least monthly, compared with 24% of those who are nonreligious.

Remarkably, 20% of "very religious" young people say they engage in acts of protest on a daily basis. 

Acts of protest are most popular among young Muslims. About 6 in 10 (59%) young Muslims report engaging in acts of protest at least monthly, compared with 52% of Hindus, 51% of Jews, 50% of Buddhists, 44% of Catholics and 44% of Protestants. When race is considered, acts of protest are most popular among Black young people. Nearly 6 in 10 Black young people (56%) engage in acts of protest at least monthly, compared with 43% of Hispanic/Latino/as, 33% of Asians and 33% of whites.

Finally, acts of protest are most popular among young people who say they feel "highly connected" to all of humanity. Those who feel "highly connected" to all of humanity are the most likely to report engaging in acts of protest at least monthly (56%), compared with those who say they're moderately connected (42%), slightly connected (40%) or not connected to all of humanity (27%).

The same trend lines occur when it comes to feeling "highly connected" to the natural environment.

We at the Poor People's Campaign aren't surprised by Springtide's findings, because in our work we continually meet young people who are both spiritually engaged and eager to challenge injustice. What's striking is that they also say they've received little support in their convictions from organized religion. Many young people today instead see organized religion as a dangerous force, one that twists the teachings of Jesus or the Quran.

Instead of a house of worship, the so-called nones who've walked away from organized religion connect with others and seek answers to life's bigger questions at Moral Mondays  or a local chapter of the Sunrise Movement, or by protesting alongside Fight for $15 workers who cry out for justice in the streets. Protest is an act of worship in a society where so much of organized religion has accommodated itself to a culture that accepts injustice as inevitable.

While they have left organized religion behind, they have retained important parts of inherited tradition: Songs that were passed down in churches often find new resonance. Scriptures preserved for millennia in synagogues breathe new life when they proclaim, "Woe unto those who legislate evil and rob the poor of their right." 

In this way, Gen Z continues to define and redefine what it means for them to live out their spiritual convictions. Protest is their proclamation of values and their spiritual practice.

Significantly, protesting tends to include individuals who identify across a broad spectrum of religious traditions and those who don't identify with any. The diversity we see in Gen Z resembles what we see in fusion movements, where people from across geographic, religious and racial backgrounds are coming together to take a stand against injustices.

Clearly, some of this can be explained by Gen Z's commitment to digital communication, which opens the door for them to learn the stories and struggles of others. When learning about the struggles of others, especially ones due to systemic injustices, it is not uncommon for people to want to help. When we are able to view injustices to one community member as being an injustice to the collective, it tends to spark action.

The shift reflected in Springtide's data is indicative of the awakening we must experience as a society. "A little child shall lead them," the Bible says, and it is in fact young people who are saying with their words and bodies that they do not want to be part of faith traditions that accept injustice. They are determined to be part of movements that reclaim the values of love and justice and mercy and put them into practice.

( Josh Packard is executive director of Springtide Research Institute and the author of "Church Refugees." The Rev. William J. Barber II is president of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign. The Rev. A. Kazimir Brown is national director of religious affairs for Repairers of the Breach and serves on the staff of Metropolitan AME Church in Washington. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.