Religion & Liberty Online

Model the Faith for Gen Z or Lose Them Forever

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Gen Z has a low view of religion. Changing it is really quite simple. Which is not to say it’s easy.

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Based on the numbers of the latest Religious Freedom Index from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, religious Americans may have reason to worry about Gen Z (those in the age range of 12–26). Although 63% of them profess a nominal tolerance for diverse faiths, 61% of them also think that religion was “part of the problem … when it comes to issues and what happens today in our country,” and 57% of them specifically said “people of faith” were part of the problem. In other words, the Zoomers think that religion is OK so long as its dogmas and members are suppressed.

It’s likely no coincidence that this view comes from the same generational cohort that suffers most from anxiety,depression, and loneliness. The lack of religious affiliation for so many young adults has resulted in fewer relationships and more unhappiness, and instead of seeing religion as the solution to these problems, they blame religion for causing them. This would even explain their apparent contradictory stance towards religion: they want the advantages of religion without the judgement and discipline that comes with it.

But this is incoherent. Try as people might, trading off the richness of an ancient spiritual tradition for a pale copy will inevitably leave them poorer. This in turn kicks off endless cycles of scapegoating religion for society’s problems. As college student Natan Ehrenreich concludes about the recent college protests against Israel, it wasn’t solely motivated by anti-Semitism, but by a resentment of all religion. In his opinion, the animus against Israeli Jews is a “canary in the coalmine” and that more such hateful outbursts can be expected for all religious believers in the coming years.

However, in order to fix this problem, it’s essential to understand its cause, which seems to be a prevailing ignorance about what religion actually is. For too many Zoomers, religion has come to mean any spiritual movement that seeks to oppress. Not only are kids taught in schools that religion was a tool of white colonizers to subdue and enslave indigenous populations, but their popular media are saturated with this narrative. It does not occur to so many of them that religion is an empowering force that answers mankind’s greatest questions and helps people transcend tribal differences.

All this would suggest that churches need to do a better job on the apologetics front, informing today’s young adults of the truth and debunking popular myths. Indeed, this has been the argument of Bishop Robert Barron, who has devoted his life to providing resources showing the reasonableness of faith.

And yet, as a high school English teacher who works with Gen Z, I would say this problem goes beyond mere messaging. From what I observe, there seems to be a shortage of religious role models to do the messaging in the first place. For too many young adults, religion is the exclusive province of older, more conservative believers. Anyone below the age of 40 is expected by church leaders and ostensible evangelizers to accept this state of affairs, respect their elders, and do the important work of being seen, not heard.

To be clear, saying this doesn’t mean that adolescents should be elevated to positions of authority, nor does this mean that churches should pander harder to them with more youth programs and Christian rock music. This is still just another way to exclude young people from the life of faith. As Catholic editor Jason Craig explains, kids in youth ministry programs are still stuck with their peers and segregated from the rest of the community—and thus often fall away from the church when they get older.

It would be far better if religious adults went further in personally modeling their faith for this generation. This is an idea I apply in my high school English classes every day. Rather than just telling them to read or write something, I model how to read and write by doing it with them.

When we read an essay, I’ll pause at each juncture of the argument, give my thoughts on what’s happening, and then move on. I make it clear that a good reader should be able not only to summarize a text but also to explain how it works—how it’s framed, organized, and worded. I also try to show them how to appropriately criticize or praise a text.

The same approach applies to teaching writing. Before I was writing essays for publication, I was writing essays responding to the same prompts I gave my students. I would then show my essay along with some student samples, discussing the choices we made and some of the challenges that arose with each prompt.

As obvious as this style of instruction appears, it’s not all that popular. Most students would prefer that I send them off to work on a pointless group project, not read an article with them. Hardly any of them want to write, let alone read over sample essays. Rather, they want to spend weeks of instruction noodling with one essay with an easy-to-implement checklist on hand that they can use to earn a good grade. Their initial reluctance suggests that I’m more the exception than the rule when it comes to teaching my subject.

Fortunately, over time, my students master the process and learn to appreciate what I do for them. Not to brag, but despite my high expectations and lack of charisma (or “riz,” as the Zoomers say), most of my students come to love my class. I can only attribute this outcome to my commitment to modeling and actively including them in something real. No longer do they feel like students in an English class, but fellow practitioners of the language arts. As such, they are part of a greater community of thinkers who are doing something meaningful.

Unfortunately, I’m only one teacher and it’s only one year. Most other high school classes will do what most churches currently do: keep the students busy with something engaging in the short term but useless in the long term. And, as with religious practice, these students end up seeing schooling as a useless idea that is only fun when it makes no real demands on anyone. I wouldn’t be surprised if Zoomers soon add high school English to the list of things that contribute to the world’s problems.

Although it may sound trite to treat the anti-religious sentiment of Gen Z as a “cry for help,” I believe this to be the case. Those who practice their faith and want to prevent religious persecutions in the future should find ways to include younger generations through active modeling. Not only would this entail better religious instruction (talking the talk), but regular religious practice (walking the walk). If they persist in this effort, their modeling will have the double effect of changing the hearts and minds of this generation as well as amplifying the positives for the already faithful.

What Christ said to His disciples applies to all believers (and teachers): “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” When this truth is forgotten, society is condemned to cultural and spiritual darkness.

Auguste Meyrat

Auguste Meyrat is an English teacher in North Texas, the senior editor of The Everyman, a senior contributor for The Federalist, and a frequent contributor to The American Conservative, Crisis, and American Mind.