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Reaching the Nones, Dones, Wanderers, and Ghosts Post-Pandemic

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This post is one of many conversations taking place in anticipation of Inspire 2022, set to happen in Tinley Park (a suburb of Chicago, Illinois) on August 4–6, 2022. Sign up to receive Inspire 2022 emails, which include the latest news on speakers, special opportunities, registration, and more. We hope to see you there!

Whether they describe themselves as not affiliated with any faith community, are done with the institutional church, or seem to be wandering from our fellowships while displaying ghosting behaviors that confuse us, we already know that our emerging adults are exiting regular engagement with their faith communities by the droves, and have been for awhile.

Many of us may be wondering how the pandemic might be impacting those who still orbit the fringes of our fellowships. Springtide Research Institute, in their 2021 study entitled The State of Religion and Young People: Navigating Uncertainty report (which you can download for free), gives us some interesting statistics to help us paint a picture of how Generation Z in particular are thinking about religion in general.

The following are three that stood out to me, along with possible strategies for responding:

  1. Of the young people who identified as “very religious,” less than half (40%) told us they found connecting with their faith community helpful during challenging or uncertain times (p. 22). If our young adults either felt like afterthoughts or that their congregation’s response to the challenges of the past 2 years lacked resilience and hope, we may need to develop a more robust habit of faith storytelling. Our entire community will be blessed by hearing stories of struggle, doubt, isolation, AND God’s faithfulness through it all. If we don’t model and share how this time has been stretching for us as people of faith, our young people will call us on it and seek comfort and hope elsewhere.
  2. Only 10% of young people ages 12 to 25 told us that a faith leader reached out to them personally during the pandemic (p. 22). If our young adults felt even less connection with their congregation, we may need to develop new connecting strategies which may include showing up where young people gather, rather than hoping they will seek us out; joining and creating online communities; or encouraging older adults who once served as Sunday School teachers or youth leaders to reconnect with former students. To do this well, we will need to push beyond a programmed and efficient approach to youth and young adult ministry. We will need to involve the entire congregation in connecting with those who feel disengaged. This cannot be left to paid staff and a youth elder.
  3. Nearly 1 in 5 young people (18%) told Springtide they lost the practice of attending religious or spiritual services during the pandemic, and about the same amount (20%) said they were happy that this connection was lost (p. 23). If they communicate that what we did do wasn't enough, we may need to develop a new and perhaps deeper empathy for our Gen Z brothers and sisters. Some of them have felt unseen and unheard in their communities. We need to listen with real curiosity to how they are experiencing this time, without projecting our coping mechanisms on them. As tempting as it is to say that we don’t want to give in to complaining, we must recognize that they experienced this traumatic event without some of the requisite skills or maturity to navigate the challenges the pandemic brought with it.

I invite you to join me at Inspire 2022 where I will be doing a workshop that will help us explore resources and strategies for staying connected with those who may be wandering, and reconnecting with those for whom the isolation of the pandemic might make them interested in re-entering communal life. While we will focus particularly on emerging adults, I am convinced that when we support the needs of one part of the Body, the whole Body is healthier.

The Nones, Dones, Wanderers, and Ghosts aren’t limited to a certain generation. The pandemic has caused people of all ages to wonder about where they really belong. Many of the resources and strategies will help our congregations engage with those experiencing the Great Attrition.

Questions? Contact [email protected] 

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