Religion has been around for as long as the invention of writing, about 5,200 years. However, the current generation, known as Generation Z, is starting to grow into new ways of personal spirituality. 

According to The Religion News Service, between 1986 and 2016, the number of non-religious Americans from the age of 18 to 29 has quadrupled in the last 30 years. This increase in the USA reflects a  similar trend in Canada. 

Galen Watts from The Hamilton Spectacle wrote an article based on his research with Canadian millennials who classified themselves as “spiritual but not religious”.

“A 2015 Angus Reid poll found 39 per cent of Canadians identify as spiritual but not religious. Another 27 per cent identify as neither religious nor spiritual; 24 per cent as religious and spiritual, and 10 per cent as religious but not spiritual,” Watts explained. 

In an Instagram poll with over 310 participants from the ages 17-24, individuals were asked whether they regarded themselves as religious, spiritual, both or neither. The results are as follows:

Instagram Spirituality PollResponses in Instagram Poll reflect spiritual beliefs in Generation Z. Graphic by Andrea Wong.

Although the majority of participants see themselves as slightly more spiritual than religious, there is still a sense of uncertainty among the “neither” and “both” responses. 

“I feel conflicted all of the time,” said Cheska Castro, Mount Royal University student. “Growing up, my parents wanted me to believe in a certain way. I think there’s a difference between believing in something yourself and believing because others want you to.”

Many people also feel the tension between whether they should be a member of the church or simply focus on their own personal growth.

“I think what it comes down to for me is not labeling myself but simply trying to be a good person each day,” said Janina Castello. “For me, yoga is my mindful escape. I think through my own meditation, it betters me as a person.”

Spiritual but not religious

Some priests throughout Calgary have noticed this younger generational shift and predict that if action is not taken, the church may eventually face permanent demise.

Local Calgary Priest Greg Glatz from Knox United Church conducted a study on this decline focusing on this specific demographic. He calls it SPNR, meaning “spiritual but not religious”. Glatz divided the SPNR demographic into three categories.  

“Within SPRN is a group we call ‘nones’, and they have no religious affiliation but are still interested in spirituality,” said Glatz.

“I just saw a study that said ‘nones’ today are equal in number to Evangelicals and Catholics in North America. So it is a very, very significant demographic and it is a growing demographic of people with no religious affiliation,” 

“Dones” is another group of identifying people who were previously religiously affiliated but left because of a negative experience. They are “done” with religion but not spirituality. A slightly different group is “shuns”, who have been a part of a religion but were rejected by that community. Reasons could be based on gender identity, sexual orientation or marital status, said Glatz. 

Pull Quote Cheska Castro

Reaching the next generation

On the other hand, churches that are taking a more modern approach are attracting a larger crowd of younger people. Hillhurst United Church is one of the churches in Calgary that has been known for supporting climate change and LGBTQ+ issues, creating an atmosphere different from most churches.

“I think all people are spiritual whether they go to church or not,” said John Pentland, lead minister at Hillhurst United Church.  “… Spirituality is life-giving. It means breath and wind. It gives us life, so you can garden, you can hike in the mountains, you can do yoga.” 

“The danger with spirituality is when it becomes self-centered and egocentric, which really isn’t what spirituality is. So you need spirituality and religion because if religion is just dogmatic or doctrination, it’s dusty and disconnected. Together they balance each other out.” 

One way Hillhurst United Church connects with young people is through social media. The numbers may not be as large as they hope, but they feel it’s creating a non-judgmental setting for young people. This way they will be able to connect in a way that is more comfortable and responsive to community and spiritual development. 

According to an article by Chris Morton, a blog writer for Missio Alliance church in Ohio, the churches that are succeeding through times of closures are ones that possess “… a deep knowledge of the changing cultural landscape that exists outside of Christian enclaves, and a capacity to grow and multiply without the traditional funding sources that churches have traditionally relied on.”

Hillhurst PrideHillhurst United Church in Kensington attracts a younger generation by focusing more on spirituality and supporting the LGBTQ+ community. Photo courtesy of Hillhurst United Church.

Adaptability may be key as more churches are on the verge of closure than ever before.

“Between 2005 and 2015, we closed one congregation every week somewhere in Canada,” said Pentland. “In the 1950s we opened one every week. Since 2015, we’re closing about two every week. So what that means is there will be less places for people to gather, worship and explore spirituality.”

Glatz also predicts a similar trend, as the National Trust for Canada working with heritage buildings anticipates the closure of 9,000 houses of worship in the next decade.

It is now up to the younger generation to decide whether they wish to maintain a relationship with the church in the future or move on. Glatz said many children of churchgoers often choose to leave due to politics within the church. Instead of finding an open space simply based on religion or exploring personal spirituality, younger generations may feel judgment or pressure from past ways.

Amidst shifting spiritual beliefs, the church may be able to maintain a growing community. However, significant effort will be needed to welcome new ideas that adapt to the younger generation.

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Editor | Andrea Wong,

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