Insight From a 'None' in Today's Religious Climate

Insight From a 'None' in Today's Religious Climate

Religious leaders expand reach through social media

Commentary

“Maybe we’re more of a free-spirited generation and we need to decide [religious] things for ourselves,” said Mackaylee Cudworth, a recent high school graduate in South Jordan, Utah, and part of the generation right behind a growing group of millennials who are shying away from organized religion. Many quit attending church meetings during their college years. Some don’t go back.

More specifically, she is part of the post-millennial population or Generation Z, which includes individuals born between the mid-1990s and early 2000s who make up a quarter of the country’s population.

 

The youngest of three children, she was baptized a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the age of 8, the age of accountability in the Mormon faith. She attended church with her family on a regular basis while growing up. Now at age 18, she is an adult who is exercising her agency by choosing not to attend a worship service on Sunday.

Many faithful parents of Generation Z may question their parenting skills if a child strays from the fold. They hope a child’s departure from church is only developmental or temporary. Proverbs says, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6).

Pew research released in November 2015 found that nearly one-quarter of adults in the United States don’t attend church on a regular basis, up from 16 percent in 2007. Still, many of those so-called “nones,” including inactive young adults, claim they are spiritual.

“I do believe in souls and spirits. I do believe there’s something out there,” Cudworth explained.

Generation Z

James Emery White, senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, writes about this generation in his new book, “Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World.” Pastor White contends that while Generation Z has a strong desire to make a difference with their lives, their individual freedom is one of their core values.

Generation Z members spend much of their day connected to the internet; however, White is concerned that many churches are not part of their tech-savvy world.

“Some millennials may not think they need to join a congregation because they find their communities on social media,” Cudworth shared. “You can connect with people around the world and find people with similar interests.”

Still, she prefers meeting friends face-to-face at school and work. “I don’t reach out to people on the internet because that’s not my comfort zone.”

White reports that although 78 percent of Generation Z still believe in the existence of God, less than half, or 41 percent, attend religious services every week. Only 8 percent would identify a religious leader as a role model.

“[Organized religion] gives people a lot of structure. Things are set in stone for you,” said Cudworth. But she and many other young adults are finding ways to worship outside of a church building on Sunday. Her idea of therapy or healing includes reading, writing and listening to music.

“I think another way to look at any church’s structure is to find its positive, freeing aspect. Instead of structure being limiting, it can be liberating,” explained Sister Neill F. Marriott, second counselor in the Young Women general presidency.

Sister Marriott continued, “Think of the strict laws about obeying traffic lights. Those boundaries are set in stone and I’m glad! They give me freedom from danger and worry that I’m going to collide with other vehicles. In like manner, I believe that spiritual guidelines or church structure helps us avoid, or at least lessen, the unhappy results that often come from the worldly and carnal guidelines we encounter daily.”

Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, recently told a gathering in Chicago that the social media platform and church are similar in the way they create community. “People who go to church are more likely to volunteer and give to charity — not just because they’re religious, but because they’re part of a community,” said Zuckerberg.

Despite the existence of virtual communities, much of what children learn comes from within the walls of their own home, which is where Cudworth says she learned about morals and integrity.

Clergy Response

For the past three years, the Kenyon Institute at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, has hosted a spiritual writing conference called “Beyond Walls.” Clergy and religion writers of many faiths gather for a week in July on the quiet campus to refine their writing skills and amplify their messages of faith by learning to write op-eds, blogs and essays, as well as expand their congregations online by using social media.

“That is the new landscape of the 21st century,” said Ranjit Mathews, rector of St. James Episcopal Church in New London, Connecticut. Mathews came to the conference to learn how to hone and share his voice on social media, which includes vlogging, or video blogging.

Mathews added, “I think I have a unique voice as a 38-year-old Indian-American Episcopal priest with a wide range of lived and work experience, and I want to share that more broadly. Social media will help me do that.”

“We are not connecting with the culture, and we are in a post-Christian culture,” expressed Sheila McJilton, an Episcopal rector of St. Philip’s Parish in Laurel, Maryland. McJilton learned how to create and post videos for her website in a social media workshop at the conference. “The church with a capital C as an institution is struggling,” she said. “There are more people in Starbucks on Sunday morning than there are in church.”

Volunteers are helping her create the new website and post information on Facebook that helped boost attendance at some recent activities. She maintains a blog and sends a weekly email to the parish that she says has a high open rate.

“Social media is such a key component with the way churches present themselves and connect, especially with new generations,” said Mary Rhodes of Winnetka Covenant Church in Winnetka, Illinois. Rhodes is updating her church’s website and came to Beyond Walls to learn how to engage newer generations with her 400-member Christian congregation. She says younger members are drawn to a nearby megachurch that uses social media. “It lures them and speaks to them much more so than us hobbling along without those savvy tools.”

Several years ago, major faith groups in the United States launched Faith Counts, a multifaith organization aimed at promoting the value of faith. Shareable content is posted on a website and social media channels.

Even Pope Francis of the Catholic faith tweets on a regular basis.


In addition, senior Mormon leaders are using technology to enhance, but not replace, the need for in-person ministry and religious gathering. Members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles are posting messages on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to try to reach a global audience.

"I would like to extend a challenge to the youth of the Church. The challenge is this: come to 'know of yourself' that these things are true. You can do this by following Joseph Smith’s example—study the scriptures, let the words sink deep into your heart, reflect on them again and again, and then ask of God, with a willingness to accept His guidance. While this challenge may sound like a simple invitation, I promise you it may take significant effort. I cannot promise that your answers will come in a day or in a week. But I can promise that God will speak to you in His own way and in His own time, if you ask in faith. "As you accept and act upon this invitation, you will find that not only will answers come, but you will also establish a pattern of acquiring spiritual knowledge that will bless you for the rest of your life. "My friends, we love you. The Lord loves you. He knows your situation; He knows your weaknesses and strengths; He knows your concerns and questions; and He knows your potential." —Henry B. Eyring #LDSface2face

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Latter-day Saints are also encouraged to share content from official Church social media channels.

“I exhort you to sweep the earth with messages filled with righteousness and truth — messages that are authentic, edifying, and praiseworthy — and literally to sweep the earth as with a flood,” Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles told an audience at Brigham Young University in August 2014.


“We should do all we can to teach the righteous use of technology to the rising generation, and warn and prevent the unrighteous use and associated hazards as well,” said Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles at the BYU Women’s Conference in May.

Cudworth encourages religious leaders who are on social media to be authentic. “They try too hard to use our language. They think we’re different. Just be our friends,” she concluded.

“The best way we parents and grandparents can reach out to our children is to follow Christ’s example and just love them,” said Sister Marriott.

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