American religion isn’t declining—it’s transforming.
We all know the statistics. Forty percent of Millennials describe themselves as nonreligious, and most likely that number will rise for Gen Z. This spring, the Southern Baptist Convention announced that its membership had shrunk by 2 percent. And, on average, 3,500 Christian churches close every year.
But as I learned in my seven years of research at Harvard Divinity School that I document in my book The Power of Ritual, there’s a new landscape of spirituality and community meeting the needs of younger generations eager to fulfill their longing for meaning, connection, and purpose. In CrossFit boxes, makerspaces, fan communities, and grief groups, very religious things are happening in supposedly secular places. Congregational practices like small groups, rituals to honor the dead, shared dietary laws, and even prayer can be found reimagined in these new communities. People are getting married, looking after one another through a cancer diagnosis, and helping each other be accountable to their highest values. Far from showing religion disappearing, these trends illustrate how religion is changing—both how and where it happens.
Many are even turning toward the study of sacred texts. Take the tens of thousands of Harry Potter readers practicing ancient Christian sacred reading practices such as Lectio Divina and Ignatian spiritual imagination with their favorite bestselling book. The podcast I cohost, Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, has introduced a new generation of spiritual seekers to some of the great wisdom practices, and the Harry Potter fandom has welcomed them with open arms. More than seventy-five groups have sprung up around the world, as readers gather together to discuss their own life journey in conversation with the text. At the end of each gathering, readers bless the characters and one another, drawing on yet another religious practice re-imagined for this moment.
Church leaders sometimes paint America as divided along sacred and secular lines, but in my mind, this is far from the truth. There is a deep desire for sacred connection far beyond religious institutions—46 percent of Gen Zs have sought out a new religious practice like meditation since the beginning of the COVID-19 epidemic, for example. Two-thirds of unaffiliated Americans believe in God or a higher power, and one-fifth even pray every day. The rates of loneliness and anxiety simply echo what we know to be true: human beings long to be together oriented around meaning and purpose.
We’re in a time of cultural reckoning. Both the coronavirus and the uprising for racial justice have offered (white) Americans the chance to reflect on what we prioritize. More than ever, there’s an openness to a different foundation besides an economic dominance of productivity and grind.
My hope is that The Power of Ritual illustrates the deep hunger for connection among the spiritual-but-not-religious, but that it can also expand the imagination of established religious leaders as they find ways to translate the wisdom of their tradition to resonate—and respect—the experience of young people today.