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Scrolls of Doom: Why Gen Z is shunning the church

(Alamy)

8 min read

Young adults – Britain’s loneliest generation – are shunning an institution that offers connection and meaning. The church’s failure to attract Generation Z is bad for both, finds Harriet Symonds. Illustration by Tracy Worrall

Britain’s youngest adults are its least religious – and its loneliest. Almost one in 10 of those aged between 16 and 29 report feeling lonely some or all of the time.

Raised in the age of social media, many in so-called Generation Z struggle for genuine connection, but shun an institution that guarantees at least weekly real-life interaction and the chance to find meaning.

The failure of the church to meet this evident need is not only bad news for its long-term survival but also the viability of the bulwark it provides for those that depend on it.

“Young people are always seeking meaning…[and] arguably they’re not finding great satisfaction with what society has to offer now,” John Glen, Paymaster General and Conservative MP for Sailsbury, tells The House.

Today young people are living in a bleak society of unaffordable housing, stagnant wages, and a cost of living crisis. Marcus Walker, Rector of Great St Bartholomew’s, says that in such a fast-changing world, emotional and spiritual guidance from the church can be an invaluable anchor: “People find themselves quite rapidly out of jobs, out of houses, out of relationships, and there’s a stability that comes with [religion] that is possibly more valuable now than it has been for previous generations.”

“The church is, for a lot of people, a welcome relief from living, working, eating and sleeping in the same room,” he adds.  

Being involved in a church community, being accepted and loved, can be a huge antidote to loneliness

With more than 50 per cent of 20-somethings now identifying as ‘non-religious’, many places and people are left feeling disconnected at a time when connection is craved more than ever. Danny Kruger, Conservative MP for Devizes, explains: “One of the most powerful connecting fibres of community life is the church, they’re present everywhere, so we’ll be a lot more divided and weaker without it.”

Barry Gardiner, Labour MP for Brent North, says the removal of a divine purpose in life “can be terribly liberating, but also terribly paralyzing and terribly isolating, because you really are on your own”.

The Resolution Foundation found young people now have the poorest mental health of any age group, with 34 per cent of 18 to 24 year-olds reporting symptoms of depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder in 2021-22.

Tim Farron, Liberal Democrat MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, says being part of a church can have a huge impact on individual wellbeing. He explains: “By and large, when you are serving something greater than yourself, you’re much more likely to be healthier. You’re more likely to rationalise difficult stuff that happens in your life, be more robust and resilient.”

Fiona Bruce, the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief and Conservative MP for Congleton, reveals finding her faith at 27 was life-changing: “I re-evaluated and reassessed my life. I’d never have become a Member of Parliament if I hadn’t become a Christian.”

She adds: “Being involved in a church community, being accepted and loved, can be a huge antidote to loneliness.” 

churchBut there are increasingly fewer and fewer places left for people to gather, reflect and share wisdom with their community in real life. Instead, people are turning to the internet for support and connection. “Social media makes everybody more scratchy, more inclined to isolation, and less inclined to see people,” says Revd Walker.

The Right Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkin, Bishop of Dover, says the connections people make online cannot replace meaningful relationships that people forge within their own community. “People refer to themselves as being self-sufficient, they don’t need their neighbour, and that is so far from the truth. I’ve heard young people say that they’ve got thousands of friends. What they mean is, they speak to people on their computers, but that’s not real. Nothing can take the place of real person-to-person contact, the community.”

She adds: “How do we teach the next generation to live in a way that says, ‘We belong to one another and we care about one another’?”

Traditional church must ask itself, how do we make our churches adaptable, so that young people can see the reflections of themselves there?

The rise of social media has undoubtedly made the loneliness crisis worse, driving down self-esteem and increasing rates of depression. Baroness Ruth Hunt, crossbench peer and former chief executive of Stonewall, adds: “Social media is designed to divide, and actually when you get people in a room talking that’s where you get real progress. Faith has a role to play in building those bridges in communities.”

“They work with the most vulnerable, the most at risk and in need people; whether that’s the homeless, addicts, ex-offenders, people in debt, people whose life has unravelled… They are there,” says Kruger.

The church has always been a place of comfort and refuge for vulnerable people at times of crisis, but today, with less money going around, the work the church does to fill gaps in the welfare state cannot be understated. 

Churches are at the heart of community care, with volunteers running foodbanks, youth services, mental health counselling, and more. The National Churches Trust ‘House of Good’ report found that the yearly social value of churches in the UK is around £55bn – twice as much as the average spend on adult social care by local authorities. 

Baroness Hunt explains: “The Church of England provides a lot of services for very little money and no state money at all. So there’s a fundamental social service provided that is plugging gaps that exist within the state.”

She adds: “A lot of social purpose comes out of those buildings and yet young people are not finding their way to those causes. There’s something going wrong in that.” 

This generation of young people are hugely activist and passionate about social justice, but appear unpersuaded by what the church has to offer. “People are feeling alienated from their church and deciding to walk away which is incredibly sad,” Walker tells The House

Hunt believes the Church of England’s long-divided position over same-sex relationships is “at the heart” of this. “As long as I’ve been involved in this world, the Church of England has been grappling with what to do about gay people,” she explains. 

The church says it stands for principles of forgiveness, acceptance, love and peace – but how does this match up with their stance on gay marriage? 

Bishop Hudson-Wilkin says that the church must be prepared to change and do things differently: “Traditional church must ask itself, how do we make our churches adaptable, so that young people can see the reflections of themselves there?

“We need to let young people know that they are loved by God, that they are precious and special, irrespective of colour, creed, or sexuality,” she adds. 

Baroness Hunt agrees: “Some bits of the church are not welcoming and others are… For me, faith came before being gay, and I saw nothing about being gay that would stop faith.

“I go to chapel in Parliament, and it’s lovely. It really feels like the one space where people mix regardless of what colour their lanyard is.”

Without religion, young people look for a sense of purpose and identity elsewhere. Kruger warns they may end up finding this through climate activist groups like Just Stop Oil or conspiracy theories online. “I worry that they’ll put that energy into what could be disruptive or unhelpful, political or religious ideas that are not as socially beneficial as our traditional religion,” he explains. 

Revd Walker identifies that a lack of shared history and culture only adds to societal divisions: “The absence of a shared narrative, shared moral and ethical framework makes negotiations over how to live in the same space much more complex and much more difficult.”
In such a divided society, is it too late for a Christian revival? 

Gardiner says: “Religion has played too important a role in society for too many millennia to suddenly run out of steam.” But something must change to buck this declining trend.  

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s ‘Strategic Development Funding’ earmarked £176m for short-term projects in an effort to bring new people into the church. The expectation was that it would yield 89,375 new Christians between 2014 and 2021 – but it only ended up bringing in 12,704. 

Revd Walker says the scheme failed, churchgoing has continued to decline, and argues the money would be better spent investing in Sunday service again. “Absolutely! Investing in the core ministry of the church, which the fund – by statute – is supposed to be spending its money on.”

Helping one’s neighbour is needed more than ever. But shrinking service attendance, fewer priests and closing parishes all point to a bleak future for the Church of England. It might do well to follow its own advice and take a period of reflection, otherwise scrolling and silence might replace prayer and hymns for good. 

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