It is not uncommon for people to seek God during difficult times. However, the opposite appears to have happened in the United States during the coronavirus pandemic.
A Pew Research Center survey, released earlier this month, found that 29% of American adults said they had no religious affiliation, an increase of 6 percentage points from 2016 as millennials were leading this change. A growing number of Americans have said they also pray less often. About 32% of people polled by Pew Research from May 29 to August 25 said they rarely or never prayed. This is up from 18% of people surveyed by the group in 2007.
“The secularizing changes evident in American society so far in the 21st century show no signs of slowing down,” said Gregory Smith, associate director of research at the Pew Research Center.
This trend is pushing a growing number of religious leaders to try and engage with millennials on their own turf.
âI use Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok, stories, all kinds of things to get to where people are, and that’s where a lot of young people are,â Reverend James Martin said.
A wake-up call for religious leaders
A parishioner wearing a mask prays at midnight mass on Christmas Eve at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on December 24, 2021 in New York City.
Alexi Rosenfeld | Getty Images
Martin, 61, is a Jesuit Catholic priest from New York and the editor of America Magazine. He is among the religious ministers who took to social media at the height of the pandemic when places of worship were forced to close.
âI started these Facebook Live programs at the start of the pandemic, because I felt people really lacked a sense of community.â¦ Anything I can do to help people meet God is important,â said Martin.
Yet, as churches reopen across the United States, attendance has been slow to increase. Median in-person attendance has fallen 12% in the past 18 months, according to a study released in November and led by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
While this trend is a source of concern for places of worship, it also serves as a wake-up call for religious leaders to refine the way they connect with their members, Martin said.
âI think it took a while, but most churches and religious organizations realized that it had to be resolved,â he said.
A burst of energy
At the East End Temple in New York City, Rabbi Joshua Stanton energized his sermons in an effort to attract new worshipers.
âMy sermons are getting shorter and more open. And what I try to encourage people to do is discuss it with me. Discuss it. Sail with them. And come study together so we can all share an understanding, âStanton said.
Stanton, 35, said he also encourages a haven where members feel free to debate and chat with one another.
New York designer Fletcher Eshbaugh, a recently converted Jew, said arguing was what he loved most about the East End Temple.
âThe facets of argument and conflict are super important. And I think that’s definitely a pillar of Judaismâ¦ this intellectual quest,â Eshbaugh said.
As many millennia leave organized religion, Eshbaugh embraced Judaism after being introduced to Jewish traditions through a few close friends many years ago. He did not grow up in religion but immediately felt a sense of belonging and fulfillment.
“I find a sense of spiritual and intellectual integrity and an understanding of my place in the world by being a Jew. Continuously asking questions and challenging ideas through Judaism fills me up,” he said.
No topics off the table
Reverend Jacqui Lewis of the group Vote Common Good speaks to voters during a rally at the Mission Hills Christian Church in Los Angeles, California on October 31, 2018.
RALSTON BRAND | AFP | Getty Images
Elsewhere in New York City, young faithful Christians flock to Middle Collegiate Church on the Lower East Side, where Reverend Jacqui Lewis says no topic is out of place. She encourages her followers – the majority of whom are millennials – to get involved and take a stand on political issues.
âWe put social justice and democracy at the center of the faith in a way that really speaks to young people,â Lewis said. “We have had an incredible amount of campaigns for the right to vote, the right to choose for women, immigrant rights and racial justice.”
While Lewis has said his teachings are inspired by the Bible, his approach is on the progressive political side, emphasizing spirituality and community rather than the Scriptures. On its website, Middle Collegiate said its church is “the place where therapy meets Broadway … where the religion of yesteryear takes on a new turn.”
While some people may see this pattern as a change in the traditional relationship Christians have with God, Lewis embraces it, saying, âThis is exciting for me, I’m trying to get God out of the box.
The Middle Collegiate Church congregation grew by 500 members during the pandemic – even though the 128-year-old church building was destroyed by fire last year. It now has 1,900 members, Lewis said.
Devotee Parron Allen said he grew up in a conservative Christian family in Mississippi, but as a gay man he struggled to feel accepted by his community.
âI was a Baptist Christian. And so the way we looked at things – and the way they communicated -â¦ you had to do things the way the Bible literally says. But I feel like the Bible and Jesus Christ believe in love no matter what. And I feel like I found it in Middle.â¦ It’s all about love – and love, period, “said Allen.
Disagreements over the position of church doctrine on specific issues remain a struggle for a number of young Catholics.
âWhen it comes to the Catholic Church, there are significant differences between the teaching of the Church and what young Catholics think,â Martin said. “I think probably two of the biggest issues are the ordination of women and the way the church treats LGBTQ people.”
âI think the difference is that maybe 25 years ago people would have said, ‘Uh, how can I stay Catholic and have difficulty teaching church? “Now I think young people are just saying ‘I’m leaving,'” Martin said. “Right? There is much less tolerance for what they consider to be intolerant behavior, according to them. “
People flock to pensions
Deepak Chopra, Founder of the Chopra Foundation and Chopra Global, speaks at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, Calif., October 18, 2021.
Kyle Grillot | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Spiritual leader Deepak Chopra said, âSome of the things we are told in traditional religion do not seem logical or rational, and more and more people are questioning these teachings.
However, Chopra believes the interest in belonging to a community and finding a connection has never been stronger.
âThe pandemic has shown us that people don’t like isolation.â¦ [In] the absence of this human need for love, compassion, joy, sharing, care, affection, appreciation, gratitude,â¦ people panicked, âhe said.
Chopra, 75, is the author of 97 books on topics ranging from Jesus and Buddha to the Metaverse. He has accumulated followers around the world and speaks at top events throughout the year. As the founder of the Chopra Foundation, he organizes global retreats where spiritual spirits come to heal, meditate and connect.
âThe pensions are full,â he said. “We just finished one in Mexico. Another one in Los Angeles. People are flocking to these retreats.”
Events can cost thousands of dollars to attend. A weeklong retreat scheduled for next month in Carefree, Ariz. Costs between $ 6,000 and $ 8,000. Chopra said people skip church to attend these retreats, and pointed out that declining religious observance may raise questions about how society evolves – but not about our spiritual nature.
âSpiritual experience will never go away,â he said. “The need to find meaning and purpose in our existence will never go away. The need to resolve what is inevitable suffering will never go away.”
As the pandemic continues, the younger generation’s bond with spirituality is a way to engage with them, he said.
Faith put to the test
Nonprofit leader Megha Desai, a Hindu, grew up in Boston but has regularly spent time in India. She worshiped in beautiful temples in both countries. But Desai, who now lives in New York City, said the pandemic had changed her relationship with religion and prompted her to ask more questions.
âThe past two years have certainly tested my faith,â Desai said. “How hard it is to find meaning in so many lives that are taken from us.”
Desai still identifies as a Hindu, sharing that her relationship with God has evolved over time.
âI approach my connection to God from a more spiritual place than through religion.â¦ I think the Hindu rituals I participate in are festivals like Diwali, which connect me more to my culture than to my faith “said Desai. , who heads the Desai Foundation, a non-profit organization that empowers women and girls through community-based programs aimed at improving health and livelihoods in India.
Indeed, this search for answers to life’s most difficult questions will always be at the heart of people, even as young Americans continue to leave organized religion, Chopra said.
âSome of the things we are told in traditional religion don’t seem logical or rational,â he said. âSo people leaveâ¦ but humans always have the same questions: is there a meaning or a purpose in our existence? Why do we suffer? “
– CNBC’s Katie Young contributed to this article.
Correction: Rev. James Martin is a Jesuit Catholic priest in New York City and editor of America Magazine. An earlier version incorrectly indicated its name.