As I write this, I am five months into mononucleosis. Rather than enjoying my senior year of college, I have quit my jobs and taken a leave of absence. Instead of flying around the country to research my thesis, I spend most of my time on the couch. Exhaustion threatens to overwhelm me constantly.
Perhaps I seem at a low point. I am not. I find myself at the center of a community that constantly reminds me I am loved. Every day I laugh at a funny card, or hear the ding of a text asking how I'm doing. I've grown up in several churches, and each has maintained its supportive role. My church family mourns with me when I become sicker and celebrates when I enjoy renewed energy. Because of them, I do not feel isolated. When I feel most down, their kindness lifts me, and mono doesn't seem as bad.
My experience may be unusual for someone of my demographic. I live in one of the least religious areas in the country. As my childhood pastor often remarked, just 10 percent of Marin County, north of San Francisco, claims religious membership. My friends and even some of my family never understood why I loved church and invested in a relationship with God. But I think if they understood what it's like—having an army of people to cheer you, mourn with you, and, above all, love you unconditionally—they would want a church family too. If they understood the joy of answered prayer, or the solace of whispered conversation with God, I think they would be curious about faith as well.
I need religion because my church and my God remind me of my identity as loved. When I cannot love myself, I am surrounded by a compassionate community and a God who do it for me.
As a member of Generation Z, I think too few of my compatriots claim their identity with the same certainty. Social media reminds us of what we lack, inside and out. Technology increases our quantity of connections but can decrease their quality. My generation has the tools to connect, but too often we misuse them to isolate ourselves. Too often, when we fall into depression, anxiety or illness, we lack communities to pull us back. And sometimes, in our self-doubt, we pull back from our potential to help others and the Earth.
Advocacy for a return to religion must come with a caveat. I grew up in inclusive, loving church families. I did not face religious bigotry because of my sexuality or gender, as many young people do. Too many faith communities have not lived up to their call to model the love of God. Some American Christians, in particular, have championed a vengeful conception of God, and heaped shame upon those they have deemed unworthy.
After experiencing that version of religion, many in Generation Z have understandably turned away from faith. But I'd like to let the rest of my generation in on a secret: There are plenty of church communities who believe that God never excludes, but instead offers a comforting presence in a troubling world. And belief in God isn't usually a prerequisite for belonging. If our generation looked more closely at religious communities—inclusive, loving ones—we might be surprised by the care that we'd find there, no strings attached.
The Sunday before I left to study abroad in England, I stood in the receiving line at the church door. In the still-fresh cloud of candle smoke, I shook hand after hand, my own becoming slightly numb. This congregation, whom I barely knew when I arrived at college, had sat through my first sermon and Sunday School classes. They'd given me encouragement, feedback, and support as I began to shape my career. Even though they knew I would have to leave them to work in a different part of the church, they still gave me their time and energy, and it will continue to steer my direction after college. These people exemplify the importance of a church family.
If I could ask one thing of my generation, it would be to set aside our negative experiences with faith, forgo the isolation that's become familiar, and give religion a second chance. You don't have to commit to a God you don't know or trust. You can just enjoy being part of a community that sets aside superficial differences and tries to see one another as beloved. In a world that judges us on likes and filters, I want everyone to experience what it feels like to be loved for nothing less than being a child of God.
For me, belief has followed belonging, and, as a result, isolation is further banished by God's intimate companionship. I hope that such a relationship might come to others who try religion. Many of us have to undertake considerable healing to consider returning to the church. So many of us have experienced clerical abuse, painful rejections based on sexual orientation, or the excruciating pain that comes when our loved ones experience these tragedies. If we brave the difficult work of healing, though, and return to churches that are truly living out the ideal of love, I believe that our generation will find our own lenses of judgment transformed, that we will turn to compassion for ourselves and fort each other. Generation Z possesses considerable vision. I hope that we can reconsider religion as a means for restoring our relationships with ourselves and each other, so that we, in turn, can make our visions reality.
Understanding Gen Z, a collaboration between Pacific Standard and Stanford's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, investigates the historical context and social science research that helps explain the next generation. Join our newsletter to see new stories, and let us know your thoughts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Understanding Gen Z was made possible by Stanford University's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) and its director, Margaret Levi, who hosted the iGen Project. Further support came from the Knight Foundation.
See more in this series:
Community Can Offer a Cure to Our Technology Addictions
The solution is not to turn off our phones; it's to develop social, economic, and political structures that address deeper issues of social disconnection and overwork. Read more
How Gen Z Is Solving America's Crisis of Isolation
Gen Z is remixing and repurposing old spiritual practices to maintain a sense of community. Read more
What We Can Learn From the Dramatic Dip in Divorce Among Millennials
Millennials may be proving that coming to marriage later, with less rigid roles, is enabling the sort of marriages that Boomers idealized—and too often failed to create. Read more
Generation Z Isn't Defined by Technology
Digital platforms don't define Gen Z—but young people's use of technology is helping them create new communities. Read more
Is Gen Z Nostalgic About Nostalgia?
With access to seemingly unlimited social archives, young people still understand nostalgia. It might just be a bit different from their parents' version. Read more
Gen Z’ers Are More Cautious Online Than Previous Generations
They grew up with phones in their hands—and learned early not to blindly trust the Internet. Read more
How Gen Z'ers Are Remaking Religion to Suit Their Values
Many are no longer passing on the old sacred teachings, but they are imparting a new one: that everyone has not just a right but a duty to choose their own worldview. Read more
Gen Z Is the Least Religious Generation. Here's Why That Could Be a Good Thing.
The trend toward non-religiousness in this generation is probably here to stay. The upsides include increasing levels of tolerance. Read more