- A Pew Research Center survey found 29% of U.S. adults said they had no religious affiliation, an increase of 6 percentage points from 2016.
- Millennials are leading the shift away from organized religion, according to the survey.
- More faith leaders are stepping up their outreach efforts — from social media to revamped sermons — to attract these younger adults.
It's not uncommon for people to seek God during times of hardship. However, the opposite appears to have happened in the U.S. during the coronavirus pandemic.
A Pew Research Center survey, released earlier this month, found 29% of U.S. adults said they had no religious affiliation, an increase of 6 percentage points from 2016, with millennials leading that shift. A growing number of Americans said they are also praying less often. About 32% of those polled by the Pew Research from May 29 to Aug. 25 said they seldom or never pray. That's up from 18% of those polled by the group in 2007.
"The secularizing shifts evident in American society so far in the 21st century show no signs of slowing," said Gregory Smith, associate director of research at Pew Research Center.
That trend is pushing an increasing number of faith leaders to try to engage with millennials on their own turf.
A wake-up call for religious leaders
Martin, 61, is a Jesuit Catholic priest in New York City and editor-at-large of America Magazine. He's among the religious ministers who embraced social media at the height of the pandemic when places of worship were forced to shut their doors.
"I started these Facebook Live programs at the beginning of the pandemic, because I felt that people were really lacking a sense of community. … Anything I can do to help people encounter God is important," Martin said.
Still, as churches reopen across the U.S., attendance has been slow to pick up. The median in-person attendance has dropped by 12% over the past 18 months, according to a study published in November that was led by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
While the trend is a cause for concern for houses of worship, it also serves as a wake-up call for religious leaders to refine the way they connect with their members, Martin said.
"I think that it's taken awhile but most churches and religious organizations have realized this needs to be addressed," he said.
A jolt of energy
At the East End Temple in New York City, Rabbi Joshua Stanton has given his sermons a jolt of energy in a bid to appeal to new congregants.
"My sermons are getting shorter and shorter, and more and more open. And what I try to encourage people to do is discuss them with me. Argue about them. Navigate with them. And come and study together so that we can all share an understanding," Stanton said.
Stanton, 35, said he is also encouraging a safe haven in which members feel free to debate and argue with one another.
New York-based designer Fletcher Eshbaugh, a recent Jewish convert, said debating is what he enjoys the most about East End Temple.
"The facets of the arguments and conflicts are super important. And I think that that's certainly a pillar of Judaism … that intellectual pursuit," said Eshbaugh.
While many millennials are leaving organized religion, Eshbaugh embraced Judaism after being introduced to Jewish traditions through a couple of close friends many years ago. He did not grow up religious but instantly felt a sense of belonging and fulfillment.
"I find a sense of spiritual and intellectual wholeness and an understanding of my place in the world through being Jewish. Continually asking questions and challenging ideas through Judaism fulfills me," he said.
No topic off the table
Elsewhere in New York City, younger Christian followers are flocking to Middle Collegiate Church on the Lower East Side, where the Rev. Jacqui Lewis says no topic is off the table. She encourages her congregants — the majority of whom are millennials — to get involved and take a stand on political issues.
"We put social justice and democracy in the middle of faith in a way that really speaks to young folks," Lewis said. "We've done an incredible amount of campaigning for the right to vote, the right to choose for women, immigrant rights and racial justice."
While Lewis said her teachings are inspired by the Bible, her approach is on the progressive political side, emphasizing spirituality and community over scripture. On its website, Middle Collegiate said its church is "where therapy meets Broadway ... where old-time religion gets a new twist."
While some people may see this model as changing the traditional relationship Christians have with God, Lewis embraces it, saying, "That's exciting to me, I'm trying to get God out of the box."
Middle Collegiate Church's congregation grew by 500 members during the pandemic — even though the 128-year-old church building itself was destroyed last year by a fire. It now has 1,900 members, Lewis said.
Congregant Parron Allen said he grew up in a conservative Christian household in Mississippi, but as a gay man, he struggled to feel accepted by his community.
"I was a Baptist Christian. And so the way we saw things — and the way they communicated — … you had to do things the way the Bible says literally. But I feel like the Bible and Jesus Christ believe in love no matter what. And I feel like I found that it at Middle. … It's all about love — and love, period," Allen said.
Disagreements on where church doctrine stands on specific issues remains a struggle for a number of younger Catholics.
"When it comes to the Catholic church, there's some significant differences between church teaching and what young Catholics think," said Martin. "I think probably two of the biggest issues are women's ordination and the way that the church treats LGBTQ people."
"I think the difference is that maybe 25 years ago, people would have said, 'Uh, how can I stay Catholic and have difficulties with church teaching?' Now, I think, young people just say 'I'm leaving,' " Martin said. "Right? There's a lot less tolerance for what they see as behavior that is intolerant, according to them."
People flock to retreats
Spiritual leader Deepak Chopra said, "Some of the things that we're told in traditional religion don't seem logical or rational, 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.
"The pandemic showed us that people don't like isolation. … [In] the absence of that human need for love, compassion, joy, sharing, attention, affection, appreciation, gratitude, ... people panicked," he said.
Chopra, 75, is the author of 97 books with topics that range from Jesus and Buddha to the metaverse. He's amassed a following around the world and speaks at prominent events throughout the year. As the founder of the Chopra Foundation, he hosts global retreats where the spiritually minded come to heal, meditate and connect.
"The retreats are full," he said. "We just finished one in Mexico. Another one in Los Angeles. People are flocking to these retreats."
The events can cost thousands to attend. A weeklong retreat planned for next month in Carefree, Ariz., is priced from $6,000 to $8,000. Chopra said people skip church to attend these retreats, and stressed that the drop in religious observance may be raising questions about how society is changing — but not about our spiritual nature.
"The spiritual experience will never go away," 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 rolls on, the younger generation's connection with spirituality is one way to engage with them, he said.
Faith put to the test
Nonprofit leader Megha Desai, a Hindu, grew up in Boston but regularly spent time India. She worshiped in beautiful temples in both countries. But Desai, who now lives in New York City, said the pandemic has changed her relationship with religion, and prompted her to ask more questions.
"These last two years have certainly tested my faith," Desai said. "As it's hard to find sense in so many lives being taken from us."
Desai still identifies as a Hindu, sharing that her relationship with God has evolved over time.
"I approach my connection to God from a more spiritual place than through the vehicle of religion. … I think the Hindu rituals I do take part in are the festivals like Diwali, which connects me more to my culture than my faith," said Desai, who runs the Desai Foundation, a nonprofit organization that empowers women and girls through community programs to elevate health and livelihood in India.
Indeed, that search to answer life's hardest questions will always be central to people, even if American young people continue to leave organized religion, said Chopra.
"Some of the things that we're told in traditional religion don't seem logical or rational," he said. "So people are leaving … but humans still have the same questions: Is there meaning or purpose in our existence? Why do we suffer?"
— CNBC's Katie Young contributed to this article.
Correction: The Rev. James Martin is a Jesuit Catholic priest in New York City and editor-at-large of America Magazine. An earlier version misstated his name.