Belonging Precedes Believing

Written by Dr. Josh Packard, Executive Vice President of Strategy and Operations, NCEA, [email protected]

When you think of Gen Z and Gen Alpha, what are the first words that come to mind? I think of things like technology, connected, social media, activist, justice. Some of the word clouds on popular search engines return terms like diverse, digital native and global. If you work directly with young people you might also be thinking of some of their struggles. I’ve had people come up with terms like “covid generation,” “mental health” and “disaffiliated.” 

But almost nobody comes up with the single biggest issue facing young people today, loneliness. 

Gen Z is the loneliest generation ever. 

That’s an astonishing fact confirmed first by a massive study from Cigna of over 20,000 Americans in 2018 and subsequently by a number of researchers. The consequences of this situation are not surprising, but they are heartbreaking. Loneliness is a condition that colors all aspects of one’s life including their faith and spirituality.

For young people especially, a central tenet begins to emerge when it comes to their religious lives: belonging precedes believing, not the other way around. In an era of loneliness, the journey of faith begins not with doctrine or creed, but with a sense of community and connection.

The significance of belonging in religious contexts cannot be overstated. It’s the foundation upon which faith and spiritual understanding are built. In an era where loneliness and isolation are prevalent, particularly among the younger generations, the role of belonging becomes even more crucial. Studies and surveys have repeatedly shown that Gen Z is marked by profound loneliness, a condition impacting not just their mental health but their spiritual well-being too. This loneliness transcends the boundaries of mere emotional states, spilling over into every aspect of life, including their spiritual journeys.

Here, the church and religious communities play a pivotal role. By fostering a sense of belonging, these institutions offer a remedy to the isolation that plagues so many young people. The process of building faith, then, starts with creating a space where individuals, regardless of their spiritual maturity, feel accepted, valued and connected. When they see their religious community as first concerned with their basic human need for connection, they will begin to trust that community to guide them in other areas.

If we take the data about loneliness seriously, it calls us to consider how we can build belonging into our faith formation programs. This entails actively engaging young individuals in community activities, ensuring their voices are heard and their experiences are acknowledged. The goal is to cultivate a space where young people can explore their spirituality within the safety of a supportive community.

Moreover, the concept that belonging precedes believing has implications for how religious education is approached. It suggests that before we delve into teaching doctrines or religious practices, we must first ensure that the learners feel a part of the community. It’s about laying a foundation of trust and connection from which faith can naturally emerge and flourish.

This approach is not just beneficial for the individual but for the community as a whole. When members, especially the younger ones, feel a sense of belonging, they’re more likely to engage deeply with the community and its teachings. This deeper engagement not only strengthens their personal faith journey but also enhances the vitality of the religious community.