Forget the doom and gloom — the future is open for Gen Z and religion

There’s more to the story about religion in America than what polls and surveys indicate — especially among young people.

Consider two recent statements made by one of America’s most prolific religious demographers, Daniel Cox. On the one hand, in a report examining Gen Z’s religious attendance and affiliation trends, he wrote: “In terms of identity, Generation Z is the least religious generation yet.”

On the other hand, in a co-written report about faith after the pandemic, this: “Increasingly, religious affiliation may tell us less about the full range of religious and spiritual experiences Americans have and the extent of their theological commitments.”

Our research findings confirm this tension: Gen Z expresses religiosity and spirituality, but in ways that defy traditional polling measures.

In this new reality, faith leaders can accept existing data as evidence of declining demand for religion among young people and just keep trying to get them back in the church building.

But we firmly believe that the decline narrative is not the full story. We think the better option for faith leaders is to transform their approach to young people in a way that recognizes how they actually are engaging with faith and spiritual practices.

At Springtide Research Institute, we are discovering that in reality, a majority of America’s “least religious generation” identifies as religious (68%) or spiritual (77%) — a fact that changed little even as their already low religious attendance dropped off further during the pandemic.

Gen Z expresses religiosity and spirituality, but in ways that defy traditional polling measures.

Religious vs Spiritual graph

So what’s going on with young people?

For decades, sociologists and demographers have looked to two primary indicators of religiosity in individuals or society: affirmed beliefs (e.g., “Do you believe in God with no doubts?”) and frequency of attendance at religious services.

A recent article based on these indicators, for example, doubles down on the thesis that the U.S. is undergoing a process of secularization.

But it’s important to look more closely. This same article notes: “Of course, compared to most other wealthy countries, the U.S. is quite religious. Fifty-five percent of Americans, for example, say they pray daily, compared to an average of 22% of Europeans.”

This includes 47% of Gen Zers who pray at least weekly, according to Springtide’s 2022 annual State of Religion & Young People report.

With Gen Z, traditional indicators of affiliation and attendance no longer explain what’s happening. Cox and his co-authors call this the “decoupling of identity and experience.”

There are far too many voices pronouncing God “dead” (or at least dying) for Gen Z without the full range of evidence needed to back up such a claim.

Those indicators cannot tell you, for example, that numerous young people engage with crystals and herbs, anime, activism and politics, tarot, and nature as spiritual exercises.

Before dismissing these practices as New Age frivolities, consider that young Latter-day Saints and Muslims — groups that traditionally hold more conservative/orthodox religious beliefs — were among the most likely to engage with tarot or other forms of divination on a regular basis (38% and 35%, respectively).

Gen Zers engage in these practices even as they tag along with mainstream religious traditions. We also know that young people who engage in practices like these reap some of the benefits that accompany traditional religious behaviors and expressions.

For example, while 17% of all young people say they are flourishing in their faith, this number increases for young people who engage spiritually with crystals and herbs weekly or daily.

Similarly, while 24% of all young people say they’re flourishing in their mental and emotional health, this number increases for young people who engage with crystals or herbs weekly.

We’re not arguing that Christian churches should replace liturgy with crystals. But a deeper understanding of young adults’ faith and practices can help churches connect with them.

Some faith communities have picked up on Gen Z’s unconventional spiritual quest, dumping traditional programs in favor of eclectic, peer-driven activities that promote what Gen Z says it lacks most: a sense of belonging.

One example is Table Bread, a ministry of The Table United Methodist Church in Sacramento, California. The church discovered that the baking and breaking of bread created community for young people that helped alleviate their isolation and loneliness. As they form authentic relationships around baking bread, the participants have rich and honest conversations centered on Wesleyan concepts and questions.

The project eventually evolved into a youth-led social enterprise that is forming an intergenerational community through farming and bread making. Yet a young person’s participation in these initiatives might not register under traditional survey measures of religious identity and attendance.

And take a look at what happened in February 2023 at Asbury University, where a garden-variety chapel service ignited a two-week, continuous revival, drawing nearly 50,000 students and visitors from around the country. It also sparked similar events on other campuses.

Daniel Darling, a bestselling Christian author and pastor, wrote in response to the Asbury revival:

“I’m bullish on Gen Z. God is doing something. I’ve seen it on our own campus. I’ve seen it on campuses where I’ve preached. We need wisdom and discernment, but I don’t want to be the cranky old guy who obsesses over trend lines, nitpicks away and misses a movement of the Spirit.”

To be sure, the revival has its skeptics. However, whether one is a doubter or a believer in the Asbury revival, the event at least suggests that maybe the experts don’t have the full story on where young Americans are headed with religion. In fact, one could argue that we simply cannot know for sure right now.

Returning to the findings of researcher Daniel Cox: “What most distinguishes Generation Z from previous generations is not that Gen Zers are more likely to leave their childhood religion, but rather that many of them lacked a religious upbringing.”

Cox notes that 15% of Gen Zers report being raised in nonreligious households, more than twice the rate of Gen Xers (6%) and five times the rate of baby boomers (3%).

Many of them say they don’t know how to connect to communities of faith. Almost 40% of young people in Springtide’s 2021 annual State of Religion & Young People report agreed with the statement, “I would not even think to go to a faith community because it is not something I’ve ever gone to before.”

More than half said, “I’m not sure how to get connected to a new faith community.”

The decline of institutional trust, the increase in demographic diversity and the rise of social media, among other factors, mean that young people are operating in a different social environment than the one that gave rise to the successful program-driven models of youth engagement over the past 50 years.

What can faith leaders do in place of programs? They can invest in building trust through authentic relationships with young people rather than relying on institutional authority to do the lifting. They can promote belonging to the same degree as believing. They can address the issues that young people care about, like racial and ethnic identity and mental health. They can bake and break bread.

At Springtide, we know that there are more examples of innovative approaches to engaging young people, because young people tell us about them all the time.

With a new grant from Lilly Endowment Inc., we are excited to spend the next three years identifying the who and the what behind those approaches and why they are so successful with young people, with the goal of developing frameworks that can be adapted and applied in faith communities everywhere.

We are excited to tell a new story — perhaps even the true story — about the spiritual potential of young Americans. Among the epitaphs written about young people and the church, we hope to announce new births — and to normalize a posture of hope and anticipation for the exciting places young people will take religion in the years to come.

“Shots fired and Michigan State’s campus is on lockdown.”

That horrifying text message came from my associate pastor at 8:38 p.m. Monday, Feb. 13. Our community spent the next three hours waiting — and praying — for the active shooter crisis to end. My kitchen table became a makeshift workspace and altar as I began responding to students on campus by text, sending out emails and praying for God’s mercy.

At 11:49 p.m., it finally ended. We learned, first from police scanners and then from the local media, that the shooter had taken his own life 3 miles from campus. Four people were dead —three students and the perpetrator — and five others injured.

But really, the end of the immediate crisis was only the start of the hurting and weeping, serving and ministering for our community.

Our congregation, St. Luke Lutheran Church, has two campuses. One is just east of Michigan State University, and the other is just west. MSU is at the center of our ministry, not just geographically, but also in our hearts.

Our congregation has many undergrad and graduate students, faculty, staff and alumni — including me. I spent four years at MSU as a graduate student in digital rhetoric while also serving my parish. I learned to love rhetoric and technology in its classrooms. My children and I spend summer days playing tag in the shadows of Beaumont Tower. My wife and I cherish our leisurely strolls through the flowers of Beal Botanical Garden. This place is an extension of our backyard.

One of the very first things that our ministry staff did — even as the police still searched for the killer — was to compile a list of all the MSU students, faculty and staff in our congregation. This enabled us to reach out personally by text and social media.

Though it was late in the evening, our leaders crafted a message that went out by email that night:

Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

“Jesus wept.” (John 11:35)

Sometimes there are no words, only tears. This is a moment where there are no words, but only tears. We weep for those who have died in the events at Michigan State University. We weep for those who were injured. We weep for those who were traumatized, distressed, and in harm’s way. We weep for the entire MSU community, their families, and all who are hurting this evening.

Jesus wept. However, Jesus did not only weep. In the midst of death and hurt and pain, Jesus brought life and peace, calm and healing. Jesus tells us …

  • Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
  • The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.
  • I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live …
  • Peace, be still.

It concluded with an invitation to a prayer vigil the next morning.

Those first hours were chaotic, but we knew we needed to be strategic. Thinking in terms of concentric circles, we developed a ministry strategy that placed our closest existing relationships in the center (congregation members who study, teach or work at MSU).

The next ring included people we might encounter through the people in the inner ring. For example, a faculty member in our congregation knew an international student in need of help while the campus was closed for a few days.

Finally, the outermost ring was the MSU and Lansing community in general. These concentric circles helped us triage our time and efforts appropriately in the midst of harried days.

With our strategy for ministry in place, we first devoted our attention to caring for our closest existing relationships at MSU. We organized two events. The first was a lament prayer service the day after the shooting. One of our associate pastors put together a service that included Scripture readings and prayer litanies, as well as time for silent prayer.

A few days after the shooting, we invited all of our MSU students, faculty and staff to a time for engaging in conversation and processing what had happened. In order to keep it casual and welcoming, we included a communal meal.

We ate Jimmy John’s (they are college kids, after all) and hung out on couches. There was pain, frustration and sadness, but also a feeling of togetherness and a palpable hope that healing would one day come.

Two texts helped guide our ministry in the days following the shooting. More often than I’d like, I have used a stark word from the Gospel of John to minister to people in times of profound hurt: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). We also took a cue from the book of Job, where it talks about Job’s three friends who “sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (Job 2:13 NRSVUE).

We wanted to listen and weep. We steered away from commenting on what had happened; I’ve found that times of acute crisis call for listening and being present, not speculating and explaining. Instead, we leaned heavily on Scripture, prayer and simply gathering to hurt together.

Our prayers emphasized the healing hope that we have in Jesus, our wounded Savior.

The morning after the shooting, I received a call from the CEO of Lutheran Church Charities. They wanted to know whether we could host several of their Comfort Dog Ministry teams — trained dogs and their handlers experienced in caring for communities after tragedy. We agreed.

And a few hours later, six golden retrievers from around the country descended upon us. As a result of their extensive training, these creatures were incredibly serene and gentle — just what one would want in a time of crisis such as this.

In a situation like a mass shooting, a deluge of outside help can overwhelm a community. However, in this situation, we were able to expedite caring for our folks by connecting people in the community with outside resources.

I spoke with congregation members working at MSU to see whether they wanted a visit from the dogs — an offer that many gladly accepted. Additionally, we used congregational connections at the regional hospital to orchestrate visits there with the golden retrievers.

The dogs, accompanied by their handlers and some of our pastors, visited staff at the hospital, including in the laboratory where victims’ blood types had been processed with extreme speed and precision to prepare for blood transfusions.

It has now been a little over a month since the shooting at MSU. While we are still hurting and processing all that has happened, our congregation has started planning for the future. Sadly, as the recent school shooting in Nashville shows, it’s necessary.

Our staff is preparing scenario planning exercises to think through how we would minister to our community if something similar happened at one of our high schools. We have already begun working with our local school district to serve as a reunification site if the need arises.

Though we are thinking about the future, we are still hurting in the present. Ministering through this pain is something that is measured in months and years, not hours and days. We are lingering with our people, together, to hurt and to heal.

We preach about this in sermons. We pray about this in worship. And we continue to meet in small groups to process the pain.

As we grieve, however, we do not “grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Instead, we are hurting and healing with our eyes on Jesus.

On Mother’s Day 2020, I was working as a contact tracer for the Florida Department of Health. Our team labored 10 hours a day, seven days a week, reaching out to people who had been exposed to COVID-19. We explained quarantine procedures and educated people about how to protect others.

That Sunday, it was my job to interrupt Mother’s Day brunches across Fort Myers and tell folks that they had been exposed to the virus — in the days before vaccines and effective treatment. People were panicking.

It was a Groundhog Day experience as we contacted hundreds of people with bad news. It was difficult. It was depressing, especially when we’d learn about folks who had died.

I also saw the effects of superspreader events — some of them from churches that had refused to close. Florida at that time was one of the nation’s COVID hot spots and the epicenter of furious debates about masking, quarantine and religious freedom.

I already was interested in public health and theology — 2020 was the summer between finishing my master’s in public health and starting divinity school. For a young public health professional and theologian, this experience highlighted the urgency for collaboration. After all, religious communities and public health agencies seek the same outcome: healthier and more vibrant communities.

In divinity school, I tried to understand why there is such a divide between religious communities and public health practitioners. Now, as I embark on a Ph.D. in population health sciences, I continue to envision ways we can integrate theology and health education in our pews.

This ideal collaboration is far from simple. Experts in public health often lack the theological understanding and context to be culturally aware of the structures and behaviors in religious communities. And religious leaders are often overstretched in their regular clerical responsibilities; to expect them also to be skilled in health education and communication is unfair.

I have spent a large part of recent years focused on this never-ending chicken-or-egg scenario of how to build a bridge between health organizations and religious communities.

Though I think that accountability on both ends of this “bridge” is important, I want to suggest a few first steps for religious leaders.

Know your congregation.

This might sound obvious. However, knowing a bit of the backstories of the people sitting in your pews on Sundays does not mean that you understand their needs and concerns.

Consider the levels of insurance in your church. Are most people on a certain type of health insurance? Are people uninsured or in professions where their insurance level fluctuates? What about the availability of dental and vision services? Can they afford these services?

The intricacies of health insurance coverage could provide a brief peek into the health of those in your community and the gaps that may be chronically unaddressed for a significant portion of your congregation.

Though these question may not be part of the normal “getting-to-know-you” info card, being upfront about your church’s intention to work for health equity and to address potential health needs of your congregants may ease the discussion of these sensitive though vital details.

Of course, even with the most honest intentions and perfectly curated questions, there are other dynamics at play as well.

Recognize the opportunities and limitations of your role as clergy.

It is no secret that clergy are often overworked, with their expected scope of care greatly exceeding their reach. In addition, few pastors have medical or public health expertise.

However, one of the great superpowers of religious leaders is their tendency to be seen as leaders and trustworthy members of the community. Recognizing opportunities to provide guidance to members of your community on health decisions while also recognizing your own limitations may be the perfect combination of your clergy superpower.

One example of this is the way that Black and Hispanic churches served a crucial role during the worst days of the pandemic by sharing health information and offering testing and vaccination sites.

Reach out to your local health experts.

This could be the health department, a health education specialist, medical providers, or other health care workers who have experience and training to offer guidance to your congregation.

Collaborating with these folks might create opportunities for your congregation to understand more about their health concerns from reputable medical sources while you also help them contextualize their health concerns within your faith tradition. Feel free to reach out to people like myself who are deeply rooted in the intersection of health and religion.

Include these topics of concern in your sermons.

If the pandemic has taught us anything about how religion and public health interact, it’s the ways that people are influenced by information from people they trust. As a religious leader, you will likely be asked for your opinions on various health behaviors and decisions.

While honoring your educational gap on the subject matter and knowing your scope, you can still find helpful, engaging ways to include health issues in preaching. One possible place to start is by inviting your congregation to explore and be curious with you as you seek out information to make the best decisions for your own health.

The task of congregational care is a daunting one, especially when pastors venture beyond the spiritual needs of those they’re in community with. However, the ability to improve health behaviors as well as faith practices is a beautiful dynamic.

It is my hope that no one else ever receives a call on Mother’s Day to tell them that they and their families are in danger from a deadly virus. Through the intentional considerations of congregational needs and local resources, clergy can and should collaborate with health partners to help make sure the Groundhog Day summer of 2020 never happens again.

The concussive pops rang through Uptown Baptist Church one evening in August 2013. The Rev. Michael Allen didn’t realize the noise as gunfire at first. Busy greeting the familiar faces and newcomers at the church’s Monday Meal program, the minister thought it was perhaps late summer fireworks.

Then he opened the church door. He saw five men bleeding at the bottom of the church steps. One man, shot in the head, later died; the other victims recovered from their injuries. Uptown has higher rates of violence than many other North Side Chicago neighborhoods, but this was beyond anything Allen had ever seen.

“We can’t allow this,” he thought. He had long been focused on urban ministry and justice, and this latest violence underscored his neighborhood’s critical need: What could be done to help the victims as well as keep the would-be perpetrators from getting to this point?

“How can we minister on both sides of the gun?” he asked himself.

prayer walk
Faith leaders march downtown during Hands Across Chicago, which mobilizes people to host “united prayer and positive community presence” in the city.Photo by Scott Parker

A year and a half later, Allen met David Dillon, a tech entrepreneur who had grown up the child of Baptist General Conference missionaries in Japan and later moved to Chicago. The two discovered they were focused on the same issue.

Staggering rates of gun violence in 2016 spurred Dillon to try to find an approach to the problem. He invited his friends, business peers and pastor contacts to pray and brainstorm.

In 2017, Together Chicago was born of faith, strategy and collaboration, with Dillon and Allen as co-founders. Its goal is to improve communities on Chicago’s near West Side and address what Together Chicago board member the Rev. Jon Dennis calls a “racial wound that hasn’t been healed yet.”

Collaboration and collective impact

Gun violence is just one outcome of the interconnected problems of economic disenfranchisement, systemic racism, high incarceration rates, violence, substandard educational resources and demoralization.

Together Chicago tackles it all. Inspired by a 2014 article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Allen and Dillon designed the nonprofit as a “collective impact” organization. Collective impact is “an intentional way of working together and sharing information for the purpose of solving a complex problem,” according to the National Council of Nonprofits.

What partners do you invite into conversation when you face what seems like an intractable problem?

panel discussion
Faith organizers speak at at a training hosted by Building Blocks of Peace, a Together Chicago partner. Photo by Gabe Lerma

Gun violence overall in Chicago isn’t as rampant as some might think — Chicago isn’t even the most violent city in the Midwest. However, its gun violence is highly concentrated in certain neighborhoods: between 2017 and 2020, 15 of Chicago’s 77 designated community areas, concentrated in the city’s South and West sides, accounted for over 50% of all shootings.

The West Haven neighborhood, where Together Chicago focuses, includes the United Center (the house that Michael Jordan built). It’s close to the downtown Loop and is a mix of rapacious gentrification and generations-old public housing.

In order to address the web of interrelated factors that contribute to violence, the leaders set up the organization with five focus areas: violence reduction, education, economic development, gospel justice and faith community mobilization.

Together Chicago’s reach and impact is expanding as the organization grows.

In 2020-21, volunteers and staff worked with about 3,000 schoolchildren; offered legal aid in 19 churches; trained 28 volunteers and faith leaders to “interrupt” violence; helped local businesses become suppliers to major industries; and engaged more than 100 churches in prayer gatherings and other efforts.

Together Chicago works with local universities to track its impact. The work is slow and long term, but the group can point to successes.

Andrew Papachristos is a Northwestern University sociology professor who studies gun violence and has researched nonviolence outreach groups. He has worked with Together Chicago partner Communities Partnering for Peace.

Papachristos said the data collected so far indicates that efforts of outreach programs by Communities Partnering for Peace could be linked to 383 fewer homicides in 2021.

“That’s not 5,000, but that’s not zero, either,” he said.

Violence reduction

Dillon and Allen call each other co-CEOs (also sometimes, in presentations and interviews, “twin sons of different mothers”). They note that business acumen is essential to managing an organization with so many priorities and stakeholders.

Together Chicago resisted thinking about gun violence as a stand-alone challenge, appreciating the ways it is interconnected with economics, racism and other injustices. How would such an approach to discernment invite you to think differently about your ministries and their impact?

Dillon and Allen
David Dillon and Michael Allen, co-founders of Together Chicago.

“We’re over a $2 million organization now,” Dillon said. “There’s just a ton to manage in terms of complexity. We’re audited by every agency that gives us money to do work. We report, literally, sometimes weekly on our activities to various agencies. It’s a huge amount of overhead and red tape.”

The organization, which has 50 employees, is funded by grants from foundations, churches and individuals, contracts with local businesses, and government grants for services related to violence prevention and reduction.

Like other business leaders in 2023, Dillon and Allen understand the importance of data and how to use it.

With access to data on crime, education and other metrics through partners like the University of Chicago, North Park University and the Department of Education, they track their efforts. That includes the number of students in volunteer programs, the number of parents in the Parent Champions program and the number of school/church combinations, Dillon said.

Beyond thoughts and prayers, metrics let them know whether they’re heading in the right direction and what goals to set.

“We’ve had some double-digit reduction in violence last year [2021] compared to the year before, but we’re still not back to pre-pandemic numbers,” Dillon said, reviewing data from the University of Chicago Crime Lab portal, which tracked gun victims on the West Side in 2021 (nine) vs. 2020 (16).

The city experienced 695 homicides in 2022 — still some of the highest numbers since the 1990s, but lower than the 804 in 2021.

Watching numbers like those provided by the portal in real time helps provide a more granular picture of spots to focus on in the areas they serve.

“We’re not doing as well this year as we did in ’21, but we still are seeing a reduction,” Dillon said. “At the end of this year, we’d love to see another double-digit reduction in homicides and shootings.”

How do you measure success? What partners might help you learn from your efforts and pivot for greater effect?

prayer service
People gather at First Baptist Congregational Church for Chicagoland United in Prayer.Photo by Nate Tubbs

Interrupting street violence

Tio Hardiman, the executive director of Chicago’s Violence Interrupters program, supervises Together Chicago’s street outreach team. Former gang members, people who have been incarcerated and gunshot survivors serve as community liaisons to keep local at-risk youth out of prison or the morgue.

“We provide the training so they know what it takes to become a credible messenger and how to prevent conflicts on the front end before any shots are fired,” Hardiman said.

“They don’t just meet with the guys on the streets; they actually have a relationship with different community stakeholders like church leaders, community residents and community leaders, which is very, very important.”

One strategy is to interrupt bad actions through volunteer peacemakers who engage in “positive loitering” to change street dynamics. Another strategy is to interrupt bad actors through personal visits and messages of hope.

Derek Wright is a West Haven resident who learned about Together Chicago’s street outreach program because of its network. His brother knew Charles King, a former gang member who now counsels local guys like him.

Wright said that King helped him get a job with the city of Chicago, when previously he had been “hanging on the street.”

“It’s not just he got me a job; he got seven other people jobs. He helped the community,” Wright said. “[Charles] has been involved in my life for a minute. When life has its ups and downs, I give him a call, and we work it out. Not everything is peaches and cream.”

In other situations, the Chicago Police Department shares names of local youth most at risk of landing in prison, possibly repeatedly, with the group’s anti-violence leaders.

“The commanders give a message of warning to these guys,” Allen said. “We give a message of hope and help to them: ‘The police will stop you if you make them; we will help you if you let us. Give us a call when you’re ready to put the guns and drugs down. We’ll show you a better path.’”

The Rev. Joe Cali, a North Side minister, has a list of 100 families of “acute offenders” he checks in on as one of the organization’s volunteer counselors. He considers it a success if any of the youths indicate they want to hear what he has to say. Not everyone he counsels stays out of jail, but he can still help them if they don’t.

“We went to one young man’s house three times because he kept being on the Top 10 list,” Cali said. The young man finally reached out after landing in prison for breaking into cars.

“He started calling me almost every night from jail: ‘Pastor, I’ve got to change.’” He has been staying out of trouble since he got out.

“We just took him to the Blackhawks game last night,” Cali said. “He’s a different person now. He’s smiling big.”

What skills are essential for your ministry? If your team doesn’t already have those skills, how might you develop them?

neighborhoods working together
Pastors and leaders commit to prayer and action in their communities at Apostolic Faith Church.Photo by Mandy Pelton

Gospel justice, education and economic development

Together Chicago’s focus areas are informed by the needs left in the wake of Chicago’s documented disenfranchisement of minorities on the West Side. After several formal and informal listening sessions among community members, Allen says, it was clear there was a need for legal assistance.

“People said, ‘We’ve got so many families involved in the justice system. How do we help those people solve some of their civil issues before those civil issues become criminal issues?’”

Together Chicago, in partnership with the legal aid organization Administer Justice, runs Gospel Justice Centers in 19 churches. On Saturday mornings in primarily South and West Side churches, local volunteer attorneys offer legal aid clinics to advise clients on civil cases, typically involving family, housing, probate court or tax issues.

Together Chicago also seeks to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline by working with schools and families and developing the economy in the city’s marginalized neighborhoods.

To improve education, Together Chicago pairs with Chicago Public Schools to help churches and other organizations “adopt” schools to provide resources and help they may lack.

Some efforts are focused on student learning, such as tutoring. Together Chicago also trains mentors to work with students and recruit churches to help build a “village of support” for their families.

This support ranges from training volunteers to donating money and furniture and, in one case, preparing an end-of-semester meal for staff at Doolittle Elementary in the city’s Bronzeville neighborhood.

The Parent Champions program offers counseling for stressed-out parents with the difficult task of raising kids in a tough environment.

How do you practice listening in your context? Whose voices are loudest? Whose are missing? Are you paying attention to needs, hopes, gifts or something else?

new grad and family
Damien Howard, director of education initiatives for Together Chicago, visits with graduates of its mentoring program.Photo courtesy of Together Chicago

“I know Together Chicago’s work is paying off when I see a kid like Camden,” said Damien Howard, the director of education initiatives at Together Chicago.

“He was a young man with behavioral issues at school. He took to [our] Social Emotional Learning training that was not just happening at school, but it was happening at home as well because his mom was taking part in it too.”

Camden Woodley, a third grader, said Together Chicago’s SEL training made a big difference.

“[The training] helped me take control of my emotions and make better choices and be a better friend,” he said.

Once students graduate, Together Chicago wants them to be able to find jobs and live in economically healthy communities. Much of this effort involves job placement, but the group’s economic development work is broader than keeping people out of prison.

In one case, the nonprofit worked with a nearby health care system that purchases $100 million in goods and services, helping it identify local businesses.

“They asked us to find local businesses that are minority-owned that they can use to do various services for their hospitals,” Dillon said. “We found IT companies and attorneys and repair companies and all kinds of companies that are minority-owned that are now doing services for Rush Hospital.”

The role of faith communities

None of this work would happen without faith community mobilization. In late January, the group was preparing for its annual Prayer Gathering event, in which 170 churches across Chicago pray virtually and in person for peace and thriving communities. It’s organized by Chicagoland United in Prayer, a sister organization. They even offer a special guide to prayer for each of the city’s neighborhoods.

“What’s really cool about these prayer gatherings is it’s very racially integrated,” Dillon said. “It’s a very visible way to show that the body of Christ really can unite, as in the Bible in John chapter 17. We pray together. We train together. We learn together.”

Prayer Gathering event
Participants form “prayer huddles” at Apostolic Faith Church during a Chicagoland United in Prayer event.Photo by Jantzen Loza

However, many of the spaces Together Chicago advocates for and works in — gangs, public schools, courts, law enforcement — are not necessarily places of faith.

Allen and Dillon say they follow a general philosophy: they lead with but do not force religion on anyone, especially members of the street outreach team, several of whom are Muslim.

“We have a statement of faith, the core values that we want everybody on our staff to live out in their day-to-day work,” Allen said. “It’s a work in progress. Most of our staff, even among the street outreach team, have no problem with our core values.”

Prayer gatherings, including this one at The Moody Church, are intended to foster seasonal rhythms of prayer and action throughout the year.Photo by Mandy Pelton

But sometimes, Dillon said, a faith connection grows where there was none before. When police officers depart, a young man might develop a rapport with a visiting minister who lingers to talk. Or a client who steps inside a church looking for affordable legal counsel might find something more.

“It’s meeting a legitimate, everyday need that they have that then sparks a faith journey,” he said.

There are many more intimate, less scalable ways the organization helps the community.

Shortly before Christmas, 16-year-old Kimberly Campbell was indoors on the West Side when she was shot in the head by outside gunfire. She later died. Together Chicago helped raise funds for her mother to spend some time at a hotel away from the triggering pressure and sadness of the neighborhood.

Cali, the volunteer counselor, said he once counseled the mother of a young man in jail for accidentally shooting and killing his best friend.

“I asked the family, ‘Do you need anything?’ The mom said, ‘I just broke my last pan.’ We bought her three new pans so she can cook her food.”

Looking ahead

Together Chicago’s goals for the year ahead are ambitious. The double-digit reduction in gun violence. More locations for the Gospel Justice Centers. And some signed truces between rival gangs.

In the spring, local gang factions will leave their guns behind and meet for several hours with the street outreach team to talk about what peace in the community might look like.

“They will be offered food, fun activities and noted hosts or participants who are well respected on the streets. These peace circles promise some ways and means out toward safety and prosperity,” Allen said.

No amount of data or funding can build this type of trust, he said. It takes solid partnerships built over time, a person-to-person model Together Chicago aims to reflect at every level.

“When we do get asked to come into a community,” Dillon said, “before we do that, we sit down and say, ‘How can we really coexist well together?’ If we can’t do that, we have no business even being in existence. It’s really core to our whole DNA.”

Questions to consider

  • What partners do you invite into conversation when you face what seems like an intractable problem?
  • Together Chicago resisted thinking about gun violence as a stand-alone challenge, appreciating the ways it is interconnected with economics, racism and other injustices. How would such an approach to discernment invite you to think differently about your ministries and their impact?
  • How do you measure success? What partners might help you learn from your efforts and pivot for greater effect?
  • What skills are essential for your ministry? If your team doesn’t already have those skills, how might you develop them?
  • How do you practice listening in your context? Whose voices are loudest? Whose are missing? Are you paying attention to needs, hopes, gifts or something else?