August 1, 2022

Rethinking Traditional Church for a Modern Age

Pamela King reflects on the church of her youth and how it deeply formed her identity, sense of purpose, and belonging.

At the beginning of this year, I shared about what I see as the next wave of spirituality growing both within and outside traditional church communities. Our basic human needs include finding meaning, connection, and inspiration in our lives. Although these needs have historically been met through religion, Millennials and Generation Z are increasingly exploring spirituality outside religious contexts. Almost one third of U.S. adults are now religiously unaffiliated, and fewer than half of U.S. adults pray daily.[1] Yet, there seems to be a deep hunger for something that might ground, direct, and connect us. What does this mean for today’s traditional institutions such as churches? As a new spiritual awakening occurs, institutions are struggling to meet these needs in a rapidly evolving world.

What’s Gained and What’s Lost?

The psychologist in me thinks about the church of my youth, which provided me with rich opportunities for development and identity formation. My youth group and church congregation informed my narrative. I identified myself as a child of God. It’s no secret that modern developments in technology, culture, views on identity, and values have shifted young adults away from traditional places of worship and community to more nebulous and free flowing spaces. I view this current movement away from traditional churches, in part, as a response to the prescribed uniformity those communities often demanded. A one-size-fits-all approach is no longer relevant to our modern age. That being said, individuals need opportunities to develop as unique selves—a need that religious and faith communities can meet. Individuals are gifted with unique talents, abilities, and passions. When church communities recognize, cultivate, and mobilize individuals’ uniquenesses, people feel welcomed and engage in these spiritual communities. 

Beyond recognizing the uniqueness of individuals, how might churches (such as the one I grew up in) help individuals find meaning and connection? How might religious communities better meet our fundamental needs to develop and love? How might the church build a better world and reframe our sense of purpose? 

Psychological Assets from Traditional Church 

I want to take you back to the Chicago suburbs of my youth. The church that my family and I attended not only offered us a clear set of beliefs and values, but it also provided us with a supportive community. My church allowed me to develop leadership skills as I organized and led Bible studies and activities with our Presbyterian Youth Group (we used to call ourselves PYGs). Deep relationships were formed with my peers and older members of the congregation who knew me by name. Of course, I wasn’t immune to the challenges most teenagers face, but I had a set of beliefs and a support system. I practiced living those beliefs at church and at home. My church helped me see myself and my place in the world. In the language of psychology, my church helped me to develop a strong identity and it helped me to develop skills aligned with my strengths and values. Not only was I encouraged to live a coherent life, but my church encouraged prosocial behavior, an important aspect of thriving. In addition, my faith gave me a sense of purpose—using my competencies and strengths for God’s greater world.

A Vision for the Future Church

I suspect that future generations will practice spirituality differently than I did in my childhood. However, our basic psychological and spiritual needs never disappear. Finding moments of stillness and connection to God or the transcendent will remain relevant and necessary in our lives. These psychological and spiritual needs must be met through communities of love. It’s clear to me that spiritual and faith communities must continually address a wide variety of needs both within and outside their environments and toward a greater purpose in order to heal the wounds and problems of our world.


[1] A recent study on spirituality by the Fetzer Institute indicates that prayer is a popular spiritual practice among Americans.

Pamela Ebstyne King Executive Director, Peter L. Benson Professor of Applied Developmental Science


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