Are Gen Z East Texans Less Devout than Their Parents?

 Gen Z breaking away from their parents’ beliefs isn’t unheard of today. From losing faith completely, creating something from nothing and being discriminated against because of their faith, Gen Zers fight to understand where they stand with religion.

Gen Z consists of those born from 1997 to 2012 —  ranging in age from 25 to 10 years old. Interviews with members of this age group revealed a sense of detachment from the religious values instilled in them by their parents or family.  For most of them, they found a home in nondenominational churches because it allows them to practice their faith without religious stipulations.

“I wasn’t going to church to be religious.”

📷 courtesy Nicole Birney

For some in East Texas, attending church is less about religion and more about family, safety and commitment. For Nicole Birney, attending church became more than embracing faith.

Birney lived in Tyler until she was 8, moving after her parents separated. Her introduction to religion began in the Catholic church, where her mom attempted to take her and her twin sister every Sunday, despite being late most days. Her dad stayed away claiming he was Methodist, even though Birney never saw him attend a church.  

When her mom moved the girls to the border of Mexico, the prominence of Catholicism, along with separation from her dad, furthered her religious strides. Birney began attending communion school, a Sunday school program administered before regular masses. The classes are meant to prepare young children for their first holy communions. In Catholicism, this is a sacred time where children in the church are educated and given a test before they can begin receiving the bread and blood of Christ during mass. 

“I didn’t learn anything, I wasn’t paying attention,” Birney admitted. “I was always waiting for the break time so I could buy a PayDay from the vending machine.” 

Despite feeling out of the loop, Birney ended up passing and having her first communion. She attended church with her grandmother at the time, the two of them walking together most Sundays. Her mom stopped joining them when the family moved. Thinking back, Birney feels her mom went to church when she was young because “it was the right thing to do.”

Once in high school, her relationship with church began to change along with her environment. At around 16 years old, she moved to a new school in a new town, limiting her access to her grandmother. Having no one to attend church with, she stopped going. 

At 21, Birney returned to Tyler and found her way to the Catholic church. 

“I got back into Catholicism because it was what I knew,” she said. 

This began a new chapter in Birney’s life, one where religion became a pillar in her weekly routine. She dedicated herself to congregation meetings on Wednesday evenings where members could pray together and attending two masses each Sunday. 

Looking back at this time in her life, Birney doesn’t view her actions as religious endeavors.

“I was just doing it to have a say, to have a name,” she said. “I loved Catholicism, because it kind of felt like a bandwagon I could jump on.”

One day at work, a man invited Birney to attend his nondenominational church. 

Standing in her loafers and slacks among a sea of casually dressed congregants, Birney still felt at home at the new church. For the first time in her life, she felt as if she finally understood what was being preached to her. She hasn’t stopped going since.

Instead of listening to hymns and a priest translating scripture, she listened to members interpreting the Bible with modern-day examples. Nonetheless, Birney still feels affiliated with some of her Catholic raising. 

“Some of the things in the Catholic church don’t add up, but I enjoy their traditionalist values,” she said. 

The culture Birney lived in outside of East Texas was loose and undefined by religious beliefs, she said. She sought out the innate structure religion brings, and moving back to Tyler heightened the amount of religious activity she could participate in. Compared to her old home on the border and its seeming lack of interest in religion, the Bible belt’s devotion became  a perfect match for her. 

Being part of her church and community in Tyler allows Birney to blossom as a person and see hope in others. 

“I think it’s a bunch of people with good morals who just want the best for a lot of people,” she said.

Birney spent most of her adolescence seeking the comfort and structure she felt robbed of as a child. Attending church began as a way for her to be a part of something and nurture these feelings. At 22, Birney found her home in the church and a new way to view the world.

“If they say he’s all powerful, then he’s not all good.”

📷 courtesy Caden Link

Growing up in the Mormon faith, Caden Link was the poster child of his religion. With his father receiving higher callings and maintaining authority positions in his congregations, Link was well known in the community. 

Link grew up in Forney, Texas, with his three younger siblings and parents. Entering his home, visitors were greeted by a large statue of Christ on the mantel. Every night before bed, the Links participated in family prayers, songs and personal prayers. 

“If you’re not praying, you’re not feeling the spirit, and if you aren’t feeling the spirit, you aren’t praying,” he said, referring to his personal prayers at night.

Before Link entered eighth grade, the family located to Tyler, which signaled higher prominence in the community. In Forney, his father was in his congregation’s bishopric, the bishop’s council of a few men. In Tyler, Link’s father became a bishop. His mother remained involved in other activities with friends in the community. 

After graduating high school, Link committed to the “sacred service” of going on a mission trip for two years. He was happy to do so and had almost completed the papers needed to submit. The final item on his checklist was to receive a physical.

That’s when Link’s doctor discovered he had diabetes. To adjust to his condition, he had to wait a year before submitting his mission papers.

At the age of 19, he was approved to serve in Ogden, Utah. 

Before departing on his trip, doubts surrounding his faith already had begun to swirl in Link’s mind. At the time, he was dating an atheist. He said this was frowned upon, as Mormons are supposed to marry within their faith. Mormon marriage isn’t seen as a union until death, said Link, but instead the binding of souls forever, creating an eternal family for the couple and their children. 

Link continued spiraling into doubt during his mission. 

“When I was preaching these things in my mission, I didn’t fully believe it myself,” he said. “I also knew that if I went home, I would be disappointing everyone.”

Worried, Link went to the bishop president. As he expected, he was told to access atonement and pray so Christ could help him. Link’s thoughts grew darker and he experienced depression, he said.

After relapsing and enacting self-harm again — something Link had quit in the past — the mission nurse became involved. He saw a therapist through her recommendation and was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder. He received no further help for his depression. 

During the first few months of a mission, Mormon missionaries go through training. His trainer also was his companion, someone he’d stick with for two years. His companion was there to help Link when he ran out into traffic one day. 

“He took me to the bishop president to explain what happened, and they sent me home,” he said. 

It took a week and a half for Link to fly back to Tyler. Ultimately, he served three months of his mission. He was terrified of what his parents may say, but his mom was waiting for him with open arms.

“I hugged my mom and cried out to her, and she said it was okay,” he said. “She was happy I was home.”

Upon arriving home, his parents agreed to pay for his higher education at Brigham Young University in Idaho, a Mormon college. He was single, having broken up with his girlfriend. After his second semester at BYU, he met a young woman.

By age 22, Link proposed. The match was ideal for him and his family, as the pair were of the Mormon faith and could have a temple wedding. Two months before the wedding was scheduled, his fiancée called it off. 

“I remember feeling relief among the sadness, and I realized I don’t want to be tied to this temple marriage,” he said. 

At this point in his life, Link realized what he believed. He wasted no time telling his father he didn’t believe in God. 

Soon after, his mission trip companion invited him to work in Ohio. He agreed, seeing the opportunity as a chance to find himself. He told his dad about the plan, but put off telling his mom, fearing her reaction. He hadn’t told her he left the church yet.

A week before he was set to leave, his mom confronted him.

“That’s the hardest conversation I’ve had with any person in my life because of the eternal family thing,” he said. “To her, I was taking myself out of her forever.”

A few days later, he left for Ohio. For most of 2020, Link moved around, living in Michigan, Idaho and back in Utah. There, he made money busking on the side of the road with his guitar. 

By the end of the year, Link found himself back in Tyler working at Petland. His parents helped him build his credit and find an apartment, maintaining a healthy relationship despite the year’s events. 

Now at 24 years old, Link confidently says he’s an atheist. 

“I hate the God that allowed everything to happen to me that did, that allows everything to happen in the world,” he said.

In Link’s eyes, his passion and purpose in life is to create music, something his diabetes affects.

“My body is falling apart, I might lose my fingers, which means I can’t play music,” he said. “I didn’t do anything to deserve that. I was still a good Mormon when that happened.”

Living in East Texas is a struggle for someone who was once the beloved poster boy of his community. When he sees members from his parents’ church in public, he’s asked when he’ll rejoin. Link recognizes how it feels to be heavily involved in faith and tries to remain unaffected when the community reaches out. He admits being back in Tyler can feel isolating. Even so, he said he would do it all over again. 

“It was just confusing.”

📷 Madison Davlin

Learning how to relate to religion as a child can be a tricky endeavor, largely dependent on how a child is reared. Throwing contradictory beliefs into the mix can complicate it even more. Being raised Baptist, Pentecostal and sometimes nondenominational, Madison Davlin struggled to find which religion knew best. 

Davlin grew up attending a Baptist church with her parents. Her mom is the daughter of a Baptist preacher.              

When Davlin was 8, her parents divorced, a situation the church didn’t approve. Davlin and her mom, stopped attending their church in Rusk.

Her dad moved to Lufkin to be closer to his job. When Davlin was around 9, he remarried. Soon after their marriage, her stepmom’s father passed away. 

This event precipitated the time when Davlin began to live in two religious realities: one with her mom and the other with her dad. 

Her stepmom’s family was Pentecostal and while they hadn’t been heavily involved before her father’s passing, it drastically changed their outlook after. Davlin’s dad fully took on the Pentecostal values, devoting their family to the religion. 

 “The man is supposed to lead them in church, worship and the household,” she said. 

Davlin said the Pentecostal faith places great emphasis on appearance, and her dad’s family was no exception. Unlike her younger sisters, Davlin had been outside of the Pentecostal church before this. Many of the rules her siblings followed had already been broken by Davlin before they were even born.

“You can’t wear pants, makeup, dye your hair or cut your hair at all,” she said. “You aren’t allowed to get piercings or tattoos.”

After her parents divorced, she went to her dad’s every other weekend. During those visits, she subscribed to the values of her Pentecostal dad. Wearing her Sunday best became a crucial part of her wardrobe. 

Church also became more than Sunday morning attendance. When she was with her dad, it was common to visit the church multiple days and evenings. Revivals featuring guest preachers and evangelists occurred along with other meetings she regularly attended.

While Davlin believes she never had to be committed to the Pentecostal faith, even after being baptized in the Pentecostal church, she said it was a confusing time. 

“I’d considered going full Pentecostal, but then my mom and I would go to a nondenominational church or occasionally a Baptist church,” she said. “I’ve grown up going to all of them, so it was just confusing.”

When Davlin was 18, she moved to Tyler with her mom. She continued to visit her dad in Lufkin, dressing the part and respecting his values. However, breaking away from being heavily involved in his church gave her time to clarify her own beliefs. 

Davlin said her religious stance shifted over the years. She doesn’t believe attending church is mandatory for entry to heaven. Also, the discrepancies in different denominations have aided in developing her new mindset. 

“In East Texas, it’s ‘you believe this way and only this way’,” she said. “Church isn’t meant to be like that, it’s meant to accept all.” 

 It’s been difficult for Davlin to get to this point, growing up with different perceptions of the Bible and what it means to be a Christian. For her, much of the battle is being a Christian whose identity is not based on wardrobe and physical appearance.

Learning how to switch between the two lifestyles prescribed by church denominations was a big part of Davlin’s adolescence. Even now, at 21, she occasionally finds herself feeling out of place wearing makeup or clothes that are more revealing. Attending nondenominational churches adds to the struggle, not being able to match the casually dressed members.

“The Bible doesn’t say I have to live this certain way to be accepted,” she said in reference to the clothes she wears, “but I don’t know how to dress at a normal church.” 

Now, Davlin finds her faith through nondenominational podcasts and worship groups, specifically the college group at Rose Heights Church. While she enjoys these groups, she still struggles to find a working relationship between the values instilled in her as a child and those she wants to believe today. 

“I don’t think it’s so black and white.”

📷 courtesy Esra Malim

For as long as she can remember, Tyler has been Esra Malim’s home. She moved to the area at 1 year old, living with her parents and older sister.

Her parents’ dedication to the Muslim faith was apparent to Malim as a young child. The Malims were upstanding members of their community, holding the values of their religion above all. They ensured their children were never put in positions that compromised Muslim values. 

In elementary school, Malim blended in easily with her peers. Everything changed when she entered sixth grade. 

“When you hit puberty, that’s when you begin wearing your scarf,” she said. “It was my choice, but my parents wanted me to.”

In middle school, she became aware that some people found her religion “weird.” She recalls that period in her life as rough, due to how mean children can be. Traditionally, Muslim girls must wear modest clothing. Her parents were keen on this, something Malim had a hard time following. It was harder for her to dress like the peers in her age group.  

By high school, Malim’s classmates were more accepting of her faith. However, Malim still received random looks and comments from adults in public. 

One day while shopping at Brookshire’s, a stranger began berating her as she exited her car. Malim was on the phone at the time, confused why the man was yelling at her. 

“As I’m walking away, I hear him kick my car,” she said. “He’s still yelling at me, so I ran inside and waited it out.” 

At around 20 years old, Malim also experienced discrimination as a Muslim employee while working at a fabric and craft store. 

“This lady randomly gave me a brochure that was a list explaining why I’m not going to heaven,” she said.  During another shift, her manager told her  a customer complained about Malim being employed at the store. The customer had not spoken to Malim, she only watched her from across the store.

Malim moved to Arlington in January. For her, the move was meant to help her figure out who she is as a person, not who her parents want her to be. Malim didn’t move out of East Texas due to its religious climate, but in retrospect, she sees how different her life is now. 

“It is a lot nicer living out here, because no one says anything and you don’t get weird looks,” she said. 

The move has given her space to decipher how she feels about her faith. Malim has spent a lot of time considering the concepts she was taught are wrong, out of fear that they may be detrimental to her faith. 

“Everyone’s so caught up enforcing everything, even if it’s a maybe,” she said. “You can’t have tattoos, but it doesn’t say that anywhere, they just want to play it safe.”

Malim realizes now many of her beliefs regarding faith differ from her parents. Growing up, her parents steered clear of any scenario that may have compromised their faith, such as not attending parties where alcohol would be present. Malim believes religion shouldn’t have to be “so cutthroat.”

“I don’t think it’s that big of a deal to put yourself in that situation,” she said. “As long as you know what your boundaries are and know what you believe in, you should be fine.”

Malim said growing older strengthened her faith. Rather than feeling like she’s blindly following others, she understands the relationship she can have on her own. 

“It’s like, this is what I get from it, this is what I want to believe, and I’m doing it just for myself.”

“It was a totally different world there, you can come as you are.”

📷 Sydney Peloquin

For Trenton Adams, faith has always had a place in his life. Growing up in the Pentecostal church, he didn’t know anything else until his early teens. 

At 14, his parents had a moment of disconnect. Adams was too young at the time to know exactly what or why it happened, but they simply weren’t able to continue attending their church.

“I think there was a struggle with negativity in their life compared to what the Bible says. It wasn’t correlating,” he said. 

Before this, his parents led him and his three brothers through life adhering to the Pentecostal faith. Adams said it wasn’t difficult to be a boy as they had few stipulations compared to girls. At the time, his dad’s face always was clean shaven and his mom never wore makeup. 

 When his parents began to grow away from the church, so did their connections with other members. Adams believed there were a multitude of factors that steered his father away from church attendance, but when he lost the support of his former community, it completely changed him. 

For two years, Adams stayed out of church. At age 16, he began attending Athens Christian Prep, a private school. While there, a few friends invited him to their nondenominational church. 

“It was a totally different world there, you can come as you are,” he said. 

Adams said going from the structured Pentecostal denomination to the design of his new church was disconcerting. Even though he began to attend the church regularly, it took him five years to feel comfortable wearing shorts like most members. He said his former understanding of how to treat faith was very appearance based. 

As for his parents, faith isn’t a common household topic anymore.

“I don’t know what he’s really doing out there in terms of religion or faith,” he said, referring to his dad. “I know he believes in God. We pray at Thanksgiving and Christmas.” 

Now, when speaking on his faith, Adams has found he’s not a fan of religion as a whole or its guidelines. He chose to be nondenominational in hopes of believing and putting his faith in God.

Adams currently is on hiatus from attending church. He began working as a media director a few years ago and realized seeing things from behind the scenes ruined the environment. 

“It turned into more of a job at some point than going for myself,” he said. “I was always watching screens and looking at cameras, all of these different things that I’m just watching instead of being a part of.”

Adams said he remains committed to his faith and probably will join a new church soon.

Sydney Peloquin is a Tyler, Texas native. She received her associate’s degree from Tyler Junior College in 2020 and plans to graduate from The University of Texas at Tyler in the fall of 2022, where she’ll receive a Bachelors of Science in mass communication. In her spare time, she enjoys creating art and reading. 

Love what you're seeing in our posts? Help power our local, nonprofit journalism platform — from in-depth reads, to freelance training, to COVID Stories videos, to intimate portraits of East Texans through storytelling.

Our readers have told us they want to better understand this place we all call home, from Tyler's north-south divide to our city's changing demographics. What systemic issues need attention? What are are greatest concerns and hopes? What matters most to Tylerites and East Texans?

Help us create more informed, more connected, more engaged Tyler. Help us continue providing no paywall, free access posts. Become a member today. Your $15/month contribution drives our work.

Support The Tyler Loop!