CLEVELAND, Jan. 10 (RNS) -- In a West Side apartment, Baby Ruth Sutton tries to overcome the pain of a lifetime of drug abuse by writing searingly personal poetry to God. "Is any suffering like my suffering?" she cries out.

Across town, on the campus of Case Western Reserve University,William Sherwin will suddenly interrupt a lunchtime conversation andbegin rocking back and forth in prayer. Encounters with death anddisease helped lead him to embrace his Judaism.

Some 30 miles to the south, on a farm in Wadsworth, Ohio, Mark Brunoand Randy Kilbride walk across the bleak fields of winter trying tounderstand what God wants from them. They still go to church, but it isin encounters like this, as prayer partners, or in small groups likePromise Keepers or Bible studies, that they experience their faith.

Sutton, Sherwin, Kilbride, Bruno and other members of Generation Xare on a spiritual journey unlike any other in American religioushistory. They are among Americans ages 20 to 40 who treat religion moreas a matter of personal choice than a duty or responsibility handed down from past generations.

They haven't given up on God. In an August 2000 Gallup Poll, some 85percent of Gen X respondents said religion was important to thempersonally and more than 60 percent said religion can solve all or mostof today's problems.

In group interviews with more than 100 people in the Cleveland area--ex-convicts, Orthodox Jews, black Muslims, New Agers, Hispanic andsuburban Catholics, rural Methodists and urban Presbyterians, peoplewith mental disabilities and nondenominational seekers--what emergedwas a portrait of a generation that has embraced God in personal, nottraditional, ways.

Generation X--that generation born roughly between 1960and 1980--is behind the national boom in nondenominational churches,small prayer groups, and contemporary worship services, researchers say. Their church attendance may have fallen off, and they may be one of the least Sunday-schooled generations in the last half-century, but many are deeply committed to the search for God in the modern world.

What some scholars and church leaders fear, however, is that thisincreasingly personal faith threatens to ease traditional churches outof the picture and to set God to one side. By shopping for churches, and turning away quickly if the church, mosque or synagogue does not meet their needs, God can be reduced to a New Age guru who exists to put a divine imprimatur on their own desires.

Those who study post-baby boomers believe the faithof this new generation will have a profound effect on American religion.

"Folks just don't want to be catered to. They want something tochallenge and renew at a deeper level," said Donald Miller, director ofthe Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of SouthernCalifornia. "It could actually be a sign of a much deeper spiritualquest."

Ask 41-year-old Sutton to consider what her life would be likewithout God, and she responds matter-of-factly, "Boy, I'd probably bedead, rotten, stinking somewhere."

A former Sunday school teacher's helper, Sutton says she begandrinking and doing drugs at age 14. She would get mad at God when herdrugs ran out, but could never let her faith completely go.

"There were times when I read my Bible, and I would always pray--high, drunk, sober, whatever. And who else better to talk to than God?Who else would listen? When your money ran out, your friends were gone," she said.

One day two years ago, at a time she was not on drugs, Sutton saysGod appeared to her as she was praying before bed. The pages of her book of meditations grew bright, and a warmth came over her. She said, "He told me, 'You've been praying for faith, but you've had faith allalong.'"

The feeling of God's presence lasted for six days, and since thatday she has entered recovery programs for her addictions. She findscommunity in the Scranton Road Baptist Church. During painfully lonelymoments in her apartment, she takes up her pen and writes poetry to God.

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