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 and begin rocking back and forth in prayer. Encounters with death and disease helped lead him to embrace his Judaism.

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

Sutton, Sherwin, Kilbride, Bruno and other members of Generation X are on a spiritual journey unlike any other in American religious history. They are among Americans ages 20 to 40 who treat religion more as 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 85 percent of Gen X respondents said religion was important to them personally and more than 60 percent said religion can solve all or most of today's problems.

In group interviews with more than 100 people in the Cleveland area--ex-convicts, Orthodox Jews, black Muslims, New Agers, Hispanic and suburban Catholics, rural Methodists and urban Presbyterians, people with mental disabilities and nondenominational seekers--what emerged was a portrait of a generation that has embraced God in personal, not traditional, ways.

Generation X--that generation born roughly between 1960 and 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 this increasingly personal faith threatens to ease traditional churches out of 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 faith of this new generation will have a profound effect on American religion.

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

Ask 41-year-old Sutton to consider what her life would be like without God, and she responds matter-of-factly, "Boy, I'd probably be dead, rotten, stinking somewhere."

A former Sunday school teacher's helper, Sutton says she began drinking and doing drugs at age 14. She would get mad at God when her drugs 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 says God 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 all along.'"

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

Generation X does not place its faith in institutions. One of the most self-reliant generations in modern times, it was the first generation of latchkey kids raised on television and nurtured on the Internet. Their music, reflected in groups such as Nirvana, Public Enemy and U2, is one of alienation, an appeal to find truth within oneself.

This independence is reflected in their attitude toward organized religion. Just 60 percent of young adults told the August 2000 Gallup Poll they belong to a church or synagogue, compared to 76 percent of people 50 and over who belong to a local house of worship.

But move from Masjid Al-Mumin in Cleveland to St. Sava Serbian Eastern Orthodox Church in Broadview Heights to a Starbucks in University Heights and you hear moving stories of how faith was the constant pulling young adults through the turmoil of the death of a parent, the birth of a seriously ill child, and the battles with personal demons over issues such as divorce, addiction and crime.

At the United Methodist church near the center of town in Wadsworth, young adults still go on Sunday morning, but that is not the spiritual high point of their week. It is the spiritual fellowship they experience in small groups with people who understand their generation's trials and tribulations.

Bruno and Kilbride keep each other on the right path as prayer partners, then see each other in Bible studies and Promise Keepers meetings.

"Our generation, if it's not doing something for me, then I'm not going to do it," said Kilbride, 42. "When we come, we're more into a real feeling and a heart attitude."

Similarly, in Judaism, more and more young adults have found themselves drawn to havurot

, small, informal groups of people looking for more intimate settings to practice their faith.

Rachel Chodock earlier this year helped form a havurot that meets once a month for Sabbath services in a Cleveland suburb. She adapts the prayers for the service, which opens with people talking about God in their lives.

"I wanted something more spiritual, more intimate" than a synagogue service, she said. "I wanted closeness and community and togetherness and a real sense of spirituality."

When they do enter God's house, Generation Xers have one mantra. "This is who I am," said Kris Foland, 26, of New Song Church on the Heights in Cleveland Heights. "Accept me or not."

Not everyone uses the newfound freedom of young adulthood to embark on nontraditional journeys. Talk to a group of black Muslims in their 20s and they tell stories of converting to Islam because Christianity was not demanding enough.

Tariq Abdul-Rashid of Masjid Al-Mumin, who was brought up Catholic, said it was only when he reached a low point "with drugs, women, clubs, all that stuff," that he paused to reflect on where his life was going. When a friend converted to Islam, the 19-year-old found himself attracted to the disciplined lifestyle that forbids fornication and alcohol, and supplies a peer group to keep you on the right track.

"Whatever you do you're responsible for. You can't pawn it off on others," said Abdul-Rashid, 26, now married and the father of three. "It's really at a point where I look at my life and it's hard to remember when I wasn't Muslim."

Even in the nondenominational churches, for all their relaxed attitude to the "nonessentials" of dress and music, there is a high level of ethical demands based on literal interpretations of scripture. Once you're in, alcohol, drugs and sex without marriage are out.

"When hell became a reality for me, it helped change the direction I was going," said one young woman. "Everything that you say, everything that you do, you want to be in the best possible state to meet your creator."

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