From a purely mathematical standpoint, the Church has reason to be concerned about reaching the next generation. The most recent numbers say around 44.4 percent of Gen Z — people born after 1996 — spiritually characterize themselves as “Nones.” Nones can be atheist or agnostic but, by and large, they don’t claim any label at all. And now, there are statistically more Gen Z Nones than there are Gen Z Christians.
It wasn’t always this way. As recently as 2016, just 39 percent of Gen Z said they were Nones, while 41 percent said they were Catholic or Protestant. But it’s been a complicated few years, and the exodus from organized religion that began with Millennials has accelerated with Gen Z.
Now, as Gen Z enters the workforce, those who are still Christian see their faith, the Church and the world around them in a very different way than previous generations did. They have a unique perspective, shaped by economic recession, digital relationships and political roller coasters. In the past, the American Church has been slow to adapt to the changing values of upcoming generations, and doing so has been costly. And now, facing the first generation in memory in which Christians are a minority, the Church faces a challenge. If the institution digs in its heels and refuses to evolve, the decline will continue to accelerate. But if it allows the upcoming generation of Gen Z Christians to take the lead in reaching a new generation, its best days may well be yet to come.
What Makes Gen Z Different
Gen Z is the most diverse generation in history, racially, sexually and theologically. Because of this, they take things like diversity and tolerance as a given. Millennials may be upset by a lack of representation, but Gen Z is more likely to be wholly mystified by it. The world as they know it is naturally full of people of different races, sexual orientations, immigration status, genders and religious beliefs. They’re connected to these people online, and they expect to see that reflected IRL.
They’re also a deeply independent generation, who see financial security as an important life goal in a way millennials did not. You get the sense that they saw millennials burn themselves out on passion careers, but Gen Z — forged in the fires of economic uncertainty — wants a stable job that will give them the means to provide for themselves and enough left over to invest in causes they believe in.
“Their goal is not simply economic security,” said Dr. James Emery White, author of Meet Generation Z. “They are marked by a strong sense of wanting to make a difference and thinking that they can. They want to be social entrepreneurs.” According to Barna Research, 70 percent of Gen Z want to orient their lives towards making a difference in the world.
And they expect the same from institutions they’re a part of and the brands they follow. In the past, for-profit companies and institutions like churches could skate by without taking a stand on social issues, but two out of three members of Gen Z expect companies to have a position on social issues and 72 percent say brands need to care about things like the environment, humanitarian causes and social issues.
Why the Church Is Losing Them
This is where the Church is running into trouble with Gen Z. Nine out of 10 Americans say the American Church is “too judgmental.” Nearly as many say it’s hypocritical. Seventy percent of Americans say the Church is “insensitive to others” and a third say the American Church is characterized by “moral failures in leadership.”
This is a serious problem for the Church in general, but it’s a particular problem for Gen Z, who will simply refuse to align with institutions that don’t share their values. In the past, the Church could count on an assumed measure of authority. Many church leaders believed that whatever people’s misgivings about religion, churches were still broadly viewed by the American public as the de facto place to turn to with spiritual problems. But with Gen Z, that’s no longer the case. According to Springtide Research Institute, Gen Z gives the Church a 4.9 out of 10 on a level of trust. The Church doesn’t have much cache with this generation because there is neither a sense of trust nor is there a perception that the Church shares their values.
That’s why Gen Z is taking their passion for making the world a better place elsewhere, to places where they feel a genuine sense of belonging. In 2019, a UK study found that Gen Z was more likely to volunteer than any other generation. They’re distrustful of privatization and think the government should be doing more than wealthy individuals or corporations when it comes to solving problems. That means they’re politically active, demonstrating in the streets for causes they care about and voting in droves.
In other words, they don’t really see the Church as being a part of the justice movement, so they’re taking matters into their own hands.
This may sound bleak, but the facts speak for themselves. And once the Church can accept the context, it can better understand what Gen Z has to offer, and how it can see a new generation not as an obstacle, but a gift.
How the Future Can Be Different
So how can they be convinced to stay? For Levi Lusko, author and pastor of Fresh Life Church, a multi-site church with locations across the country, the question of how to retain younger generations is something he’s taking very seriously. “I think if we’re not asking that question, church leaders, we’re crazy,” he says.
For Lusko, a big key is maintaining a presence in the transitional periods of life: from high school to college, from college to graduation. He says this is when people tend to shed their associations with church, and he’s trying to figure out how to maintain a relational presence in their lives. As well he should.
In 2018, a Cigna study found that Gen Z is easily the loneliest generation of Americans. 46 percent of Americans feel lonely some of the time, but that number climbs up to 69 percent with Gen Z. Moreover, 68 percent of Gen Z feel like nobody knows them well.
That lack of connection can’t be met by a brand, a corporation or even an institution. But it can be met by people who reach out to them with empathy, love and understanding. If the Church starts empowering the members of Gen Z in its own pews to build relationships with their peers, they’ll not only be building relationships with America’s loneliest generation, they’ll be proving that American Christians are truly interested in the people outside of their buildings on Sunday mornings.
Lusko has also started stressing something else in trying to equip the next generation for ministry, and just because it’s a little old fashioned doesn’t mean it’s not effective: it’s the Bible. He knows that in his life, the verses that he memorized and internalized as a very young kid in church have been there for him when not much else about the world made sense. He says they’re “coming up in an age where their lives are online and that we have the truth of God’s word to combat the oftentimes treacherous way we feel.”
He’s aware, of course, that everyone has the Bible a few swipes away on their phone now, but Lusko feels the Church can be a place where people can connect to something more real and tangible than the website. He encourages people who work with younger generations to buck the trend and use actual Bibles. “It’s impossible [to read the Bible on a phone] with the notifications coming through,” he says. In other words, there are some times where instead of leaning into technology, the Church can see itself as a haven from it — a place for members of Gen Z to escape the constant notifications and intangible data and instead engage with something real.
But doing this will involve seeing Gen Z as much more than just the future of the Church. Current leaders must see Gen Z as the present of the Church — a generation with real value and wisdom to bring to the Church today, and not just in the future. Their values of diversity, boldness and inclusion are more than just quirks to tolerate — they’re markers of the way the world is changing, and how the Church can be equipped to meet it.
If the Church truly wants to reverse its trend of decline, the answer lies not in coddling Gen Z nor in inviting them to join. It lies in going to where they are and taking part in the work they’re already doing. The real secret for the Church will be learning that their mission is not simply to shape Gen Z, but also to be shaped by them. That takes a level of humility that might involve some growing pains but, hey, at least there will be growing.