The keys church leaders must know to reach Gen Z, are understanding their values, beliefs, expectations, and goals. | by Octavio Esqueda
You’ve heard all about millennials. But what about the generation coming right behind them? Gen Z, born between 1999 and 2015, is beginning to reach college and high school, and in many ways, they’re vastly different from their millennial predecessors — less religious, more success-oriented, more diverse, more captivated by technology, and more likely to embrace different views on sexual identity. Is your church prepared to help them flourish in this new cultural landscape?
A Barna Group study offered unprecedented insights into this generation and has given Christian leaders, parents, and youth workers much to think about. The study was commissioned by Impact 360 Institute, led by Jonathan Morrow, adjunct faculty member at Biola and director of cultural engagement and immersion at Impact 360.
The goal for this research project was to determine Gen Z perspectives about identity, worldview, motivations and views on faith and church.
Gen Z Characteristics and Their Implications for Ministry
Gen Z will quickly become the largest American generation yet. They are today’s teenagers and children 18 and under (born between 1999 to 2015). Millennials were born between 1984 to 1998; Gen X were born between 1965 to 1983; Boomers were born between 1946 to 1964; and Elders were born before 1946. According to Barna’s Gen Z report, six major forces define this generation: technology, worldview, identity, parents, security, and diversity. These broad categories describe Gen Z, and provide churches, Christian leaders and parents with important challenges and opportunities.
Morrow defines this generation as “screen-agers.” They have always lived with the internet and smartphones.“More than half of teens use screen media four or more hours per day,” Morrow said. “That’s about 57 percent. About 26 percent use screen media eight or more hours per day. They are also the first generation to be raised by parents who are on screens, and that’s one of the things that makes them different from millennials.”
Unlimited and constant connection to the internet fosters major challenges for Gen Z. Internet pornography is rampant and available at their fingertips. They also constantly face an overflow of information from all kinds of sources that makes it hard for them to analyze, discriminate and trust.
This generation lives immersed in a web of divergent ideas and morality without the necessary time and maturity to reflect about them and respond appropriately. Churches need to guide Gen Z to better understand and navigate this new technological world.
Recent studies are exploring the relationship between social media and isolation, learning difficulties and even depression. For this generation, cyberbullying is a common and constant phenomenon. Also, people face a tension to portray themselves as happy, beautiful, and successful. This situation is a challenge for all of us, but it becomes extremely problematic and damaging for children and teenagers who are in the process of developing their identity.
Christian leaders have before them an extremely important opportunity to teach all believers, especially Gen Z, about their identity in Christ and their intrinsic value and dignity as God’s image-bearers.
It is crucial that churches foster conversations and provide support to parents who need guidance in raising their children in this new reality. Church leaders also need to better reflect about how technology is shaping their ministries and how they are becoming increasingly dependent on it. For example, it would be helpful if youth ministry gatherings would meet from time to time without any screens or media and focus more on personal interaction.
Members of Gen Z were born in a context where religion in general, and Christianity in particular, are no longer a major influence in American culture. The secularization of society has been a trend in the last few years, especially in the Western world, and Gen Z are growing up in this new social context.
According to the Barna study, teens 13 to 18 are twice as likely as adults to say they are atheist. Since the gospel is no longer accepted as the mainstream message, believers can communicate the good news of Christ with their lives and love for one another as Jesus originally intended (John 13:35).
Churches need to share the gospel, teach the rudiments of the faith, and model Christ to everybody, but especially to Gen Z.
The Barna project reports that Gen Z tends to be inclusive to all people, practices, and perspectives. They are open-minded and sensitive to other people’s feelings and opinions. On the positive side, they embrace divergent perspectives and are more inclusive than previous generations. They are comfortable with people who are different, and they tend to be less judgmental because of those differences.
On the negative side, they tend to be wary of declaring that some actions are morally wrong or simply incorrect. They seem to have a flexible moral compass that leads them to unclear paths and prevents them from making decisions or judgments according to solid values and convictions.
Churches can help Gen Z with developing a Christian worldview that exemplifies Christian virtues that sustain their compassion and concern for others. Gen Z can teach adults about the importance of loving those who are different from them, and adults can teach Gen Z about how a genuine Christian love is rooted in the God of truth (Deut. 32:4; John 14:6; John 16:13).
Individualism is a key mark not only for this generation, but for generations before them. Gen Z teenagers, just like most adults, tend to focus primarily on their own success and well-being. However, Christianity is communal and not individualistic. Churches should make this important biblical teaching central to their message.
Also, since individualism is primarily a Western cultural characteristic and other ethnicities tend to be more communal as corroborated in this study, the interaction of diverse ethnicities in our culture and churches can become a gift to all to help us slowly move away from unhealthy individualism and more toward biblical community.
One-third of teenagers in this research study indicated that gender is how a person feels inside and not the birth sex. Seven out of 10 believe it’s acceptable to be born one gender and feel like another (69%). Therefore, it’s evident that the sexual and gender confusion in our culture is now magnified with Gen Z. A theology of sexuality has traditionally been a missing element in seminary training and church education, but this situation needs to change.
Churches have the great and timely opportunity to become heralds of healthy sexuality according to God’s design.
Focus groups in this study revealed that Gen Z may have a tendency to express evolving views about their sexuality because of a great desire to empathize with marginalized groups. For many of them, empathy is the primary concern in their relationships. Church leaders can learn from Gen Z concern for others and at the same time teach that that disagreements over biblical convictions are normal and also involve Christian charity.
According to the Barna study, Gen Z admire their parents, but at the same time they don’t feel family relationships are central to their sense of self. They long for good role models. Unfortunately, this generation is suffering the consequences of many broken families and of distant parents who lack the time, resources, or energy to raise them.
Local churches and Christian leaders can train and empower parents who usually don’t feel prepared to address difficult issues with their children. Frequently, Christian leaders tell parents, especially fathers, to step up and train their children according to God’s ideals.
Parents love their children and want to be a good influence for them, but they need to be trained, encouraged, and guided. Fortunately, their children love them, look up to them, and desire to learn from them. Nowadays, parenting and family training should be a key priority for local churches and ministry education.
Churches also have the opportunity to provide good family models for all. A local congregation can and should indeed become a family for all, especially for those who long for the love and security that a healthy family brings. The Christian life is designed to be lived in community where members support and encourage each other.
Gen Z focuses on professional success and financial security. In the Barna study, most participants indicated that their ultimate goal in life was “to be happy,” and they defined happiness as financial success. Personal achievement is central to Gen Z’s identity more than family, background, and religion. While members of Gen Z look for role models, they primarily do so in relationship to career or financial success, reflecting the materialistic and individualistic outlook of life that permeates our society.
Therefore, churches need to emphasize the biblical perspective on money and possessions. In the same way, they also need to teach about the importance of rest, sleep, and leisure as crucial elements for a healthy lifestyle. As believers, we need to be constantly reminded that our security comes from the Lord and not from power or money (Ps. 20:7) and that our lives are not dependent on material possessions (Luke 12:15). Jesus offers abundant life (John 10:10) and all generations need to hear and receive his gracious offer that truly meets our deepest longings.
Gen Z is the most ethnically diverse generation in American history. Diversity is good and healthy, and we all need different perspectives to grow in our faith. For example, in the Barna study, black and Latino teens emphasized the importance of the family and the communal images to represent a local church and, in doing so, they were closer to the biblical ideals than other groups.
Unfortunately, racial tensions are still rampant in our society, but Gen Z can become agents of reconciliation for the church and society as a whole. They can be good leaders for all of us and we would do well to imitate their passion for inclusion and acceptance.
Multiethnic congregations will be more attractive to this generation who understand, more than previous generations, the importance of unity and diversity.
In the past, many churches and Christian institutions have considered multiethnic ministry an ideal goal to pursue, but it will be an essential one for reaching Gen Z. Local congregations under the Lordship of Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit and the authority of the Scriptures need to intentionally reach out to all people with the good news of complete reconciliation in Christ.
Christian leaders, regardless of their cultural background, would do well to educate themselves about the history, legacy and contributions of other ethnic groups. In this way, we all can have a better perspective about the great work the Lord is doing in our midst among our brothers and sisters.
A Call to Live As Followers of Christ in a Post-Christian World
Gen Z is an emerging group and there are still too many things we still need to know about them. However, there are no substitutes for the time and personal investment with Gen Z. Morrow provides excellent advice: “One of the biggest gifts you can give to your Gen Z-er in your household is a safe place for them to ask questions and express doubts, and process what they interact with, because their whole experience is being narrated by the culture, by the media, by Netflix, everything else.” We need to pay more attention to the challenges Gen Z faces and learn to walk with them.
There is a need for radical discipleship where followers of Christ live surrendered to the Holy Spirit in complete obedience to their Lord. Many young people do not reject Christ; they reject a sociological and political interpretation of Christianity that they see in their parents or adults around them and that do not necessarily reflect biblical values.
A post-Christian context that forces believers to be completely committed followers of Christ is more attractive to Gen Z.
Today’s churches have an unprecedented opportunity to engage Gen Z. By acknowledging their technological habits and understanding the context for their emerging worldview, pastors and other leaders can help young people navigate competing beliefs about identity, family, security, and diversity.