Grow Your Church by Engaging Gen Z

Christian evangelism works best when combined with compassionate, community outreach. By understanding the challenges that Gen Z faces, churches can demonstrate authentic love. | by Sam Ludlow-Broback and Kevin Singer

With the two-year anniversary of COVID lockdowns passing, many church leaders are wondering what fruitful ministry looks like now, especially how they should minister to Gen Z.

It is apparent that the effects of COVID-19 have forced churches to evolve. While many people thought the pandemic would be a speed bump temporarily disrupting daily life, it is clear now that young people’s plans and hopes for the future experienced a sudden and dramatic turn, their lives changing in a permanent fashion.

What are these changes? How can churches connect with Gen Z in this new normal?

Springtide Research Institute surveys and interviews thousands of Gen Zers each year, mainly focusing on their spirituality and relationship with churches and other faith communities. Our latest report, The New Normal, Updated & Expanded, sheds light on how exactly young people’s experiences during the pandemic impacted their spirituality and their well-being.

Where is Gen Z?

Many jump to this question: Are young people still interested in going to church? Trends suggested that even before the pandemic, young people’s relationship with faith communities was growing ever more distant. These trends accelerated during the pandemic, with 44% of young people now saying they never attend religious services, a sharp rise from 30% in 2021.

With attendance dropping, many churches turned to online services to help reach more people. Unfortunately, this didn’t attract young people as much as one might hope. Springtide found that only 10% of young people found joy in virtual religious gatherings, and only 6% want to keep attending virtual religious services after the pandemic.

These numbers are daunting, but hope is not lost here. While this research certainly points to struggles church leaders might face when it comes to reaching young people, we also found reason to be encouraged about the spirituality and religiosity of young people today.

Faith is rising.

Despite Gen Z attending religious services less frequently, more young people say their faith became stronger during the pandemic (30%) than weaker (18%) or lost completely (8%).

This includes a growing number who agree, “I know a higher power exists and I have no doubts about it,” from 22% in 2021 to 28% in 2022, and a higher percentage who say they feel “highly connected” to a higher power, from 13% in 2021 to 18% in 2022. Conversely, the percentage of those who say they “don’t feel connected at all” to a higher power dropped from 36% in 2021 to 27% in 2022.

Pastors and faith leaders have an opportunity to fan the flames of Gen Z’s growing hunger for spiritual answers to their questions.

The narrative that young people are ditching religion altogether are short-sighted and, in our opinion, based on a faulty interpretation of the “rise of the nones” (i.e., the growing number of Americans who say they’re “no religion in particular” on surveys).

When Springtide took a closer look at the “nones,” we found that nearly half (48%) say they are at least somewhat flourishing in their faith lives, while only 19% say they don’t believe in a higher power. Don’t buy into sky-is-falling interpretations of where young people are headed spiritually. Even those who might confidently say, “I’m not affiliated with religion” still have questions about spiritual things that you can provide guidance on.

Mental health is an open door.

Even more, young people can use your guidance as they navigate what has essentially become a mental health epidemic among their generation. When we asked what the biggest challenge was during the course of the pandemic, participants selected mental health more often than any other option on the survey. Read this twice: Nearly half of young people (47%) told us they are moderately or extremely depressed.

This is also where you can come in. It seems that religious practices provide critical support for young people who are navigating mental health challenges. For young people of faith, 73% agreed, “My religious/spiritual practices positively impact my mental health.”

This isn’t totally surprising. Data from our State of Religion & Young People 2021 report demonstrates a clear correlation between religiosity and mental healthiness. Young people who tell us they are “very religious” are more likely to tell us they are flourishing in their mental health. The inversion is true for those who say they are “not religious at all” — they are more likely to say they are not flourishing in their mental health.

Missiologists often talk about “open doors” for Christian faith to take root, and addressing mental health may be that opportunity when engaging with young people today. However, this should be done with care. Work in tandem with medical professionals and clinical mental health care providers who young people trust and aim at contributing to their holistic flourishing, both spiritually and when it comes to their overall well-being.

As you consider your plans to be fruitful in a post-pandemic world with young people, your starting point should be that spiritual questions are at the forefront of their minds, but they may not come through the doors of your church or express much enthusiasm about new programs designed to reach them.

Though church attendance isn’t necessarily their priority, Gen Z is eager to find wholeness and authenticity, and spirituality is still on the table as a valuable resource.

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