Reconstructing the Church’s Approach to Reaching Generation Z
The sirens have long been going off in the American church concerning the faith departure of the Millennial generation. They came questioning the values and traditions of their predecessors in ways that previous generations had not. In light of this generational shift over the past two decades, churches have either seen a mass exodus or have felt the pressure to make radical changes to remain relevant. Like a remodeled house, we have seen churches implant bold updates upon their existing structures. Leaders got younger, services got more casual, music got louder, media got more engaging, and jeans got tighter (much tighter).
These modernizations were not done to the detriment of the church. In many ways, they were a necessity. Thank God for churches that were willing to mix things up a bit to reach the younger generation. And in some ways, it has proven fruitful in connecting to Millennials and stemming the tide of those leaving the church and dropping their faiths at the exit doors.
However, as Judges 2:10 writes, “Another generation arose after them who did not know the LORD nor the work which He had done for Israel.” This subsequent generation following Millennials has not received its proper due, and the reality is the church is not prepared or mobilized to reach them. They are known as Generation Z, born between 1997 and 2012. Who are they? These are predominantly our current middle school, high school, and college students.
If Millennials questioned standing institutions and societal norms, Gen Z has simply sought to tear them down entirely. Mel Walker, president of Vision For Youth, sees them as now the largest unreached people group in the US. They are 67 million strong, and less than 30% see religion as important in their lives. Their spiritual illiteracy, as author James White puts it, to traditional Christian beliefs is far more staggering than even that.
The thing is, it’s not that they are not walking away from their faiths, their Millennial parents did that for them twenty years ago. For so many, Christian faith is as foreign of a worldview to them as Taoism or Hinduism. Neither are they walking away from institutionalism. That tide has turned. Traditional institutions simply have little relevance to them. They are truly post-establishment, post-traditional household, and post-church. They are “another generation.”
So, the question is – How do we as a church respond? Although the truth of the gospel remains unchanged, the mode of presenting it must continuously change. Churches that miss this are finding themselves closing doors or limping along. With Gen Z, the church cannot afford to simply force updates onto existing structures and hope they will show up. This is the time for radical changes. While much could be said of this generation, there are three areas that the church must understand and respond to in order to effectively reach Gen Z.
The most observable attribute of Gen Z is their relationship with technology. Technology is not just a tool; it is central to their identity. They were born in a world immersed in endless data and rapidly changing technology. It is impossible to fully quantify what this barrage of data from the moment they could crawl has done. This technological obsession is linked to a lack of trust, isolation, and depression. The common response of churches – throw as much technology as possible at them – may not be what they need.
Gen Z craves authenticity far more than they crave entertainment. Meeting Gen Z in this space requires not only engaging them through technology, but also helping them to discover information and truth beyond it. This includes working with families to help their children filter data and establish healthy boundaries. Gen Z services and events should also intentionally avoid technology at times to allow students to experience the honest conversations they have come to crave, but without the social isolation they are so accustomed to.
Diversity is also a defining factor with Gen Z. This will be the first generation in the history of the US to see the shift in becoming a majority nonwhite. This has already taken place in the South with minorities exceeding 50% of Gen Z. This generation is much more likely to have many of their closest connections with people from different racial backgrounds, different ethnic backgrounds, and who are immigrants or children of immigrants.
For a generation that sees diversity as so integral to its identity, it is easy to see the challenge in trusting a church that is not as like-minded. Churches must be committed to building diverse bodies. The problem for Gen Z is that most church Sunday mornings look vastly different than their own friend groups (or Jesus’ for that matter). A core reason churches struggle is that there is a massive difference between welcoming people of different backgrounds, and actually giving them a voice. In order to reach a diverse generation, we must celebrate diversity and, even more, allow diverse voices to speak into our congregations.
Sociologist Christian Smith, author of Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, coined the term Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD) to describe the prevalent belief structure among Gen Z. None of its core tenants are new, but what is new is the rejection of institutional authority and the centrality of personal happiness. The goal is not to adhere to a set of predefined rules, but to define your own rules in a way that you can feel good about yourself. Any form of morality must not impede upon another’s beliefs. They are wary of asserting anyone’s life choices as objectively wrong.
We must recognize that much of what churches preach against weekly, Gen Z encounters daily. For them, it’s more than just a sin “out there” – it’s someone’s name, it’s a face, it’s a friend. Does this mean we water down truth? Of course not. It means that we lead with love and demonstrate sensitivity to the difficulty of them standing up against ideals that go against their own friends’ identities. It means creating spaces to have hard conversations and helping them to discover that personal conviction does not equate condemnation.
TIME FOR BOLDNESS
Most of us older Christians have never faced the level of opposition that Gen Z faces for being a follower of Jesus. The reality is, comfortable, Sunday morning Christianity may be on its way out. However, we must ask – “Is this a bad thing?” Maybe instead of fearing it, we as a church can welcome it! If yesterday’s approach is not reaching Gen Z for Christ today, perhaps it’s time to return to the boldness that defined the very first church – the church that embraced fearless evangelism and radical discipleship more than polished services, the church that was actually more diverse than the world around it, and the church that cared more about getting the gospel out than hoping others found their way in.
How many links does it take to break a chain? Just one. The consequence is too great to allow this generation to slip away. It’s time to go after “another generation.”
Jeffrey Kent is the administrative pastor at Christ Church. He has been teaching, preaching, and serving churches for over 20 years including nearly 3 years in China. Jeffrey received a B.A. in Religion from Louisiana College, and a Master of Divinity from Liberty University.
*this article was originally published in Destiny Magazine 2021 Summer Edition