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 new Barna Group study spearheaded by two Biola and Talbot alumni offers unprecedented insights into this generation, and gives Christian leaders, parents and youth workers much to think about. The study was commissioned by Impact 360 Institute, led by Talbot alumnus Jonathan Morrow (M.A. ’07, M.Div. ’07, D.Min. ’14), who serves as an adjunct faculty member at Biola and is the director of cultural engagement and immersion at Impact 360, where many Talbot faculty members are guest lecturers. The study was performed by Barna Group, whose president is David Kinnaman (’96), a Biola alumnus and trustee.
This important project focused primarily on youth ages 13 to 18 in the United States. It also included adults 19 and older for comparison and committed Christian parents and youth pastors for insights about how they are ministering to this generation. The goal for this research project was to determine Gen Z perspectives about identity, worldview, motivations and views on faith and church. Every research has some limitations and there is still a need for additional work about this generation. For example, it would be important to conduct longitudinal studies to see if the Gen Z perspectives change over time. It would be helpful to compare the results of this study with similar ones in international contexts and to further explore the great ethnic diversity of this generation. However, this milestone Barna study gives great insights for churches and Christian leaders in the United States about the emerging Gen Z and has significant implications regarding how to better minister to them.
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 de ne this generation: technology, worldview, identity, parents, security and diversity. These broad categories describe — in general terms — 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. Technology is a central element of the Gen Z identity, Morrow said in his interview on Talbot’s “Think Biblically” podcast on June 7, 2018.
“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.” Technology is indeed a major influence for this generation.
Unlimited and constant connection to the internet fosters major challenges for Gen Z. Internet pornography is rampant and available all the time 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 and parents need to accept this reality and guide Gen Z to better understand and navigate this new technological world.
Technology can make people get closer with people far away, but at the same time can foster distance with people around them. 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, in social media, people face a tension to portray themselves as happy, beautiful and successful. In other words, to pretend to be somebody else. 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.
Since technology is a major influence for Gen Z, a constant struggle for parents, churches and educators is to limit and enforce a screen time for children and teenagers. It is crucial that churches foster these 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.
Churches can also encourage families to prioritize time together. Families would greatly benefit if they enjoy dinners together and have conversations without technology around them. Sadly, in this new context, these kinds of family meals need to be intentionally planned and promoted. For both families and churches, there is no substitute to face-to-face interaction. Morrow provides a great suggestion for parents raising Gen Z: “I would encourage parents to be very careful before you basically give your son or daughter a smartphone and basically give them unmediated access to all of what’s going on without you there to kind of narrate and help process with them in the midst of that.” Children and teenagers need guidance from their parents and parents need guidance from their churches.
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. In fact, according to the Barna study, teens 13 to 18 are twice as likely as adults to say they are atheist. This “post-Christian” context brings the great opportunity for followers of Christ to shine in the middle of a society that desperately needs the light of Christ. The gospel is no longer accepted as the mainstream message, but now 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 than them and 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 un- clear paths and prevents them from making decisions or judgements 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 in the United States and in the Western world. 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. In fact, the Bible employs the image of a body to describe the church of the living God. We belong to a body, but at the same time we are members with individual gifts. We are not individuals who incidentally also belong to a body. As believers we need to encourage one another because we need each other to grow in Christ. 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. It becomes imperative that churches offer guidance about sexuality according to biblical principles. 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. They tend to express solidarity with people with different perspectives about gender issues. For many of them, empathy is the primary concern in their relationships. Church leaders and parents 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. Interestingly, half of Gen Z in the study perceive that gender is emphasized too much in today’s society.
Parents are the most important people and the greatest influence for children. According to this 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 love their parents, but still 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 have a great opportunity in this area. They can train and empower parents who usually, and it was confirmed in this study, 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. However, parents need direction about how to do it instead of merely receiving a call to obey their God-given role of parenting.
Raymond Wlodkowski in his classic book on adult motivation (Enhancing Adult Motivation to Learn: A Comprehensive Guide for Teaching All Adults) states, “For adult learners to experience intrinsic motivation, they need to connect who they are with what they learn. ... In this view, competence is the prominent adult need.” Adults need to feel competent in order to act outside of their comfort zone. Parents love their children and want to be a good influence for them, but they need to be trained, encouraged and guided. Fortunately, for them, their children also 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 respect their parents and parents desire to do a good job raising their children, but all of them need good role models. What an opportunity for the church to fulfill this important need!
Gen Z goals focus primarily on professional success and financial security. In this study, most Gen Z 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. Gen Z look for role models, but they primarily do so in relationship to career or financial success. These findings are not surprising and they seem to reflect the materialistic and individualistic outlook of life that permeates our society.
This is an area where Gen Z attitudes follow their parents’ and grandparents’ goals and values. Our money-oriented culture tends to measure success in financial terms and Gen Z seem to be shadowing these ideals with even more enthusiasm than previous generations. Perhaps Gen Z see the business of their parents with work and other occupations and consciously or unconsciously desire to imitate them. 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 now, and will continue growing as, 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 this 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.
The United States is a diverse country and this situation brings the great opportunity to churches to better reflect God’s ideal to bring people from all backgrounds into one body of Christ. 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. For example, Latinos are the fastest growing segment in the United States. Latino Protestantism is on the rise at the same time that many Latin American countries are experiencing revivals. These are two key excellent resources for understanding Latino Protestantism in the United States: The Story of Latino Protestants in the United States by Juan Martinez (Eerdmans, 2018) and Latino Protestants in America: Growing and Diverse by Mark T. Mulder (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2017). In the same way, we all can do a better job getting to know people who do not look like us. We can learn from Gen Z that proximity can lead to empathy, but distance brings suspicion.
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. This significant Barna study gives an excellent general glimpse about this generation and it’s definitely a required resource for churches, parents and Christian leaders. However, there are no substitutes for the time and personal investment with Gen Z. Morrow provides excellent advice to Gen Z parents that we can all follow: “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 better walk with them.
A non-surprising finding in this research is that engaged Christian teens are just as likely as adults to say they are convinced of their Christian faith and convictions. Nominal Christianity is disappearing in this culture and this is a good thing for the gospel. Nowadays there is a need for radical discipleship where followers of Christ live their lives surrendered to the Holy Spirit in complete obedience to their Lord. In many instances, young people do not reject Christ, but do 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 forces believers to be completely committed followers of Christ.
The well-known Christian educator Howard Hendricks used to say that “one of the problems in our churches is that we answer questions nobody is asking and we fail to answer the questions people are asking.” There is still much to know about Gen Z, but this study is a helpful guide to help us answer the questions this generation is asking.
Read the Report
Learn more about this report conducted by Barna Group and Impact 360 Institute at whoisgenz.com.