What is unique about Generation Z (born between 1999-2015)? What does the newest research show about their beliefs, practices, and approach to life? Sean and Scott interview Jonathan Morrow, author of "Welcome to College," about a new massive study he commissioned with Barna. Jonathan reveals some surprising truths about young people today and offers some practical steps for discipling and evangelizing them.

More About Our Guest

Jonathan Morrow

Jonathan Morrow is the Director of Creative Strategies for Impact 360 Institute where he teaches in the college “Gap Year” program and high school summer Immersion experience. He is the author of Questioning the Bible: 11 Major Challenges to the Bible’s Authority, Welcome to College: A Christ-Follower’s Guide for the Journey,Think Christianly: Looking at the Intersection of Faith and Culture, and coauthor of Is God Just a Human Invention? And Seventeen Other Questions Raised by the New Atheists.

Episode Transcript

Sean McDowell: Welcome to the podcast, “Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture.” I'm your host for today, Sean McDowell, professor of apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.

Today's guest is a good friend of mine who also is a friend of Biola. Went to school here and now teaches adjunct at Biola University, but also does a lot of other writing and working with students that we're going to get into.

Dr. Jonathan Morrow, thanks for joining us.

Jonathan Morrow: Hey, Sean. It is great to be with you, as always.

Sean McDowell: Well, our topic for today, and you've written on so many different topics, is Generation Z. I want to ask you about a major study that you — and kind of the ministry you work with — commissioned with the Barna research group. But first, start and frame this for us. Who is Generation Z?

Jonathan Morrow: Yeah. That's a great place to start. Gen Z is the generation after millennials. Tons has been written, and rightly so, about millennials, but Gen Z follows after millennials. They were born between about 1999 and 2015. They'll be about 69 to 70 billion when they're all said and done, and they'll be the largest American generation. Basically, it's today's teenagers, about 18 and under, and that is Gen Z.

Sean McDowell: What motivated you to commission really a major study, and I would say the most important and significant study of Generation Z, with Barna? What motivated you to commission this?

Jonathan Morrow: Yeah. You know, here at Impact 360, we get a chance to work with this generation. We work in summer experiences, and our gap year, and everything else to help young people follow Jesus for a lifetime. We don't want them just to follow Jesus when they're 8 or 10. We want them to follow Jesus when they're 80, right? We know the questions and doubts and insecurities, and stuff that we see on a day-in-and-day-out basis. Here, but we wanted a broader, more national, more empirically research-driven lens on how this generation views the world. What do they think about the biggest questions of life?

Then I reached out to David Kinnaman, the president of the Barna Group, and we began work on this study, which we spent about a year and a half on. It was a great experience. They're amazing. They do an amazing job at the Barna Group, but we wanted to kind of, as working with this generation, just see how are they approaching it and what's different about them than millennials and some of the big questions that we wanted to tackle, and see how that kind of played out at an empirical level.

Sean McDowell: David Kinnaman and I actually went to school together, lived on the same dorm here at Biola, and he's on our board, so also just a friend of what we do. I'm thrilled to see you guys have met, connected and produced this study. Let's start kind of on the 30,000-foot view. Tell us some of the major findings. Now, as I understand it, you broke it down into four main areas of inquiry. Maybe tell us why you chose those areas and some of the big picture things that came out in terms of the worldview and behavior of those in Generation Z.

Jonathan Morrow: Yeah, for sure. Like I said, we did the nationally representative study. We did focus groups. We did study on Gen Z themselves. We did adults 19 and older. We worked with youth pastors and parents. We really wanted to get as many different lenses on this as possible. We talked about kind of different ways to see what are shaping their influences in this generation, so kind of the world according to Gen Z from a cultural standpoint. Then we talked a lot about identity, and how that matters, and kind of how that engages. We talk about faith, truth, and the truth, and then kind of making disciples in this generation.

A couple of just high points in some of those categories, I mean one of the things that emerged very clearly was they are screen-agers. More than half of teens use screen media four or more hours per day. That's about 57 percent. About 26 percent use screen media about eight or more hours a day. That's a major thing. We'll talk into more some of the particulars, but they're 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.

Another thing is their worldview is post-Christian. Only about 4 percent of Gen Z has a biblical worldview. The Barna Group's been tracking this for the last 20 to 25 years. About 10 percent of Boomers had a biblical worldview, 7 percent of Gen X, 6 percent of millennials, and now we see 4 percent of Gen Z. We see that trend downward in those categories that we've been able to map over the last 20, 25 years that Barna's been researching.

Then we see identity. I mean goodness. We see for the first time that really family, while still important, is not of primary importance in shaping identity in Gen Z. That's a significant thing in terms of how they view themselves, success, and those key formational things, and then the morality and all those kind of questions.

We dove into a lot of different areas to kind of get a big picture of where they're at, but one of the big key takeaways for me so far was just kind of the general confusion around this generation. We can kind of get into more of what's behind that.

Sean McDowell: Now, do you mean general confusion this generation has about the world or God, or that older generations, ourself included, have about Gen Z, or both?

Jonathan Morrow: That's a good question. I would say a lot of moral and spiritual confusion around this. That especially came out in the focus groups that we conducted with the Barna Group and things like that, and just the reticence to really make any sort of convictional statements on things, especially on the topics of morality, and spirituality, and things like that.

Sean McDowell: I want to come back to some of these particulars that you talked about, but I'm curious, because you've worked with students for a long time. You have a couple Gen Z-ers yourself as a father. What surprised you most about this study?

Jonathan Morrow: Yeah. That's a hard question because there's so much in it, but one of the things that honestly surprised me was how fast this generation has really changed and moved on questions of sexuality and gender. Millennials, you could sense a shift was moving with them, but just the speed at which that shifted. I mean one of the things that we discovered, about 33 percent of Gen Z say gender is how a person feels and not their birth sex. I mean that's a major shift. Twelve percent describe their own sexuality as something other than heterosexual, and that's a major shift as well in terms of the speed at which some of those changes are happening. There's lots of things, but that's probably up there. It was just how fast.

Then also, honestly, some of the morality. There was one kind of baseline question we put in there to kind of gauge before we got to the controversial stuff on morality, and only about 34 percent of Gen Z could agree that lying would be morally wrong. That was a very interesting one, because even as you map that out next to the other generations that we looked at in this study, it was just a slow trend downward from Boomers all the way down to Gen Z being in at 34 percent. Those are a couple things that were pretty surprising to me.

Sean McDowell: As you know, Jonathan, I teach here at Talbot in the apologetics program, but I also teach high school part-time. One thing I find my students increasingly doing is they'll open up an answer by saying, "I feel this" and "I feel that." I've trained them. I say, "I care deeply about what you feel, but I want to know what you think."

The reason I do that is it sure seems to be that feelings are must arbitrating this generation more than before, so much so that my father and I were speaking recently and he made a statement that stuck with me. He said, "I think this is the first generation in which feelings even trump science." I'm wondering if you agree with that, your thoughts on that, if the data from the study revealed anything about how central feelings are to the way they understand and experience the world.

Jonathan Morrow: Yeah. I think that's a great observation, the feeling, "I feel that." I mean I think this generation has this sense that how they feel determines what's real, even more than what we see in the sciences and some of those kind of things, especially when it comes to gender. Because you'd be like, "Okay, there's research here." "Yeah, I don't care. This is the way I feel, and I can't be wrong about that, right?" They don't want to offend people, and then all these feelings when they collide, it's almost like they're wondering what they do, what they're supposed to do with this, because they're inevitably going to collide.

How I feel, then feelings are really tied to how they view freedom, and satisfaction of their own desires, and getting to do whatever they want to as long as they don't hurt someone. All of those things I think are interconnected among this generation when it comes to how they view reality. Feeling and individualism emerged as major themes with Gen Z, especially when it comes to questions of gender, and identity, and morality. That was a major, major thing.

Sean McDowell: In talks that I give on Gen Z, I'll talk about how the Boomers were the “Me Generation,” and then there was the cover on Time talking about millennials I think in 2014 calling them the “Me Me Me Generation.” Then I'll often point. I'll say with Gen Z, it's the “Me Me Me Me Generation.” We almost see more individualism. You made a reference to that. Did the data show that this is really an individualistic culture in terms of how they see the world?

Jonathan Morrow: Yeah, it really is. I mean this generation is very focused on how they view things from their perspective, and a lot of that is the narcissism, which they've kind of inherited from the other previous generations. But then also, it's also social media and questions around kind of they're at the center of their universe nonstop. That plays into how they view and shape reality, the percentages in terms of even the bullying that we see going on online. One-third report being bullied online.

It's such this interesting dynamic, because their world that's playing out in digital space, they're competing for “likes” with people they want to be liked by, and they want to belong but then they're feeling ... It's this weird dynamic, but yes, it is a very me-focused generation, which they've been discipled well by the previous generations. We're seeing the fruit of those things coming home for sure.

Sean McDowell: I love that you just said there's individualism emphasized in this generation, but it's something they inherited. I think there's a tendency to just kind of pick on this generation, find all the negative things, and see it through that lens. When I give a talk on Gen Z, I start by asking people to write down the first words that come to their mind when they think of, like you said, say age 8 through teenagers and into college today. Then I ask them for the words. They're almost always negative. I'll tell people, I say, "Man, the way we see this generation, positive or negative, will affect the way we relate to them."

Let's take a step back, away from the areas of concern. We'll come back to those, but what are some positive findings that the study revealed about Gen Z?

Jonathan Morrow: Yeah, for sure. I think this is one that's really, really important, and it's the diversity of this generation. Half of Gen Z is nonwhite, and that's a really significant development in terms of how they view one another. A lot of what we can learn from them, because they're growing up with differences as just normal in terms of ethnic, and race, and things like that. Given all the conversation, and just the confusion, and all the different things going around in terms of race in our country, that's an opportunity that I see some positive things from the research and from this study in terms of diversity.

Along with that, empathy, because they're going to view each other in a more positive way. There's two sides of that. We'll come to the negative side of that later, but I think they have seen things play out in public on media, and they come to people's defenses very quickly. There's an empathy that I think we can also learn from when it comes to this generation.

Another thing that I see is that evidence matters to this generation. Forty-six percent want some sort of evidence or factual support for their beliefs, and that's a very positive thing as well. Amidst all the negative stuff, I think you see a generation that does want to make a difference, but I also think the diversity thing is going to be huge. The empathy is going to be huge. I think honestly this generation is going to want evidence in ways that I think are really helpful and honestly fit very nicely with a Christian worldview.

Sean McDowell: That was one of the biggest things that surprised me from this, because there's so many people that talk about, and I think there's truth in it, you and I both agree, a sense of feeling motivates this generation, how they see the world. But on the flip side, I think it was 46 or 48 percent, you can correct me, said they want evidence. Now, that's interesting. I'm curious if you have a sense of why that is. Is it just the way that we're wired, made in the image of God? Is there some cultural thing that's going on that drives that? Then second, what are some of the big barriers that this generation has to belief in which evidence could help them overcome some of those barriers?

Jonathan Morrow: Yeah. I think so. I think so. It's basically 46 percent want factual evidence. You're spot on on that from this. I think one of the things is they've kind of been around seeing that we live in the era of fake news, and all these kinds of claims, and all this kind of stuff going on. I think there's a sense in which, "Okay, what's real?" I think there's a real sense of what's going on there that they want to know what's real in this situation, and they're after some truth there.

Now, they're also after happiness. Fifty-one percent say the ultimate goal of life is happiness. Curiously enough, a lot of that is around financial success and some of those kinds of things, but I also think that they want factual evidence to support these things. I think there's some cultural momentum there.

I also think the fact that Gen Z is a blank slate in many ways. In many ways, millennials kind of reacted against a version of Christianity, and hypocrites, and things like that, whereas Gen Z is like, "Okay. Well, I'm not even sure what you mean by the church, or Christianity, or anything right there, so what is this? I don't want to believe something just because."

One thing that's interesting is half of churchgoing teens say that church seems to reject much of what science tells us. That's an interesting insight as well, because they're like, "Well, look, if science says it's at odds with Christianity, that's a problem." I think there's this collision of wanting to know what's true, but also evidence mattering, and then science kind of still playing a big piece but then lurking in the background are those feelings determining what's real, as we already talked about. It's an interesting cauldron, and it depends on the issue which one of those is going to come out in the lead, and then probably their experience and kind of what they've experienced up to that date at that point in their life.

Sean McDowell: With millennials, there was a lot of talk in the church the past 10 or 15 years about how they're leaving the church and leaving the faith. Now it seems, as you indicated, we have a new generation, many of which are being raised entirely secular. It's like a second-generation teenager that's a non-Christian, which is kind of novel in American culture. I'm curious your thoughts. How does this generation tend to view the Bible? I realize we can't lump the whole generation and their views of the Bible, but are there any things that came out of the study about how they think about Scripture, Jesus, and some of the particulars of the Christian worldview?

Jonathan Morrow: Yeah, for sure. About 22 percent of Gen Z said the Bible is the actual Word of God and should be taken literally word for word, whereas that's a significant finding. It's still a small percentage when you look at things as a whole. One of the things we discovered when they talk about the Bible versus science is about 24 percent would see the Bible and science as being in conflict, and that's a significant thing as well.

I think you're seeing this lack of literacy of what the Bible actually believes, what they actually understand about the Bible. It's just not there. But then what I think, and this is a good just general trend, you can map their views, especially as teenagers right now, that they're mirroring mostly their Gen X parents. That's what's really interesting, because what's different about Gen Z in some ways from millennials is the fact that they're being raised largely by Gen X and millennial parents, not by Boomers. That affects screens and being raised in a house with screens. That's one thing, but then you can kind of see, especially right now, their tendencies, they've kind of mapped the layer of skepticism and literacy with which they're being raised in their homes too. Gen X, those views right now are mapping pretty closely with where we see Gen Z, because they're being raised in those households.

Sean McDowell: You've mentioned screens a few times, and I think it's unmistakable that one of the defining characteristics of this generation is just that they see the world through a smartphone. In fact, many of them learned how to swipe an iPad or iPhone before they learned to even read text. I'm curious, does the study or even your personal experience reveal how technology shapes the worldview, the beliefs, the relationships of this generation?

Jonathan Morrow: Yeah, it really does, and it's multifaceted. There's the first issue is, number one, they're just spending so much time on screens that that's just the sheer stewardship of time question. Then the second question is the law of influences. Okay, if they're on there, 57 percent are on there four plus hours a day and they have a 15-minute youth group sermon on Sunday or a 40-minute sermon, which one of those is going to win? Just the sheer information volume is going to swamp one or the other.

Another thing though is the anxiety and depression levels of this generation are continuing to just skyrocket. I think the research, not only the research we did with the Barna Group but the other research that I've looked into on this topic, is the anxiety and depression, you can draw a pretty straight line to the use and quantity of screens as well, and how basically the addictive behaviors are driving so much of what's going on there. There's the worldview-shaping influence. There's the information overload. There's the always-in-contact-with the outside world.

Then there's the fact that they've never had an undocumented moment of their life, right? I mean they are truly the ones that grew up with everything. Their parents created basically journals on Facebook, everything else. Sometimes people are negative when they talk about this generation, and sometimes rightly so on certain aspects, but they've had to figure out what does it mean to always be connected, and everyone always knows what I'm doing all the time, and everything else. That's where we have a real opportunity for discipleship for Gen Z is how do you leverage this for influence to build God's kingdom, not necessarily your own, to master social media, not be mastered by it. I mean those are the kinds of things that we really need to help them in, because it is a massive, massive issue.

One of the things that I think as parents and people listening to this podcast, I meet so many parents, and Sean, I don't know what your experience is on this, that they'll just have given their kids phones already by like 8, 9, 10, and like we're one of the last ones that haven't, and things like that. I would encourage parents to be very careful before you just 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. Screens are a major, major shaping influence for this generation.

Sean McDowell: Let's shift to some practical things that parents, pastors, youth pastors, youth workers, mentors can do. I love on page 103 of the study, just called Gen Z, that again you commissioned with Impact 360 and a Barna report, you say, "They are not so very different from us at that age." I think the point that you're making is we look at these studies and think they have different worldview, different experience of truth, different belief about the Bible, but they're made in God's image and we have much more in common with this generation than we do difference.

Now, given that you make ... I think that's such a wonderful, important point. Can you give us some practical things? Let's just start with parents. In light of the research that's come out of Generation Z, what are maybe two or three practical things parents could do?

Jonathan Morrow: Yeah. I think the first thing is 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. Are you having any conversations? If your son or daughter's watching a TV show, watch some of it with them and ask questions here and there. "Hey, what do you think about that? Tell me more about this."

At those times when you can guard some time for family meals and different things like that, ask questions and help narrate some of what's going on in that, but create safe space where you don't freak out if they say something that's like, "I don't know that I believe this." It's like, "Well, okay. That's a great question. Tell me more about that." Freak out on the inside, not on the outside, and kind of engage them.

The second thing that I would do is create more opportunity for challenge and a little less bubble wrap. As a dad, I totally get this, the desire to keep our kids safe and protect them from everything. I get all that, but protection is not a long term strategy for growth and maturity. We've got to take the bubble wrap off and actually bring some challenge into their life, especially if they're in a homeschool or private school or Christian school environment where a lot of that challenge may not naturally come, and they can become very easily to play Christian. We need to bring some challenge there so that we can coach them and ask questions along the way, so then they can build some resilience and build some strength along the way.

Listen, create a safe place to ask questions, and bring and create some challenge opportunities for your son or daughter. I think those are some practical things you could do.

Sean McDowell: Those are both really helpful, because we tend to just do one, either create safe place without challenge or challenge without safe place. It seems the proper solution, even biblically speaking, is both. I think that's great advice. How about for either teachers or youth workers who are professionally working with this generation? What are some things that maybe they could do to help communicate truth and pass on their faith to Gen Z?

Jonathan Morrow: Yeah. I think the biggest thing is don't assume that they know anything about what Christianity is, or even if they have some of the vocabulary that they really have a understanding of what those terms mean or anything else. I would assume, whether it's a Christian audience or a non-Christian audience or both, almost a non-Christian audience as a starting point when you begin communicating. Because so many times, what I've found and what the research bears out is there's just so much confusion, and what we say gets filtered through their understanding of feelings and different narratives that they're processing. Don't assume that they have the same categories.

Remember that evidence does matter with this generation. Lastly, I think though that this is big. Teenagers long for connection and embodied relationships. I think that's one of the things we're actually going to see snap back years to come from now is this generation will finally say enough with the disembodied screens and always connected stuff and the real relationships matter, because a lot of them feel isolated and insecure and alone.

Relational connection is huge. Don't assume background knowledge is there. Frame what Christianity is, why it's true, how it fits, all those kinds of questions. Then also, influence the things you can influence. Give them reasons for faith. Help them cultivate wise relationships. I call these the three Rs of worldview formation. Then help them cultivate rhythms that indirectly affect what they love and what they desire, because that's the thing we can't directly control. Their relationship with God and those desires, a lot of that's giving them the ability to practice their faith.

This is what's hard is you can't mass produce transformation. Obviously it's the work of the Holy Spirit by his grace, but so many times it's like we try to put as many people in a room as possible and think that information alone is going to be transformational. That's just not going to work, especially in a generation that's being shaped in the ways that Gen Z is. We need to take the time, don't have our assumptions, a lot of training, less entertainment. We need less entertainment, those kind of things. I mean have fun. I'm not against having fun at a youth group and everything else, but this generation, there's a world that exists and there's a world that we wish it were.

Sometimes I think as churches we try to prepare them for the world we wish it was as opposed to the world it actually is, and that world is a challenging world right now that's very post-Christian or anti-Christian, even depending upon how you define your terms. We need to do our job as Christian leaders who care about this next generation to prepare them well to engage that world, and that takes time, intentionality, relationship, and really space, which is hard to find in such a fast-paced culture.

Sean McDowell: Jonathan Morrow, thanks for coming on, and thanks for commissioning the study with Barna where you're at Impact 360 on Gen Z. I hope listeners will get a hold of it and study it, think about it, and apply a lot of the principles that you have to their ministry and to their relationships. I'd also encourage our listeners to check out Immersion 360 and Impact 360, a gap year and then also a 12-day experience for students that I get a chance to speak at. Thanks for having me regularly to build a worldview for students. Two wonderful opportunities and resources our listeners need to take advantage of.

Jonathan, thanks for coming on.

Jonathan Morrow: Hey Sean, it's always a pleasure. I love getting to connect with you out here, when you visit us at Impact 360, and it's been a fun conversation.

Sean McDowell: We'll do it again soon.

This has been an episode of the podcast, “Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture.” To learn more about us and today's guest, Jonathan Morrow, and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.

View Episode Transcript