How Can the Church Reach the Most Connected and Distracted Generation Ever?
By Mark Moring
So, you’re a youth pastor, and you’re talking to your teens about a Very Important Topic.
A few might be making eye contact with you, maybe even taking an occasional glance at that nifty PowerPoint you stayed up all night putting together. But most have their heads bowed—not in prayer, but glued to that little glowing screen in the palms of their hands.
The good news is that many of them really are paying attention. Many of the kids in Generation Z—those born since the mid-1990—are proficient multitaskers. They can talk on the phone while texting a friend while posting on Instagram while watching TV while doing their homework while … you get the point. They’re wired in all directions—including into you and your presentation—so they’re engaged and totally getting it.
The bad news is that for each of those kids, there are likely just as many who aren’t tuned in to your lesson because Z’s are easily distracted by that same little glowing screen in their hands. Few things are calling out to them more loudly than their smartphones with their addicting apps and social media feeds.
But the great news is that while it may be complex to connect with Gen Z, the payoff down the road could really shake up the Church in ways we can’t even imagine. Decades of declining attendance, lost faith, rejection of morals and authority and absolutes and truth—all those things just might make a comeback. Might.
In his introduction to Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World (BakerBooks), James Emery White writes that Z’s “will be the most religious force in the West and the heart of the missional challenge facing the church.”
Like the baby boomers, Generation X, and millennials before them, Gen Z’s have their own ways of seeing the world—even if it is primarily through that little glowing screen. And, as always, parents and pastors must know their audience.
“We have to be students of the culture,” says Jim Burns, executive director of the HomeWord Center for Youth and Family at Azusa Pacific University. “We have to look at who and what is affecting their generation. And it’s complicated.”
10 Traits of Z Nation
What do you need to know about the kids in Generation Z? Here are some of the most important things.
1. They’re everywhere. Gen Z—those born between 1996 and 2014—makes up 24.3 percent of the U.S. population, according to U.S. Census estimates for 2016. That’s more than millennials (22.1 percent), more than Gen X (19 percent), and more than baby boomers (22.9 percent). By 2020, The Washington Post says, Z’s will have about $3 trillion in purchasing power.
2. They’ve always been wired. They’ve never known a world without the internet or cell phones; younger Z’s have never known a world without smartphones. Google has always existed. They take Wi-Fi for granted.
They spend between six and nine hours a day absorbing media, according to a survey from Common Sense Media. Among teens, 92 percent go online daily, Pew Research reports.
Their preferred mode of communication is digital, primarily through social media and texting. Drew Wike, director of student ministries at Greenwood Baptist Church in Florence, South Carolina, recently noticed some of his students sitting together in a restaurant. “They weren’t talking to each other,” he says. “They were texting each other.”
3. They’ve seen porn. And maybe lots of it. No other generation has had pornography so readily available, literally at their fingertips. A survey of college students in New England found 73 percent had seen porn online before they turned 18.
“Sexting”—sending and receiving sexually explicit text messages—starts early for many Z’s. A survey of middle-school-aged students in Los Angeles found 25 percent said they’d received a sext.
A smaller study of college students by professors at Drexel University found more than half (54 percent) reported sending a sext before they turned 18, often as a form of flirting.
4. They’re more accepting of sexual fluidity. Gen Z supports gay marriage and transgender rights. For them, such things are part of everyday life. It would be rare for a Z to not have a friend from the LGBT community.
Additionally, a 2016 survey of gender and sexuality by J. Walter Thompson Company, a New York-based marketing firm, found only 48 percent of those 13 to 20 years old described themselves as “completely heterosexual,” compared to 65 percent of those 21 to 34.
In his book, White describes the Gen Z attitude as “an increasing sexual fluidity that refuses either the homosexual or heterosexual label. The idea is that both labels are repressive.”
5. They’re racially diverse . . . and multiracial. Z’s have friends from a variety of ethnicities. About half of kids under 5 in the U.S. are ethnic minorities, according to the U.S. Census. Six of the 15 most common last names in the United States were of Hispanic origin in 2010, compared to none of the top 15 in 1990, the Census Bureau says. If your church’s congregation is not diverse, Z’s will wonder why.
And when Z’s get married, they’re more likely than their forebears to wed someone of another ethnic group. About 1 in 6 marriages today are of an interracial couple, according to Pew Research. In 1980, the rate was fewer than 1 in 10.
6. They’re pretty independent. Gen Xers, repeatedly warned about “helicopter parenting,” have reacted by giving their kids—Z’s—plenty of space. This hands-off parenting has yielded both pros and cons.
On the pro side, Z’s are pretty self-directed and confident. On the con side, they’re not necessarily equipped with much real-life wisdom or many boundaries. In an age of cyber-bullying, sexting, internet porn, and hooking up—not to mention hacking, scams, and identity theft—the consequences can be dangerous.
7. They’re aware of a troubled planet. Most Z’s have grown up since 9/11 and have only known a world where terrorist attacks are the norm. Additionally, they’ve lived through the Great Recession, and they’ve seen their parents, or many of their friends’ parents, struggle through job losses, foreclosures, and more.
“They’re a hopeful generation, but realistic,” says Josh Branum, family pastor at Faithbridge Church in Jacksonville, Florida. “They see the world for what it is. They’re not afraid, but they’re going into it with their eyes wide open.”
8. They’re justice-minded. Partly because of No. 7 above, Z’s want to make a difference in the world. Like millennials before them, they’re keenly aware of justice issues concerning poverty, human trafficking, refugees, racism, and more.
They want opportunities to have an impact, and they’re likely to become generous givers to charitable organizations as adults.
“They’re kids who volunteer, who have a heart for mission and justice, who sign up for things that previous generations didn’t,” says Burns. “It’s part of their DNA.”
9. They’re post-Christian. Almost a quarter (23 percent) of America’s adults—and a third of millennials—are “nones,” claiming no religious identity at all, according to Pew Research. Many Z’s are growing up in homes where there’s no religion whatsoever, and they may have no experience of religion.
“Gen Z is very secularized,” says Rick Eubanks, student minister at Oak Grove Baptist Church in Burleson, Texas. “Previous generations grew up with some Judeo-Christian values of the past, at least as a reference point. Today’s generation has little to no acquaintance with the gospel.
“So we have to start with square one: This is a Bible. It has 66 books. It has your story and God’s story. We have to speak in simple terms.”
10. They’re open to faith. Although only 4 in 10 attend religious services weekly, 78 percent of older Gen Z’s say they believe in God, according to a survey by Northeastern University. They view religious leaders as better role models than celebrities, professional athletes, or political leaders.
“They’re hungry for spiritual things,” says Eubanks. “They’re seeking something outside of themselves, which can be a good thing.”
There are more characteristics to Z’s, of course, but White sums it up like this:
First, they are lost. They are not simply living in and being shaped by a post-Christian cultural context. They do not even have a memory of the gospel. The degree of spiritual illiteracy is simply stunning. … [Second], they are leaderless. Little if any direction is coming from their families, and even less from their attempts to access guidance from the internet. … So how can they be reached?
Reaching the Z’s
As Burns notes, you can’t reach the Z’s unless you understand them and their world. He takes his cue from Paul in Acts 17:22-31, addressing the Greeks at Mars Hill.
“He talked to them in their language,” says Burns. “We have to do the same with Generation Z. We’ve got to listen to what they listen to, watch what they watch, read what they read.”
Burns and others recommend that parents and youth leaders get on Snapchat and Instagram, the social media platforms of choice for Z’s. Observe their behavior and posts, but don’t necessarily chime in. “We should be watching, not stalking,” says Burns.
Derek Brown, student minister at Logos Baptist Church in Dothan, Alabama, adds, “I think it’s helpful for students to know that people do watch them on social media, and not just their peers.”
Eubanks says Z’s “divulge who they are” online, so he pays attention to their activity. “Through social media, I can learn a lot about what’s going on in their lives,” Eubanks says.
If he sees something of concern, he’ll contact that student and ask if he can help. “They’re not offended, because they know I’m not trying to pry, but that I love them. If you genuinely love them and incarnate into their culture, you earn that right.”
(Z’s might disagree with the advice that adults should follow them on social media. Read one teen’s words of wisdom in “From a Z’s perspective.”)
And like teens of all generations before them, Z’s struggle with self-image and doubt. But unlike previous generations, Z’s actually attempt to measure their worth through such counterfeit indicators as the number of “friends” and “likes” on social media. So it’s vital to remind them they’re made in God’s image, fearfully and wonderfully so.
Even today’s youth group meetings should look different from those of a decade ago.
“As pastors, we have to connect with them in mediums they’re going to use,” says Branum. Presentations should “be a little more creative because these kids are used to being entertained. We have to be engaging. And if they prefer to learn things visually, we have to accommodate that.”
Eubanks adds, “Their attention span is shorter. They think in terms of small sound bites, quick quips and quotes, memes, videos, images, and emojis. A 35-minute lecture probably isn’t the best way to reach students these days.”
He stresses keeping the floor open for discussion because Z’s are curious and inquisitive.
“How comfortable are we in allowing them to interrupt?” he asks.
“We have to create a culture where asking questions is OK. If we don’t, we’re missing a valuable opportunity.”
Mark is a freelance writer in Atlanta with a heart for teens.