Gen Z—the generation following the millennials—is the least Christian generation to date, according to a new Barna study – 34 percent of Gen Z’s religious affiliation is either atheist, agnostic or none. In fact, teens 13-18 years old are twice as likely as adults to say they are atheist. And just three in five 13- to 18-year-olds say they are some kind of Christian (59 percent).
Creating Disney World-like Environments in our Churches is not Preparing Gen Z
As Christian parents, pastors, educators, and leaders, we want what’s best for our kids. We want to see them grow up and follow Jesus for a lifetime. Yet, we all know young people who have become disillusioned or drifted away from the faith. It doesn’t have to be this way: no student should “outgrow” their faith.
As my friend David Kinnaman, the president of the Barna Group, put it while we were working on this Gen Z study together, “Is it possible that many churches are preparing young Christians to face a world that no longer exists?” Based on my experience working with students, the answer to this question is yes.
Many Christian teens are simply unprepared for the world that is waiting for them. With the best of intentions, we bubble wrap our kids and create Disney World–like environments for them in our churches, and then wonder why they have no resilience in faith or life. Students are entertained but not prepared. They’ve had a lot of fun but are not ready to lead. When the pressure to conform is turned up, Christian teenagers tend to wilt if they do not have the confidence that only comes from knowing why they believe what they believe. As one teenager told me, “following Jesus today is hard because sometimes you feel like the only one.”
Culture is Changing Fast and Teenagers are Confused
Gen Z has been discipled by their smart phones, taught sex ed by Google, and conditioned to assume that just because they believe something makes it true.
Contrary to what you may have heard, Christianity is not a fairytale for grown-ups invented to make ourselves feel better. Followers of Jesus have nothing to fear from tough questions, honest doubts, and challenging conversations. Gen Z needs to know that Christians care about truth.
Our culture is changing fast and teenagers are confused—morally and spiritually. At Impact 360 Institute, we’ve been studying Gen Z alongside the Barna Group for the past year and a half and the research and focus groups confirm this trend. For example, only 34 percent of Gen Z agree that lying is morally wrong; 24 percent say what is morally right and wrong changes over time based on society, and 58 percent of this least-Christian generation agree that “Many religions can lead to eternal life; there is no ‘one true religion.’”
Let’s Stop Pretending
So why is the fact that Gen Z is less Christian than ever good news again? Because we need to stop pretending and start living in reality.
We need to stop pretending that if we entertain teenagers then they will stick around after they graduate.
We need to stop pretending that if we protect them from everything they won’t question, doubt, or walk away.
And we need to stop pretending that a few minutes of a moralistic, watered down Bible lesson on a Sunday morning will prepare them to stand firm in their faith.
In short, teenagers need a grown-up worldview, not coloring book Jesus.
We can do better.
By the time teenagers should be owning their faith, we’ve already lost their attention and the culture has captured their imagination.
Contrary to what you may have heard, Christian faith is not blind. Christianity is not a fairytale for grown-ups invented to make ourselves feel better. Followers of Jesus have nothing to fear from tough questions, honest doubts, and challenging conversations. Gen Z needs to know that Christians care about truth.
Attendance Is Not Enough
We need to reject the idea that if teenagers just attend church enough they will build a strong faith. The attendance model is not working—training is necessary.
As one of our students shared with me this past summer, “I know why I am a Christian now…I know it’s true. I am able to defend my faith and live my life out for him [Jesus] in ways I wasn’t before.” Training makes all the difference.
Whether we are in the majority or being marginalized, our charge as followers of Jesus is to be faithful to pass on our faith to the next generation.
As our post-Christian culture increasingly marginalizes Christianity, it is critical for those of us who care about Gen Z not to take a business-as-usual approach to their formation. If we do nothing they will be shaped away from life with God. We have the opportunity to reimagine what passing on our faith to the next generation looks like in this unique cultural moment. But first, we must stop pretending.