Gen Z — also known as the Selfie generation, the iGen or the Transgeneration — is most commonly classified as born between 1999 and 2015. The eldest of this generation is already 21 years old.
It’s the first generation born into what’s considered a “post-Christian” culture. Consequently, members of this next-next generation have been labeled as less religious than any generation before. Given this startling statement, the 2018 Barna study on Gen Z outlines traits that churches need to know.
In place of the proverbial “born with a silver spoon,” this young cohort was born with more computing power in their pocket (smartphone) than NASA had for the moon landing.
Depending on their age, Gen Z either grew alongside technology or entered a fully digital world. Their first steps, first words and first kisses were posted to Facebook, liked and “sharented” by boomer grandparents. Now, Zers post their everyday moments on Instagram and Snapchat.
As the Barna study notes, this generation has been and is connected nearly every day of their lives. With this comes benefits (long-distance relationships) and problems (porn).
Delighted by diversity
Generation Z has grown up in a diverse society and is itself the most racially diverse generation in U.S. history. While problems of prejudice plague the world, this generation is trying not to participate in that negativity. Raised in a culture that promotes political correctness, Zers are much more likely to acknowledge the beliefs of others and less likely to do or say anything to cause offense.
Their acceptance of plurality goes beyond race to include diversity in religion, sexual orientation and lifestyle choices. More than just acceptance, there’s the expectation of diversity. Environments without diversity are unnatural to them.
The world in which this generation lives is one of blurred lines and fuzzy definitions.
Studying involves entertainment. Work doesn’t necessarily mean leaving the house. Family combinations involve more than a mom, dad and kids. Privacy has been relegated to discussions about who gets to share medical information. “Public” is a setting on a social media account. Gender pronouns are up for discussion.
While this generation is less likely to drink, smoke and do drugs, they hold more liberal views on issues like same-sex marriage and legalizing marijuana.
Inclusive, open-minded and less judgmental, Gen Z is wary to declare things as right or wrong. As such, many of them hold fluid values or convictions.
Interpreting their identities
If this generation has a slogan, it might blend Burger King’s “Have it your way” and “You be you” with a snarky side of “OK Boomer.” This group excels at individualism and independence.
Perhaps as a consequence of growing up in more broken homes, Generation Z doesn’t believe that their families are central to their sense of self.
This cohort often has no significant attraction to their parents’ lifestyles, careers or faith. The majority wants to start a business instead of working for others. According to the Barna research, Gen Zers are twice as likely as previous generations to say that they are atheists without any religious affiliation.
They’re often preoccupied with aspirational “perfect” online personas. A strong emphasis on personal and financial achievement is also top-of-mind for some.
Despite being independent, Generation Z isn’t immune to the world’s problems.
Experts warn of a worsening mental health crisis for Zers. Though hyperconnected, they tend to suffer more depression and loneliness compared to previous generations. Suicide rates are also on the rise among this generation.
What does all this mean for the church?
What can United Methodists do about suicide or depression in a non-spiritual generation of young people? How can the church reach a population that has so much potential but seems to have so little spiritual grounding? Here are a few ideas:
Be authentic. Gen Z grew up in a time of internet hoaxes and tabloids passing as journalism. They tend to be natural skeptics. Churches don’t have to and shouldn’t try to change their messages. This generation doesn’t need or want a white-washed, watered down version of Christianity. This won’t draw them in; it will only support their preconceived perceptions. Instead, help them get to know the true God, the God who loves them enough to send God’s son to die for them.
Be accepting. Love like Christ loved. Offer all generations a place where they can connect with sincere believers who love the Lord and love one another. (Older generations: Remember the days of your own rebellions and youthful arrogance.)
Help your Z members develop a sense of the communal identity that they’re missing. Encourage them to become a part of something meaningful. While teaching God’s Word, remind these young people that God is the creator and author of diversity. Help them find their true identity in Christ.
Be available. Make yourself and your church available in both conventional and unconventional ways. Engage college students and the next generation where they are — online. Use websites, livestreams and social media to connect with them. But don’t forget the value of a personal connection.
Cultivate personal friendships where you can know and mentor members of Gen Z. Don’t expect them to change their minds, lifestyles or choices before they enter the doors of the church. This generation is overwhelmed and lonely. Love them where they are, and let God do the rest.
The Barna study included encouraging information about Generation Zers. Those labeled as “engaged Christians” identify as having attended church in the last six months. They also ascribe to some Christian beliefs/practices. It notes that these engaged Christian teens “are a stark contrast to their peers on moral issues.”
In other words, Gen Z Christians know what they believe and are standing in that truth. That’s a positive assessment for them and the families and churches who have raised them.
Hold fast, church leaders! Continue to preach the Good News. Show the love of Christ. The Alpha and the Omega can help you hold fast in truth and love as you seek to draw Generation Z into the fold.
Tricia K. Brown is a writer, editor, keynote speaker and Bible teacher. In addition to being a wife and mother of four sons, she is the sole proprietor of The Girls Get Together, where she and her team provide women's event programs for churches and other organizations.