Five experts discuss the ways this emerging demographic is helping them rethink preaching, parenting, and service.
Generation is a moving target. There is no single, set authority on it, so sociologists classify generations based on major cultural shifts or world events that seem to differentiate one range of people from another. Not everyone agrees that these cohorts are the most helpful way to classify people, but it’s hard to argue there is no discernible difference between those in the US who grew up before the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and those who remember only a post-9/11 reality.
Though this latter cohort—referred to by sociologists as post-millennials, iGen, or most commonly, Generation Z—may resemble previous generations in many ways, their worldview breaks from their predecessors in a few key ways. Depending on where you draw the line (most mark the start of Gen Z between 1999 and 2001) the oldest members of this generation are now entering college. In many churches, they’re graduating from student ministries and participating in the life of the church as young adults for the first time.
How should pastors think about this emerging demographic? Should Gen Z push us to adopt new approaches to ministry, or will they help us appreciate our tried-and-true methods like never before? Pastor Maina Mwaura convened a panel of experts to learn about what pastors should expect from Gen Z. Their conversation touches on the exciting opportunities these young people bring to the church, the challenges they will face, and the ways in which they may help pastors better shepherd everyone.
The panel consists of Brooke Hempell: Senior vice president of research at the Barna Group; Allen Jackson: Senior pastor at Dunwoody Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, and served as professor of youth ministry at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary for two decades; Jody Livingston: Youth ministry veteran of 20 years in the Atlanta metro area; James “Jimmy” McGee III: President and CEO of The Impact Movement, a campus ministry for black students around the country; and Dan Scott: Director for 252 Kids and 252 Preteen curriculum at Orange and author.
Let’s start with the basics. Who do we mean when we talk about “Generation Z”?
Hempell: Barna draws a line at 1999. Anyone born in 1999 or later—currently 19-or-20-year-olds—are Gen Z. And that goes down to somewhere in elementary school. We haven’t decided where to draw the line between Gen Z and the generation after them.
Over time we’ve started drawing the generations smaller and smaller, in terms of years, because the world is changing so fast. When we talk about Gen Z, we’re mainly talking about early college students, high schoolers, and middle schoolers right now, but some younger kids will probably make the cut, too.
I am a parent of young Gen Zers. My daughter was born in 2007, the year the first iPhone came out. That’s a pivotal year for this generation. Members of Gen Z in the US are very different from the generations before them. They are the most diverse generation we’ve seen yet. This year’s kindergarten, first-grade, and second-grade kids are the first cohort of elementary students where the minority ethnicity populations are larger than the white ethnicity populations.
What does that do to their perceptions of the world, especially in the context of the church?
McGee: Gen Z, in particular, wants to see change. They aren’t sheltered. Older Gen Zers saw Philando Castile bleed out in front of his girlfriend all over Facebook. There’s a collective trauma building up in this population. Gen Z, on the whole, sees ethnicity as something to be celebrated.
Gen Zers, like millennials, don’t care much what’s said in church on Sunday morning if they don’t see it walk over that chasm into Monday through Saturday. They want to see the impact of faith and identity apart from a Sunday morning experience. If they don’t see transformation in society, they’re going to question the reality of what we say we believe. Millennials have brought to Gen Z the idea of an integrated reality. They want to see how their faith speaks life into the places where they work, where they play, where they worship, and every aspect of their humanity.
Whether we’re ready for it or not, Gen Z is going to force us to engage the issues that matter to them.
Livingston: In previous generations, you had more of a top-down influence. That still exists, but because this generation is so tech savvy, the influence is flipping a bit. Generation Z is now starting to push the older generations in influence. As the church, we have to be ready for that.
Hempell: If we want to help them navigate the integration of their faith with their everyday experience, churches are going to have to make a lot of changes. When students go into a typical Protestant church, they look at the congregation and the leadership, and these churches don’t represent the diversity present in their world. For those who haven’t grown up with a church background, that’s going to feel strange. This is a generation where so many have not grown up in the church, and you can imagine them walking into a church and thinking, What is this bizarre place where everyonelooks the same? I don’t think this is for me.
Jackson: There are a lot of other spaces, though, that are just as segregated. What about college campuses? I don’t think they’re unfamiliar with spaces that don’t represent their generation. The bigger problem is that they haven’t been in the church at all.
We used to assume a Judeo-Christian starting line. I wrote a book a long time ago that said, “Just because somebody is not a Christian doesn’t mean they’re stupid. They have heard of Jesus, they have heard of Christianity, and they have heard the basic points of the biblical story.” But that’s not necessarily the case today. It’s feasible that, because their Gen X and millennial parents didn’t have much to do with the church, their kids may not have heard God’s story at all.
They don’t know the differences between Islam and Mormonism and Christianity. They’ve vaguely heard of Jesus and Mohammed and Martin Luther King Jr., and Gandhi. But they aren’t sure how they all fi t together or what country they’re from. So their faith is fragmented at best. We in the church use words we think they should know, but they don’t. So if we want to help them integrate their faith, we have to stop assuming they have one.
Does it worry you that many members of this generation don’t have Christian faith as their starting point?
Jackson: It does. But it’s a good worry because for a long time churches had certain advantages. Football wouldn’t practice on Wednesday nights because that was a church night. And Sunday morning was a church day. That isn’t true anymore. There used to be a respect for Sunday, but now joggers will come into the lobby of our worship center looking for water. There’s no such thing as a protected day.
The new normal for church attendance is one-and-a-half times a month. That means I only get to see some of our families 18 times a year.
So you’re saying we have to be flexible when it comes to dealing with this new norm.
Scott: Yesterday my son needed a book. He needed it right then, so I couldn’t use Amazon. I had to go to Barnes & Noble. But I didn’t want to risk not finding it. So I went online, to their digital channel. I saw that the book was at the Barnes & Noble across the street. So I ordered it to pick up later. I started digital, but then I had a personal touchpoint where I talked with someone who recommended a second book. I ended up leaving with two books because of the relational touchpoint.
When it comes to engaging Gen Z, we need digital and physical connections. One is the invitation, and the other is the follow up.
Jackson: We’ve been surprised that our older adults have adopted the streaming platforms. When we launched streaming, we thought it was going to be for college students or for families that travel. But our senior adults have adopted the technology in percentages even greater than our younger adults.
McGee: The way we grow our influence with Gen Z is by increasing our number of encounters with students. You cannot help them change directions from a distance. You don’t earn that right unless they know you. We’ve all seen groups of students on their phones texting while sitting next to each other. They long for intimacy.
Jackson: And that’s not new with this age group. Because the assisted living places are full of people who are exactly the same. They’re pining for human connection. No matter how much someone processes digitally, there is something important about human touch. God built that into us no matter our age.
What should pastors know about how members of Generation Z relate to their parents?
Scott: The kid’s activity is always going to win. If they have a sporting event, they’re doing the sporting event. If they have a dance recital that weekend, the dance recital is going to win. We can argue whether that’s right or wrong, but right now that’s the reality. Parents prioritize their student’s relationship to the team over individual things at church. They assume their student can get what the church offers throughout the week. They can read a book or catch up on a podcast.
How do we influence families who only come to church once a month? Attendance is not the issue. It’s engagement. How do I get the parent to feel like they’re a part of our community? How do I get the child to feel like they’re a part of a small group where a caring adult can invest in them, where a youth pastor can look out for their best interest and give them wisdom from God’s Word? How do we get them to engage, give, and serve?
Jackson: Opportunities to serve are key. That priority is something Gen Xers gave to the millennials, and millennials gave to Gen Z: To serve is to be engaged. Sometimes it’s easier to act your way into believing than it is to believe your way into acting.
Scott: That can be a great initial touchpoint. A parking attendant may have no concept of faith, but the service opportunity can engage him into a community.
Jackson: Something cool happens if that parking lot attendant is 13 years old, and they’re on a team with people who are 45 and 65.
Scott: Now you have a mentor-ship.
Jackson: You have an inter-generational team. That is something churches have that other groups don’t—the ability to foster inter-generational relationship. It doesn’t happen at college because there’s a hard line between professors and students. But at church, volunteers are of all ages. One of our best youth volunteers is 75.
How can pastors connect members of Generation Z with these service opportunities?
Livingston: If they don’t understand the “why” and they feel like what they’re doing is not making a difference, they don’t care. That will be a defining characteristic of churches that successfully reach this generation. We do a better job of talking at students than with students.
For this generation more than any before them, conversation and the power of story are important. I ask my daughter about Instagram, “Why are you taking a picture of the carpet and putting text across the top of it when you could just text? Or, heaven forbid, make a phone call?” It’s about the story. That is an amazing opportunity for the church because we have the life-changing story of the gospel.
Our old tools like the Roman Road and giving people an outline of Bible verses aren’t going to work as well as they use to. When I convey the gospel to students, I have to show them what it looks like in their lives and the difference it makes.
Jackson: In defense of the Roman Road, what if that’s the mental outline for the story? You don’t want a 12-year-old making up their narrative of what the gospel should be. At some point we have to return to the authority of the Bible.
Livingston: Sure. I’m not saying we cast aside those outlines of Scripture. It’s important for them to understand where the truth is based. So I tell the biblical story from a foundation of truth that is greater than all of us, and I invite them into something bigger than themselves. That’s where it resonates with this generation, because they desperately want to make a difference.
Scott: We start by engaging them in a conversation: “Hey, let’s talk about this. How does this resonate with you?” That is how they learn. They collaborate. They rarely have a teacher lecture to them for 30 minutes. That only happens at church.
McGee: But the reality is, it’s not just how they learn; it’s how we all learn. We remember what we say better than what is said to us.
Gen Z wants to dialogue. And that’s what we see in the biblical text. It’s full of conversation. It’s not didactic. It’s engagement.
Livingston: I do still believe in the Word of God powerfully preached with strong, clear application. That’s where we often miss the mark in lengthy preaching. We give a lot of information without clear application.
Scott: Or they’ve already checked out by the time you get to the application. In the world of 18-minute TED Talks, you learn something, and you know exactly what to do with the information. The Bible story’s not over until people know what to do with it.
Are you saying pastors will have to start limiting their sermons to 18 minutes?
Scott: Not necessarily. I’ll listen to a 50-minute podcast, but only if that podcast is a conversation. It features a special guest. TED Radio Hour includes four talks woven together through a narrative. So I think you can have a 30-minute sermon, but it’s worth thinking about how it’s presented.
What is one piece of advice each of you have for pastors about Generation Z?
McGee: Meet people where they are. I don’t try to corral students where I think they should go. I meet them where they already are. I mean that physically, but also intellectually. When we talk to students about stewardship, we don’t just talk about money; we talk about the fact that God has given us space and time. How can we be good stewards of those things?
Jackson: In an information age, pastors must teach the value of Scripture. To differentiate between the many words we hear and read on a daily basis and the words God gave us is a difficult task. We need to elevate Scripture above other information.
Generation Z excites me. Many have never been to church, so they don’t have the baggage of “I don’t go to church because it’s full of hypocrites.” There’s a wide-eyed wonder when the Good News is heard with fresh ears and when it’s told with integrity and realism and approach-ability.
Livingston: We need to listen. I hear that from Gen Zers a lot: “You’re not listening to me.” I hear that as a parent, and I hear that from my students. “My parents just don’t listen to me.” And some of that is just normal teenage posture. But the church has a lot to learn from this generation. We have to run to them, not from them, placing ourselves in their paths and listening. Because until they feel heard, they’re never going to give credibility to the church.
Scott: Members of Gen Z don’t think like older generations think, and they definitely don’t think like we thought when we were their age. Listening to U2 for the first time in 1988 is very different from listening to Post Malone in 2018. How we communicate with them matters. We should engage them in such a way that makes them want more. Make your messages intriguing, like a Netflix binge watch. Forget the bells and whistles, and connect ancient truths to matters at hand.
Hempell: Pastors need to be aware of mental health concerns with Gen Z, specifically anxiety. Youth pastors tell me, “I’ve experienced cutting in my youth group, but I didn’t know the phenomenon was so widespread.” They think it is a fluke, but it’s normal.
Where does that anxiety come from?
Hempell: It’s the way technology rewires your brain. And it’s social media feedback. The culture moves really fast, and there’s so much to take in that they can’t get their heads around it. In many cases they lack confidence in their identity.
That’s where the church has so much to offer, because if this generation really doesn’t know much about God—that they’re made in his image—then they don’t know the beauty, hope, and peace that comes from having a purpose and a loving Father.
Anxiety levels will continue to grow, and they won’t be limited to certain types of kids. According to the American Psychological Association, 23 percent of adult Gen Zers report they have been diagnosed with depression, more than any other generation. So the church needs to be prepared to meet them with the hope that God gives us.