Gen Z is on the Rise
by Randall Breland
No doubt you have heard the buzz: Generation Z is on the rise. As a Generation X native, I have found relating to this tech-savvy, funny, socially active, globally-aware generation provides an exhilarating experience and a very tangible challenge. As my life is dedicated to student camp ministry, reaching this post-Christian, spiritually connected, anti-religious, morally relative generation vexes the soul. I love Gen Z. I am eager to do my part to reach them with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I am even more eager to send them out to love a lost and dying world. While there are some significant challenges to their believing the Gospel of Jesus, they are perhaps better equipped to reach the world for Christ than any previous generation.
My desire is to give you an overview of what makes this generation tick (ahem … TikTok) and to equip you with resources that can help you reach them, whether you are a youth pastor, parent, teacher, or mentor. Let’s get started.
Who are Generation Z?
According to Barna, Gen Z comprises anyone born between 1995 and 2015. They represent 40 percent of all consumers and are the primary driving force of American culture. They have always known a world marked by the 2007 global recession, the 9/11 Twin Tower attacks, and now, COVID-19. They are at home with diversity, Wi-Fi, Harry Potter, social media, and gender fluidity. As we have learned about Gen Z, we have realized that there are some unique challenges and some tremendous opportunities.
At the end, I will link to some key resources you need to read if you want to engage this generation in a meaningful way.
Challenge 1: Gen Z Believes Real Security is a Myth
Generation Zers’ childhoods are marked by 9/11, the 2007 economic recession, and a world continually at war. As a result, they share a collective anxiety that the world is broken and their future is unstable. They no longer look to family or religion for stability, but instead to their professional and educational achievement. As teen climate activist Greta Thunberg embodies, this generation cherishes “influencer” status and doing, believing that they have to take charge and fix the broken world before older generations ruin it for the younger generations.
The opportunity ought to be obvious. Gen Zers are looking for the security that only the Gospel provides. It is essential to teach biblical literacy to young believers, teaching them to trust God’s providence, put their hope in God instead of the world, and to guide them as they are eager to take action to fix the problems they see. In my own home and ministry, I have found simply reading a chapter of the Bible out loud and asking good questions goes a long way toward encouraging this generation to trust God to write their story.
Challenge 2: Gen Z are “screenagers”
Over 50 percent of teens report engaging screen media four-plus hours, with just as many admitting that they are addicted to their phones. TikTok has a monopoly on teens’ attention. Teens eschew the rants of Facebook and the curated photos of Instagram in favor of the raw humor of TikTok videos and internet memes. Despite the proliferation of digital connections, rates of reported teen loneliness, depression, and suicide are skyrocketing. Teens are lonelier than ever because their collective anxiety (above) forces them to see social media as a place to build their personal brand, secure their personal future, procure more “likes” than their classmates, and project a curated happiness that will make them “visible” (successful) or leave them suffering the fate of “invisibility” (failure).
The opportunity that their screens present is in-real-life relationships. Teens need to learn how to have healthy relationships: with adults, with one another, and with social media. While they may not know how to express the desire, what teenagers both need and crave is in-real-life relationships. It will be up to us to gently press into their lives and to help them learn how to have a real conversation that does not involve a meme.
In my own home, we have de-emphasized technology and promoted creative activity. While my children are post-Gen Z, I imagine that their generation will also see these challenges increase. We have a “library” area in our home where we have put a piano, a craft table, a sand table (yes, we are nuts), many children’s books, and loads of crafts supplies and tactile toys like kinetic sand in nice kid-friendly drawers. We also bought my oldest daughter, who is nine, a small cooking set and a recipe book. Our home is full of creative activity that encourages interaction and creativity together. As my kids grow older, we will adjust the activity to their ages. Frankly, we enjoy reading, cooking, and making as much as the littlest ones or the older ones.
We also strive for four nights a week that we are at home eating meals together. There is nothing more important to do with children or teenagers than to just read and talk about the Bible. Here is what we do: we open the Bible and read it together. Right now, I’m reading through the New Testament with my oldest daughter. We read a chapter, then I ask her to underline what she thinks is the most important verse and tell me why. Often, I end up directing her to a more important verse. We also have read through many wonderful children’s Bibles. Some of our favorites include Jesus Storybook Bible, The Ology, and Long Story Short. Yes, I’d recommend even reading these with Gen Z! They are written beautifully and generate wonderful conversations.
While this advice may seem overly simplistic, do not underestimate the power of eating meals and doing activities together. Of course, the meals and activities should lead to conversation about following the Lord, the Bible, their future, their anxiety, the problems in the world, and how the Gospel of redemption is about more than redeeming people from their wretched sin. The Gospel of redemption is also about redeeming a broken world from the havoc that both sin and the curse have brought.
Challenge 3: Gen Z are post-Christian
Thirty-five percent of this generation group identify as atheist, agnostic, or non-religious while only 9 percent identify as engaged believers. This matches the rise in American society of the “spiritual,” but not “religious” or “nones” segment. The bridge between culture and Christianity has collapsed. Further, 37 percent do not even know if it is possible to know for sure if God is real. In other words, they are convinced that truth is more about “how you feel” than “what is fact.” They trust the natural sciences to give them fact and see religion as a farce. This is because they are confused about the relationship between truth and science.
Challenges or Opportunities?
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Gender fluidity, biblical illiteracy, victim mentality, celebration of tolerance, and the (very healthy) embrace of diversity are other challenges with this generation. Yet, all of these challenges present key Gospel opportunities. As with every generation, this generation does not need us to re-invent the wheel. They need safe spaces to discuss the timeless truth of God’s Word, safe relationships to learn what it looks like to be a disciple of Jesus, and safe homes and churches where they can experience real community as members of God’s kingdom.
Favorite Books About Generation Z
- James Emery White, Meet Generation Z: White’s book argues that Gen Z is ushering in the seventh epoch of world history. The book provides an overview of key characteristics and gives substantive discussion on how to reach and evangelize this generation.
- Jean Twenge, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood–and What That Means for the Rest of Us: Dr. Twenge discusses the complicated dynamic between technology and in-real-life relationships, revealing that technology is cultivating loneliness and a false happiness that is fast becoming a nationwide epidemic for Gen Z.
- Barna Group, Gen Z: The Culture, Beliefs and Motivations Shaping the Next Generation and Barna Group, Gen Z, Vol. 2: In partnership with Chick-Fil-A’s Impact 360, these two data-driven reports confirm what White, Twenge, and others have warned. This generation is moving away from Christianity at a rapid pace. These books are filled with statistics, helpful visuals, objective analysis, and compelling interviews with youth leaders and experts around the nation.
- Faith for Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon: Written as a follow-up to the first Barna Gen Z report, this book gives positive ways to engage this generation by cultivating intimacy with Jesus, cultural discernment, intergenerational relationships, vocational discipleship, and countercultural mission. If you are leading a youth ministry, this is an incredible asset to read through with your leadership team before you plan your ministry strategy and calendar.
Editor’s note: Here’s a way to encourage your church’s Gen Z group — register for Crossings (“cross over from death to life”) at Skycroft Conference Center this summer. They’ll have a blast, make friends, hear the Gospel, and receive encouragement to grow as leaders.
Randall Breland is the director of communications for Crossings Ministries.