We’re not in Kansas anymore.
…or in Columbus, Ohio, circa 1975.
We’ve been saying it for a while…allow me to say it again: We’re living in a missionary time.
Last week, more evidence emerged that calls us to sit up and take notice. Barna and the Impact 360 Institute published a new study about the next generation: Gen Z. While there is still much to learn about this generation, there are themes that emerge that should give us reason to pause and pivot.
As you do, the sign you’ll see will read:
A Wake-Up Call From Gen Z
Born between 1999-2015, this generation is fully immersed in Digital Babylon. Reflect on the Babylonian exile and what Babylon meant. In Babylon faith was in the margins. Society was pluralistic and diverse. Now add handheld screens and four hours of every day mediating relationships on technology and you’re beginning to get a glimpse of the landscape of Digital Babylon.
Maybe you don’t think you’re living there.
But, you are.
We’re surrounded by Digital Babylon. The question is, will we recognize it and respond? Failing to do so will mean one more generation living at a distance from the church. Gen Xers are the parents to Gen Z and their absence from the church has been an unnamed reality for decades. Yes, that means three generations are now moving into exile from the church. If you don’t believe me, I’ll be happy to talk with you about being in my forties and feeling very young when I’m with church groups. (It’s good for my psyche, but it’s not good for the kingdom of God.)
While the oldest members of this generation are eighteen and nineteen years old, there is still a lot to be learned. However, some foundational elements of this generation are already firmly in place. Here are five things to know about Gen Z.
Their worldview is open-minded and inclusive. They are highly individualistic and see this as an advantage. As a group, asserting one view as right or wrong is not a stance they are willing to take. While they often have a hard time articulating what truth is and where truth comes from, they have hearts that see an inclusive world with differences being an advantage to everyone.
Questions to consider
How does your understanding of Jesus, the incarnation, and humanity shape how you embrace others? As Jesus followers, how do you articulate what you believe? Clarifying “why” you believe in Jesus and how Jesus shapes your worldview not only important, it is necessary. Your testimony to who God is and how Jesus has transformed your life is being viewed through the lens of integrity. If there is no alignment between the words you speak, the actions you take, and how you interact with people on a daily basis, you’ll likely not be taken seriously. While this should be true for any generation, remember, Gen Z is living in Digital Babylon. This is a mission field, not Christendom. Read more: “Post-Christian” – the statistics of Gen Z who have attended worship in the past six months and those who claim to be agnostic, atheist or “none”.
You’re looking at it. Technology is a shaping force in their life. From handheld devices to screens in the car, they have always had, known, and experienced screen time. Most of them spend at least four hours every day in front of a screen.
Questions/thoughts to consider
How does technology shape relationships? In Gen Z’s world, their relationships are formed on screens. While many older generations say, “that can’t replace in-person relationships” Gen Z doesn’t know any different. Could this be an opportunity for the church to create space for Gen Z to learn how to be in face to face relationships with others? Read more: “Interpersonal Relationships” – the story of one Youth Pastor teaching teens the importance of eye contact.
For the first time ever, the family is not the shaping factor in this generation’s identity. When asked to complete the statement, “My ______ is important to my sense of self,” Gen Z noted professional and academic achievement (43%), hobbies (42%), friends (35%), and gender (37%) before parents and family (34%). For Boomers (46%), Xers (40%), and Millenials (40%) family and parents are the primary influencers of a sense of self.
Gen Z’s views on gender identity inform their sense of self. Here are a few insights from the report:¹
- One in eight describes their sexual orientation as something other than heterosexual (12%).
- Those who identify as bisexual make up more than half of that proportion (7%).
- Seven out of ten believe it’s acceptable to be born one gender and feel like another (69%).
- Three in ten teens report personally knowing someone, most often a peer, who has changed his or her gender identity.
Questions to consider
If family and parents are no longer the shaping forces of a sense of self, with whom is the church partnering to develop relationships with Gen Z? Or, how might the church intentionally develop relationships with Gen Z to participate in their identity formation? Do you notice what (and who) is missing from the influencing factors for this generation? This didn’t happen overnight. Continue reading… A perspective on “Generational Failures”
Gen Z are mostly children of Gen X. Their not so optimistic parents have struggled with work and security. Keep in mind, Gen Z’s social awareness was emerging just as a recession was hitting the nation in 2008. As a result, Gen Z has never experienced a time when employment was dependable and social safety nets were abundant. While they’ve grown up with “safe-spaces” they are not altogether clear on what evils need defeating and how those “safe-spaces” truly provide security. Fast facts:
- Two-thirds want to finish their education (66%), start a career (66%) and become financially independent (65%) by age 30.
- Only one in five wants to get married by age 30 (20%).¹
Questions to consider
What role does the local church play in creating, influencing, and supporting employment and security? How does your understanding of employment, success, and safety differ from the next generation? What would need to change in the life of your local church to engage Gen Z in developing sustainable, relational networks? How do you define security? How does the understanding of security differ across generations?
“The kindergarteners who started school in 2016 were the first American class in which minority ethnicities made up a majority of students, and whites the minority. For the next generation on the brink of American adulthood, different is ordinary.”² Ethnic and generational diversity is a norm of this generation. They have grown up in homes with multi-generational families and know that the fastest growing ethnic group is multi-racial.
In what may startle some, “Complete acceptance, and even elevation, of non-male and nonwhite, is a generational marker.”² More females than males will attend colleges and universities this fall, more movies with female lead characters have shaped their adolescence, and more female success stories are highlighting the news.
Questions/thoughts to consider
How does leadership in the church reflect Gen Z’s current reality? 64% of non-Christians in Gen Z noted, “church was not relevant to me.” While there are multiple factors contributing to this perspective, who does Gen Z relate to in your local church? How do gender, ethnic, and racial diversity come to life in your local congregation?
While this report gave me many reasons to pause, it also gave me reasons to connect. Andrew, Noah, Joshua, Julia, Colin, Lila, and Aiden are just a few of the amazing young people I know who make up Gen Z. And guess what? When I talk with them, listen to them, and spend time with them, I can see the above stories and data in their lives. It’s honestly not difficult to notice if we pay attention. But, we must do more than simply look at data and talk amongst ourselves. We must go to them and to their families if we desire to connect.
Capitol Area South churches, we continue the journey we started at our regional charge conferences last fall answering seven missional questions. The information above can be helpful to you and the local church whether you found it easy or difficult to name the assets and needs of your community.
But, more importantly, it may help you understand one more reason we continue to focus on naming God’s presence in your daily life. Without the named, lived presence of God active and available to you, Babylon will consume you. Dare I suggest, there are abundant symptoms that Digital Babylon is impacting our fruitfulness. We know you have a theological understanding of God’s presence. We celebrate that you’ve got that covered. What we’re calling forth is a plain account of where God showed up today. In Digital Babylon, how will you celebrate that God is real, present, and accessible today?
Because if you don’t, who will?
Download this article additional data on Gen Z for discussion with the church:
- Barna Group and Impact 360 Institute Report, Gen Z: The Culture, Beliefs and Motivations Shaping the Next Generation, 40.
- Ibid, 34.