Understanding Gen Z in the Church

Spooky season is becoming my favorite season. I love everything about October. The weather is cooling, pumpkin patches are booming, I can wear flannel every day, the NBA is back, and it’s totally normal to dress up as a superhero. This year I plan on being the Flash. My Flash costume will get double duty this year, as I plan on wearing it in a 5K I’m running with my teenage nephew soon. He does not know I will be dressed up for the occasion.

All Saint’s Day is coming soon too, which is the best. I love to focus on the memories of my grandmother around the holiday.

All Saints’ Day also reminds me of another story. A few years ago, while serving at another church, a woman I had never met introduced herself and welcomed me to her church. She walked me over to her teenage children, who were sitting in “their row” and introduced me as the new youth minister. They were excited to finally meet me. She shared that she was really involved in youth ministries as a mentor to confirmands and she liked to make snacks for Wednesday nights. Her teenagers were super involved too. In fact, one of them helped build our youth stage as his scout project. These were the type of people every new youth minister needs in their life: a devoted parent equipped with snacks, a talented and crafty scout who values hard work, and younger teens to feed into the youth program in years to come.

There was just one big problem. I had been the youth minister there for years. I was not the “new youth minister”, I was just new to her. It was the sad reality that this woman and her teenage children had been so disconnected for so long and did not realize how much time had passed since they had last seen the inside of the church. Imagine my embarrassment. I’m awkward, y’all. There were a lot of reasons as to why they had been absent, mostly involving a heavy extracurricular schedule. Don’t get me wrong, extracurriculars are very important. Extracurriculars give purpose to students. When I was a teen, they were my whole identity. More on that later.

It’s sometimes a hot take for a youth minister to see the value in extracurriculars when they oftentimes get in the way of church or youth activities. Though it’s disappointing, this is the world we find ourselves in and we must acknowledge it. Teens are feeling less and less valued in life, but they find purpose in their extracurricular achievements.

Barna Group is an evangelical Christian polling firm based in Ventura, California. The Fuller Youth Institute, in collaboration with Barna Group, named “belonging” and “purpose” as two things that drive attitudes and actions. The Barna polls suggest that one in four Gen Z people feel empowered. Those who feel empowered usually feel able to accomplish their goals and think someone believes in them. This means that right now, seventy-five percent of teenagers do not feel empowered. Right now, seventy-five percent of teens are struggling with feeling like someone believes in them.

In a time of increasing loneliness among teens, I want them to feel belonging and purpose. I wonder if we, the church, are doing what is needed to help teens feel like they belong in the church. Is this church their home? What purpose do teens serve while they are at church? Is something accomplished? These are the things that help Gen Z people feel empowered. These are the things that help them feel like someone believes in them. Their extracurriculars offer all these things. This is why I encourage extracurriculars, even when they conflict with youth activities.

Another interesting bit of data from Barna… Gen Z’s prioritize action when sharing faith. Fifty-three percent of Christian Gen Z people believe that letting your actions speak rather than using words is the best way to demonstrate faith.

So, here’s the big question: Why do Gen Z people prefer their extracurriculars over the church? They feel more empowered outside of the church. They feel like there are people who believe in them in these other areas of their lives. They have purpose there. They belong there. And slowly, their identity will become so entangled there that we may not see them again.

Friends, we have to support this new generation. We must encourage them, empower them, and spend time with them. Gen Z’s prioritize action above all other things. They need adults to demonstrate with their actions that they are devoted to supporting and believing in them. We can all pray for them. We can all believe in them. But what can we show them? When will our actions speak our intentions? When will our actions speak life to these teenagers?

We are in desperate need of committed adults in youth ministry. By desperate, I mean desperate. And by committed, I mean committed. This generation sees action as the greatest approach to faith-sharing. We have a considerable lack of adult volunteers in youth ministries. Our teenagers see that. It is not enough for us to wish them well. Gen Z’s need action. They need to see that adults believe in them. If you believe in our students, if you want them to feel a sense of belonging and purpose in this church, then I want to talk to you.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Thank you, Matt! Hard words for us older seniors to process. Took some time and good conversations with my hubby and former youth director himself. Supporting our teens in extracurricular activities conflicting with their church activities was foreign to our experiences. But you are exactly right: until we can get our act together at our church to provide a place where these kids can feel valued and have purpose, we will support extra curricular and grow @ys” to a place where they feel even more worthy and valued. Thank you for your words and your leadership.

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