A couple of weeks ago I rolled out my plan for high-commitment youth ministry. Without jumping down the rabbit’s hole, high-commitment youth ministry is simply an optional next level of commitment for those students who want to engage more with their church. The challenge of increasing commitment to church is a tall tree to climb for students who already have so much on their shoulders.
We took our first baby step on February 6, when five students signed up and showed up to a pretty advanced youth study. We’re calling the study our “Gen Z youth study” because I’m creative like that. Our study is rooted in decade’s worth of research by Barna Group and is mostly based on the collaborative report by Barna Group and Impact 360 Institute called Gen Z: The Culture, Beliefs and Motivations Shaping the Next Generation.
The big question surrounding the report is this: “Is it possible that many churches are preparing young Christians to face a world that no longer exists? Are we making disciples for Jerusalem when we need to be making disciples for Babylon?”
We all know Babylon. I’m sure that if you’re reading this blog, Barna Group would consider you an “engaged” Christian, as opposed to a “churched” Christian. To be engaged is to do the small things like read your newsletter while doing big things like tithing and volunteering. Generally, engaged Christians know their bible, which is why I won’t spend time explaining to you why Babylon is bad news. If you need a refresher without reading tons of scripture, I usually use the poem The Prodigal Son by James Weldon Johnson to make the correlation with my students.
Here’s the thing, I think we are in fact making disciples for Jerusalem. Barna Group understands the America we live in today is not the America we lived in ten, twenty, fifty years ago. The research shows a much more homogenous culture back then, with Christianity being prominent and central to the culture of the country. Similar to Jerusalem, we kept faith front and center, things were slower-paced, homogenous, and generally simpler. Contrarily, today’s world keeps its faith at the margins, life is accelerated and frenetic, far more diverse, and riddled with tension, kind of like Babylon. Additionally, Gen Z has two worlds to live in: the digital space and the real-world, which is not to say the digital space is not also a “real world” but that’s for another day.
Gen Z is the first post-Christian generation. Data shows only 4% of Gen Z people have a biblical worldview. Before you get any ideas about your generation, Boomers were at 10%, Gen X at 7%, and Millennials at 6%. It’s no secret that Christianity has been waning throughout our country’s history but the problem lies in the fact that the amount of Gen Z people identifying as atheist is double that of other generations. In addition to high numbers of atheists, Gen Z is drawn to and open to all things spiritual. It is not uncommon to see a Gen Z person bounce around between spiritual practices.
Compile their inherit curiosity of the spiritual with the fact that there are fewer Christian families by the day and you have a recipe for the exodus of teens from Christianity. The good news is this: 58% of Gen Z do still consider themselves Christian. Though their worldview is post-Christian, they are not too far removed from previous generations. We still see high numbers of self-identified Christians in this generation but the problem is that only 43% of Gen Z people polled said that they have recently attended church. 9% of Gen Z people are considered to be “engaged” Christians while 14% of Boomers are “engaged”.
The “engaged” category means everything. Data shows drastic differences between engaged Christians, churched Christians, and all other Gen Z people. Engaged Christians have higher value for the things that matter. For example engaged Christians are much more likely to prioritize professional and educational achievement, family relationships and marriage, and general morality. In fact, engaged Christians are the only group of Gen Z that values religious faith over personal interests or pursuit of money. To demonstrate the gap between engaged Christians and churched Christians, 53% of engaged Gen Z Christians said their religious faith was the most important factor when they think of their future, whereas only 15% of churched Gen Z Christians made faith their priority.
Another alarming discrepancy is the fact that all other non-engaged Christian Gen Z people, including churched Christians consider family background and upbringing as tertiary to their sense of self. 60% of engaged Christians considered family background and upbringing as very important, verses only 31% of the rest of Gen Z. Non-engaged Christian Gen Z people are moving away from family identities.
Engaged Gen Z Christians are also more likely to know how to set goals and less likely to avoid responsibility or feel apprehensive about adulthood. Barna Group claims that engaged Christian families are more likely to prepare children for adulthood. 40% of Gen Z engaged Christians are very excited about becoming an adult, while only 16% of all other Gen Z people look forward to adulthood. Engaged Christian parents present a clearer picture of what adulthood looks like and they tend to communicate expectations of adulthood better than non-engaged Christian parents.
As you can see, an engaged Christian household is paramount to a lasting faith. More than 9 in 10 engaged Christian parents say it is important that their child is equipped to explain the Christian faith and is engaged in service. They also said that their dreams and hopes for their children’s future was to live a life of faith and remain faithful in a secular culture. When asked who owns the responsibility to develop their teen’s faith, they claimed responsibility. In fact, 59% of engaged Christian parents claimed they were primarily responsible for their teen’s faith development. In return, 79% of Gen Z teens with engaged Christian parents feel that they can share their honest questions, struggles, and doubts with their parents.
74% of engaged Christian parents send their teen to a church youth program at least once a month. 65% send their teen weekly or more often. This might be a nice time for me to plug all of our various youth programs at FUMC Hurst but I will refrain. Instead, I’d like to highlight the fact that five students stepped up to take this study to help them understand why their friends aren’t in church or why they’ve left the church. At times the data can be a lot to handle and can often be critical of them but they take it in stride. This study is but the first step in a high-commitment youth ministry strategy that intends to build a bridge between the churched Gen Z Christians and the engaged Gen Z Christians. From my perspective, we can’t afford to “church” our teens any longer. We have to engage them. I hope that you might support me in building a ministry of engagement so that we can enrich and sustain our youth for generations to come.