As the gap continues to widen between secularism and orthodox Christianity, American Christians must ask some pressing questions — What does this mean for our youth and the future of the Church?
The Bible isn’t relevant today. It’s just an outdated book containing old stories and fairytales.
Church is a lame hobby. I have better things to do.
No one even cares if I’m at church, so what’s the point in going?
Church people are hypocrites. Why would I want to be associated with them?
Over the last year since the Covid-19 pandemic has swept our nation, I have found myself both lamenting and grieving for my children’s generation, Gen Z, and the world they are growing up in. So much has occurred and so much has changed that I consider the concept of “normal” to be nostalgic.
What used to be, will be no more. This includes a big casualty from the pandemic — a decrease in church participation and religious affiliation. According to a recent Gallup poll, 47% of Americans, down from 50% in 2018, express no religious preference or formal church membership. This is the first time in decades that religious affiliation has dropped to a below majority percentage of the greater U.S. population.
It’s a disheartening truth that fewer young people are growing up in the church today. Attributing to this statistic is the concern of many church-going Gen Z-ers leaving the church, and oftentimes, their faith as well, in the years immediately following high school graduation.
There are many factors that can contribute to this decrease in church attendance, participation, and religious association. Thankfully, Barna and Impact 360 Institute have partnered to specifically address Gen Z and its affiliation, or lack thereof, with the Church.
The research conducted over the last few years provides insight that Gen Z is perhaps the first truly “post-Christian” generation. This isn’t a total shock, considering Gen Z is being parented by Gen X and Millennial adults who are contributing to the Church’s decline. Certainly, the pandemic has not helped to sway these numbers back in a positive direction.
Whether we recognize it or not, American Christians are in a spiritual war right now and there are casualties each day. The stakes are high as the battle for salvation results in spiritual life or death.
As the gap continues to widen between secularism and orthodox Christianity, American Christians must ask some pressing questions — What does this mean for our youth and the future of the Church? Will our young people seek permanent salvation in Christ alone? Or, will they pursue temporary deliverance [from the pain and affliction experienced in this world] by satisfying their worldly desires?
Have Hope – Not All Are Dead and Gone
In the book, Faith for Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon by David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock, the Barna Group responds to a staggering 59-64% dropout rate of church kids over the last decade by stating, “If our young people are going to thrive in digital Babylon, they have to move beyond familiarity with Jesus to a place of intimacy.”
During their 2018 study, Barna fixated on the specific demographic of 18- to 29-year-olds who grew up Christian in the United States. The research classified the respondents into four types of exiles and identified them as Prodigals, Nomads, Habitual Church Goers, and Resilient Disciples. The results revealed 10%, or just under 4 million 18- to 29-year-olds, to be Resilient Disciples who claim their faith is both vibrant and robust. This group, despite having the lowest percentage amongst their polled peers, exemplified a strong interest to seek cultural discernment, experience the fullness of Jesus, develop and maintain meaningful relationships, pursue countercultural mission work and prioritize vocational discipleship.
Further understanding the desire of these Resilient Disciples can provide insight and opportunity for the Church to refocus its ministry towards this demographic while also considering outreach strategies to reach those who have never experienced church in the first place. Indeed, this is a small glimpse of hope for the Church today, but it should not be taken for granted.
If It’s Broke, Maybe It’s Time to Fix It
Secular culture is the main influence across nearly all industries and platforms we experience today. The Judeo-Christian values our nation was built upon are quickly deteriorating, if they’re not already dead. The Church needs to focus on retention if it desires to keep young people active, engaged, and involved within the Church body. The issue then is to vulnerably and honestly examine the current methods, programming, and participation rates of Gen Z children, teens, and young adults within local American churches.
The individuals who run AWANA, an international ministry that focuses on child discipleship within the universal Church, know a thing or two about youth ministry and the dramatic decline in attendance and participation amongst young people over the last few decades. They discuss this topic in length in their book, Resilient: Child Discipleship and the Fearless Future of the Church. Their main argument? What used to work — mainly, youth entertainment in the form of free food, games and a safe place to hang out — isn’t going to keep young people engaged enough to pursue “the Christian life” on a deeper level. And more importantly, did the pizza parties, purity rings and other promises of fun-filled pleasures work in the first place? If you want the answer, glance again at the most recent statistics of Gen X and Millennial church affiliation.
Live on Mission or Missionally Live?
In Faith for Exiles, extensive research shows that churches playing a “foundational role in forming a culturally discerning mindset among resilient disciples” is key for preserving church membership and affiliation long-term.
The book goes on to state evidence that time spent in or with the local church — roughly, an hour or less each week or more likely, every few weeks — will not suffice in maintaining interest and desire for young people to live a counter-cultural and missional life for Jesus Christ. Rather, evidence supports the need, productivity, and spiritual fulfillment that comes with applicable, theologically driven sermons as well as other forms of learning, like themed courses, mentoring, field-based experiences, mission trips, and more.
Modern American youth feel disconnected by the ancient, yet forever infallible, Word of God because it doesn’t align with their most coveted values. Gen Z is highly influenced by universalism, naturalism, and post-modernism, not by orthodox Christianity. Moreover, the heart of Gen Z is missional living and social activism. This is seen in Gen Z’s emphasis on personal autonomy as well as their moral acceptance of culturally driven issues such as sexuality and gender identity, social justice, and the idea that America is a systemically racist country.
Can you imagine how effective the Church could be if it engaged young people by not just addressing the challenging and controversial topics and themes they’re interested in, but also diving deeply into these “uncharted waters” by providing in-depth theological courses on these subjects?
When the Church doesn’t have transparency in discussing these issues, which tend to be issues this generation holds near and dear to their heart, the Church is missing out on big opportunities to minister and witness. These opportunities can produce disciples and Jesus ambassadors who are committed to live on mission for the greater good of God’s Kingdom rather than serving as social justice warriors in search of an unobtainable earthly utopia.
How do We Find a Way Forward?
Technology has had a huge influence on Gen Z. The ability to be constantly connected has resulted in this generation experiencing high levels of loneliness and a deep desire for face-to-face, or relational, connectedness. Gen Z desires personal connection and authentic relationships. Likewise, they have a need to be seen, heard, wanted, and known. What better way to satisfy their inner longing than through the power of community demonstrated through the Body of Christ?
Intentional and vocational discipleship are the solution to revitalize the Church and solidify its future. God designed humans to flourish in community and authentic relationships. Gen Z craves both of these and if they are not finding it in the church then they will look for it elsewhere.
We need young people active and involved in the Church — not just for their unique contributions of experiences, perspectives, and gifts, but most importantly because the future of the church depends on their generation. There is a large disconnect between Gen Z and the older, wiser Baby Boomer and Gen X generations. Young people innately desire wisdom and advice from those older and more experienced than them, but today it seems there is little to no relatability or even interest from the older generation to disciple Gen Z.
Perhaps this is due to ignorance leftover from regarding Millennials as entitled, self-righteous, “failure to launch” adults. Or, maybe it is because the world they grew up in is so vastly different than the fast-paced, technology-obsessed, culturally influenced world Gen Z was born into.
But if you think about how, minus the technology part, the world today is as severely broken as it was during the sexual revolution of the ‘60s as well as during the immorally uninhibited times of ancient Babylon. Still, what differentiates these generations is the very thing needed to disciple and strengthen the future of the Church — wisdom and lived experience.
If you are a parent, grandparent, or work directly with youth, I’m sure you are grieving the unfortunate decline of the church along with the world in which Gen Z is growing up. Even though some battles have been lost, this war is far from over. As Christians, we can be encouraged by the hope and redemption found in Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:3-7, Ephesians 2:4-10) and the power of the cross to save! If there is breath in our lungs, God is not done with us yet!
So take a look around, go outside of your comfort zone, and open your heart to spiritual mentorship. While discipleship will definitely serve and assist the Church, you may just find your young new friend serving and helping you.
Written by: Christen Fox
Christen Fox is a blogger for https://seekinggraceandgratitude.com, an online ministry that encourages Christian women to live purposeful, unfiltered lives that embrace human imperfection within God’s perfect design. Christen resides in Grand Rapids, MI with her husband and five children. When not “momming,” you can find Christen at a local fitness class, curled up with a book, hosting small groups and other events, cooking in her kitchen or wandering around her happy place – the farmers market. You can find her on Instagram @seekinggraceandgratitude as well as on Facebook @seekgraceandgratitude.