From a purely mathematical standpoint, the Church has reason to be concerned about reaching the next generation. The most recent numbers say around 44.4 percent of Gen Z — people born after 1996 — spiritually characterize themselves as “Nones.” Nones can be atheist or agnostic but, by and large, they don’t claim any label at all. And now, there are statistically more Gen Z Nones than there are Gen Z Christians.
It wasn’t always this way. As recently as 2016, just 39 percent of Gen Z said they were Nones, while 41 percent said they were Catholic or Protestant. But it’s been a complicated few years, and the exodus from organized religion that began with Millennials has accelerated with Gen Z.
Now, as Gen Z enters the workforce, those who are still Christian see their faith, the Church and the world around them in a very different way than previous generations did. They have a unique perspective, shaped by economic recession, digital relationships and political roller coasters. In the past, the American Church has been slow to adapt to the changing values of upcoming generations, and doing so has been costly. And now, facing the first generation in memory in which Christians are a minority, the Church faces a challenge. If the institution digs in its heels and refuses to evolve, the decline will continue to accelerate. But if it allows the upcoming generation of Gen Z Christians to take the lead in reaching a new generation, its best days may well be yet to come.
What Makes Gen Z Different
Gen Z is the most diverse generation in history, racially, sexually and theologically. Because of this, they take things like diversity and tolerance as a given. Millennials may be upset by a lack of representation, but Gen Z is more likely to be wholly mystified by it. The world as they know it is naturally full of people of different races, sexual orientations, immigration status, genders and religious beliefs. They’re connected to these people online, and they expect to see that reflected IRL.
They’re also a deeply independent generation, who see financial security as an important life goal in a way millennials did not. You get the sense that they saw millennials burn themselves out on passion careers, but Gen Z — forged in the fires of economic uncertainty — wants a stable job that will give them the means to provide for themselves and enough left over to invest in causes they believe in.
“Their goal is not simply economic security,” said Dr. James Emery White, author of Meet Generation Z. “They are marked by a strong sense of wanting to make a difference and thinking that they can. They want to be social entrepreneurs.” According to Barna Research, 70 percent of Gen Z want to orient their lives towards making a difference in the world.
And they expect the same from institutions they’re a part of and the brands they follow. In the past, for-profit companies and institutions like churches could skate by without taking a stand on social issues, but two out of three members of Gen Z expect companies to have a position on social issues and 72 percent say brands need to care about things like the environment, humanitarian causes and social issues.
Why the Church Is Losing Them
This is where the Church is running into trouble with Gen Z. Nine out of 10 Americans say the American Church is “too judgmental.” Nearly as many say it’s hypocritical. Seventy percent of Americans say the Church is “insensitive to others” and a third say the American Church is characterized by “moral failures in leadership.”
This is a serious problem for the Church in general, but it’s a particular problem for Gen Z, who will simply refuse to align with institutions that don’t share their values. In the past, the Church could count on an assumed measure of authority. Many church leaders believed that whatever people’s misgivings about religion, churches were still broadly viewed by the American public as the de facto place to turn to with spiritual problems. But with Gen Z, that’s no longer the case. According to Springtide Research Institute, Gen Z gives the Church a 4.9 out of 10 on a level of trust. The Church doesn’t have much cache with this generation…