Although much attention has been given in recent years to shrinking churches and an ever-smaller number of Americans self-identifying as Christian, churches are largely forgoing opportunities to minister specifically to Gen Z. It’s almost as if we don’t understand that their number leaving churches will shrink church communities to a niche.
Who is Gen Z? Following the Millennials, Gen Z was born from approximately 1996 to 2010 (though the age range has not been officially canonized by whomever does these things). The oldest Gen Z kids are now in their mid-20s, with the mid-range of the generation soon to graduate high school and go to college or enter the workforce. The youngest Gen Z kids are in upper elementary school.
On a personal note, I noticed that in my sphere of about a dozen churches across urban Broward County, FL, there is virtually no attention given to this high potential group, certainly not beyond a weekly gathering to eat pizza. Most pastors don’t think much about them, and those that do largely employ strategies to attract and retain them which were designed for past cultural moments and which won’t pass muster with this world-wise and shrewd group. (Also, I said “attract and retain”; I don’t know how much is going into actually serving and shepherding them, but that is total conjecture.) To be frank, I found this frustrating and short sighted. But I also know church leaders are at a loss; they don’t know where to begin to connect with Gen Z. I decided to take it upon myself to explore who is being ignored, and what can be done should anyone care to take action.
Disclosure #1: I am a former teacher. I taught Gen Z full time for six years, and worked with them in other capacities at schools another three years. Many of my friends are currently teachers. I have also worked for churches and parachurch organizations, as well as been involved in church life as a layperson. I have taught Confirmation Class to the oldest Gen Z kids, chaperoned their field trips, and mentored a handful of them. My view of the problem (as well as the decision to call it a problem) will be colored by this background. I am very much Team Youth.
Disclosure #2: I am dealing in the culture of South Florida. If the idea of this informal investigation interests readers elsewhere, they may find it most helpful to do their own study in their area to capture quirks and differences. I am also focusing on kids and young adults with a church background of some sort. Though demographically they do not represent all of South Florida with regard to race, ethnicity, and socioeconomics, the internet has been a great equalizer in terms of access to ideas and trends; I believe their values and collective emotional experiences are pretty parallel across demographics.
The first parts of my investigation will involve interviews with adults who work with Gen Z and understand them well. The last part will test claims by asking a wide range of Gen Z individuals themselves where we’re getting it right and wrong.
The most important step is to listen to them.
- Gen Z is estimated to be 25% larger than the Baby Boomers, numbered around 90 million.
- They are digital natives and don’t know a world without the Internet. A large portion of them don’t remember a world before smartphones. Most are younger than Google.
- They are not asocial. They just socialize differently than previous generations. They are probably more connected than previous generations of teenagers because of their ability to talk at all hours in all places. Many of them have friends all over the world whom they’ve never met in person, but whom they talk to regularly while playing video games or just connect with over social media.
- They are likely to be the last majority-white generation in the United States. “Diversity” is an irrelevant concept to them; it’s just reality, why does it need a special label? This applies across categories of race, gender, sexual orientation, physical appearance and body type, and lifestyle.
- They are competitive and conscious of money. Fiscally, they are stability-seeking. They like to work independently and are entrepreneurial.
- They embrace social change. They also believe they can create change. They are activists, and social media is one of their favorite tools.