Gen Z and the Church: Part I

For the first installment of my investigation (please see intro), I talked to a teacher who is a self-professed “Gen Z Fangirl.” I asked for her thoughts on this generation for a couple reasons:

  1. She has been teaching them for ten years.
  2. She is very popular with them. They bond with her. They keep in touch with her. She is often showered with gifts, weird drawings, and cards when they graduate from high school. They trust her.

I’ll keep her and her employer anonymous for reasons of discretion. Her interview will be split into two parts due to length.

Shrewd. Observant. Absurdist. Self-reliant. Justice-oriented.

And if you don’t check their boxes, they are out the door.

Describe your students a bit: age, background, etc.

I teach 7th grade. I have also taught 6th grade in the past. My students are 12-13 years old. I teach at a private Christian school, and most of my students come from middle and upper middle class homes. I would guess they’re about 90% white. There’s an even split of male and female, and they’re from Fort Lauderdale and the surrounding areas.

Do you have a guess as to what percentage of your students regularly go to youth group or something like it?

Just as a guess, probably 30-40% of them.

How about the percentage that regularly go to church?

Again, just a guess, probably 60-70% of them. I’m more likely to pick up on a comment or question that would make me think a kid doesn’t go, or doesn’t have a faith life or relationship with God, so I’m not sure if that skews my perception. I get more of an idea when I talk to the parents. 

You’re asked to teach English with a Christian worldview. What exactly does that entail?

That’s a loaded question! I think a lot of my personal beliefs and hangups, as someone raised in the church who feels evangelical life has taken a weird turn–that influences the way I teach. I would say that when I think of worldview, I acknowledge that the kids aren’t necessarily in a relationship with God. Even if they think they are, they might be borrowing from their parents’ faith. So I tend to think of my own worldview as a Christian and I try to impart to them what I would want them to take away if they were fully unchurched kids.

So you teach them as if they were unchurched?

Yes. I can’t ensure that they have a theological basis. I don’t say this to be a pessimist, but when you talk to them about what they believe, some of them who go to church regularly can’t even explain what baptism is. When you ask basic questions, they either give a pat answer or blink at you. I think apologetics aren’t what they were because we have that “entertainment church” thing from the early Aughts and they’re growing up at the tail end of that. They really don’t know what they believe or why they believe it. So I try to focus on the gospel and the life of Jesus rather than your hard-hitting theological questions. 

If you’re teaching a book–any one of them, Roll of Thunder, The Giver, or others from your class–how do you teach that from a Christian worldview?

The books you mentioned easily lend themselves to discussing how Christians have messed up. This generation of students is really shrewd and really good at finding the screw-ups. They naturally gravitate toward shining a light on failures and inconsistencies. I feel like my parents’ generation and the Boomers as a group, they really shy away from acknowledging systemic problems. Not just racism, but any foundational flaw. They don’t like that. They’re more likely to say, “It was good. It was great! But modernity screwed it up over the years.” Gen Z inherited this broken world and they are quick to acknowledge it. And not in a pessimistic way, but in the “Okay, here’s what we have, where do we go from here?” kind of way. So when I look at the literature we cover together, the worldview comes in when we talk about “Here’s where America was. Here’s where it is now. What do we think about it as Christians, as disciples of Christ?” A lot goes into looking at the flaws and encountering them with Christ.

We read “Harrison Bergeron,” which some think is too lofty for that age group, but they totally get it. And we talk about our purpose as Christians, or even as someone who is seeking goodness, who doesn’t believe yet. They don’t want to be a trash human, you know? Even the students who don’t know much about Jesus, who don’t know what Christianity means yet, they’re interested in being the best version of themselves, and there’s where we connect worldview with literature. 

Before we read “Harrison Bergeron,” I ask them some philosophical questions and let them debate amongst themselves. This week, I asked the question, “Would you rather be ignorant and happy, or aware and upset?” I always paint a picture for them, like outside our classroom door, something terrible is waiting. Bad news, whatever your worst nightmare is. You can see their faces change as they think about it. So I ask them, knowing that the bad news can’t be changed, would you rather sit these last 10 minutes of English class blissfully unaware and content, or would you rather know? And it’s interesting because it’s usually pretty evenly split, but over the last few years, it’s veered into the “I Want To Know” camp. They all want to know. And that’s what I think is interesting about this generation: they’re so exposed to everything that’s happening at all times, and they’re not afraid of it. 

Talk about their worldview there as it relates to truth and fear and anything related.

Even as young as your elder Millennials, you have this will to resist the ugly because, you know, you don’t want to be depressed. But Gen Z has this kind of Dada-esque throwing up of their hands, like, “It is what it is! You can’t change it.” They don’t want to be ignorant. They want to know the devil outside the door. And when I ask them why, since you can’t change it, one kid this past week said, “I know I can’t change it, but being able to be aware of it helps me prepare in my own mind.” Another said “It’s not gonna be forever, so if I can prepare in my mind…”

They sound like they’re pre-traumatized!

That’s what it is! And I love them so much because instead of having that turn them into these cold, hard, husks of humanity, like your Gen Xers–sandpaper rough, disillusioned, poor us–Gen Z look at it and say, “Let’s make memes about it!” How they deal with bad news is they make fun of it! They almost make a list. First, I’m going to laugh about this with my friends. It’s not even nihilistic or dismissive, either. And then they’ll take action.

How are they doing this? Like, where are they learning to do this?

I think it comes from the fact that they’re constantly exposed. The 24-hour news cycle. They’re formed by the news that they read. They’re not reading CNN or Fox or your typical media. They’re reading Buzzfeed listicles or Snapchat. So they’re consuming an instant and tiny, nutshell version of everything. Bite size. Micro-doses. How do you become immune to poison? Micro-doses. Like Princess Bride, Westley. He takes micro-doses of poison until he can drink poison full on. So adults are like, “Gen Z is so dumb, they eat Tide Pods.” No, they’re not dumb. Everything plays off as a joke to them, but they internalize everything deeply. They’re so resilient. They don’t end up wallowing or depressed. It’s a good strategy, because what else can they do? It’s a laugh-so-you-don’t-cry. They take in, acknowledge, work through, and then toss it. They don’t sit and dwell. They don’t need denial as a coping mechanism. When I talk to their parents, they’re actually disturbed by it.

Another thing I love, versus their Gen X parents who were famous for saying they didn’t care, Gen Z will never say they don’t care. They care about everything. They’re pretty open about it, too. They’re deeply worried about the world they’re inheriting, but they’re not resigned to anything. 

Do they feel like they can change things? Are they empowered?

They’re not groupies. They don’t trust systems or institutions. They work independently, and they have a chosen few that they trust. Because they are realists, it’s hard to say. I would have to ask them. 

But they do individual things. Just because they don’t believe in collective action does not mean they don’t want to do something about the problems. I think of a student I had last year who decided she was going to collect all of her trash for a month and glue it to a posterboard and see how much plastic she uses in a month. And she was so upset because she had a huge pile of what looked like garbage, and her teacher accidentally threw it away. That’s Gen Z. They very much care about their own personal impact on the people and world around them. They believe in the individual’s ability to affect the world around them. And they kind of have this mentality, I would say, where the individual and their decisions really do matter. If I as an individual and you as an individual each make our individual choices, it all adds up. In that way, they kind of romanticize the individual and the humanist spirit. They just don’t need a group to effect change. They believe in grassroots more than any generation out there, since maybe the hippies. They’ve been raised to be individualists. Every app targets their individuality. Every purchase they make, every algorithm. It’s not that the group doesn’t matter, it’s that everything is targeted toward the individual. 

(Read Part II here.)

Reality Changing Observations:

1. What new insight do you have on Gen Z?

2. If you have children in this age group, how do you get to know them and understand them better?

3. If you attend church, how does your church serve and shepherd Gen Z members?

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