Gen Z and the Church: Part II

(This is the second part of an interview. Read the introduction here and Part I here.)

Authentic relationships, meaningful social action, mysticism, compatible values.

Gen Z won’t make time for something that doesn’t seem to matter.

In addition to English, you have also taught Bible. What are some of the topics and questions most frequently brought up by your students, or which stir the most conversation?

Time and again, I mean daily–not from one kid, from all of them–it all goes back to, “If God is good, why do bad things happen?” I’ve answered it so many times that whenever a kid asks a form of it in class, students will jump in and go, “She’s already answered that!” And launch into it almost verbatim. The way I always explain it is we have free will; our creator loves his creation and doesn’t want us to be automatons. That means that sometimes, invariably, we use our free will to make decisions that hurt ourselves and the people around us. It means the world has flaws because we have flaws. The kind of question I get is, “If you get hit by a drunk driver, and God knew it was going to happen, why did God let it happen?” Or they ask if something bad happens to you, is it God trying to teach you a lesson? Did we do something wrong and are we being punished? They ask the big questions like every human being before them, like everyone older than them is asking. “If God is so good, why does it look like he’s mean?” And it’s interesting because Gen Z does want to dwell on beautiful things, and they kind of believe in manifestation.

Like, making things happen by visualizing or wanting them?

Yes. There’s this mystical undercurrent. Like everybody has the “belief of the day” and their generation has this, where if you dwell on the negative, negative things will happen to you. 

Where are they getting this?

Oh, gosh, it’s all over Snap, all over Twitter, Instagram, TikTok… It’s a pervasive mysticism. It’s like a mystery thing, like how you like to read ghost stories. It’s got an allure. It’s a reemergence of astrology, too. They’ll ask you your sign. It’s like playing MASH for our generation; that’s astrology for them. It’s not a particularly threatening thing, but they do kind of believe in it. Like The Secret.

I thought of The Secret, actually, and I’m wondering if maybe their parents read that back when it was popular and if their kids get it from them.

I don’t think so, honestly. They get way more of their beliefs from social media than their parents. In terms of philosophy, if you ask their parents what they believe and why, the parents’ answers would be totally different from their kids’ answers. A lot of these kids’ lives are just being shuffled from point A to point B to point C… It’s all action, not reflection. They go to their cell phone, and they pick up philosophy from social media. It’s almost like if it’s on the screen, it’s true. They take conspiracy theories with a grain of salt, but because of their meme culture, they kind of pick up stuff and run with it, to the point that they question what is real. I think parents don’t necessarily know what their kids are consuming and what they believe. 

Can you talk a little about the beauty and aesthetics thing?

So they take refuge in building these aesthetically pleasing environments where everything is safe and good. You see it on TikTok and other places–cottagecore, WitchTok, the mystical aesthetic. It’s a way to create a personal, idealized space. The world is so chaotic and disappointing, and this is almost a self-care tactic.

(Read more here.)

What knowledge related to their Christian faith seems pretty solid and understood by your students, and what knowledge seems lacking? 

They know very little. Apologetics are really thin. Basic facts and people, they don’t necessarily know. There are a lot of holes. Again, they consume information in bite sized pieces. And there’s just so much that’s thrown at them. 

How are these students different from you and your classmates when you were students?

They don’t feel limited by their age. They really do feel like they can change the world now. They’re purposeful. As a kid, I was like, “I’m just a kid, what am I supposed to do about this?” They’re passionate and they feel empowered to do whatever they can individually do to create positive change. They’re also not shy about their attention spans. They don’t fake their way through boredom if they don’t have to. They don’t feel like they need to go through the motions, in general. 

What are your recommendations for churches to engage this age group?

You can’t skip the relationship building. If you don’t invest in them, they’ll return the favor. They’re quick to write you off if they decide you’re inauthentic. You can’t fake anything with them. They will either mock or dismiss any attempts to manipulate or win them over insincerely. They’re just so sharp, but they’re also impatient. 

Also, really, really important: action. I feel like the resounding cry of this group when they look at church services and church activities is something like, “But what do you do? What is this for? You just sit in a room and listen to someone talk for half an hour? And then what, do you go out and do something about it?” I think where churches will run into big trouble with them is a lack of meaningful social action. 

These kids are passionate and they draw deep ideological lines. They have deep rooted personal values. If you violate those values, they’ll cancel you. You have to reflect those values and show it with action, or they’ll be unhappy or uninterested and just walk out the door. They won’t say anything, either, they’ll just disappear. I think the traditional model of a church service just isn’t going to interest them. I said earlier that they don’t feel like they need to go through the motions. They have so many options of what to do and who to be around. The spirit of “We go to church because that’s what good people do” has been dying out for a while, now, and they’re definitely not like that. There has to be more purpose. 

Any closing remarks?

Listen, the potential of Gen Z is astronomical. Their individuality means each one knows they can have an impact on their little corner of the world. Their distrust of institutions means they’re not likely to automatically buy into groupthink. Their desire for safety and security means they want to strive for something better. But all of those traits also mean nothing will get done if they’re written off by older generations.

Reality Changing Observations:

1. If you are a church leader (pastor, staff, governing member, lay leadership, etc.), what is one thing you can easily introduce to your church that will serve Gen Z better?

2. What is the activity or feature your church is best known for? What does it say about your church?

3. Why is there resistance to change in most churches? What are the consequences?

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