Gen Z and the Church: Part III

(New to the series? Read the introduction, Part I, and Part II.)

Ashley Kirkman is a Mental Health Counselor specializing in trauma therapy. Formerly a teacher of middle school students with emotional and behavioral disabilities, her passion for mentoring and empowering teenagers led her to the counseling profession, where her patients are primarily in their teens. Information about her practice can be found at renewalcounselingftl.com.

Self-reflective and informed about world events, Gen Z has ample reason to feel anxious. What part can the church play in their lives, and what will it take to earn their trust?

What are some adjectives you would use to describe Gen Z?

As a group, I would say they’re informed and self-reflective. I’ll only qualify that by saying I don’t think they’re always informed in a broad sense; because of social media, they tend to be informed by the silos they keep to. 

I do think they seek out information. A lot of kids that come into my office have already diagnosed themselves, and I would even say they’re pretty accurate! So they’re aware of what’s going on, and they reflect on themselves. When I ask those self-reflective questions in my office, these teenagers are easily able to answer most of the time. I think they have an easier time answering than my adult clients, who would probably be Millennials. They’re easily able to connect with their inner self. 

As a group, what are things they seem to value and hold in high esteem?

I think they really value their self-image, which is probably true of teenagers across generations. They do care about how they’re coming across to others, but I think in even bigger ways than we’ve seen in the past. They do care about how they look and how others perceive them, but I see more and more that these teenagers and kids care how they’re perceived in terms of their thoughts and their beliefs and the things that they stand for. They’re very aware of cultural and social issues, so I think they hold their own personal values and beliefs in high esteem. They’re unafraid to speak about them and to let people know what they think, when they think those people are wrong. 

What are some fears that they have about life?

I have a lot to say about this one! I would say a big fear that they have is that they are not going to be able to make it in this world. They are a highly anxious and depressed group of kids and young adults. They are under an enormous amount of pressure, both in their school and family environment as well as in the world. 

So think about the amount of pressure these kids are under that previous generations have not been under. When you talk about academics, the stakes are so much higher. If you want to be successful at getting into college, you need to take these high level courses, you need to diversify the things that you’re doing and things that you’re interested in… There’s a lot of pressure–not always from parents, but sometimes from parents–to get good grades, to go to a good college, and things are just getting more and more competitive. This even applies to things that used to be enjoyable release activities, such as the arts. We have kids that play violin, which I think used to be a very good activity for self-care and promoting mental health, and it can become incredibly competitive: becoming the best in your school, in your district, and then on to getting into the school of your choice with it. So I think that the arts have become really competitive, where they used to be a great resource for kids to help them regulate. Same with sports. If a kid wants to play soccer in college, they’re not just playing soccer on their high school team; they’re playing club soccer, they’re doing extra practice… There’s just so much competition going on around them. They hold a lot of others’ expectations.

In the outside world, there’s a lot going on that they absorb–as I said, they’re very informed and self-reflective–so they’re aware of things like climate change and political discourse in America and issues in other parts of the world like poverty and hunger. 

So add that to their anxiety about whether they are going to make it. ”Am I going to get into this school? Am I going to be able to have the career I want? I don’t even know what I want to do, I don’t have a direction… Am I going to be a failure?” These are the kinds of questions that they have, and they hold them back a lot of times. 

How do they seem different to you versus Millennials? This might include how they relate to their parents, how they see the world and themselves, etc.

I think a big chunk of them are at odds with their parents’ politics, and I don’t think this is something Millennials cared about as much. I say this as a Millennial: I think when we were teenagers, some of us were more informed on politics, but in general, we just weren’t that invested or that interested in what was going on in the world. 

This group of teenagers is very involved, informed, aware of what’s going on in the world around them, and because of this difference, Millennials have this reputation of being more optimistic. We were this generation that got told we were special and didn’t have much fear about trying new things because we were told we could do it; we just went for it. That has its own problems because we probably weren’t taught how to experience failure very well. But this is different from Gen Z because I don’t think they take on too much. Even while I have teenagers who are depressed and anxious because of all the expectations placed on them, I do see them wanting not to take on too much. They don’t want to be as involved as they are. They don’t know what to stop, but they know they need to stop something. They’re more evaluative of the different parts of their lives, and will say, “I don’t know if I should be doing this.” 

So they’re not wanting to take on too much, but the downfall of that is they don’t want to try, either. Again, because of their tendency to be more depressive and anxious, it holds them back from trying to get what they want. They’re very unsure of what they want, and they’re very focused on how things could go wrong. 

They’re very unsure of what they want, and they’re very focused on how things could go wrong. 

I also read the interview earlier in this series, where the teacher talked about “Harrison Bergeron” and how the kids have shifted–they would rather know and be upset than be ignorant and happy–and I think that really encapsulates them. They want to know the bad that’s coming their way so they can prepare their minds for it. But in doing that, they are very focused on the negative, on the things that could go wrong, which translates to higher levels of anxiety and depression. Because what is their focus on? The negative, the sad and hard things. Which is so good in some ways because they’re not pushing it aside–they want to understand–but in doing that, sometimes they lose the ability to protect themselves. They’re teenagers, and as much as adult minds are fragile, theirs are more so. 

Who or what would you say is most influential in forming their views and beliefs?

I definitely think their peers, as well as social media. People they follow, influencers, people that they decide they want to be a voice in their life. Those people are influencing them the most. So if that person they follow on social media is taking a stand for something, they’re most likely going to start to think it’s important as well. Like most teenagers, they’re highly influenced by their peers, but not as much as previous generations, I think. They’re much more willing to be on their own and not a part of the group if they don’t agree with the group.

If churches were to put their heads together and come up with a way to minister to Gen Z in a way customized to them, what are some elements you think should be included?

Hands down, one-on-one mentoring. I think Gen Z kids are very skeptical of big group gatherings. They’re not going to go to a traditional youth group. I really don’t think that they will. Especially kids who are unchurched or who aren’t familiar with church culture and church language. 

They’re less likely to do something because “all my friends are doing it.” I actually have a lot more kids in my office who don’t use drugs, who don’t smoke marijuana, who don’t drink, and it’s because they just don’t want to. They don’t see the value in it. And they have no problem if their friends want to do that while they don’t. Kids will try it once and decide, “Not into it. Not for me. If all my friends want to do it, that’s fine, but it’s not for me.” And the kids who do smoke marijuana are not doing it because their friends do; they do it for other reasons. That’s interesting to me, to see a lot less influence from peer pressure. So I don’t think they’re going to go to a big group gathering just because their friends are going. 

One-on-one mentoring is the way to reach these kids. It’s big on relationship building. When kids come into my office, some of them have asked their parents to see a therapist, while others aren’t really interested in seeing a therapist; their parents want them to go, but they don’t really see why they need to be here. So I have a unique job in that I am sitting across from people who don’t really want to be sitting across from me. But I think because of that, I’ve learned the importance of relating to them, of letting them know that they don’t have to like me, they don’t have to talk to me if they don’t want to, really giving them the freedom to be who they are. I think that speaks volumes to them, to know they have some agency and some choice. I’m not going to tell them what to do, and they can use this time for whatever they want. 

I also want to highlight how much Gen Z has a hunger for truth. It’s actually a unique opportunity in that maybe pastors are used to preaching to those who want experiences, who are consumers in the way that they approach church. These young teenagers are way less consumeristic. They will see right through bull$#*! And I see this as an asset. The church has an opportunity to provide truth, and it all rides on the way that the truth is provided. 

I don’t think that a classic teaching style of “lecture and receive” is the way to reach this generation. I guess that it’s going to be through one-on-one mentorship, or maybe think of how you can approach apologetics or hermeneutics in almost a group therapy-type environment. I’ve seen this done in a few different ways with adults through programs like Alpha, through story groups… But any way that you can incorporate freedom to think, freedom to ask questions, to doubt, to say, “I don’t have all the answers, but I’m willing to listen to you; let’s try to figure this out together.” Anything like that would be incredibly valuable to this group of kids, and I think they would be into it. Again, gathering them is probably going to be the hardest thing, but I think this is the way forward with this group.

I don’t think that a classic teaching style of “lecture and receive” is the way to reach this generation. I guess that it’s going to be through one-on-one mentorship, or maybe think of how you can approach apologetics or hermeneutics in almost a group therapy-type environment.

Statistically, even Gen Z kids with a church background are more likely to leave the church after college than stay involved. What do you think are some reasons for this?

I think a big reason is they have no connection to the church. If they have no personal connection to the church, there’s no reason for them to come back. They’re going to be seeking truth in different places. Their “faith” in that case is something their parents made them do; their parents made them go to church. “My parents talked about God, so I talked about God.” But they’re not actually sure what they believe. 

They’re much less likely than previous generations to assume that what their parents believe is truth. They’re going to be seeking it out for themselves. So they need a very true and personal connection to the church. They need adults in their lives who are not their parents. They need to have relationships with pastors or ministry leaders. They need to have people who care about them, who are willing to ask them hard questions, who don’t gloss over things with a smile. They need these church adults to be real with them.

I recently had a conversation with someone–not a client–who I think would be considered Gen Z, and I recognized that she was struggling, so I took the opportunity to share some of my story. I shared some of how I struggled as a teenager and as a young adult, ways that I did not follow God and ways that I have struggled now as a married woman and as a mother. And the thing that she said at the end was, “Wow, thank you so much for telling me. I always just thought you had the perfect life and you had it all together.” And I had the opportunity to say, “That is so not the truth!” And I think kids of this generation need more of that. They need to hear real stories of how people in their church are broken, and they need to hear specifics. They don’t need to hear the general, “I struggle with being angry.” They need to know how you struggle with being angry. What happens? What do you do? How do you repent? What do you do next? How do you make it better? They need to be immersed in “realness” and be taught what “being real” means. It doesn’t just mean being a mess; it means, here’s my mess, but here’s how God helps put it back together. That’s the piece that they’re missing.

So I’m not sure how it helps pastors, but I think the kids need to be able to own their faith as their own, and not just do it because their parents make them. And this will be a challenge to parents as well, because your faith has to be real to them. It can’t just be you all go to church on Sunday. They have to watch you struggle with your own faith. You need to talk to them about how you struggle with your faith.

And you need to be okay when they don’t make the morally correct decision. I think that’s one of the biggest harms that the church does to this generation: judging them harshly for the ways that they live immorally. They need to understand that their “bad choice” does not condemn them, doesn’t make them not a Christian, doesn’t make them unworthy of love. They need to be told, “Thank you so much for telling me that. Thank you for being so honest. I love you so much for being vulnerable.” They need to know they have the freedom to mess up and fail and get it all wrong, and still be loved. 

They need to know people care more about the relationship they have with them than they do about their morality. If churches can figure out how to send that message, I think that will be a massive win in the way that we preach to and invite this generation into our faith. 

They’re much less likely than previous generations to assume that what their parents believe is truth. They’re going to be seeking it out for themselves.

Any additional comments?

Talk about things that are taboo. Talk about how the church has struggled with issues and justice. Don’t be afraid to admit wrongs. I think that’s the biggest thing. Call it as you see it. They’re looking for you to gloss over things that are not good, and every time you do, they’ll go “That is the reason I can’t trust you. That is the reason I can’t trust the church.” I think honesty, even when it hurts, is the best policy. With all people, but especially this generation. 

My only other comment is that I love this generation. I think they’re incredibly fun to learn from and work with. They have so much to give to us as adults, so much to offer in viewpoints and voices that we really need to hear. And we have wisdom that we can offer them, not in a way that’s oppressive, but in a way that says, “I’m with you in this. I struggle sometimes. I don’t get it all right and I doubt sometimes.” They need more of that. 

Reality Changing Observations:

1. Based on the above observations, what do you think will be the most difficult “sacred cow” to challenge if the church were to adapt to the upcoming generation of adults? Is it the format of the church service and the way we are taught? Is it admitting our faults and failures as a community and as individuals? Is it something else?

2. What are some needs Gen Z may present that would actually benefit older generations as well, if we were to meet those needs?

3. Many of us are intimidated at the thought of leading a youth group. Would you be more interested in one-on-one mentorship? Is there a teenager or young adult in your life currently who could benefit from some of your time?

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