Gen Z and the Church: Part IV

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

Our final interview is with a high school guidance counselor who has worked in both private Christian school and public school settings. Names of our interviewee and the schools have been omitted for privacy. I’m incredibly grateful to this interviewee and our others for volunteering their time and thoughts!

As mentioned in the introduction to this series, the final part will feature a survey of Gen Z respondents to affirm, explain, or debunk what adults have perceived in working closely with them.

If Gen Z were on board, the church would be unstoppable.

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

They are a vivacious group! I think many adjectives help describe them, at least generally speaking. Some that come to mind are informed, vigilant, involved, connected, savvy, aware, introspective, and progressive. They’re such a great bunch!

Based on the conversations you have with Gen Z kids in your setting, what would you say they value most in life?

I think they value connection most in life. I think it is critical for them to feel like they have their place, whether in their physical world or in their online world. I also think that this stems from a place of compassion, in that they want others to experience a sense of connection and belonging and acceptance. They care about having experiences to share in both senses (posting about the experiences on social media, and sharing as in physically experiencing it with someone else). 

I believe they value globalism over a sense of nationalism (as the internet has made us more connected and more aware), relativity over dogma, and unity over any semblance or appearance of segregation. They tend to have something to say about most societal or global happenings. They care about the world’s affairs and injustices, and it appeals to that connection they desire.

In the same vein, do you have a sense of what they fear or what upsets them most?

I think isolation, being lonely, or feeling disconnected is a big fear for them. Whether the connection is in person or not, with someone they’ve met in real life or not, it is very important that they have their place and their people. And yes, connection is a huge part of the human experience for everyone, but I do think that loneliness is one of the worst experiences that can befall Gen Z (in their opinion, I think). 

This is not to be conflated with them wanting to “blend in,” though! They are a powerhouse for societal change! I would bet that the majority of the petitions that were circulating this year were started by Gen Z kids. Think of Greta Thunberg and her work for climate change, or the Parkland kids. That kind of thing. They’re just so brazenly aware. But yes, I think not having a cause or group would cause distress for a lot of Gen Z-ers.

Where do you think they get most of their beliefs about the world and themselves? What or who is shaping them?

I do think most of their beliefs are coming from and being shaped by social media presence, or are coming from peers whose ideas have been derived from social media presence. They are very much online and YouTube and TikTok are very common sources for entertainment and information. While it’s tempting for older generations to view that as a strictly negative thing, I think it has given Gen Z unprecedented levels of empathy, because they are exposed to so many individuals’ stories, lives, and experiences from many nations, walks of life, lifestyles, etc. 

While I feel that even as a Millennial, I held on to my parents’ beliefs and opinions for a long time before being confronted with the need to formulate my own, Gen Z is less likely to put as much stock in what their parents are saying much sooner. 

What are some differences you see between this generation and your own?

As a Millennial, it’s not as much of a chasm as I feel people in general perpetuate it to be. Shorter time adopting parental views, like I mentioned. From a very personal standpoint, I do see Gen Z as more interested in government, if that makes sense. For example, whereas I’m hopeless and think, “Let’s burn it down and start all over, everything sucks!” I see them wanting to work within the existing framework, demonstrating and lobbying and exploring how far their influence can go. This is so beautiful and hopeful! Honestly, it’s been a soothing balm for me after this last election, to see how motivated and hopeful and energetic Gen Z is about creating a new country and a new world. 

Another difference is something I pointed out earlier, which is how strikingly aware they are. I wasn’t on Twitter until I was 20, and at that time, the app was nowhere near as informative or nonstop as it is now. That same year, I experienced things (unrelated to Twitter) that led me to deconstruct many thoughts and ideas I had been holding too tightly, because I had never seen or heard or been introduced to certain perspectives. These kids, however, don’t get a break from it! Users on Twitter, YouTube, and TikTok are constantly churning out information and ideas, and while that may be exhausting or stressful or really tapping out their empathy at times, it is so magnificent that they likely won’t have as large of an existential crisis in their early 20s or midlife, because they’re having ones on a micro level all the time! 

When you think of the church that exists now, what do you think are the main obstacles to keeping Gen Z interested or connected?

I think authenticity versus perceived hypocrisy, “rules” or positions rooted in a more conservative or restrictive hermeneutic, and the intertwining of the American evangelical church with the GOP are the main obstacles to keeping Gen Z interested or connected. This, along with the church’s obsession with sexuality, purity culture, and those labels and a perceived lack of inclusivity. Gen Z values equality, unity, and pluralism; these are not really terms that come to mind when describing the western evangelical church. Unless the church appears interested in what Gen Z is interested in, and is interested in them in general, I think the battle for their interest and connection is going to intensify. 

The church’s approach to a weekly service would have to change in order to get these kids fired up and into it. Because of their awareness, they’re already juggling other perspectives. They already know what the world thinks of Christians and the church. You’re not going to be able to use the same tactics that won people to Christ in the 1980s at the outreach crusades. They’re wrestling with doubt and suspicion, and they’re not always sure what they want, but they’re quite sure of what they don’t want. If “church” became more discussion-based, more action-based, more open to questions and wrestling, and could prioritize equality among the sexes and acceptance of varying sexualities and identities, I think it would have a fighting chance. I’m not saying that this doesn’t happen and that there aren’t pockets of congregations doing this, but on the whole, not so much. 

On the flip side, what do you think church has to offer Gen Z, if the church fulfills its mission?

I think the church can offer a wealth of connection and experiences to Gen Z, which I truly believe is what they want. It just needs to be real and transparent. This means relationships in which all topics, tricky or taboo or not, are welcome and safe. This means hanging out with adults who don’t really feel or act like their parents. And it means more opportunities to be the hands and feet of Jesus–not for the sake of conversion, but for the sake of gleaning new perspectives and spreading love and joy and peace. 

This might be a little dicey, but if the church would just act like Christ, everything could change. If the church could just accept every single human, honor and elevate women, fight relentlessly for justice and equality–especially when it comes to race–share among each other, and could finally become known for what they are for and for what they love instead of being notorious for what they hate and are against, maybe the institution as a whole could be perceived by the general public as a force for good. If that were the case, I think Gen Z would have a real interest. And if they were on board, the church would be unstoppable.

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