Pastors, educators, mentors and parents will have to give up entertaining kids into the Kingdom.
“Gen Z: The Culture, Beliefs and Motivations Shaping the Next Generation” is a 116-page book recently published by Barna Group in conjunction with the Impact 360 Institute. Its pages are filled with hard data collected by Barna and important insight from a variety of youth workers, behavioral scientists and psychologists from all over the country.
Put simply: it’s the first real, detailed and informative look at the generation born 1999-2015 – a generation that currently fills our schools and churches and which is already entering the workforce and leaving its mark on society.
Though Barna’s data only includes survey and research results from teenagers age 13-18 – essentially only examining the first wave of these Gen Zers – the resulting statistics are impacting. It’s information that will help youth ministers and churches better lead these young Kingdom workers. In fact, it is this very important call to disciple better that ultimately serves as the underlying theme of Barna’s new book. Through all the data – some shocking and some affirming of pre-conceived notions – one common theme comes up again and again: the importance of disciple-making.
“Will older Christians insist that the youngest generation must speak, act and think like us, long-time residents of Jerusalem?” the book asks. “Or will we help young exiles become and remain the people of God in Babylon? If the latter, then pastors, educators, mentors and parents will have to give up entertaining kids into the Kingdom. Pizza parties, silly games and worship nights may be attractive outreach events but they do not instill lasting faith. Disciple-making in Gen Z must, by necessity, involve formation in the basics: There is a God. Truth exists. This is how the world is. This is who we are. This is what Jesus does about it.”
The Jerusalem/Babylon lens is one that Barna continually points to throughout the examination of this generation. Unlike previous generations who were raised in an America that was similar to Jerusalem in that it was culturally homogeneous and religiously comfortable, today’s Gen Zers are growing up in an America that is more like Babylon – a place very different from the land of their “tribe.” To navigate this difficult landscape, Gen Zers have adopted some very definitive characteristics. The first and most obvious is that they are, what Barna calls, “Screenagers.”
One of the defining influences on Gen Z is that they have come of age in a world saturated by digital technology and mediated by mobile devices. And while Barna is good about trying not to draw any conclusions, the strong inference from the data is that these young people are facing challenges that no other generation before them has ever faced. And what’s more, the technology that is so prevalent in their lives is literally wiring their brains to work, think and learn differently than any other previous generation. This “Screenager” characteristic is such a strong one that Barna spends the first chunk of the book just focusing on the data and insight surrounding that behavior.
Almost as strong as the “Screenager” characteristic is that Gen Zers have a post-Christian worldview. That means that the overwhelming majority of young people today DO NOT have a Biblical worldview. It’s not that they’ve rejected the church or dismissed the Bible, it’s that they have no knowledge of those things at all. They are apathetic and woefully ignorant as opposed to being bitter or dismissive. And while this finding is certainly shocking, it can also provide churches a measure of hope in that this generation is a blank slate – meaning there should be less effort necessary to overcome the “baggage” that many Millennials and Gen Xers brought with them in relation to religion and the church.
Another characteristic that Barna’s research discovered is that Gen Zers have a “You do you” mentality. They have a collective aversion to causing offense, and their inclusive nature frowns on passing judgement. As a result, many Gen Zers are reluctant to make or even adopt any declarative statements about anything that could cause offense.
Barna also finds that Gen Zers are, for the most part, concerned about their safety in an ever-increasing “dangerous” world. Many of them feel that true security is unattainable, or at least outside their control. They do not know a world pre-9/11, and therefore have never lived in a time when the country was at peace. With Gen X parents who tend to vacillate between over-protection and lack of involvement – making them what Barna calls “double-minded” – these young people are confused at best and isolated/lonely/desperate at worst. Barna suggests that Gen Z’s parents may be overinvolved in many of the wrong ways and too detached in others.
To combat those feelings of confusion and uncertainty, many of these Gen Zers are turning to an ever-widening diverse group of friends. This is yet another characteristic that Barna has identified in its research. As stated in the book, “Complete acceptance, and even elevation, of non-male and nonwhite is a generational marker.” But Barna posits that the beauty of this characteristic is that Gen Z’s assumptions about the goodness of diversity naturally resonates with Christian faith and priorities. “The Scriptures are clear that people of all races, ethnicities and nationalities belong in God’s family, and Gen Z tends to be more comfortable than older generations when practicing diversity-in-unity now, as well as in the age to come.”
All of these insights and more combine to form a book that is not just relevant for today’s youth workers and parents, but necessary. The work that Barna has done to collect this data is incredible, and it is incumbent on all of us to take this information and use it to better disciple Gen Z. As the book concludes, “Gen Z disciple-making must actively engage a two-way dynamic: faith in light of culture and culture in light of faith.”
To purchase a copy of "Gen Z," please click here
Chris Roberts is the marketing and communications director for Christ In Youth.