Gen Z

Gen Z

The Culture, Beliefs and Motivations Shaping the Next Generation


By Jonathan Morrow, Author of “Welcome to College” and Director of Cultural Engagement, Impact 360 Institute

Is Gen Z prepared to follow Jesus in a post-everything world?

As Christian leaders, pastors, educators and parents, we want what’s best for our kids. We want to see them grow up and follow Jesus for a lifetime. Unfortunately, many Christian teenagers are simply unprepared for the world that is waiting for them. We all know students who have drifted, become disillusioned or just walked away from the faith. Even one heartbreaking story is enough to move us to action. No student should “outgrow” their faith. It doesn’t have to be this way.

With the best of intentions, we bubble wrap our kids and create Disney World–like environments for them in our churches, and then wonder why they have no resilience in faith or life. Students are entertained but not prepared. They’ve had a lot of fun but are not ready to lead.

When the pressure is turned up and the tyranny of tolerance presses in, Christian teenagers tend to wilt if they do not have the confidence that only comes from knowing why they believe what they believe.

Our culture is changing fast and teenagers are confused. The research in this report bears that out. The focus groups Barna conducted with both believing and unbelieving students drove this point home.

When only 34 percent of Gen Z can agree that “lying is morally wrong”— that’s a big problem. Not only is our culture deeply confused about moral and spiritual truth, gender and sexuality, but we are getting to the point where no one will listen to someone else’s point of view unless they completely agree with them.

Social media keeps us superficially engaged and overwhelmed by data, opinions and information, and Gen Z is now the test case for the long-term effects on identity. Social media is completely reinventing what it means to come of age as a teenager. There’s a lot for Gen Z to navigate.

At Impact 360 Institute we have the privilege of teaching, mentoring and equipping teenagers in biblical worldview and leadership. We get to work with students every day in our Christian Gap Year and summer experiences, helping them build a stronger faith.

We hear their questions, doubts and stories, but we wanted a broader lens on this next generation to better understand how Gen Z as a whole sees the world around them.
Working with David Kinnaman and the incredible team at Barna, we commissioned a comprehensive study on Gen Z that would seek to answer significant questions like:

  • What do they believe about the biggest questions of life?
  • What unique opportunities and challenges will Christian leaders and parents face while trying to pass on their faith to the next generation?
  • What do they view as central to their identity?
  • Will they carry on the Millennial trends Barna has been studying for more than a decade? How are they different?
  • What is their relationship to faith, parents and institutions?
  • How have culture and society shaped them?
  • How are they thinking about what it means to become an adult?

While it can be tempting in our culture to only pay attention to negative trends, there are positive trends as well. What we chose to focus on makes all the difference. Because Jesus is risen and Christianity is true, we have a living hope regardless of the cultural circumstances we find ourselves in. Whether we are in the majority or being marginalized, our charge as followers of Jesus is to be faithful to pass on our faith to the next generation.

As the father of three children I want to keep them from dead ends because I want something better for them—the kind of joy, confidence and love that only comes from knowing Jesus for a lifetime. The goal is not just to avoid the bad stuff. It’s to pursue the good life as God defines it.

Our hope is that the information in these pages makes you aware of the challenges so that you can prepare, but also gives you a way to frame and invest in the opportunities for incredible influence that awaits Gen Z.


By David Kinnaman, President of Barna Group

We live in a complex, accelerated culture.

For a few years now, the Barna team and I have been calling our surrounding culture “digital Babylon,” to highlight both the outsized impact of always-connected technology and notable similarities between Judean exiles in Babylon in the sixth century bce and people of faith today. Not too long ago, North America felt to many (especially white) Christians like Jerusalem to the ancient Judeans: culturally homogeneous, religiously comfortable. But as cultural change has accelerated over the past three decades, many have begun to feel like exiles from their home country. Like the Hebrew exiles, many feel they are living in a place very different from the land of their “tribe.”

When Daniel, Ezekiel and other Hebrew elites were taken forcibly to Babylon, their view of the world was utterly changed. In order to remain faithful to their calling as the people of God, they had to adjust to a new reality. They had to reimagine what it meant to practice Judaism in a world where the Temple—the epicenter of their religious practice—no longer existed. They had to rethink their own story, to reexamine their understanding of their place in the world and in God’s intentions for creation. In response to a worldview-shifting calamity, prophets arose to equip God’s people to live in a new world.

Is it possible that many churches are preparing young Christians to face a world that no longer exists? Are we making disciples for Jerusalem when we need to be making disciples for Babylon?

Barna and our research partner, Impact 360 Institute, wanted to begin to understand the next American generation on the cusp of adulthood: Gen Z. Generational analysis is an area of Barna expertise (some might call it an ob- session), and our team has suspected for some time that the generation after Millennials would bring different values and assumptions to the cultural table—and this expansive research project was our first chance to test that hypothesis.

Our theory was correct: Gen Z teens are not just mini-Millennials.

Born between 1999 and 2015, Gen Z—as we’re calling them for now—is between 69 and 70 million children and teens, the largest American generation yet. For our first in-depth research with this population, researchers focused on youth ages 13 to 18, U.S. adults 19 and older (for comparison), and committed Christian parents and youth pastors for insights on how they are discipling Gen Z. (For a complete research methodology, see Appendix B.)

Our goal for the research and for the report you’re holding is a first look at Generation Z, including their:

  •  Identity: how they define themselves, what makes them who they are
  • Worldview: their spiritual and moral beliefs, their understanding of what life is about
  • Motivations: their life goals and priorities, what they think is important
  • Views on faith and church: what they think about Christianity and Christian communities

In these pages, we share our findings and offer insights from our re- searchers, as well as from outside contributors whose expertise shine different angles of light on the “spiritual blank slate” that is Gen Z. We believe Christ’s followers have something essential to offer this diverse, fluid, empathetic, anxious generation growing up in digital Babylon: hope.

Let’s get to know them together.

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